In 1948, 11-year-old Bob Gore packed up for Boy Scout camp. A tall boy with white-blond hair, Bob was the eldest of five children in an outdoor-oriented family. He carried a rather unremarkable list of supplies to camp that year, among them a homemade backpack and sleeping bag designed by his father and sewn by his mother.
Affordable, child-sized outdoor equipment was hard to come by back then, and the Gores’ practice of crafting what they could not buy was a habit shared by many outdoor enthusiasts. But in the case of the Gore family, this penchant for experimentation would leave a remarkable legacy.
Like his father, the young scout would grow up to become a chemical engineer, one whose serendipitous laboratory experiment would revolutionize the American outdoor experience. Thanks to Gore-Tex—the waterproof, breathable material that would become nearly synonymous with wearable rain protection—Americans began to believe that purchasing high-priced attire was the first stop on the way back to nature. Gore’s invention perfectly symbolizes a modern paradox: Americans’ escape to the woods is also an exercise in high-tech consumption.
The story of Gore-Tex and how it changed time spent in the great outdoors begins with Bob Gore’s father, Bill.
While studying at the University of Utah in the early 1930s, Bill Gore spent his spare time climbing and skiing the nearby mountains. Along with his future wife, Vieve, he got a job as a demonstrator skier at Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Demonstrator skiers climbed up mountains and skied down “just to show it could be done,” he later remembered. There wasn’t much of a future in skiing, Bill realized, so his study of physical chemistry and chemical engineering determined his next steps.
In 1945, after a stint as a chemical engineer at the American Smelting and Refining Company, Bill moved east to take a job at the chemical giant DuPont, which was just beginning to transition from military production to making synthetic materials for the domestic market. First nylon, and then a long list of other new DuPont inventions offered consumers “better living through chemistry.”
Bill eventually landed in DuPont’s plastics division, where he experimented with the polymer polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). Consumers know the polymer by its trade name, Teflon, the coating for DuPont’s line of nonstick cookware.
Despite the demands of his work and a growing family, Bill maintained his love for the outdoors. On weekends he liked to tinker with camping equipment, experimenting with materials from his workweek. Gore’s background helped him access special supplies not readily available to other basement experimenters. In 1945, for example, Gore ordered coated nylon from the Cordo Chemical Company so he could try out an idea for inflatable sleeping mats. Over the next decade, Bill enlisted Vieve and their children as test subjects for these inventions during family vacations.
Most memorable were the designs that didn’t work quite as intended. One camping trip in particular, to the mountains in Utah in 1948, is enshrined in family lore. Before the trip Bill had created a tent made of transparent plastic so that he and Bob could see the stars at night as they fell asleep. But the tent created a bonding experience of a different kind. The tent walls had a technical problem: they were impermeable to water vapor. Bob later remembered that it
Eventually Bill became convinced that, though DuPont found great success in making Teflon for cookware, the company was unwilling to pursue the full potential of PTFE. Seeing an opportunity himself, he left DuPont in 1957 to start the chemical company that bears his name.
When Bob joined his father’s company, W. L. Gore and Associates, in 1963, the business had already used PTFE successfully in a range of industrial applications. PTFE was nonreactive and it repelled water. These properties made it useful as a thread sealant, for wiring, and for other objects and places likely to corrode or fatigue. But while it was well-suited to extreme conditions—NASA used PTFE fibers on the outermost layer of the Apollo space suit—the material still hadn’t found much of a place in everyday domestic life. Bob’s task was to find new applications suited for both the industrial and consumer markets.
It would be simplistic to draw a direct line from the impermeable plastic tent in the Utah mountains that failed to keep Bill and Bob dry to the invention of Gore-Tex. An old DuPont marketing study suggested a long list of applications for a sheet of PTFE, so the Gores were not the only ones to see the connection between PTFE’s properties and potential customers. Nonetheless, memories of his father’s failed experiments remained prominent in Bob’s mind as he imagined what a miracle material might do, and their experiences outdoors set part of the agenda of what he was looking for in the lab.
