KLIM: BEHIND THE SCENES AT GORE-TEX
BY: CHAD DE ALVA
I am continually impressed by the amount of research and development that goes into Klim’s riding gear. From the outside looking in, it may seem like companies that design riding gear pick out some brightly colored pads, some textiles with cool names, and zippers that looks really fancy, and slap together some riding gear – but this notion couldn’t be further from the truth in Klim’s case. Creating a benchmark system of riding gear like the Badlands is the result of an insane amount of effort from teams all over the world. In fact, making technical riding gear the Klim way seems much more like developing a motorcycle than creating a riding gear system. I’m no stranger to what goes on behind the “employees only” doors of Klim’s Idaho HQ, but after spending a few days with WL Gore, one of Klim’s key technology partners and the folks who make Gore-Tex, my appreciation of what goes into making a piece of gear that sports the Klim logo has seriously increased.
Klim invited me and a number of other journalists to spend a couple of days back east with WL Gore to see just what goes into making the riding gear that some riders literally owe their lives to. Walking into WL Gore’s Capability Center is like walking into a museum-quality archaeological exhibit, except the time period featured is of the last 60 years. Instead of tools made of stone on display, the walls of the Capability Center are lined with items of the modern age. Laptops, space suits, car headlights, cables and wiring, and turn-out gear used by firefighters all use Gore technologies. WL Gore is best known for making Gore-Tex, but the company has also figured out how to make all kinds of implantable medical products, and hundreds of other products by harnessing their understanding of materials science. The breadth of products WL Gore makes is so broad, that chances are the device that you’re reading this very article on has a component originally developed by WL Gore. While my inner nerd could have geeked-out hard on all of the items that Gore had on display, our tour guides were quick to get into showing us just what it takes to earn the right to put a Gore logo on your garment.
If you’re an outdoor gear manufacture, you can’t just design a garment with Gore-Tex and take it to market. WL Gore cares about what goes out into the world with their name on it, and as such, every single item that has a Gore-Tex laminate in it has to go through some serious testing to make sure the product actually meets Gore’s standards. Both the individual components of a Gore-Tex laminate and the garment as a whole are tested before Gore certifies a product. On an individual component level, that means that the face fabric of a Gore-Tex laminate is tested for properties such as abrasion resistance, tensile strength in the warp and weft (left-right and up-down axes), and tear-resistance. There are thousands and thousands of square feet of lab space that are chock full of custom machines made by WL Gore that can evaluate just about any property that a product designer can specify. There’s also a giant room full of commercial washing machines where Gore associates can torture test laminates well past the point that the Durable Water Repellent (DWR) coating has been washed out, just to make sure that the actual Gore-Tex membrane still functions as it should. (Don’t be someone who lets the DWR wear out of your gear – follow those care instructions for best performance!) These individual tests underscore just how much understanding Gore has about the textiles that it creates. We had the opportunity to see how all of this knowledge works in concert in a complete garment in places like Gore’s rain room.
The rain room isn’t some lab with a couple of guys in white coats and a garden hose. It’s a room several stories tall where rain showers and storms can be simulated by creating 22 inches of rain per hour for the storm rating. Simply standing in the rain room wearing the garment(s) in question doesn’t cut it either, which is why the rain room comes with a motorcycle to place gear in the riding position while it’s being blasted with water. Set up on the bike for demonstration was a model sporting a complete Klim riding system, and keen-eyed readers will notice an exciting prototype product that the model was wearing. The rain room is just one tool that allows companies like Klim to work directly with WL Gore to test, develop, and refine their products which translates into better products for the end consumer. Yet the testing of a product made with a Gore-Tex laminate is far from complete with just the rain room.
WL Gore’s environmental chamber feels like it belongs in a Bond movie, because it’s that cool of a machine. The environmental chamber allows users to simulate conditions just about anywhere on Earth to provide a comprehensive study of the impact that a given environment has on materials, systems, and the user. In other words, the chamber can simulate riding on the coldest, windiest, of days, and the hottest, most humid of days even going so far as to simulate solar radiation. Once all of those environmental factors are dialed in, the chamber is set up so a user can be static or monitored at all levels of exertion. The chamber is large enough to accommodate treadmills as a way to create cardio load, and Klim has been known to bring snowmobiles and motorcycles in for testing too. Gore’s testing facilities don’t stop here. There are labs that exist just to test how waterproof boots perform, where you’ll find more custom-made machines that can flex boots hundreds of thousands of times to simulate miles and miles of walking in standing water. If there’s an item out there that uses a Gore-Tex laminate, WL Gore has created a machine to simulate that product’s use and make the best possible components for that specific type of product.
