I love to take in nature's beauty with a nice, long hike, and I'm not alone. There are millions of others like me heading to the great outdoors -- and you can follow us to find investment opportunities.

There's no shortage of excellent gear and clothing competing for hikers' money, but many brands catering to hikers and ecotourists are privately held. If we keep trekking, however, we're bound to unearth some products from publicly traded companies. Here are several such opportunities.

Hike long enough, and one day you're likely to take a wrong turn down a trail, going hours in a wrong direction. To counter such a scenario, handheld global positioning systems (GPS) are gaining in popularity.

Garmin (NASDAQ:GRMN), whose GPS units serve marine, fitness, automotive, and aviation customers, also has a significant position carved out in the outdoors market. Whether it's the lightweight Geko, the handheld eTrex, wristband-style Forerunners, or Rino two-way communication units, the company has done a fine job of offering functional and durable products for the outdoor enthusiast.

Since 2000, Garmin has grown sales by a compounded annual growth rate of 22% per year. Research has been crucial in helping the company become a dominant GPS player. Expenditures associated with research and development were 6.9% of net sales in 2002, 7.6% in 2003, and 8% in 2004; so far in 2005, this metric stands at 7.7%. Investors will also love this company's balance sheet. With $367.3 million in cash and marketable securities and no long-term debt, Garmin is in good financial shape to deal with increased competition.

Lowrance Electronics (NASDAQ:LEIX) is nipping at Garmin's heels as it carves out a niche in this market. With a market cap of just $131 million, it's a small fry in comparison to the $6.8 billion Garmin. But don't let its size deter you from a potential investment; Lowrance's iFinder handhelds are an admirable alternative to Garmin's eTrex. The company net sales rose 34.9% in the latest period as its consumer-oriented products increased in popularity.

There are some winter days when you feel like quoting Bill Murray in Groundhog Day: "It's gonna be cold, it's gonna be gray, and it's gonna last you for the rest of your life." A few companies that flourish while we freeze are VF's (NYSE:VFC) The North Face, K2's (NYSE:KTO) Marmot, and Columbia Sportswear (NASDAQ:COLM).

VF has other brands in the outdoor category, but The North Face is by far its strongest line. Outdoor apparel and equipment sales totaled $1.1 billion through three quarters in 2005, or nearly 23% of net sales. Moreover, because of unit volume increases at The North Face, its outdoors division is its most profitable, with operating margins of 17%.

A strong competitor to The North Face is K2's Marmot. But K2 has another winner among summer hikers in its Ex Officio brand. Button-up shirts from Ex Officio are highly breathable, and they're just as comfortable on the trail as they are for general travel. Unfortunately, K2's stock isn't nearly so admirable. It has been on a steady decline over the past couple years as the company gets weighed down in other areas of its business, like paintball sales. But I like that K2 is making a strong push in the outdoor apparel business. Through nine months of 2004, this unit saw $66.8 million in sales, composing 7.7% of net revenues. Due to its acquisitions of both Marmot and Ex Officio, apparel sales in the comparable period of 2005 are $122.8 million, or 12.8% of net revenues. Investors should look for K2 to continue its expansion in this lucrative part of the market.

The North Face and Marmot have another brand to deal with: Columbia Sportswear's Mountain Hardware. Columbia dominates the value end of the outdoor apparel market, but that hasn't helped its stagnating sales, which are up just 6% through nine months of 2005. Don't be surprised if the company uses its commanding position and scale to push higher-margin products like Mountain Hardware.

Like many outdoors enthusiasts, I am a huge fan of Chaco and Keen sandals, but Deckers Outdoor's (NASDAQ:DECK) Teva brand has been around quite some time and has garnered a nice following. Recent sales have been driven primarily by its wildly popular UGG line, which has surpassed Teva this year in wholesale sales. So far in fiscal 2005, Teva sales are down as it struggles with increased competition and what its management describes as "lack of meaningful product innovation." I couldn't have said it better myself. With competition making huge strides among consumers, Teva will have to bring its "A" game to even have a chance. Shareholders should watch to see if the company can get back to the drawing board and draft some successful growth drivers in this division.

Wolverine World Wide's (NYSE:WWW) Merrell line also has to deal with the Chaco and Keen effect. Unlike Teva, however, Merrell has numerous styles in various segments of the outdoor footwear market. This helps to protect the company from being wiped out by a single competitor, but it also pits the company against Keen in sandals, Asolo in boots, and Montrail in trail runners, along with many other high-quality brands. Despite the other challengers, Wolverine's Outdoor Group is on pace for its seventh consecutive year of double-digit revenue growth, due in large part to Merrell. Expect Wolverine to build on its outdoor success as it makes a push for online sales through its retail website www.trackandtrail.com, and as it introduces Merrell apparel and licensed Patagonia footwear in the spring of 2007.

Hit the trails
As an avid hiker, I enjoy following the developments of outdoor footwear, apparel, and gear manufacturers. As a Foolish investor, I have as much enthusiasm for seeking potential opportunities for my portfolio. As more people head for the trails, it's a good bet that one of the aforementioned companies will continue putting the pieces together to develop a market-beating formula for shareholders' benefit.

Garmin is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation. Deckers Outdoor and Columbia Sportswear are Motley Fool Hidden Gems recommendations. For more great picks from the Fool's top advisors, try these newsletters and more, free for 30 days .

Fool contributor Jeremy MacNealy does not own shares of any companies mentioned.