High on Argon: Q&A with Founder of Inflatable Jacket Company

Handheld cartridge air pumps are usually reserved for bike tires. But two years ago, Klymit, a company in Ogden, Utah, introduced a line of jackets that get their insulation not from goose down or synthetic fill, but from gas. The gas, argon to be precise, is pumped in via a handheld gun and small C02-like cartridges. The result is one of the more innovative, if not questionable, outerwear technologies of the last decade. For this article, contributor Yoon Kim spoke with Klymit founder Nate Alder, the man who invented the inflatable jackets (and now sleeping pads, too) with the aid of some obscure household items, including a bike pump, canisters from a wine distillery, and an old pair of Reebok Pump basketball shoes.

Yoon Kim: Can you pop your jacket in a bad wipe-out while skiing?

Nate Alder: I’ve wrapped myself around many trees following skiers because I board and I am yet to have a puncture. The materials are durable, so it’s not likely. But if it does happen, we include a patch kit with every jacket, which is [the same type as] used for river rafts.

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Inflatable jackets from Klymit

What happens if your gas cartridges run out and you’re left with a deflated jacket in the backcountry?

Similar to what happens when you run out of gas for a stove — you can be SOL in a lot of situations if you’re not prepared or don’t bring the proper equipment. But one Klymit canister will do five inflations and each inflation can last weeks to months. Worse comes to worst, you lose a canister or forget it, you can use the dry air pump and you’ll be as warm as down.

Backing up, what exactly is Klymit and how is a Klymit jacket different from any other jacket?

When I was a snowboard instructor back in college I noticed that existing fiber insulations have three setbacks that consumers have just learned to live with: inefficiency, bulk, and the inability to adjust. We wanted to make warmer, thinner, and adjustable insulation, but what really sets us apart is that, although we are hands-down the warmest insulation on the market, we are also the only adjustable insulation. With the turn of a dial, you can adjust your insulation needs without batteries [you can pump argon gas in at will and also let it flow out for less insulation when needed]. While fiber insulations gets four-times heavier and colder when wet, Klymit NobleTek is waterproof. Our jackets fit snug to minimize drafting, it’s totally buoyant, and interestingly, one military application we found is that it can conceal the body heat signature for night-vision heat sensing.

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Argon gas cartridges

I have a very comfortable Primaloft jacket that I happen to really like. I use it as a midlayer under my shell when snowboarding. Why should I replace my Primaloft for your jacket?

Temperatures vary all day long. Each time you want to adjust, not only do you have to go back into the lodge, you have to guess whether a layer will take you from too cold to too hot. That’s what adjustable insulation does: it takes the guess work out of adjusting. You adjust on the fly, without layers and without guessing. In terms of packing, all you need to pack is a base layer and a jacket and that’s everything you need to bring on a trip.

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Close-ups: Klymit vest

Beyond winter sports, do your jackets have a market?

Here’s a scenario for sailing, kayaking, or any other wet sports: If you’re wearing fiber insulation and you fall into the water or it gets wet, it gets four times colder and four times heavier than when it’s dry. You can swim in a Klymit vest and it won’t change the thermal properties; argon gas cannot get wet and no matter how wet you are, you will stay warm. On top of that, our jackets are as buoyant as a life jacket so if you fall in the water while sailing, not only are you warm, it could keep you above water until your wife, or whoever, can pull you out.

For cold-weather use and for active sports, you mention that the fabric is waterproof. How do you address breathability?

We use a similar membrane that you would find in a Gore-Tex material. It’s not as breathable as an eVent fabric because it has to have micro pores, which is how it’s able to stop the argon from leaking. The argon gets stuck and water does not and thus it is breathable and can wick body moisture. We are also rolling out strategic breathable panels on our new vests in the fall.

How do you go about filling, deflating, and refilling a jacket?

Choose a vest that fits slightly loose when deflated so air can circulate between your body and the vest. Then take one canister, screw it into a Klymatizer, which is kind of like a compressed gas bike valve, and plug it into a connector on the vest hidden in the left pocket. The canister can inflate the jacket in half a second.

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Large argon gas tank

Once a customer buys the jacket, they will need to keep buying new cartridges, which seems like a big commitment for a jacket. How do you address this?

A few things. . . each canister gives multiple inflations and can last years. We have a demo product in our office that has been inflated for two years now. You can get quite a bit of use with the canisters we give you. But we also offer free top-offs through our retailers. We supply our retailers with a tank of argon about the size of a paintball tank, which they send back to us when it’s empty.

Do the math for me. Why would I pay $200 to 300 for one of your jackets?

All those layers you were mentioning earlier, how much did they cost? Anywhere from $500 to $700 I would guess? Well, our $300 jacket replaces the need for mid-layers and comes with gas.

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Klymit camp pads have cut-out patterns to reduce bulk (here placed inside a sleeping bag)

Tell me about your product line other than the vests and jackets we just covered.

Our other big line is our camping pads, which are lighter, more compact, more durable, as well as cheaper than our competitors’ products. The Inertia X-Frame pad is one of our most important products. Currently, we have two model types on the market. We plan to introduce new ones at the Outdoor Retailer trade show this summer.

Yoon Kim is the editor of Trail’s Edge Blog. Connect with Kim at editor@trailsedge.com or on Twitter via @mindvirus.

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