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World's biggest outdoor-gear expo features luxury wilderness gear and doesn't forget the dogs

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SALT LAKE CITY - Wilderness gear is going soft, and not just for people. Dogs are getting their own luxury outdoor items.

A trend at the world's largest outdoor-gear trade show is equipment and apparel that's also fashionable, easy to use or comfortable — from roomy spoon-shaped sleeping bags and pillow-top air mattresses to espresso makers and camp stoves that do double duty boiling water and charging electronic devices. Other vendors offer rugged leashes, life vests and even energy bars just for dogs.

Barebones Inc., maker of a $2,000 safari-style tent, held a 'glamping' festival at last summer's Outdoor Retailer expo, which featured a wider assortment of luxury gear than the winter show. Glamping stands for glamorous camping, and the Utah company says the 160-pound tent lets people enjoy the outdoors without having to rough it.

With network and cable news anchors sporting jackets by The North Face on camera in the field, manufacturers don't have to be reminded that backwoods fashion has hit the mainstream.

"We don't pay for anything like that, but we like it when anyone wears our high-quality products," said Todd Spaletto, president of The North Face.

Peter Metcalf, CEO of Salt Lake City-based Black Diamond Inc., introduced U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to his company's "soft" and "sensual" line of jackets and stretch-woven pants as the Outdoor Retailer Winter Market opened Wednesday. About 22,000 people are in Salt Lake City for the expo that runs through Saturday.

Jewell was CEO of Recreational Equipment Inc., or REI, for more than a decade before joining President Barack Obama's cabinet last year. She was wearing a fleecy white REI jacket.

The merchandise bazaar for a lifestyle of outdoor adventure brings together 1,000 of the world's manufacturers and distributors.

Shoppers aren't allowed inside and no cash sales are conducted. Instead, storekeepers and big retailers are placing orders for next year's inventory. Suppliers range from industry giants Patagonia Inc. and Mountain Hardwear to tiny Ruffwear, which makes performance dog gear in Bend, Ore.

The expo has taken place in Utah since 1996 and pours $40 million into the local economy annually.

A year ago, organizers signed a contract to keep the expo in Salt Lake City through August 2016. The decision suspended a political standoff that had the 4,000-member Outdoor Industry Association threatening to leave over Gov. Gary Herbert's land use policies.

Herbert, a Republican, responded by pledging to actively support the $5.8 billion economic sector in Utah with the appointment of an industry executive, Brad Petersen, as his outdoor-recreation chief.

Attendance is up 40 per cent since 2006, according to the show's organizer, Nielsen Expo Outdoor Group. The twin show in August brings out a larger crowd and is dominated by water sports.

Registered dogs are welcome even if the public is not. Nearly a dozen vendors at this week's show are hawking specialized pooch gear, and dog parties are part of the activity on the show floor.

The dog outfitters say they're going after a $53 billion pet industry and taking spoils from the big chains like PetSmart Inc. and Petco.

Kurgo Dog Products, from Salisbury, Mass., makes a jump seat that can restrain a dog inside a moving car. Also on display are rugged leashes, collars, harnesses and booties.

Competitors bow to Ruffwear Inc., the leader of the pack. Soon after he started making collapsible water and food bowls in 1994, the company's founder, Patrick Kruse, was selling 8,000 a month to retailer L.L. Bean. Now he sells 47 different dog products, including a life jacket.

"We were the first to give dog products an outdoor perspective," Kruse said. "We've had a lot of offers of investment, but we want to grow organically. We never had to borrow money."

TurboPUP, run by a former U.S. Air Force C-130 pilot, says it can't make enough of its doggy energy bars that can stand in for a full meal and come in a foil package that's easy to carry.

"We started in a kitchen making 3,000 bars a month," said Kristina Guerrer, TurboPUP's CEO. "It's been crazy."

The main ingredients include olive oil, egg yolk, juice concentrate and chia seeds, and company bakers from La Pine, Ore., swear they're good enough for people.

The jam-packed expo underscores a thriving corner of the economy. Outdoor-gear sales grew 5 per cent annually throughout recent years of recession, analysts said.

The show favours Utah, a place of rugged mountains and canyons and a cottage industry for innovators like Voile Manufacturing, which makes lightweight backcountry skis for $600 a pair. Voile laminates 3,000 skis and snowboards a year at a factory in a Salt Lake City suburb.

The winter show highlights such leaps in technology as the ski bindings made by Dynafit. The company's most popular model weighs just 530 grams, or less than 19 ounces.

Dynafit is out with a new $1,000 pair of bindings, the Beast, that performs as well as a heavier alpine binding in absorbing jolts that could knock a skier's boot loose from a ski. The company also makes exceptionally lightweight skis and boots.

"We're finally a noun in ski language," says Eric Henderson, a marketing representative for the company's North American operations, based in Boulder, Colo. "It's taken some time — 30 years."

Dynafit, headquartered in Munich, Germany, was bought by one of Europe's largest outdoor brands, Bolzano, Italy-based Salewa International, in 2003.

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