In Klim’s case, Gore’s testing is one part of the process that eventually creates a product like the Badlands. Every last detail is something that is extensively researched, tested, and evaluated to determine the best component for a particular application. The folks at Klim provided us with a number of very powerful hands-on demos to show us the end results of all of this research and development. In one demo, they gave us a length of thread used by another apparel manufacturer and asked us to break it. With a little effort, the thread broke easily in our hands. Feeling confident, we were then given a thread that Klim uses along with a warning: this thread can cut your fingers if you try and pull too hard while attempting to break it. Sure enough, this thread is much stronger, and fingers may or may not have been cut as a result of trying to break the Klim thread. But even a super-strong thread isn’t all it takes to make a killer riding garment that’s going to last a long time, which is why Klim extensively researches every part of a stitched joint. Things like stitches per inch, surged and non-surged textile edges, and other factors all go into making a garment that has the most bomb-proof seams possible. Knowing how much work goes into making Klim gear is what gives riders the confidence to trust their riding apparel to keep them warm, dry, and alive in mother nature’s worst weather.
Other hands-on demos reinforced the fact that Klim really does have a savant-level understanding of the materials and manufacturing processes that go into making their riding gear. We were given two pieces of a textile. One was a lighter-weight textile used in the seat of some of Klim’s off-road pants, and another textile felt heavier and was from the seat of another brand of off-road pants. Scissor cuts were made on the edges of both textile samples, and we were asked to tear them. The other brand’s textile tore with a bit of effort, while Klim’s textile couldn’t be torn by hand, even with the strongest looking guy in the group going full hulk-mode.
Klim is constantly searching for new ways to reinvent the wheel and raise the bar on long held standards. An example of this is the textile they’ve found that can take header pipe heat like leather, but is a fraction of the thickness and weight as the leather on the inner leg of your riding pants. This drive to create outstanding riding gear using the finest materials was best summed up by one Klim employee who said, “We make this gear to protect the people we care about the most when we’re out doing the things we love.”
After showing us how much of a difference material choices can make, Klim shared the latest and greatest creations to stem from this understanding with an introduction to their 2020 motorcycle gear line. With the refresh of a couple of lines, and the introduction of new products, Klim has some very exciting new gear coming out this year, utilizing many of these new technologies that we had the opportunity to play with first hand. Seeing textiles, threads, and the materials that make pads by themselves is one thing, but seeing all of these technologies put together into a complete garment really brings a new level of appreciation to that piece of gear. It’s like seeing a really nice set of suspension in a box in your buddy’s garage. You’re going to go check those suspension components out and play with them a little bit, but when you get to ride that suspension as part of a dialed-in bike, your appreciation is just that much greater. After spending just a few minutes wearing some of Klim’s new gear, I am really looking forward to getting out and riding in it next spring.
One final treat that Klim had to share with us was their new airbag vest. The Ai-1 vest is a stand alone vest worn under your riding jacket that automatically inflates (without any connection to the bike) in the event of a crash, providing additional protection to your torso and C-Spine. The system was developed in conjunction with In & Motion who makes these airbag systems for ski racers and moto GP. I had the opportunity to wear one of these vests and experience firsthand how they work when deployed, and I have to say that I’m very impressed. The airbag works like a Leatt-style neck brace protecting your cervical-spine; the additional protection provided to the torso could make a real difference in a crash. The Ai-1 looks to be just one more product that is tailor made to help improve the rider’s experience, which is why Klim makes gear the way that they do.
Going into this trip to Gore-Tex town, I honestly wasn’t expecting to learn as much as I did. I figured that my years of involvement with the outdoor industry and even a few years supporting medical device manufacturing while working for WL Gore gave me decent knowledge. I was wrong. I walked away from this tour learning a lot, and my level of respect for these companies has only increased. As they say, the secret is in the details, and I can tell you that both Klim and WL Gore fanatically obsess over every single detail. Sure, these companies could make a waterproof laminate and call it good, but they don’t. WL Gore and Klim push their products as far as modern material science allows. So when you see that diamond-shaped Gore-Tex hang tag on a Klim garment, you can rest assured that garment was comprehensively and extensively tested by Gore to be able to deliver Gore’s “guaranteed to keep you dry” promise. Likewise, you’ll know that a team of dedicated folks at Klim carefully and deliberately tested and chose each and every component in that garment so that it delivers the best possible riding experience. As Sir Ranulph Feinnes said, “There is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.”