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Manufacturers find niches in outdoor sports market

Features, Markets, Tents | November 1, 2008 | By:

Tent and apparel manufacturers target their products to outdoor sports enthusiasts, finding niches—and profit.

By nature, outdoor sports enthusiasts are an adventurous crowd. They’re also very committed to their activity of choice, a trait that makes them more willing to buy items that will enhance their experiences. To that end, tent and apparel manufacturers tap into this market with innovative, well-researched products, creating growth opportunities amid industry challenges.

Shelters provide spaces suitable for extreme climates

In the shelter market, one size does not fit all. Different outdoor sports require different approaches to tent construction and marketing. Take tent manufacturer Paha Qué Wilderness, established in 1996 when its founders identified a gap in the family camping market. Once the Poway, Calif.-based company began developing high-end, high-tech tents for this segment, it gradually broadened its reach to people who take extended hunting and fishing trips. The result was the Winchester® Tents line, whose name Paha Qué licensed from the ammunition manufacturer.

“Winchester Tents is a brand for what we call the hook-and-bullet crowd,” explains Paha Qué president Jeff Basford. “Hunters like these tents because they get good reviews on sites like Amazon, they have a midrange price point, they’re big and they’re multiroom, which makes the tent more functional for two people.”

The Winchester 73 tent model features a screen room in the middle and a tent on each side. “You’re only setting up one tent, but each person gets a private tent area and a bug-free central zone where you can sit and eat.” By serving the hunting and fishing niche market, Paha Qué doesn’t have to consider weight in its tent designs. “They’re not backpacking tents,” Basford says. “Most of our customers drive to sites and therefore are not carrying gear any great distance. We trade off extra weight in the product for improved performance and function in the fabric and tent design.”

For the ice fishing crowd, Norpac LLC of Rogers, Minn., has spent more than seven years developing NorpacR2™, a light yet rugged outdoor shelter fabric that protects users against extreme cold and wind. The idea for the product was born when ice fishers began sewing thermal blankets into the inner walls of their canvas shelters. Although the blankets kept the heat in and cold out, the shelters were stiff and heavy, making them difficult to transport and set up. To solve this problem, Norpac partnered with 3M and began using its Thinsulate™ Insulation FR, a flame-retardant version of the company’s light and flexible Thinsulate Insulation. Today, Norpac is 3M’s approved converter of Thinsulate Insulation FR for the outdoor shelter industry.

“Most shelters use nylon or polyester materials with little to no R value,” says Norpac president Matt Franta. “We engineer our NorpacR2 using a rugged polyester outer shell covered with a marine-grade coating. Then we layer Thinsulate Insulation FR and add a lightweight polyester inner shell.”

With an R value of 1.4, NorpacR2 significantly reduces heat loss through the shelter walls, making it extremely easy to heat. Not only does NorpacR2 retain heat, it also prevents condensation inside the shelter, a common problem with single-layer fabrics, according to Franta.

In addition, NorpacR2 offers a lighter, brighter interior. “Most ice fishing shelters are dark inside,” Franta notes. “It may be cold but sunny outside, and you’re inside a dark ice shelter all day. Our inside liner reflects light off the inside walls, creating an illuminated interior.”

Another cold-weather shelter ideal for winter sports enthusiasts is the yurt. Seattle, Wash.-based Rainier Yurts has provided its product to ski areas “for everything from ticket sales to warm-up shacks,” says Mark Altmann, sales associate for Rainier Yurts and himself a yurt resident for seven years.

Constructed with a wood lattice frame and a vinyl exterior, the yurt is a semipermanent structure that stands up to strong winds and heavy snowfall. Yurts can also accommodate plenty of creature comforts, including water, electricity, heat and even appliances. The yurt has shown particular appeal with backcountry Nordic ski clubs. “I think one of the draws of a yurt is its round design,” Altmann says. “There’s just something about its circular design that pulls people together. Another draw is the dome in the center of the roof.”

High-tech fabric apparel meets sporting enthusiasts’ needs

The application of high-tech fabrics to niche products occurs with sporting apparel as well. Robinson Outdoors Inc., Cannon Falls, Minn., has developed a line of hunters’ clothing called ScentBlocker®, which uses activated carbon technology to adsorb human odors, shielding hunters’ scents from the game. “Some of our carbon fabrics are bonded and laminated to a shell fabric and an inner fabric where the carbon is in the middle,” explains Andrea Browne, Robinson Outdoors director of product development. “Some are constructed with a sewn-in lining, which is made with a nonwoven substrate, and the binder and carbon is applied there.” What’s more, users can regenerate the carbon filter simply by placing the apparel in the dryer for 30 minutes.

