Department

Gear Guy

How Big Agnes cofounder Bill Gamber and his company know what outdoor athletes want.

October 2009

That's your office?" Rick Meade, a buyer for REI, blinked in disbelief. An old Bianchi bicycle, helmet, and courier bag crowded the man at the desk. Tents and sleeping pads were stacked to the ceiling. The second-floor room wasn't just tiny; between the sloping walls, the single porthole-size window, and the sheer amount of gear crammed into the space, it was claustrophobic.

Bill Gamber, the cofounder and co-owner of Big Agnes, a Steamboat Springs gear company, turned in his chair. All of five feet and five inches, he was buzzing with energy. Tacked above his computer was his motto, a quotation from writer Edward Abbey. "Get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers," Abbey exhorts. "And I promise you this much; I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those desk-bound men and women with their hearts in a safe deposit box, and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this: you will outlive the bastards."

Gamber stood up, looked at Meade, and smiled. "Let's step outside."

Winter winds hammered the 10,839-foot summit of Hahns Peak, where Bill Gamber camped with a few hardy friends. The sun had sunk below the snowy horizon hours earlier, leaving the mountaintop in icy darkness. But as the gusts grew in intensity, slamming into his tent's nylon walls, Gamber just grew happier. He was testing prototypes of his new winter tents, the String Ridge 2 and the Royal Flush 3, which he'd designed to withstand precisely this sort of weather. On paper, he believed the tents' shorter, lighter poles, and thinner, lighter fabric, could stand up to the mountain, but plans don't always translate well to the outdoors. Witnessing his tents' mettle that night was pure satisfaction.

The trip wasn't an anomaly—Gamber is one of his company's toughest testers, often rambling out yonder to see whether his gear can hack it. In winter, he explores the backcountry on skis, often on multiday campouts so he can explore the mountains' farthest reaches; in summer, he camps with his two sons and competes in regional bike races. He's an impressive athlete: He's finished more than 100 triathlons, including 16 Ironmans. All of which may explain why the equipment Gamber makes is beloved by the outdoor industry: He builds exactly what mountain athletes want, because he's building the gear for himself.

And he, apparently, is a worthy prototype for the backpacking everyman, considering his equipment has taken home awards from Outside, Backpacker, National Geographic Adventure, Rock and Ice, and Men's Journal. Sales are swelling also: During the past four years, Big Agnes has posted annual sales growth exceeding 60 percent. At outdoor retailers like REI and Eastern Mountain Sports, Big Agnes goes toe-to-toe on tent sales with larger competitors like the North Face and Mountain Hardwear.

Gamber's career had humble entrepreneurial beginnings: In 1986, while attending Pennsylvania's Lock Haven University, Gamber started selling bike shorts out of his Volkswagen Jetta after triathlons. Postgraduation, he moved to Steamboat Springs, where he patched together money from construction jobs and as a rock-climbing guide, before expanding his bike short business, BAP! (short for Bwear Action Products), into an outdoor retail shop in 1996.

Big Agnes was born in 2001 when Gamber was talking with his friend, Brad Johnson; the two thought they could create a better sleep system for backpackers. They designed a sleeping pad that slid into a sleeve on the bottom of the sleeping bag, so campers wouldn't slide off. The built-in pad eliminated the need for insulation on the bag's bottom half—slashing weight by some 25 percent. The two named their company Big Agnes, after a mountain in the nearby Mt. Zirkel Wilderness Area.

Gamber soon turned to tents. Consulting with Bob Swanson (who founded, then sold, Sierra Designs), Gamber and his team produced the Seedhouse, the first freestanding, two-person tent to weigh less than four pounds—a backpacking breakthrough. Subsequent tents notched more milestones, as Big Agnes designed tents that were lighter and roomier than products already on the market—and then watched as the rest of the industry scrambled to imitate them. "It's unusual for small companies to be innovative in so many different categories," says Dennis Lewon, the executive editor of Backpacker magazine. "Bill Gamber has broken the mold by pushing the envelope in sleeping bags, pads, and tents."

Recently, the company turned its eyes toward more sustainable gear; some of the synthetic materials in most tents and bags are manufactured with petroleum products. In 2007, Big Agnes began shipping sleeping bags and pads made from recycled materials, and this past spring it debuted the Salt Creek, a tent made from 100 percent recycled fabric—something the big dogs initially said wasn't feasible.

But Bill Gamber loves barriers, if only for the challenge of overcoming them. "I'm like Napoleon," Gamber says, grinning. "I don't know I'm small."

Back in his cramped office, Gamber studies flow sheets of his three companies. He owns Big Agnes with business partners Rich Hager and Len Zanni (Brad Johnson amicably departed Big Agnes in 2002), and still runs BAP!, his outdoor shop. In 2005, he cofounded Honey Stinger, which produces honey-based energy gels and energy bars; earlier this year, his Organic Energy Chews won Backpacker's Editors' Choice Award. Honey, in a way, is a return to his roots—his grandfather, Ralph Gamber, nurtured a three-hive hobby into the Dutch Gold Honey company, one of the largest packers in the country. Ralph also was an innovator: He coinvented the bear-shaped honey squeeze bottle in 1957.

Gamber continues to do his grandfather proud. Following the recycled Salt Creek tent coup, he and co-owner Hager, who often joins him on madcap outdoor trips, have been finalizing their design for a new tent that converts into a car awning—the kind of off-the-wall idea that probably wouldn't get traction at a bigger company.

"I would hate to be the big fish," he says, fearing that his designs would be crippled by rules and committees. Big Agnes has no jaded, nay-saying industry veterans—just a tinkering mad scientist who's willing to try anything because he never studied the playbook.

"We didn't go to college to learn to design tents," says Gamber. "We use tents. We're like a bunch of punk kids who have no idea what we're doing. And somehow it works." m

Kelly Bastone is a contributing writer for 5280. E-mail her at [email protected].