Great ideas are often born out of necessity. For Big Agnes founder and co-owner Bill Gamber, the problem was getting a more comfortable night’s sleep outdoors. He often traveled to the Vedauwoo area in Wyoming to climb, and on one trip more than 20 years ago, he remembers waking up to discover that the sleeping pad he was using was no longer underneath him.
“So it was just like lying on the ground in this hole with this old, beat-up sleeping bag, just like frozen solid,” Gamber says.
He started thinking that the sleeping bag setup was the problem, not the pad. His resulting idea—the Big Agnes System, which incorporates the sleeping pad into a sleeve in the sleeping bag, ensuring a secure foundation and better insulation—launched a Colorado outdoor company that has lasted 20 years.
“Really, what I think Big Agnes did was rethink how we sleep in the outdoors,” wrote Adam Ruggiero, editor in chief of GearJunkie, in an email. “Ultralight pursuits have always meant sacrificing creature comforts—parsing what’s necessary from what’s extra. But Big Agnes innovated ways to make the necessary more comfortable.”
Jumping into the sleeping bag market might have been a gamble—it was a well-established category in the outdoor industry in the early 2000s. But Gamber says that he and his team might have been “just dumb enough not to know better.” The product was an immediate hit at the first Outdoor Retailer trade show they took it to.
“It was a pretty simple concept,” Gamber says. “And I would say that’s sort of our design philosophy, you know, everything we work on, it needs to basically make sense.”
In 2003, Gamber and the Big Agnes team applied that sensible design approach as the company expanded into the tent market, which was also full of plenty of competitors. Gamber says he thought, “we own this sleeping bag company now, so I don’t want to camp in somebody else’s tent.” That led he and his team to create the Seedhouse 2 and the Mad House 2, which were light, roomy, and easy to pitch (see limited number of poles).
The company would later produce sleeping bags and sleeping pads containing recycled contents in 2007, debut the first freestanding tent under two pounds in 2009, and expand its product lineup to include more gear, including duffel bags, insulated apparel, and camp furniture throughout the 2010s. But whatever the product, the process remained the same—start from the beginning and build the best product you can.
“We never ever buy a product or take somebody else’s product and look at it and try to make it better,” Gamber says. “We just don’t do that.”
The company’s location hasn’t hurt, either. There are close to 20 outdoor gear brands based in Steamboat Springs, according to John Bristol, economic development director for the Steamboat Springs Chamber. “Big Agnes is the shining star amongst all of them here,” Bristol says. “They align with the community’s values, sustainability practices, and the history and heritage of outdoor recreation of northwestern Colorado. They’re an integral part of the community.”
Big Agnes gets some good perks, too, like all of the research and development opportunities located outside the front door of their new offices at the site of the town’s old police station.
“It’s an ecosystem here that has tremendous opportunity to test your gear, and Big Agnes has shown that,” Bristol said. “They live it—every day they’re out there, they’re testing things out and trying to fine tune things. And they’re using these tremendous resources here that are available to test…this R&D testing ground.”
The company has also prioritized conservation and sustainability. It introduced Solution-Dyed Fabrics (SDF) to their most popular tent models. Because the thread is pre-dyed prior to the weaving of the fabric, there are fewer steps compared to normal dyeing process, reducing energy consumption and chemical usage by 80 percent, and saving thousands of gallons of water. This makes these tents more sustainable and more durable as well, with increased resistance to UV fade. Another new innovation? Sleeping pads made of sugarcane, a renewable material that can remove carbon from the air.
Big Agnes is even giving back to the community they live in by donating a portion of sales to local conservation organizations, such as the Yampa River Fund, and helping clean up rogue sites created by “COVID campers”—people who flocked to the outdoors with little knowledge of where or how to camp, including adhering to Leave No Trace principles.
And in the last five years, the company’s international sales have increased significantly in regions like Europe and Southeast Asia. But Big Agnes still maintains some of its scrappy roots. “We still feel like we’re like a five-year-old company, you know what I mean?” Gamber says. “Like when we started talking [about] 20 years, it’s just all the same people. And that’s good.”