Unzipped in the backcountry

New tents, sleeping bags and packs are bucking the status quo with zipperless designs. Will they catch on?
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Throughout the next month, SNEWS will recap its coverage of Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2013 with select stories from the O.R. Daily we published at the show July 31 – Aug. 3. It’s an opportunity for you to catch up on stories you might have missed in O.R.D., and for us to update and upload the articles to our searchable archives.

The zipper. Man’s best invention, or that darn contraption that takes three people to unjam on a mountaintop?

“Let me try it … I can get it … you just have to wiggle it, pull up a little, then down.”

We’ve all been there.

Then again, there’s nothing faster and more effective than a quick zip — it not only provides a solid seal, but also physical tension to help keep a tent standing. It isn’t uncommon for some brands to boast seven zippers on single product as a mark of top functionality.

It’s a mostly love, but sometimes hate, relationship with these little gadgets. And in an industry of innovators and tinkerers, there are always new ideas to take on the status quo. Hence the rise in zipperless outdoor gear at Outdoor Retailer.

Big Agnes captured headlines last Summer Market with the introduction of its zipperless Fishhook tents. These aren’t tarps or minimalist shelters — they’re full-on tents with fly, mesh, poles and all ... just sans zipper. While designers first thought they could use magnets to solve the zipperless challenge, they eventually turned to a system of hooks, flaps and tucks to create the seal.

Zipperless_FishhookUL2_Tent

“They’re an alternative for the consumer and marketplace,” said Bill Gamber, co-owner of Big Agnes. Cutting out zippers reduces weight and warranty repairs, which often involve the zipper. “We work with a guide service in the desert,” he added. “Their biggest issue is sand and grit getting into tent zippers, which causes failure. The Fishhook was a big hit for them.”

Sierra Designs is turning heads with a zipperless mummy sleeping bag. The Backcountry Bed employs a large circular entry inspired by a shoe’s tongue with a blanket that tucks in.

Zipperlesss_SleepingBags_SierraDesigns_BackcountryBedWomens

“It wasn’t our intention to design a sleeping bag without zippers,” said Sierra Designs Brand President Michael Glavin, although snagging zippers are a top complaint of many sleeping bag users. “We wanted to make a sleeping bag that was as light as a mummy, but as comfortable as a bed at home. We met our objective without ever needing to put a zipper on it.”

One of the unique aspects of the Backcountry Bed is that it doesn’t attempt to replace the zipper with cinch closures or Velcro.

“Think about it: At home, do you tie strings around your neck, put Velcro next to your face or zipper yourself into a claustrophobic panic?” Glavin asked.

Elsewhere on the show floor, zipperless packs have been around for a while. In the quest to go ultralight, brands like GoLite long ago abandoned the zipper in favor of a single cinch or roll-down top. But how about a pack with nine compartments and not a single zipper? Check out Kelty’s TraiLogic PK 50, which uses a combination of Velcro and roll-down closures instead.

Zipperless_MultiDayPacks_Kelty_TrailogicPK50

So does all this mark the beginning of the end of the zipper? Not yet.

“We still love zippers,” Gamber said. “They’re not going away.” But, he added, more zipperless designs “keep everyone thinking … and, most important, zipper companies will be challenged to improve a few of the flaws zippers provide.”

 --David Clucas

Be sure to also check out our real world test of the above gear as SNEWS heads out on a zipperless camping trip in the Colorado backcountry.

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