Hunters Lie Low in High-Tech Camo

Camouflage hunting apparel is evolving through increasingly complex applications of fibers, fabrications and chemistries. At the low end, mass-market camo clothing for both hunting and lifestyle suffers from margin compression as it regresses toward average design. At the high end, expert hunters are driving innovation with specific demands for pattern technology, athletic fit, durable water resistance, as well as internal moisture, thermal and odor control. There's certainly a market for both: The Archery Trade Association estimates that there are 3.2 million archery hunters in the United States, while market research by Realtree discloses more than 22 million active hunters in the United States and Canada.

Archery hunters tend to be mindful of sensory elements, preferring to slip through the woods, marshes and mountains as silently as possible. At a minimum, this requires outerwear in visually disrupting patterns with quiet fabrics and closures.

The latest bow-hunting apparel was on display at the recent Archery Trade Association show in Columbus, Ohio, which drew representatives from 49 states and 32 countries, with 513 companies exhibiting and 2,700 retailers in attendance. Despite the dominance of common licensed brands such as Mossy Oak, Realtree, SCENT-LOK and GORE-TEX, exhibitors with modern design elements addressed either specific hunting problems or competitive performance.

Few take their layering as seriously as SITKA Gear, now in partnership with W.L. Gore. Defining the current scientific formula for weather resistance that is lightweight and breathable, these garment systems take the hunter through a range of conditions in agile style. Gore's OPTIFADE concealment patterns salute the military paradigm dominating male-targeted video games and its veteran customer base. Sitka's advancements in fabrics, seam treatments, pocketing and closures, articulated joints, and venting translate to the highest levels of value. Its progressive children's line also captures the growth in that share of the market.

Women's hunting brands are stepping forward in product development. Both Prois and Haley Vines Outdoor Collection offer female hunters a full range of thoughtfully designed gear for all weather conditions. Haley Vines' features include antimicrobial treatments for scent control and plush microfiber linings in feminine profiles. Prois, located in the mountains of Colorado, focuses on unique features such as drop down rear jacket extensions and scapular pockets for heat packs. These entrepreneurial companies take an inside perspective on hunting design.

Camo entrepreneurs are often accomplished hunters experienced with extreme conditions and challenging terrains. They invest in product development to create the brands and trends of the future. With proprietary camouflage patterns, achieving economies of scale and scope in printing across a range of fabric types for integrated lines of garments presents a costly entry barrier. Furthermore, these companies must contend with strict timing due to seasonality. Direct online sales are increasing, but customers expect validation of new technology in retail settings.

Across the show, exhibitors reported that camo categories selling well include fleece, vests, hooded sweatshirts and raingear. Camo accessory sales, including headwear and gloves, are also robust.

Regardless of the hidden technology, retailers rely on curb appeal. Visual elements that attract consumers include novel zipper pulls, logos inside waistbands and zipper tape, rubber medallions, screen printing of branded label features and packets of detailed hangtags. Ultimately, consumers decide on the successful elements of these products and they make their opinions known on the blogs and gear reviews of the archery web sites.

Heidi Scheller, Ph.D., is an apparel consultant living in the woods of Wisconsin.
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