Trust, but verify


The ultra-lightweight jacket that I normally carry while traveling was originally marketed at weighing in at less than one pound. These numbers were most likely phony, but I am not going to name the company responsible.

I don’t want my ass sued.

There is a sort of ‘space race’ going on in the Outdoor Industry. The goal is to make the lightest products possible, to advertise them as being the lightest, to gain a market advantage from having a better product, to kill the competition.

Never mind the fact that lighter doesn’t necessarily mean better. Never mind that the specs are often bogus.
Never mind that most companies products are nearly identical to everyone else’s.

It is common knowledge within the industry that the numbers for many of the specs are phony.

This truism is whispered frequently behind the scenes. When cornered, the spec-touters will hide behind “average weights”, point out that the garment in question was a medium sized, pre-production sample or simply blame marketing. It is always a safe bet to blame marketing, remember that at your next job. The turnover within the marketing department’s ranks is so high that one can safely assume that whoever printed that spec is no longer with the company.

When the actual production pieces arrive off the boat, they will most certainly weigh a lot more. The customers are no dummies; they know when they have been ‘had’ and call to complain. I used to take these calls and it was not a pleasant chore.

The first thing to do is to see where the customer got their numbers.

Was it in the catalog? If the size or weights in the catalog are there, one has to see if the offended parties item met the given specifications. There is some slop (‘tolerances’) allowable. After all, the items are made out of cloth by human beings and nobody is perfect. If it is within tolerances, (say 1” either way) so far so good. If it is drastically off, then the fault usually lay with the factory who made it. The offshore contractor was most likely cutting corners to increase profit.

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One doesn’t make one garment at a time; they cut the fabric for many garments at once. In a cutting room, a tool that looks like a jig saw cuts through many, many layers of fabric at the same time. It is difficult to make a mistake with just one; they all will be bad, not just one. If it was ‘to spec’ then they can’t blame the factory on this one.

The next thing to do is to take a sampling, say ten of the identical item and weigh them and then divide by ten to get an average weight. Though not at all scientific, this gives one a pretty good idea if the average weight as advertised is accurate or simply phony-baloney.

This is where the finger pointing comes in.

Marketing will always state that they got their numbers from the design group, the design group will always say that they gave the correct numbers to Marketing and that marketing got them wrong. Nothing is ever sorted out, because whoever approved those numbers is long gone, a significant problem in the increasingly transient Outdoor Industry. (I have long maintained that there are only 100 actual people in the industry and that they constantly move from job to job.)

Why Quality Control didn’t catch such egregious errors in the first place is a matter of much speculation.

After one looks closely at the relationship between sales, production and quality assurance, one should shower thoroughly with a germicidal soap.

The real place to watch for phony numbers is within the “hardgoods” (equipment) lines. Tent specs are rarely true, tents invariably weigh a pound or more over what the catalog says. Manufacturers usually only weigh the tent body, flysheet and poles and pretend that nobody takes along a stuffsack or stakes. Even without these “options” the advertised tent weights are commonly pure fiction.

Sleeping bag loft is routinely bogus. A down bag that should have ‘X’ amount of loft will rarely have what is advertised, unless it is allowed to loft-up for 24 hours at room temperature, and then only on alternate Shrove Tuesdays.

The rule of thumb is that the higher the fill power, the slower the lofting. I prefer sleeping bags with no more than 600 fill power, these, in my experience, loft up better and faster than the higher-fill-power, more expensive bags. I wouldn’t want to be at 3,000 meters with an off-the-rack 800 fill sleeping bag. Seriously.

These battles are won on the sales floor, where testosterone-laden sales clerks are often only interested in what is newest or best, as if the suitability of quality gear can be rated like Pro sports team standings. The battles are also won in the spec pages of the annual “Gear Guide” published by outdoorsy magazines that are usually more interested in their ad-sales revenue than they are in printing honest truth.

Further fueling the fire are the companies own sales reps, who will say anything in sales clinics to convince the floor staff that while their own products are the best, the competition’s are made from pure donkey excrement.

There have been some attempts to clean up the industry with set standards in areas such as sleeping bag temperature ratings. Not surprisingly, these attempts have been met with about as much cooperation as a bunch of Afghan warlords sitting down for a tea party.

For the meanwhile, trust the catalog specs but verify.