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.

klymit jackets.jpg

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.

klymit gas cartridges.jpg

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.

klymit gas canister.jpg

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.

klymit sleeping pad.jpg

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.

Posted by Kevin - 06/21/2011 03:48 PM

A few years ago I was lucky enough to work part time for EMS, which meant lots of good deals on gear (including the occasional free piece). Anyway, around that time they released a line of mid layer insulation pieces that you could inflate yourself using a mouth piece located around the collar. They had a couple of jackets and a vest. I got to use both pieces in all sorts of winter weather, and found that they never seemed to provide the warmth and comfort that my Primaloft and down pieces did. But to EMS’ credit, at least you could inflate them yourself, rather than having to carry, locate, and use cartridges.

Posted by Some Dooood - 06/21/2011 09:56 PM

Kevin’s misinterpretation of the products is understandable given that this Q&A is ineffectual at highlighting what is truly remarkable about these products, which is the thermal properties of Argon itself. I met these guys at rep night and when they mentioned Argon I got all sparkly-eyed. Unfortunately, they just encountered another broke outdoor doood.

Posted by Ori Hoffer - 06/22/2011 11:41 AM

Check out this video Park City Television did when the company was still just starting.

Posted by gnarlydog - 06/22/2011 05:32 PM

so, let me get this straight…
One can inflate the jacket with plain air (dry air pump) and will have the same insulating properties of down. So, if the fabric used in the jacket is “air permeable” but holds back argon how come the jacket won’t deflate if plain air is used? Hmmm, maybe this jacket is not that breathable?… just saying

Posted by Fabien - 06/27/2011 04:48 PM

It might sound silly, but I wonder if this is compatible with the recent restrictions on airplane-travel: what is the TSA policy (and other air safety agencies) regarding those canisters? Are we allowed to carry them, at least in the checked-in bagages?

I’m asking this because I had to get rid of CO2 cartridges during my last air trip with my bike.

Posted by Nate Alder - 06/28/2011 04:42 PM

Hey guys, Nate Alder, Founder and CEO of Klymit here. Those are some great questions, and I hope I can answer them for you.

1. Kevin, there have been a few mouth inflatable vests in the past that take advantage of the variable insulation concept and were essentially a predecessor to our technology, but one of the big challenges with them is that when you blow air in to them, you introduce a significant ammount of moisture. To demonstrate this, get a large oversize ziplock clear bag, seal off all but a small portion in the corner, then blow in it to inflate and you will start to see a lot of moisture attach to the sides of the bag to the point where it is barley transparent. Moisture can actually transfer heat away from your body at 25x times faster than argon. One of the many great improvements of our technology over mouth inflation is that the gas is dry, you dont have to worry about moisture build up, and you dont have to worry about mold growing inside your jacket due to moisture and damaging the product.

2. gnarlydog, that is a very good point. Air is definitely more permeable than Argon as it is made up of many gases, and argon is only 1% of air. We use a monolithic, hydrophilic, microporous membrane that allows for small molecules like helium transfer through, or reactive molecules like water to migrate through. The dry air pumped in will retain for a good time, but the pure argon will retail much longer. We have also started to use very highly wicking materials for the inside fabrics to help even more with moisture management.

3. Fabien, sorry to hear you had to give up your CO2 at the airport, I know what a pain it can be to just throw something away you paid good money for. For that reason we have worked with the FAA and TSA to get our apparel considered as a “Life Saving Device” and according to the 49 CFR 175.10(a)(11) of Hazardous Materials Regulation (HMR; 49 CFR Parts 171-180) in PHMSA, we are permitted to carry 2 canisters with the jacket and 2 back up canisters for the “life saving device”. Here is a link we tell people to go to and download a copy of the TSA pamphlet when traveling just in case.

http://www.tsa.gov/assets/pdf/prohibited_items_brochure.pdf

I never have a problem with checking my canisters when traveling, but if I carry them on, sometimes it might delay me in the security line an extra 5 minutes, so either plan ahead, or just check them for simplicity sake. The other option is to just carry one of our dry air pumps with you depending on the purpose of your trip and the temperature of where you’re going.

I hope this info helps, you can also find more FAQ answers on our website at:

http://www.klymit.com/index.php/Kinetic_Vest_FAQ

Posted by Julie - 02/08/2013 04:56 PM

Where can I purchase your products? You had a booth last year at the Portland sportsman show but cannot find you this year.
Thank you for your assistance,
Julie

Posted by Ben - 03/11/2013 12:27 PM

Hi Nate, and thanks for the responses.

That seems fairly brilliant—I just read BPL’s article on the compression of insulation in wind, and it seems that your product could be a solution to that.

But I still don’t understand a few things:

(1) Your website talks about thermal conductivity of argon vs. air (basically nitrogen). Argon should convect just about as much as any other gas, which is what fiber prevents. Do you use a fiber fill to block convection? If not, can you share some data to justify addressing conduction but not convection? For example: give us some data (with e.g. 50 degrees C temperature difference) showing that conductive loss is on the same order of magnitude as convective loss.

(2) If you use a water-wicking membrane in order to make a moisture-permeable garment, what’s the problem with inflating by mouth? As for water cooling you 25 times faster than argon—surely true if you include phase change energy loss, which is necessary in any case for a moisture-permeable garment of any sort. Once the water is gaseous or dissolved in air, it should convect more or less like any other ideal gas. What am I missing? Does the process of clearing water vapour from the garment take that much energy? Or is it just the very high moisture load of lung air?

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