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Outdoor Research celebrates 30th with factory tours

In 1981, Ron Gregg, a mountaineer and doctor of physics, started a little company in Seattle called Outdoor Research. Maybe you’ve heard of it? Today, it’s an industry leader in technical outdoor gear—all of it “Designed by Adventure.” The story of its origins goes a bit something like this:

In 1980, Gregg was trekking up Denali when his friend suffered such horrible frostbite, due to poorly designed boot gaiters, that he was airlifted out and the expedition, called off. Frustrated, Gregg rattled his brain for a solution against such peril in future expeditions. The result was the revolutionizing X-Gaiter, an insulated gaiter designed to accommodate varying boot styles.

Over the years, the company has expanded its lines, producing everything from ski outerwear to summer hiking kits to dry-storage sacks and smartly crafted bivies. But in 2003, OR was struck by tragedy. While testing product in the B.C. backcountry, Gregg died in avalanche. His spirit lives on. Under Dan Nordstrom, an outdoor enthusiast himself who bought OR after Gregg’s death, the company trekked forward. This past Friday, OR celebrated its 30th birthday. And it’s apparent from the crew at its headquarters—who threw a block party and gave factory tours—that the ethos of the company remain—the products continued to be “Designed by Adventure.”

I’ve reviewed three pieces by OR (the Helium shell here; Swift Tee here; and Igneo ski jacket here). So I had to go down and check out the factory. The HQ are located on 1st ave just south of the stadium.

Our tour was led by OR’s Jeremy Park, hardgoods specialist and events manager, who began the talk in front of the employee climbing wall. Then it was up and through the seven floors which house the 210 employees who make OR turn.

I couldn’t take pictures inside the factory; I took notes. Here’s a summary:

Turns out, OR’s consumer products aren’t made here (they’re manufactured overseas). Instead, in this factory OR creates products for its military contracts: gloves, mitts, bivies, water bottle sleaves, hats. Park says such contracts help during a recession, when consumer buying wanes.  (Interesting tidbit: all governmental products must be made in the U.S., with fabrics sourced also in the U.S. ) Seeing die cuts for gloves is interesting—think cookie cutters in the shape of hands and mitts.

The Seattle Sombrero above, a hallmark product of OR, is made with GoreTex and though it’s not made in this factory, the military products that OR makes with GoreTex, are. That’s unique, literally—this is only factory in North America licensed to make GoreTex products (outside of Gore). It’s kinda common knowledge that GoreTex is incredibly strict with their quality standards, making companies who use their waterproof membranes to go through rigorous testing by GoreTex, in fact. OR, therefore, has achieved a special level of approval with the notorious company. Even still, OR leases machines for their seam-sealed products from GoreTex. Finally, we cruised on up through marketing, customer service and product development. The company garners a lot of accolades for its operations overall, from product lines to customer service, so I needn’t gush. But if there’s proof of a proactive company it’s the gloves pictured above—the Endeavor Mitt (a shell glove). They’re an organic reaction to customer feedback. OR’s renowned Lab Rat program (see here) harvests consumer input which is pinged directly to product development, who then reacts either with tweaks to current products or innovative products altogether. Pretty cool, huh?

Check out OR’s website to explore the company more. There’s a lot to learn. What the site can’t do is vouch for their products. I can: The pieces are versatile, high-quality and technically trustworthy. That’s sayin’ a lot.

pic borrowed from Outdoor Research

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