In 1969 Bob set his mind to making PTFE more usable in a sheet form, which could then be turned into an improved and cheaper-to-produce pipe-thread tape. The best way to do that was by stretching it. With thick oven mitts to protect his hands, he would slowly and carefully pull thin white rods of PTFE night after night, trying to expand the polymer. But the cords kept breaking. One evening he got so fed up that he just yanked a cord out of frustration. When he pulled quickly, he was surprised to find the PTFE cord stretched as wide as his outstretched arms. The next morning Bob called his father in to see how the extruded material expanded when stretched; they both recognized it as the future of the company. Bob had discovered the material that would become Gore-Tex almost by accident.
Plastics World, the trade magazine of the plastics industry, announced the next year that expanded polytetrafluoroethylene (ePTFE) was “a whole new ball game.” It could be made into yarn and fabric, films and sheeting, core insulators for cables, and tubes of all sizes. The new structure of ePTFE—it was 70% air—allowed great control over the porosity of the material. Under a microscope, ePTFE looked like a maze of webbing. The semi-permeability of the pores, along with the material’s water-repelling qualities, finally made a rain jacket or tent that ventilated and shed water seem possible.
As early as 1970 Gore announced its ventures into textile fibers and rainwear fabrics using the lattice-structured ePTFE. Ever the experimenters, Bill and Vieve took a prototype tent on their annual Wyoming camping trip the same year. Vieve had sewn patches of ePTFE on the outside of the tent. As with Bill’s experiment decades earlier, the trip did not go as planned.
As Vieve remembered, a storm brought hail that tore through the patches of ePTFE, leaving their sleeping bags “sopping” from rain that poured through the holes. Nonetheless, Bill saw the promise of an ePTFE textile in that initial field test: the tent held water “like a bathtub,” which made it clear that the company’s textile was waterproof and seemed to work in real-world conditions. The strength of the material needed work, however. The solution was to laminate Gore-Tex films to the inside of fabrics with a stronger structure.
Bob was named president and CEO of the family company in 1976. The first commercial product made with Gore-Tex came out that same year. An outfitter in Seattle, Early Winters, introduced a Gore-Tex–lined tent available in two colors, sierra gold and meadow green. Within a year Early Winters followed up with rainwear and sleeping bags made with Gore-Tex laminate. By then, many other outdoor companies, including Marmot, from Grand Junction, Colorado; and Banana Equipment, from Estes Park, Colorado, had followed suit, unveiling tents, sleeping bags, and jackets made with the usual nylon but with a layer of Gore-Tex on the inside.
Gore-Tex was not, however, the miracle material Bob had initially imagined—at least not at first. Negative reviews began trickling in as steadily as water through the supposedly waterproof membrane. Reviewers acknowledged that Gore-Tex was nearly perfectly waterproof in lab settings and showed promise in the field. But in the real world, rain leaked in at the seams and contact with body oils often contaminated the fragile laminate, rendering it more susceptible to leaks. Even when they weren’t leaking, Gore-Tex jackets tended to be stiff and noisy. The founder of Early Winters, Bill Nicolai, explained in an interview that in the first few years, jackets “were being returned . . . like crazy.”
Gore responded by creating a seam tape for sealing out leaks. The company also released a new version of the membrane that was less squeaky and stiff and that could be laminated to a wider range of fabrics. To win back consumer confidence, the company also allowed returns of $4 million worth of leaky first-generation Gore-Tex.
The approach worked. Gore began selling its technology to outdoor companies across the United States, including L. L. Bean and REI, buttressing this expansion with a strategy that taught consumers what to expect from their jackets. Through hangtags and magazine articles, Gore explained the basic science of its materials and the comfort consumers could now demand from their outdoor gear.Gore was at the front of a larger change in the outdoor industry. Readers flipping through the pages of Backpacker or Field and Stream in the late 1970s would have seen page after page referencing a “revolution” in materials. Marketers branded the radical shifts in the material landscape of outdoor sports, from cross-country skiing to fly-fishing, “miracles” and a “comfort revolution.”