Robinson also produces apparel under its ScentShield® label that features antimicrobial or antibacterial treatments, rather than a carbon fabric, to fend off odors and bacteria. All told, Robinson Outdoors uses more than two dozen types of textiles to produce its apparel, including bamboo, fleece, tricot, polyester spandex and silver fibers.

In addition to eliminating odor, fabrics used for hunting apparel need to perform well in other areas. “It has to be quiet because silence is critical for the hunter,” Browne says. “The fabric can’t make a bunch of noise when the guy is moving around.”

The challenges of the outdoor sports market

As with any industry niche, the outdoor enthusiast tents and apparel markets face challenges. For starters, many manufacturers have seen a drop in sales because people are spending less on discretionary income items. In addition, the number of participants in certain outdoor sports is dwindling.

“There aren’t more hunters getting into the market, and if you look at the demographics of our customers, they’re getting older,” says Michael Mayer, marketing communications manager for Robinson Outdoors. “A lot of our marketing is geared toward getting more youth involved in the industry.”

Another concern for hunters is land access. “We’re seeing the urbanization of key wetlands and forests, and that’s eliminated access to places people could’ve hunted years ago,” Mayer notes.

Because of the steep learning curve, “entering a specialty market with a new product is expensive and time consuming,” says Franta. “Research and development take patience, particularly when partnering with a large company that may have its own set of approvals and processes.”

of approvals and processes.”
The “greening” of the fabrics industry also presents a challenge. “Ideally, we want to find a greener material for the outside of our yurts,” Altmann says. “With time it will be found, but at the moment, vinyl is the only product known to withstand long-term UV exposure and feature waterproof-ability.”

Developing srategies to overcome challenges

Due to these challenges, manufacturers need to stay on top of—and lead—developments. Industry partnerships can help achieve that goal. For example, 3M was an active partner with Norpac in the testing and refinement of the NorpacR2. “3M launched its first flame-resistant version of Thinsulate Insulation in 2006,” 3M global business manager Chris Sneden explains. “Although it was initially designed for apparel applications, the product was found to work very well with the NorpacR2 materials for lightweight warmth, durability and flame-resistance needs. After extensive testing, the two products were certified to meet the CPAI-84 camping/tentage standards.”

The result was a product that has the potential to increase the ice fishing customer base. “When I first saw this new fabric, I was intrigued by the concept of making ice fishing more comfortable,” says Jeff Marble, CEO of Jackson, Wis.-based Frabill Inc., a manufacturer of shelters using the NorpacR2 fabric. “If you take the cold out of ice fishing, you make the sport more appealing to everyone. And that’s just what NorpacR2 fabric does. People who have fished in one of these shelters say it’s the most revolutionary thing to happen to ice fishing in years.”

Paha Qué has benefited from its relationship with the Winchester brand. “The Winchester colors—red, silver and black—look nice on a tent. It screams Winchester,” Basford says. “We started selling into stores that were already selling Winchester guns and ammunition. We figured the tents would be a shoe-in, and they have been.”

Regardless of their industry niche, specialty fabrics manufacturers and distributors understand the value of exploring new and different textiles. “The hunting industry has become more technical versus years past when only Cordura® or flannel was used,” says Mayer, citing the increased use of bamboo, along with silver and natural fibers for their antimicrobial properties. “Wool has also made a big resurgence in the marketplace again, thanks to its natural wicking, insulating and antimicrobial factors.”

Of course, a manufacturer should always know—and never underestimate—its audience. “Sometimes people look at hunters as being an unsophisticated consumer, as opposed to the outdoor industry on the more athletic side,” Mayer says. “Hunters today are much more aware of technology and textiles.”

Adds Basford, “Someone looking for a tent for a hunting or fishing trip is liable to pick the best product they can find and afford as long as it is sold by a store that has a solid return policy. On the other side, a REI-type customer would look to brands that symbolize the things they believe in. These customers have two different sets of values and viewpoints.”

When manufacturers have their ducks in a row, they are more likely to make a big impact on the market. “If you have the right product at the right time with the right message, you will succeed,” Mayer says. “In today’s market, that’s more crucial than ever.”

Holly O’Dell is a freelance writer based in central Minnesota.

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