Birds are singing, the sun is shining, flowers are blooming, the weather is warm (or even downright hot), and the pandemic continues to encourage us all outside. This summer, like last summer, more people are enjoying outdoor recreation, learning to camp or backpack, swim or waterski, garden, or go on a picnic with friends and family in their local park. And while all the gear for these activities may be taken for granted by some, for those just starting out, it can be intimidating and expensive. While most beginners certainly don’t need a $150 pair of pants to walk a few miles in the woods, the outdoor retail industry is full of inventions designed to get us all out into nature, safely, comfortably, and consciously.
The outdoor recreation field is rife with ancient inventions. After all, what we call sport or pastime today was once the way of life for most cultures, who, in varying degrees, lived, traveled, acquired and prepared food, and worked without the infrastructure we have today. Canoes made of birch bark served as the model for canoes used today. European contact with Native American tribes, many of whom used snowshoes, popularized the concept, although snowshoes had been in use across much of the world for centuries previously. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian has several examples of carved ivory snow goggles, designed to minimize the glare of the sun.
A lot of inventions that help to make recreation in the outdoors more enjoyable and safe are based on materials. If you’ve ever thought that swimming in jeans couldn’t be that bad—and then tried it—you probably appreciate the invention of both spandex and machines capable of mass producing stretchy, knitted material (and, of course, changing fashion standards for both men and women). These days, suits for competitive swimming continue to explore the intersection of materials and human strength.
An invention that has gained traction in the outdoor gear field in the past decade is hydrophobic down. Popular in both outdoor recreation and fashion, down feathers are used as insulation in both sleeping bags, where their light weight makes them more desirable than synthetic insulation, and in puffy jackets, appreciated alike by those far into the woods in winter and those waiting for their bus on a chilly morning. Down works so well because it traps air, but its major flaw for years has been that it loses that loft when wet. Hydrophobic down is coated in a chemical to increase its heat-trapping volume, even when wet.
Of course, every hobby has its fair share of gadgets. Fun, inexpensive, and potentially really useful (or sometimes really useless), these are the things you didn’t know you needed until you saw them, and now you have to have one.
I mean, who doesn’t love a nicely toasted marshmallow? (Only those who prefer to set their marshmallows on fire instead! No judgment. OK, maybe some judgment.) A device patented in 1973 by John Castronuovo (US Patent 3,744,403) took marshmallow toasting to a new level of precision; as the patent states, his invention consisted “of a housing having a base in which an electric motor driven by house current drives a gear train so to rotate a horizontal turntable that travels under a canopy that serves as an oven where electric heating elements are located, and the turntable supporting upright picks on each of which a marshmallow is impaled, each pick slowly rotating as the turntable turns, so that all sides of the marshmallow are faced to the oven heating elements during the toasting operation.” Wow. A marshmallow toasting merry-go-round.
But if you didn’t take your portable generator into the woods, you could always tuck Charles Lewis’s 1939 marshmallow toaster (US Patent 2,183,938) into your backpack. His invention was “a culinary utensil or toaster . . . particularly designed for use on picnics, fries, roasts, and other out-of-door outings . . . for toasting and roasting marshmallows, weiners, and the like, over an open fire.” (And if your appetite is now whetted to learn more about marshmallow toasting inventions, D. Scot Colby included a brief history of them in his 2009 US Patent Application 209/0241784 for his own “Marshmallow Toasting Apparatus and Method.” Fascinating.)
If gardening is your way to enjoy nature, but you dread replanting and the waste of plastic containers, what about dried cow manure? Brothers Matt and Ben Freund, dairy farmers, had an excess of nutrient-rich cow manure, and developed and patented a process to dry and shape it into containers (called, appropriately, CowPots) that can be planted directly into the soil, returning nutrients to the ecosystem.
The outdoor recreation industry certainly has its share of gear enthusiasts, but new ways of thinking have also pushed the field forward. Innovating processes rather than products helps raise consciousness about the many ways in which we enjoy the outdoors and what we can do to increase access in safe ways, for both people and the planet. Leave No Trace, officially formed in 1994, educates the public around seven principles that individuals can adopt to minimize or eliminate their impact on the environment while camping, hiking, or otherwise enjoying nature. Communities and universities offer gear libraries, where budding outdoor enthusiasts can rent equipment. These systems minimize the barriers to entry for many, eliminating the need to buy gear, allowing people to try out a new sport before deciding whether to continue and invest, and reducing the need to buy a product just to try it.
What’s your favorite invention that helps you to enjoy nature and the outdoors? Have you invented anything for your outdoor hobby? What would you invent, for yourself or others?