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Cool New Gear at Outdoor Retailer Summer 2008

Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2008Outdoor Retailer Summer Market was held in Salt Lake City this past weekend and it was a pretty good show in most respects. Unfortunately for some exhibitors, OR has outgrown Salt Lake City’s Salt Palace and a bunch of new exhibitors were exiled to the Energy Solutions Arena (the old Delta Center) where the majority of attendees never ventured. It’s bad enough when you have to search nooks and crannies of the Salt Palace to find stuff, but having to walk a block or two out of the back of the building and then down and back up a steep and long flight of stairs to get to the show floor is just asking too much for most. Having gotten that off my chest, so to speak, let’s start on the gear that attracted my attention.

I’ll start off with my favorite find. It was in one of those nooks and crannies, a second floor meeting room, where I found what in my opinion was the coolest new product in the show. There’s no high tech involved, no novel and unique technology, nor a sharp edge to be found. As is often the case, it’s an elegant and deceptively simple solution to an age old problem that captured my attention.

Unexciting Name, Coolest New Product

I imagine most of those reading this have had the inopportune experience of blowing out or damaging a zipper or the zipper slider, or having it get permanently stuck. Usually it happens when Murphy is already working overtime on your case. Sometimes it is just mildly inconvenient, most times it’s very inconvenient and there are times when it can be life threatening. The available field repair solutions are at best inadequate and often simply don’t work, especially with a damaged zipper. Duct tape is often the only solution and often not a very good one. Beyond that, it can also be expensive and time-consuming to get fixed properly.

Flip-N-Zip PrototypesInventor Chris Felix, along with co-inventor Jim Williams, came up with the concept and has patented an ingenious fix for blown and broken zippers and sliders, the new “Flip-N-Zip.” Yes, I know, the name is less than exciting, but the product is unbelievably cool.

Felix showed up at OR thinking he might talk zipper manufacturers into using his more easily replaced zipper slider as an OEM component, saving them money on warranty and such. He quickly learned that the OEM zipper manufacturers simply don’t care about this aspect, it’s the manufacturer of the end product’s problem, not theirs. On the other hand, for every consumer who’s been there and done that, who surely number in the millions, a zipper field repair component that’s easy, reliable and affordable would be a godsend. Given the right marketing and distribution, the Flip-N-Zip is a sure winner, in my opinion.

Here’s how it works. The zipper slider is in two pieces with a spring loaded screw joining them. You spread the slider top and bottom apart and slip the zipper teeth into the slots, then tighten up the screw to clamp the two halves together, that’s it! (see the video here) The zipper works. Have some damaged teeth? Zip up one section, move past the damage, install the Flip-N-Zip and finish zipping it up. The two sizes of prototypes that Felix had cover zippers from size 5 through 10. That covers the vast majority of zippers used in outdoor gear and clothing, luggage and handbags. I watched Felix and his associate work their magic on every sort of zipper imaginable; metal, plastic, self healing, coil, you name it. They had a whole pile of equipment and clothing in the booth to demo the Flip-N-Zip.

They are now working to get the Flip-N-Zip manufactured. His selected manufacturer is refining the design to make it a bit less bulky and improve manufacturability. I sure hope they get it right, get it done soon, and are successful in getting the marketing and distribution they need to be successful. I pray this isn’t one of those great products that fails for lack of marketing and sales acumen (coming up with a better name might be a place to start). Regardless, without a doubt, the Flip-N-Zip is the coolest new product I saw at OR this summer. I really, really want to be able to carry a set of these in my bags when I travel or go into the field.

Visit the CTF Ent. web site (which includes their more detailed video) at www.flipanzip.com

Ultimate Survival Downsizes Firestarter

Ultimate Survival technologies Sparkie prototypeI like one-hand operable firestarters and for a long time there have been just two commercially available, the Spark-Lite and the BlastMatch. The Spark-Lite is compact and lightweight (and comes in a package with its own excellent tinder). The BlastMatch makes lots more and hotter sparks, but it’s big and heavy and many chose not to carry it for those reasons. It’s just too bulky and especially too heavy for comfortable pocket carry or to fit in a truly compact personal survival kit (read our One-Handed Fire Starter Face-off, one of the earliest comparative reviews to appear on ETS way back in the dark ages of the Internet). What a lot of folks wished for was a BlastMatch that was smaller and a whole lot lighter, but which still generated all those sparks.

Ultimate Survival Technologies finally gave life to those wishes with the introduction of their new “Sparkie.” They had a handful of prototypes at OR to demo, making sure we understood that these were the first working pre-production prototypes and they were looking for input as they moved towards production. So, what is described here may see some detail changes before you can actually buy one, but by and large they seem to have struck a workable compromise between performance, size and weight.

Ultimate Survival technologies Sparkie prototype (right) BlastMatch (left)Closed, it is 2.3 inches (5.73 cm) long by 1.2 inches (2.95 cm) wide and 0.7 inch (1.74 cm) thick. Releasing the spring-loaded sparking bar by pressing the thumb button, it extends 1.5 inches (3.8 cm) out of the handle. Weight is only 0.85 oz (24 g). This compares to 4 inches (10.2 cm) and 2.7 oz (76.6g) for the BlastMatch. Retraction is as easy as sliding the bar back into the handle and allowing the thumb button to retain it in place.

The video below provides a good indication of how well it works; creating lots of hot sparks for fire starting. The rectangular-ish cross-section sparking bar is held in a carrier for support against the pressure of the internal striker tab in use. Otherwise the bar would break. Recall that these artificial ferrocerium flints create sparks when the striker peels off the material from the bar, friction thereby causing those peeled-off bits to get red hot, creating the “sparks.”

UST claims that it will be good for at least 100 sparkings. This is well below the number you might get from the full-sized BlastMatch, but certainly adequate in an emergency and a reasonable compromise for normal use given the size and weight savings.

It operates on the same principle as the BlastMatch; press down on the striker tab and either push the handle down the rod against a hard surface or use a finger to pull the rod into the handle. The compact size makes it easier than the BlastMatch to use it in the air with a finger. We offered a few critiques and suggestions, which I won’t share here as these were just prototypes, and I am looking forward to testing production versions.

The rubberized handle will come in tan and orange with an MSRP of $14.95 and should be available later this Fall.

Compared to the Spark-Lite, it’s still quite a bit bigger, but has the advantage of more and hotter sparks which will generally work better with natural tinder sources. Assuming they get it right as they move into production, this could be a good compromise in size and especially weight for those seeking an alternative to the larger BlastMatch.

(In an effort to speed up the process, I’m going to publish this review of new products from Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2008 in stages over the next few days.)

Click here for More New Gear from Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2008