Today, let us praise those who are not content to passively take only what the outdoor retail market offers. All hail those explorers who tinker, tweak or make things from scratch. Sometimes economic necessity is the mother of invention: good gear ain’t cheap. Other times, it’s because what’s available doesn’t meet your purposes off-the-shelf. Or because there’s no product at all for your particular niche.
In my own modest way, I march in these ranks. A couple of humble examples:
The sun shirts I wear for summer kayaking have buttoned tabs that are meant to keep rolled-up sleeves from rolling down again. But at least on my body, they let the sleeves drape down below my elbows, plenty long enough to wick up waves as I’m paddling. Adding a second, higher set of buttons for the tabs on the shirt’s shoulders raised the rolled-up sleeves to mid-bicep, well above any wave that isn’t going to soak me completely anyway.
In the fully self-made category: I’ve been very happy with my MSR Hubba Hubba tent. But the manufacturer’s OE footprint had scalloped edges that ran right out to the corner poles, beyond the coverage of the fly. Each of these fabric flutes acted as a rain gutter, funneling a pool of water between the footprint and the tent floor. I never had leakage through the floor, but it bugged me that the footprint, which is supposed to add protection, was instead creating a potential point of failure. I sewed up my own rectangular footprint, sized a couple of inches shorter than the tent body along both axes, and connected to the pole bottoms by webbing. No more basement swimming pools for me.
Or consider sea kayaks. For many paddlers, their brand-new boat is complete as is: they wouldn’t dream of drilling into that expensive and pristine hull. For me, a new boat is a starter kit, waiting to have pumps, sails, and storage and tie-downs added.
I’ve even experimented with sewing home-brew sails. Lacking the skills and software to loft my designs in a computer, I followed the old engineering formula of TLAR (That Looks About Right). By Mark 1 Eyeball, I got the catenary curves of the mainsail and jib to form smooth, wrinkle-free arcs. I love this sort of seat-of-the-pants designing; it lets me combine the intense curiosity of a child with some of an adult’s analytical abilities.
Not all such experiments are successful. One of my camping buddies is also an ultra-light hiker, a disciple of Ray Jardine. In a burst of creativity, he decided that rain pants could be replaced with a rain kilt, which would be both lighter and more breathable. To really keep the grams down, he made the kilt in silicone-coated nylon, the sheer fabric used in ultralight tents. It turns out that this fabric does a great job of concealing things that are several inches on the far side of it, like the occupants of a tent. But when objects are pressed right up against its surface, the fabric becomes as translucent as coloured kitchen cling film. I won’t post a photo of the results; picture them for yourself, if you dare.
But the real heroes, the ones pushing the limits of the possible on roll-your-own gear, are guys like Tim Evans. While I’m happy to modify my kayaks, I’d never have the confidence to put to sea in a boat I’d built from the keel up. Tim combines carefully thought-out ideas about what he wants with mad pattern program skillz to produce superlight skin-on-frame kayaks. And tents. And clothes.
What hacks and made-from-scratch outdoor gear have you seen or built yourself? Share your triumphs (and epic failures) in the comments.