Sure it might rain next weekend but we’re still going hiking or camping or maybe a canoe float down the AuSable. Thanks to Bob Gore, inclement weather rarely slows us down. In the latest Trail Talk for MichiganTrailMaps.com, Jim DuFresne writes about Gore’s amazing discovery that made life outdoors is so much more pleasant today for all of us.
By Jim DuFresne
Robert W. Gore died last week in Delaware at the age of 83, and every one of us who loves adventuring should pause and reflect on how much he has contributed to our love of backpacking, hiking, skiing, fly fishing, trail running, or however you play outdoors.
Gore was the creator of Gore-Tex technology. No other innovation has had such a profound effect on those of us who wander into the woods and stay there – comfortably and dry thanks to Gore-Tex – for days at a time.
It’s used in your rain gear, sure, but maybe also in your hiking boots, gloves, sleeping bag, tent, waders, running shoes, bike shorts, windbreaker, gaiters, the cap on the top of your head, the drysuit you wear sea kayaking … I could go on, but you get the point. Gore-Tex is laminated into almost everything.
“Gore-Tex practically built the outdoor business, as we know it today,” Columbia Sportswear’s CEO Tim Boyle told Yahoo News. “Can you name any other outdoor component that defined an episode of ‘Seinfeld’?”
Gore’s breakthrough occurred in 1969 when he discovered a new form of polymer, a substance made of large molecules that repeat to form long chains. Late one night in the company lab, he was trying to develop a better pipe-thread tape for plumbers when he suddenly yanked a new form of a polymer called PTFE and it unexpectedly caused the compound to expand by nearly 1,000 percent. In short, he had turned a solid material into a microporous structure that was mostly air.
The age of “waterproof yet breathable” was born.
Gore then oversaw the creation and development of Gore-Tex, a laminate featuring 9 million pores per square inch. The pores were designed to be too minuscule to allow water droplets to penetrate, i.e., rain and mist, but were large enough to allow water vapor to pass through; the sweat and heat you produce from hiking or paddling or skiing.
By the late 1970s, the new membrane began appearing in various outdoor apparel, laminated onto two or three layers of fabrics, and in 1978, famed mountaineer Jim Whittaker used Gore-Tex outerwear to lead the first American team to ascend K2. The outdoor world took notice.
But it was weekend campers, day hikers and green diamond snowboarders that turned W.L. Gore & Associates, the company Gore’s father founded in 1958, into a $1.3 billion enterprise with 5,000 employees. Gore-Tex became a staple when apparel companies like Adidas, Columbia, North Face and Patagonia began utilizing it to make outdoor clothing lighter, warmer and more comfortable even in the middle of a drenching downpour.
Most outdoor enthusiasts I know have never known life without Gore-Tex. I do, a time when foul weather was a miserable ordeal.
I was living in Southeast Alaska in the late 1970s, a temperate rainforest where in October it rains every day. We survived by wearing raincoats coated with a PVC rubber that was designed for commercial fishermen. We added a heavy wool sweater underneath because not a drop of perspiration ever escaped those raincoats, so the wool was needed to keep us warm even when we were wet.
Before Gore-Tex, it was wet wool. No more.
After consumers besieged Gore with letters asking for more fashionable performance wear made with Gore-Tex, his company launched its “From the Mountain to Manhattan” campaign in 2001.
Today you can stand on any city street corner, especially in Manhattan, and see pedestrians scurrying along in apparel and activewear that has been integrated with Gore-Tex. While designers like Bill Blass and Cathy Hardwick were early adopters of adding performance fabrics to sportswear, Gore-Tex is now being used by fashion houses throughout New York City’s Garment District, including Prada.
But we were the first. All of us who have hunkered down in the middle of Isle Royale waiting out a storm is what inspired Bob Gore to dedicate his career to keeping us dry. And its only right that we pause and thank him for making life on the trail so pleasant we can’t wait to return. Whether it’s raining or not.
Rest in peace, my friend.