Gear Gurus is a new interview series from Hiker with some of the biggest names in the outdoor industry. We’re catching up with the movers and shakers, from CEOs to leading product designers, who imagine your ultralight tents and design your windproof stoves. Where do they find inspiration? Where does the outdoor equipment go next? Stay tuned to find out.
First, we sit down with Kolin Powick, vice president of products at Black Diamond, a brand born in climbing gear now known for everything from high-end hiking poles and headlamps to softshell jackets and ski equipment. Powick, a mechanical engineer by training, joined Black Diamond in 2002. In his own words, his first job was to be “the quality department”, making sure the company “didn’t accidentally kill anyone”. A climber at heart, he has spent 18 years making sure every carabiner locks and every trekking pole locks into place. In 2019, Powick assumed the role of Vice President of Products for everything Black Diamond makes, which now includes rock climbing, mountain gear, ski and snowboard, boots and clothing.
Hiker: What’s the piece of equipment that got you hooked on your industry in the first place?
Kolin Powick: When I think of Black Diamond, I think of Camelot (BD is a spring-loaded protection device for traditional climbing). When you’re a mechanical engineer like me, and you start to climb, and you see something like a spring loaded cam, you’re like “this is what I’m talking about”. It is obvious. Now the Camelot is made with dyneema cable, with the lobes cut out, and 20% lighter than the previous generation. We have had different versions of the Dual Action Camelot throughout my 20 years here.
PA: What is a product from another company that you like?
KP: We make a lot of products, for almost everything. When I go on a trip to Alaska to try out a new alpine route or whatever, I go to my gear shed to put my things away and lay everything out on the ground before putting them in a gym bag. If it’s not from Black Diamond, then I’m wondering: why don’t we do it?
There are only a few things that we don’t make, and one of them is stoves. I almost always have a Jetboil stove in my bag when I go to Alaska. I remember when this thing first came out, because there was hardly any white gas, and you almost always burned your tent. When I think of a Jetboil stove, I think of sound: like a jet engine igniting, and then, poof, the water boils. These things are pretty rad.
PA: What do you think is the next big problem for the outdoor industry?
KP: I go directly to education, for outdoor people in general, but especially for climbers. It is so important to educate today’s climbers for the future on both how to deal with the environment and how to be safe there. The climbing hall is a bit close to an amusement park. Yes, you can hurt yourself for sure, but it’s relatively controlled. Then you see these people come out and I saw things that I can’t ignore. Trying to make these young climbers understand that it’s dangerous, that you have to be focused, it’s a big challenge. And for all those who go out, how to deal with the nature in which we are privileged to be. I see people leaving bullshit and not cleaning up all the time.
“There are going to be things that weren’t considered sustainable or recyclable that are now. Part of the challenge is figuring out what will be recyclable tomorrow, today.
PA: What do you think could be the next major breakthrough in equipment or technology?
KP: Try to balance weight and durability. If you look historically, overall there haven’t been a bunch of huge leaps in technology that have taken it to the next level. I think we’re going to start seeing documents in places we haven’t used to see them. For example, could you make a fabric strong enough for a structural application? Are there any fabrics you could use to make a carabiner instead of aluminum? That’s really what innovation is, looking outside your bubble and seeing where you can shoot ideas in your world. I think more sustainability is coming too. There are going to be things that weren’t considered sustainable or recyclable that are now. Part of the challenge is figuring out what will be recyclable tomorrow, today.
PA: What’s the latest trend in outdoor gear that you’d like to see disappear?
KP: Small bluetooth speakers hanging from backpacks. Go on! Wear headphones if you want to let off steam, but don’t put them on a fanny pack or backpack, and don’t annoy the people around you. When people show up at the cliff and they have a little boombox, it’s like, give me a break. It kind of goes back to what I said about teaching those young people who are new to the outdoors – there is the outdoors ethic in regards to self-cleaning and protection of the outdoors. nature, but there are also courtesy things. Part of the reason many people go to the wilderness is because it is “the wilderness.”
PA: If there were no cost or technology limits, what would be the equipment or clothing of your dreams, and what would it do?
KP: I’m all about the things that pack little when I’m climbing. One of the bulkier and bulkier things to take with you is your helmet. If I could have a pill, and at the base of the cliff, I could just pour water on it, and it expands into a helmet, that would be nice. The challenge is to get something small enough, compact enough, and do what it’s supposed to do. So yes, an inflatable helmet. It’s also a little crazy, but I want something so that if I’m free solo and I fall it turns into a big marshmallow costume and I just bounce off the floor and it’s okay.