NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- The Winter Olympics are not like other sports: There is no Michael Jordan or Peyton Manning that can turns the technologies that drive skiing, skating and generally messing about in the frigid outdoors into money.
"My business is running sophisticated adventure tours for a specific clientele," Craig Pattee said to me in the phone as he surveyed a potential trip out in remote Idaho. The former Washington, D.C., outdoor industry lobbyist, now the CEO and founder of EpicQuest, a Jackson, Wyo., global adventure guiding service, explained to me that for all its cool factor, winter sports remain a cold business. "The customers who want me to arrange heli-skiing in Antarctica never go away. But the recession has been hard on a lot of the rest of the outdoor recreation industry."
At least numerically, it is easy to see what Pattee is talking about. Statista, the New York online stats and research service, estimates that the U.S. ski industry stayed flat over the past decade or so: 57 million hit the slopes in 2000; 56.6 million did it in 2013.
No matter how you slice it, that's a tough marketing hill to climb.
The trick to survival, Pattee said, is simple: Innovate and provide awesome services to a unique clientele. And at least based on the two big winter industry trade events, the Outdoor Retailer Winter Market in Salt Lake City and Snowsports Industries of America SnowShow, which just wrapped in Denver, innovation is indeed running deep in winter sports. Though I did not attend either meet-up, according to the dozen or so folks I spoke with who did, there's real business upside looming in winter outdoor gear -- if you know where to look.
So as you kick back and watch the world's elite winter athletes battle for glory, here are my top winter sports tech products to own ... and bet on.
1. Ramp Sports: Groundhog Ski -- $619
The gold medals in skiing tend to go to traditional European skiing powers. But if Mike Kilchenstein has his way, the balance of ski and boarding mojo will shift to Park City, Utah. Kilchenstein, a former ski executive with three decades at mega ski and board makers such as Rossignol, has developed a radical new and low-cost approach to making skis and boards. He takes advantage of variable-sized jigs and vacuum-bagging to dramatically speed the process of creating reasonably priced, yet top-quality skis. The value play in the line is the $619 Groundhog, which absolutely crushed it for reviews and accolades in the ski industry press. Even better, Ramp builds each and every ski and board in Utah. That means when I visit the factory this week, I can watch a set of skis being made -- then hit the slopes with the warm-from-the-mold ride. Private equity investors take note: Kilchenstein says sales are up 300% -- most of which are high margin direct-over-Web sales.
2. Black Diamond Equipment: JetForce Technologies
If you ever yearned for an amazing yarn of perseverance and dogged determination, it's not Peter Metcalf's stories of climbing around the world. It's how this self-described dirt bag climber went from being a wannabe pull-up champion to founder and president of Black Diamond Equipment, the Salt Lake City outdoor tech giant -- and more recently, an appointee to The Federal Reserve in Salt Lake City.
Metcalf has always been modest as he talks about his journey. But to my eye, his track record is easy to explain. "BD" as it's known in the outdoor industry makes skis, climbing gear and soft goods for expert outdoors people who demand -- and are willing to pay -- for the best. And my pick for must-have new idea is its JetForce Technology, which automates the process of deploying inflatable avalanche protection systems. It also doesn't hurt that BDE is one of the few publicly traded equities in the hardcore adventure tech world. Meaning if you do it right, not only you, but your portfolio, can get a lift the next time you jump on the chairlift.
3. Goal Zero: Sherpa 100 PowerPack -- $350
At first first glance you might think Goal Zero's 16,000% sales growth over the past three years of sales is due to selling into odd markets such as ruggedized batteries for the military or the science crowd. But it turns out that Salt Lake City-based Goal Zero makes its real money selling batteries to hardcore road warriors, people who absolutely must have their electronics work wherever they go. The company wins in this insanely competitive niche by selling reasonably ruggedized portable power systems that are essentially idiot-proof. Goal Zero offers solid design and performance without crippling weight complexity. All of that makes Goal Zero like a good SUV of batteries: spacious, comfortable and really, really safe.
4. Contour+2 -- $300
If there is a sadder silver medalist in the outdoor industry, it has to be Contour Cameras. In just about every conceivable technical standard, the Contour+2 offers the same -- if not better -- performance and features than the widely popular line of GoPro adventure cameras. And at least to start, Contour made money. It grew to be No. 7 on the Inc. 500 list of companies in 2011. Accounts dramatically differ on how the company misplayed the challenge by GoPro with its global branding, deep pockets and take-no-prisoners retail strategy. Either way, the company went into Chapter 11 last year, opening the way for new money. And in November, Salt Lake City-based Clark Capital Partners paid a reported $1.9 million for the camera maker, via a court-appointed receiver.
