When he wasn't shooting the steep creek rapids of the Great Smokies, Eric Revels started sewing his own dry bags, listening to friends for tips on improving the design. Like so many creek-side entrepreneurs, the Olympic-level kayaker was a devotee of his own remote paradise, far from the sounds of war.
But as Mr. Revels's 10-year-old company, Watershed LLC, grew and he made the move to Asheville, N.C., the world came knocking: Short on supplies and sometimes burdened with outdated research and development, a growing number of Special Forces troops, including Green Berets and Navy SEALs, started looking to the American outdoors industry for help, finding the mother lode in these small towns amid old, rolling peaks and rumbling rivers.
Over the past three years, Revels has been at the head of a trend, with outfitters of salmon-fishing trips and kayaking adventures providing "bargain base camps" to US soldiers. It's a break with old military models of procurement, and a fortunate one for soldiers who now have access to top-of-the-line stuff-sacs and welded, breathable fabrics to replace MASH-era canvas and standard-issue cotton tees.
With the military snapping up gear like it's Christmas at Filene's, there's a mini-boom among the tiny, competitive gear companies up here in the nooks of the Appalachians, companies whose sights have generally been set more on long-haired kayakers than crew-cut troops fighting in the Middle East.
It's a small but telling example of how wars and a transforming Army can bolster peacetime industries, all while improving American soldiers' comfort and literally lightening their loads.
"The entire military has started moving in this direction," says Capt. Diggs Brown, a Special Forces veteran in both Iraq and Afghanistan and author of "Your Neighbor Went to War: Reality and the War on Terror." "We used to have 'bear suits' that were made out of a pile material, and now we have [winter suits] that are layered nylon and silk, most excellent. And it's all civilian technology."
Still, the military has been slow to embrace some civilian technologies, including the astounding advancements made in survival and recreation gear in the last 20 years. Many attribute that to sheer machismo among older soldiers, who believe that shared discomfort - the pleasure of wet cotton, for example - improves unit cohesion. But the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, difficult enough without sandstorms and strange terrain, have made obvious the military's lag in procurement in the 1990s, say experts. The result: soldiers with too little to stuff in their stuff-sacs.
At the same time, the demands of the recently reworked Berry Amendment - which mandates that the government buy American-made tent joists, textiles, and other gear - has made it easier and more cost-effective to make platoon-wide orders through the General Service Administration's website, often called "the military Wal-mart," which funnels business to these civilian companies. A generational change, too, means today's corporals and majors are more likely to have grown up with the newfangled gear and trust it, or to have been part of the hunting and fishing crowds that are a major growth segment of the outdoor-gear market.
"There's now a desire, where there's stuff you can get off the shelf, to get it, because you can get it cheaper and faster," says William Hawkins, a national security expert at the US Business and Industry Council in Washington. "We've been caught unprepared for these wars, but ... one of the advantages of having a huge, diverse economy is that when you have an emergency, you can find people to meet it."
As the outdoors industry cranked out its annual "circus circuit" of trade shows in places like Las Vegas and Salt Lake City last weekend, representatives reported rear guards of soldiers checking out the new lines, often debating the merits of designs with long-haired snow thrashers or wild-eyed river rippers.
"Oftentimes Special Forces are gearheads in their private life, and they're giving smaller companies like ours an opportunity to work with them," says Revels.
Some of what they're buying:
• A new GoLite jacket to replace the two-pound canvas standard issue - with Gore-tex that provides several extra degrees of warmth.
• Water-skein gear from CamelBak, now ubiquitous among ground troops.
• A red lens from Petzl, the headlamp manufacturer, that doesn't interfere with night-vision goggles.
But nowhere, perhaps, has the added demand been felt so keenly as here in the Blue Ridge Mountains, where companies like Stahlsac are expanding their headquarters and hiring seamstresses to fill a 6,000-bag a week Navy SEALs order. Diamond Brand, a supplier of canvas tents, is seeing a boom in sales to the military. On the French Broad River below Asheville, a converted Burlington mill is now home to five outdoor-gear suppliers, and dozens more are within a two hours' drive.
Cheap manufacturing space, skilled workers, and growing ranks of young entrepreneurs who want to live near where they play all factor into the region's emergence as "the gearheads' mecca." Indeed, many employees in the local gear stores are alumni of Warren Wilson College, a small liberal arts school where dorm friendships and a love of the outdoors have turned into post-college jobs.
Warren Wilson grad Justyn Thompson, Watershed's young, bespectacled brand manager, speaks Spanish to five employees as a Mexican radio station pumps out its polka-like bass lines. The company's bags are guaranteed waterproof to 300 feet, the Superman-tough fabrics are welded with radio frequency waves, and they're able to keep batteries and sensitive electronics dry even in "heavy surf deployment."
"When the military sees our stuff and embraces it, it's affirmation for us that these technical fabrics and gear really are something special," says Mike Lee, a spokesman for the Outdoor Industry Association in Boulder, Colo.
Still, in a small, progressive city like Asheville, a kind of mountaintop Greenwich Village, the military's new role isn't always a comfortable fit in the crunchy outdoors industry. At least one Ashevillian, clad in a long floral skirt, says that selling to the military is probably not good local advertising.
But while there's a strong antiwar sentiment here, it's also a quirky town "where everybody in the end gets along," says John Mann, a former park ranger. "Some people here may have problems with the policies and politics of the US government, but I think most people support the US soldier, and want him to have the best gear in the world."