Innovation Envy: Founders and CEOs Name Their Favorite Products from Other Brands

Outdoors Journalist John Briley asks nine outdoor company leaders to share their favorite gear from other companies.

Orvis CEO Simon Perkins and two friends on a speedboat in the ocean

CEO Simon Perkins. Photo courtesy of Orvis

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If you’re like me, you know the value of seeking expert advice when shopping for outdoor gear. The founders and CEOs of popular outdoor brands are amongst the most deeply immersed in the outdoors space, operating on the frontlines of gear creation and innovation.

So I asked nine of them to name their favorite products. To avoid a frenzy of self-promotion I insisted they focus on other companies. And my conversations with them also organically expanded to explore the people they admire most in the industry.

Their responses left me with quite a shopping list.

Ted Eynon, Owner of Meier Skis

Meier Skis Owner Ted Eynon leaning against a pile of ski wood cores

Owner Ted Eynon. Photo courtesy of Meier Skis

Ted Eynon, who owns the custom ski maker Meier Skis in Denver, says his trusty sidekick in the backcountry is a Leatherman multi-tool. “The company’s been around forever, and they solve so many problems in one handy little tool.” He also rarely leaves for an adventure without his Garmin digital mapping unit. “I’ve been a map guy since back when my dad would make copies of our hiking routes for everyone,” Eynon says. “Garmin has done a great job digitizing all that.”

“The company’s been around forever, and they solve so many problems in one handy little tool.”

Eynon also praised L.L.Bean as “the first company I knew of with a no-questions-asked return policy. If you were a New Englander [in the 1970s and 1980s] and did any backpacking, it was pretty much guaranteed you would own L.L.Bean.”

Lastly, Eynon says he deeply admired Gert Boyle, the former president of Columbia Sportswear who died in 2019. “She was a gritty, determined, tough old broad,” Eynon recalls. “She didn’t set out for that but embraced it and made quite the business out of it. There’s so much BS and greenwashing in the industry now … and she was the face of the brand for a while and kept it down and dirty.”

Davis Smith, Founder of Cotopaxi

Cotopaxi Founder Davis Smith hanging out with a group of kids

Founder Davis Smith. Photo courtesy of Cotopaxi

Davis Smith, founder of Salt Lake City-based Cotopaxi, loves his Oru foldable kayak—a sea-worthy craft made of polypropylene that collapses to the size of a large suitcase. “It allows you to adventure in a way you otherwise couldn’t,” Smith says. For example, he says, “Flying with a kayak wasn’t feasible before—and Oru opens up a big part of the world to exploration.”

“It allows you to adventure in a way you otherwise couldn’t.”

To keep his phone, extra clothes, and other gear dry when paddling, Smith loves the Sea to Summit dry bag, which he says is lighter and easier to seal than many others on the market. The company also makes light, durable stuff sacks.

And like many in the outdoor industry, Smith holds Patagonia Founder Yvon Chouinard in high regard.

“I didn’t know much about Patagonia and their backstory until I started down this path to Cotopaxi,” Smith says. “I read [Chouinard’s book] Let My People Go Surfing and it showed me this is possible. I really admire how they built the brand and stayed so true to their mission.” Smith adds that Patagonia exemplifies the cohesion and friendliness of the outdoor gear industry. “There’s an ethos of ‘the better they do the better we do’ across the industry.” he says. “I hope other outdoor brand founders come behind us and see Cotopaxi as inspiration.”

Cam Bresinger, Founder of Nemo Outdoors

Nemo Equipment Founder Cam Bresinger chopping wood outside

Founder Cam Bresinger. Photo courtesy of Nemo Equipment

One founder recommended products outside the industry.

“I really appreciate craft,” says Cam Bresinger, founder of Nemo Outdoors and a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design. “I love the timber framing chisel from the Northmen Guild,” a hand-forged piece of high-carbon steel with a lathed elm handle. “They make amazing tools, and I just love the care, intentionality, and skill it takes to make those.”

Bresinger has found that same thoughtful design in Petzl ice axes—which bring him a sense of calm during the battle of ice climbing—and in Yeti mountain bikes, which he calls “an awesome piece of tech from a company with a ton of soul.” He also gives a nod to the shoe maker Adidas for its role in founding the Parley for the Oceans program, which is upcycling ocean plastic. Adidas has already made more than 5 million pairs of shoes under the program and is refocusing its entire manufacturing process to use less virgin plastic.

