Outdoor brand Rohan pioneered the use of modern fabrics in the outdoors. Chris Townsend looks at the story of this innovative company and its humble beginnings.

Rohan Salopettes in action in the 1970s. Photo: John Cleare

Outdoor and travel company Rohan is 50 this year. Now a successful well-established brand with 54 shops, Rohan was started by just two people, the Skipton-based couple of Paul and Sarah Howcroft, and with very little money.

The Howcrofts thought that outdoor clothing, then based on wool and cotton, could be improved and made more comfortable with modern fabrics. The first commercially made garment, mountain salopettes, was launched in 1975. The salopettes were made from a stretch nylon fabric that was warm, quick drying and tough and a far cry from the baggy, itchy, slow-drying Tweed breeches that were standard wear in cold weather. Today they’d be called softshell.

A 1982 advert for Rohan bags

In the next few years Rohan introduced breeches made from the same fabric. Called Super Striders these were a great success. They also launched windproof jackets made from a polyester/cotton mix that were lighter and faster drying than 100% cotton ones. I wore Super Striders and a Pampas polycotton jacket on my first long-distance trip, a spring walk from Land’s End to John O’Groats, and was impressed.

Messner and Habeler on Everest

So far Rohan’s clothing was intended for outdoor use in cold or stormy conditions. When Peter Habeler and Reinhold Messner made the first ascent of Everest without supplemental oxygen in 1978 they wore Rohan jackets. Paul and Sarah wanted to expand into more general outdoor and travel clothing though and soon found a lightweight polycotton fabric for this. The first Airlight jackets and trousers appeared in 1980 and then in 1982 the Bags trousers arrived. Over half a million pairs of these have been sold and they are still in the Rohan range.

Polycotton Bags and Moving On windshirt on the Continental Divide Trail

Rohan supplied me with Bags and a polycotton jacket for my Pacific Crest Trail walk in 1982 and I found them so ideal for long-distance walking that I wore them again on the Continental Divide Trail three years later. By then Rohan had also launched some synthetic insulated garments that were far lighter and more compact than anything else at the time.

Bags and Sohao insulated jacket on the Continental Divide Trail

Since those early days Rohan has grown into the company it is today. The range of clothing for the outdoors and travel has expanded enormously. Other companies have caught up and designs and fabrics regarded as too lightweight, impractical and fragile (I remember being told Bags wouldn’t last long in the wilds – after five and a half months on the Pacific Crest Trail I disagreed) have become standard. At the time Rohan’s designs and fabrics were revolutionary and changed how outdoor clothing performed.

I have tested and recommended two Rohan garments in the last year, the Helios Insulated Jacket and the Ventus Waterproof Jacket. Fifty years after it began, the company is still making excellent outdoor products.