We’re standing at a trail junction in the October rain, stuffing our faces with trail mix. It’s a damp, cold, off-season backpacking trip sometime in my young adulthood. “Uh-oh,” my friend says. “Here comes the Gore-Tex mafia.” Four hikers are climbing the switchbacks below us, clad in red raingear with black patches on the shoulders and elbows. Three decades later, Gore-Tex and its distinctive look is still with us.
First of all, I know of no link between Gore-Tex and Vito Corleone. Second, I love Gore-Tex. I live in one of the wetter and windier places in North America. Gore-Tex keeps me dry. In the days before waterproof-breathable shells, rain gear made me wetter on the inside than the outside.
My Gore-Tex drysuit extends my paddling season from five months to 12. It improves my overall paddling experience more than skegs or carbon fiber paddles. But like all revolutionary inventions, Gore-Tex came with complications and unintended consequences—it accentuated class divides in the outdoors.
When Gore-Tex first came out in 1976, I was in high school, just venturing out on my first backpacking trips on my own. Outdoor gear consisted of olive-drab itchy wool pants, rubber rain slickers and giant fluffy wool socks. Gore-Tex was, of course, both better and more expensive.
It was the first serious “outdoor technical clothing” and it helped bring outdoor gear from army surplus stores to specialized retailers. It also had a distinctive look. That’s why my pal and I could stand atop a damp ridge and estimate the tax brackets of hikers far below, and know it was higher than ours.
As the saying goes, timing is everything. Gore-Tex arrived as class divides were coming into sharp relief elsewhere. The first Gore-Tex jacket entered the hearts and minds of the outdoors world in earnest in the ‘80s. That’s when America also plunged into the world of supply-side Reaganomics, Gordon Gekko, Ivan Boesky, and the S&L Crisis.
Class divides in the outdoors is particularly irksome, since it’s supposed to be equal ground. Stephen Mather, the first head of the U.S. National Park Service, saw campgrounds and trails as places where visitors of all backgrounds could rub elbows. There were enough things to divide us. Fabric didn’t need to be one of them.
Fast-forward three decades. Virtually every outdoor apparel company has come out with their own proprietary waterproof-breathable fabric. But Gore-Tex, a closely guarded trade secret that has gone through many iterations, remains at the top of the heap in price and prestige. Like all our gear, it has evolved—my first drysuit had no waterproof socks or relief zipper. You can imagine how well that worked after three cups of coffee. Things are much better now.
However, the economic divide Gore-Tex put on display is still with us. The Gini Coefficient, a measure of income inequality, has climbed like an ever-flooding tide in the U.S. and Canada since 1980. Yes, people spend a lot more money on golf, downhill skiing and sailing, but sea kayaking gear is still expensive for the average American household earning $56,000 a year. The average Gore-Tex drysuit costs close to two percent of that. This has a chilling effect on gear designed to keep adventurers warm and dry. According to the annual Outdoor Participation Report, the cost of gear is the second highest reason people don’t participate in outdoor recreation. More than 40 percent of the people who do are making $75,000-plus salaries, according to the same report.
Faced with the expense, most new paddlers try to save a few bucks with a more budget-friendly option. They may buy a wetsuit or a drysuit made from other materials, which, in my experience, doesn’t compare. Sooner or later, many admit defeat and plop down the big bucks. I did the same for many years until I sucked it up and paid more than twice as much for my first modern drysuit as I did for my first used kayak.
More analysis may give the lie to the expense myth. I started paddling in earnest about 30 years ago, and I’m only on my second drysuit. After getting a bit soaked on a hike recently, I finally admitted my Gore-Tex mountaineering jacket was wearing out and grimaced at the cost of replacing it. That bugged me until I looked at my refrigerator. On the fridge is a photo of me standing on the summit of a glaciated peak, wearing that same jacket. I’m waving my ice ax and smiling at the camera with a face with less grey hair and fewer wrinkles than I have now. That photo was taken 18 years ago.
Neil Schulman writes and paddles from Portland, Oregon.
Guaranteed to keep you dry and looking like a Power Ranger.
Photo: Virginia Marshall