Cory Tholl, CEO of Klymit

Klymit CEO Cory Tholl

CEO Cory Tholl. Photo courtesy of Klymit

Cory Tholl, CEO of Klymit, knows a thing or two about light, smartly designed products, which is why he’s a fan of Hyperlite backpacks. All are supremely lightweight with features—such as removable internal dividers and strategically placed hip clips—that help athletes from hikers and backcountry skiers to alpinists organize their gear.

Tom Ritchey, Founder of Ritchey Design

Founder Tom Ritchey biking in the countryside

Founder Tom Ritchey. Photo courtesy of Ritchey Design

Tom Ritchey, founder of the bicycle maker Ritchey Design, honors Patagonia’s Chouinard and wetsuit pioneer Jack O’Neil for paving the way for future innovators. “They started small and grew exponentially because basically what they were doing was solving personal problems,” Ritchey says.

At his own shop in the 1970s, Ritchey recalls, “I was working so that I could have better experiences on a bike. Other people saw what I was doing and said, ‘Hey, make one for me!’ Chouinard and O’Neil were similar: The existing stuff wasn’t working so they went into their shop” to fill the gap in the market.

As for products, Ritchey calls Shimano’s 1990 launch of the SPD clipless pedal “one of the most valuable things that’s happened in cycling.” Toe clips, he notes, were dangerous, especially for mountain bikers during falls. “Having the escape of the SPD changed the risks.”

In fact, Ritchey credits Shimano with breaking enormous amounts of ground in the cycling industry. “They made significant product development efforts that resulted in things being really well done and affordable to a lot of people.” As examples he cites index shifting that really worked, and threadless stems and headsets, which made bikes much stronger. “Most people take those moments for granted, but they all gave us a safer way to get out in the wilderness.”

Simon Perkins, CEO of Orvis

Orvis CEO Simon Perkins

CEO Simon Perkins. Photo courtesy of Orvis

Simon Perkins, the CEO of the fly fishing gear maker Orvis, pointed to three trends moving the outdoor industry forward: “Storytelling, which is helping customers understand what the brands really believe in; purpose-led identity; and product innovation.”

At the end of the day, Perkins says, “Product is king.” He mentions Yeti for its character-led stories—from its seven-minute film on quail hunting, Canary of the Prairie, to tales of remote surf adventure in New Zealand. The sunglass-maker Costa, Perkins says, has established a strong purpose-led identity, for example with its campaign to keep plastic out of the ocean. On the innovation front, Perkins singled out Sitka, which manufactures gear for hunting big game and waterfowl. “Sitka created products that were four times the cost of competitors but with an attention to detail and quality on a level right up there with Arc’teryx,” Perkins says. “That changed consumer behavior on what they value.”

He also lauds Salomon for producing a thermoplastic polyurethane running shoe that, at the end of its life, can be ground down and used in the production of Salomon ski boots. “It feels like we’re going to see more of that in the future.”

Patty and Peter Duke, Founders of Point6

Point6 Founders Peter and Patty Duke

Founders Peter and Patty Duke. Photo courtesy of Point6

Patty Duke, who founded the Steamboat, Colorado-based merino wool sock and baselayer company Point6 with her husband Peter, says the clothing maker Kuhl offers a bounty of “great design, fit, and colors. Their hiking shorts and jeans are my go-to,” Patty says. When the chill winds blow, she reaches for outerwear from Big Agnes, which is better known for its tents and sleeping bags, but has been expanding its product line. “I have at least three of their down parkas and one of their vests,” Patty admits.

Peter Duke finds his happy place on 172-cm Head Magnum Skis, which he loves for their sleek design and silky smooth turning ability.

Casey Sheahan, CEO of Simms Fishing

CEO Casey Sheahan fishing on a boat in the ocean

CEO Casey Sheahan. Photo courtesy of Simms Fishing

Casey Sheahan, CEO of Simms and a longtime leader in the outdoor industry, commended Specialized for launching a plus-sized electric mountain bike. “The technology and range you have with lithium batteries is impressive. People know they can get home, and that’s helping get more people out there. It’s a very cool product.”

Indeed it is. This short list of favorites and inspirations from the people at the frontlines of the industry proves, yet again, that the wheels of innovation never stop turning.

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