The Gore-Tex outwear division first turned a profit in 1979, a full decade after Bob discovered ePTFE. W. L. Gore had become a $100 million company by then, on the strength of its industrial products, and its fortunes were hardly reliant on the laminate’s success. Nevertheless, by 1985 the outdoor-products side of the business had grown dramatically. Gore saw $50 million in sales of Gore-Tex fabric, with total sales of more than $300 million. While Bob and Bill had long known that a waterproof, breathable laminate would find use in outdoor applications, neither anticipated that their name would become synonymous with the high-tech revolution in outdoor recreation.
Within a decade of its introduction, Gore-Tex wasn’t just a piece of equipment—it was a stylish brand. Runners and skiers used the material on an everyday basis. The synthetic was heralded in Esquire as a representation of the “contribution of science to functional outerwear.” And Gore-Tex was just as likely to be found in a wealthy businessman’s raincoat as it was in a mountain climber’s gear.
Though Gore-Tex is perhaps the most famous of the synthetics to show up on packing lists—even garnering mention in hip-hop tracks and a 1996 Seinfeld episode—it was by no means the only one to reshape how Americans dressed for the outdoors. By the mid-1980s, chemical companies’ trademarks dominated campers’ packing lists, including DuPont’s Hollofil, Quallofil, and Sontique polyester fiberfill insulation and 3M’s Thinsulate insulation.
These companies, including Gore, began to finance sizable (and newsworthy) wilderness expeditions. The companies pasted their logos on equipment and clothing for mountaineers and explorers heading to the top of Everest or the heart of the South Pole. While wool and other natural fibers didn’t disappear from outdoor packing lists entirely, chemical companies had succeeded in making synthetic fibers the standard of both outdoor function and fashion.
Most outdoorspeople embraced the equipment revolution ushered in by Gore. It was simply easier to keep warm and dry in cold, wet weather than in decades past. For those who had relied on scratchy wool and heavy cotton goods scavenged from army-surplus stores, Gore-Tex and other synthetics turned facing the outdoor elements from an ordeal to a pleasure. Gore-Tex brought safety and comfort to adventurers, whether they were on Everest or in the Antarctic.
But Gore-Tex’s popularity also came with a downside. Some shoppers put too much faith in the moniker “miracle material.” Beginners expected waterproof, breathable jackets to actually save them from situations requiring proper training or common sense.
Mountaineer Lou Whittaker once warned against taking the promise of Gore-Tex too literally, recalling how often he had carried people off Mt. Rainier who “thought their raingear could perform miracles.” Outfitters agreed. Noting the hyperthermia that had afflicted sweat-drenched novices, Early Winters founder Nicolai remarked that Gore-Tex may have been breathable, but it was “not an antiperspirant.” It was important for hikers to understand the limits of Gore-Tex and other synthetics, experts and gear makers argued, because the hikers’ safety was at stake.
While some old timers worried about how well Gore-Tex worked, many more offered a critique that had little to do with the material itself and far more to do with the changes it brought to outdoor culture.
Self-described purists were skeptical about the shift away from army-surplus gear for the latest in technology. In the pre-synthetic days, a World War II veteran explained, they “made do with layers of cotton and wool,” and despite suffering “occasionally,” “there was never any frostbite or hypothermia.” For outdoor traditionalists, earlier practices seemed more authentic and tough—they were less based in gadgets and more based on hard-earned know-how. That anyone could simply buy a Gore-Tex–laminated jacket and consider themselves an outdoorsperson challenged what they saw as an exclusive identity.
Despite this clannish perspective, within a decade of its introduction, Gore-Tex was not just a piece of equipment but also a stylish brand.
By the mid-1970s, when Gore-Tex first hit the market, few families were still crafting gear as the Gores did. Of course, the synthetic turn in outdoor gear was not the only cause of that change. But there is no question that the functionality of Gore-Tex and similar materials, along with the convincing marketing campaigns and status the brands bestowed, contributed to the boom in purchases of high-tech, ready-made equipment and clothing.
Gore-Tex and its synthetic-fiber cousins reveal the consequences of so-called miracle materials, both for American closets and for American nature. When coronavirus protocols limited Americans’ leisure activities, they didn’t just turn to outdoor recreation. They turned to outdoor gear, buying up the industry’s stock of tents, hammocks, and backpacking food.
Going outside might be free, but the first stop on the road to nature is to buy the gear.