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Companies scramble to supply tech to outdoor enthusiasts

| Friday, Aug. 8, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

SALT LAKE CITY — It used to be that outdoor enthusiasts went into the wilderness to unplug. Now, most want to stay plugged in to their electronic devices as long as they can.

As a result, companies are catering to hikers, bikers, skiers and paddle boarders by making an expanding number of products that protect smartphones from hard falls and water and keep electronic devices charged for as many hours as possible.

One company has made a backpack with a built-in solar panel that charges a phone while a person hikes up the mountain. Another makes a portable battery that attaches to the widely popular GoPro helmet camera and doubles how long it stays charged. There are cases and devices that protect phones and tablets, including several that float.

“In order to enjoy the outdoors, it used to be a just a nap sack and some freeze-dried food,” said Walter Kaihatu of Brunton, a company that makes portable battery chargers. “Now, people are bringing $5,000 to $10,000 worth of equipment with them into the outdoors.”

The latest gadgets are on display this week in Salt Lake City at the world's largest outdoor-gear trade show. The biannual expo brings 25,000 people to Utah to browse the latest gear and apparel from 1,300 vendors ranging from mega companies like Patagonia and Columbia to smaller, relatively unknown businesses. All are trying to gain a foothold in the lucrative outdoor recreation industry that attracts an estimated $646 billion annually from consumers, according to the Outdoor Industry Association.

At the EnerPlex booth, salesmen were showing off a new line of backpacks that have a 3-watt solar panel with a USB port embedded. They will be sold for $130 to $250, based on the size of the solar panel. The smaller one charges a smartphone in three hours, said Brad Brochocki of EnerPlex, based in Thornton, Colo.

“These bags can be kicked, they can get wet, and they will continue to operate,” Brochocki said.

A biomass cooking stove made by BioLite that uses dry twigs and pine combs as fuel produces 2.5 watts of excess energy that can be used to power phones and other devices in a built-in USB port, said company representative Adrian Caponera. It retails for about $130, he said.

Loksak sells sealable bags of all sizes for phones and tablets that keep devices safe while allowing a person to still use the touch screens. A three-pack of the phone-size bags costs $8.50.

Lifeproof makes a series of rugged cellphone cases including a waterproof one that sells for about $80. At the company's booth, a man wearing a helmet, life jacket and swimsuit had the floating case with a cellphone inside dangling around his neck while he simulated being on a paddle board in the water.

Brunton, a company based in Boulder, Colo., specializes in portable devices that charge electronics. It has made a line of hydrogen fuel cell-based chargers that cost $169 and this year is introducing a $49 battery that attaches to a GoPro wearable camera that doubles how long the camera stays charged.

“It's not just being outdoors and eating s'mores and going for a hike. They want their downtime to consist of what they do at home,” Kaihatu said. “Bringing e-readers, surfing the Net, talking to their friends and updating their social media. You have to deliver power to them in a reliable format.”

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