Clarke plans is to focus on the demanding outdoor movie maker who seeks full HD picture and sound, legit audio outputs and a rugged metal case. The comeback won't be easy, but I will be testing this baby pretty heavily over the next several months. And if Contour can get lucky and catch a bit of the GoPro's fire, Clark Capital could have a nice little company on its hands.
5. Suntactics sCharger 5 Portable USB Solar Charger -- $126
I am a sucker for the product that packs a lot of innovation into a small package. And Dean Sala over at Suntactics gets my vote for the little operation that could. Sala cleverly created a portable solar panel that runs at much closer voltages to USB-friendly devices, than most panels; making the sCharger more efficient and cheaper. Also impressive are auto retry circuits and some intelligent electronics that make the charger more smartphone friendly. And for starting off in his garage, Sala is doing nicely. He says he has done half a million in sales over the Web and is looking to pick up a major retail channel like an REI or L.L. Bean. If the hard-charging Sala can lock down such a fat retail channel, this little solar charger could become big stuff in the fast-growing, solar-powered market.
6. Propet Rejuve Sandals -- $75 <BR/It's a testament to our crazy times that flip-flops have become a battleground for high technology. But there is Propet, with its Rejuve sandal hoping to bring innovation to your feet. The company started back in 1985 with tools found in orthotics and podiatry. The net effect of the new Rejuve, says the company, is a far more comfortable sandal that can both stand up to abuse and keep your feet supported and comfortable.
The question is, as nice as the Rejuve might be, $75 is a lot of money for what amounts to casual footwear. So a low-cost competitor is bound to pop up. But if pure, comfy casualness is your priority -- and really, isn't it everyone's? -- the Rejuve might just be a product and a company with legs.
7. Zuca Flyer Travel Black/Silver, $345
I probably have some Sherpa flowing around in my veins, considering how I prefer carrying my bags rather than rolling them through some airport somewhere. But even I, the rolling luggage snob, have to admit that Malpitas, Calif.-based Zuca might be on to something with a simply bombproof rolling luggage: the Flyer Travel. Basically a cloth bag mixed with personal organizer and steel frame, this FAA spec carry-on is built with riveted steel parts and wheels that would make a street skater jealous. The unit can support 300 pounds. That means you can both sit and stand on it -- which sounds terrifically handy, to be honest.
There are drawbacks. This bag weighs a beastly 12 pounds empty, with all its slide-in organizers, insert bags and separate compartments. But if you are going to travel heavy, the Zuca might just be a winner.
8. Stio Hometown Jacket -- $192
Who knows what madness lures otherwise sane people into the high-end outdoor apparel market? After all, who seeks to compete with established gear brands such as North Face, Patagonia and Arc'teryx? Steve Sullivan, founder of Jackson, Wyo.-based Stio, does, and that makes it all the more impressive that Sullivan has built a brand that both captures the local, insider vibe of ski mecca Jackson Hole and does it at reasonable prices.
At least based on early reports, I like what I see in Stio's new Hometown jacket. For way less than $200 -- a steal for coat of this design and quality -- Stio creates a legit, sport-quality insulated jacket anyone can wear on or off the slopes. Is this the most high-tech garment on the market? Of course not. But for the average winter user, the Hometown really threads the needle. And portends that Sullivan and Stio can stand up to the most withering competition in the global soft goods market.
9. Sierra Designs Backcountry Bed -- Price TBA
Speaking of being comfortable in the great outdoors, any product that brags it will make me sleep better gets my attention. This year, Sierra Designs grabbed me with what appears to be a brilliant idea -- a sleeping bag without the %$#$%@ zipper. Called the Backcountry Bed, the bag features a wrap-around fitted comforter matched a small duvet. I will be giving this unit a good hard look this month. But if Sierra Designs really can deliver on a better sleeping bag, watch out: Getting a good night's rest is about the most valuable thing in an adventurer's day. And that could make it worth real money for Boulder-based Sierra Designs.
10. Brunton Hydrogen Reactor -- $150
When a piece of outdoor tech grabs real street cred in the larger consumer electronics world, something serious is going on. And that's exactly what's happening with Boulder, Colo.-based Brunton -- a unit of the $3.6 billion Swedish Fenix Outdoor Group. When I first saw the way-cool portable Hydrogen Reactor fuel cell at this year's CES, I saw what all the buzz was about. Here was an incredibly light fuel source that can power anything from lights to phones to water purifiers and even transceivers -- potentially lifesaving stuff in certain circumstances. The Reactor won awards from everyone from Popular Science to Gear Junkies and is a fascinating take on an old problem. Keep in mind, the unit is not cheap. You need the $150 reactor, the $250 recharger and cells that run $14 each. But for a light, durable rechargeable way to get electrons in the field, this is a handy idea indeed.
All of which makes the Reactor the outdoor tech choice of the moment.