By Chris Meehan | May 10, 2021
Steamboat Springs, Colorado
"When we first started, our whole plan was to start making a more comfortable sleep system, and then kind of evolved into more, better camp gear that we wanted and friends wanted," says founder and co-owner Bill Gamber. "The very first goal was just to make a sleep system that was more comfortable."
Big Agnes fulfilled that initial objective by adding a sleeve to their sleeping bags for sleeping pads, something the company continues to do for all of its sleeping bags.
The company has since made innovations in tents as well, introducing the LED-illuminated mtnGLO line. "We got obsessed with making super functional lightweight tents," says Gamber. The company's lightest two-person tents, such as the Tiger Wall 2 Platinum (which won a Backpacker Editors' Choice Award in 2019), weigh in at less than two pounds.
"A lot of what we learned along the way just by making mistakes. We'd make a sample and use it and really learn a lot and challenge the whole industry, and I think we still completely lead the industry in innovation in tents," Gamber says.
For 2021, Big Agnes' innovations include more sustainably made tents and sleeping pads. The company moved to solution-dyes for many of its most popular tents and introduced TwisterCane, a closed-cell foam for pads made with 60 percent sugarcane resin rather than petroleum. The process reduces both the chemicals used to dye fabric and the energy needed to do so by 80 percent while halving water use.
In its quest to continue to make sleeping in the outdoors more comfortable, Big Agnes introduced new Sidewinder Mummy Bags, which are designed for side sleepers. The line won a Backpacker Editor's Choice Award in spring 2021.
Another example of its innovations is the recent introduction of tents made specifically for bike packing. These tents have shorter poles -- making them easier to stow on a bike frame -- and additional features like extra pockets and external daisy chains for camping bikers.
Big Agnes remains fast on its feet, too. The company was the North American and South American distributor for Helinox, a South Korean maker of lightweight camp furniture. When that company decided to open up offices in the U.S. in 2018, Big Agnes decided to launch its own line of camp furniture -- and got it off the ground the very next year.
"For our crew to cease the distribution of another brand, develop our own, not skip a season, and introduce our own products the following spring was a fairly Herculean task that we're pretty proud of," says co-owner and Chief Marketing Officer Len Zanni.
The company has made some other significant changes in the past few years. Big Agnes, Honey Stinger and BAP, were a trio of companies that shared some operational roles, but no more, Zanni says. They still retain some ownership in the other entities.
Big Agnes recently consolidated its locations in Steamboat Springs. "At one point I think we had seven different leases for different places around Steamboat. There aren't many big buildings to put everybody in," Gamber says.
It follows that the company bought the former police station in Steamboat Springs and moved into it in May 2020. "And then nobody moved in because we weren't allowed to. . . . By June we had brought in about 10 of us. Now we're somewhere around 50 percent and eventually we'll probably have 40 people in here."
Big Agnes still has other buildings, including a distribution center for North America in Salt Lake City and a Steamboat-based warranty and repair center.
The company also has seen its international presence grow. "There are over 20 international markets that we ship into and we have warehouses in Hong Kong, Canada, and Rotterdam," Zanni says.
The company formerly ran its international business out of Steamboat as well, but "almost two years ago we hired an actual sales director that is based out of the U.K. to handle all of the international business," says Gamber.
Like many companies, Big Agnes was impacted by COVID-19. "During that time we were really concerned and watching our supply chain in January because COVID had started throughout Asia and we were like: 'Wow, we're going to have no product,'" Gamber notes.
"We had a very strong start to the year , a good January and February and then halfway through March, it just stopped," Gamber says. "April was one of our worst months on record, as far as product going out the door and our phones weren't ringing."
But things turned around. "We were concerned that we were going to have inventory for two or three years, and then we were out of inventory in August," he says. "It was crazy. Like it just flipped because of that, and just like the bike industry, it really affected the entire supply chain, this weird ripple. This year we're just chasing everything we can."
The company's shipments weren't directly impacted by the Ever Given container ship debacle in the Suez Canal. But shipping is still impacted by COVID-19. "It's taking three months to get product from Asia instead of the normal 30 days," says Gamber. "That's maybe starting to improve right now."
Still, the company is happy with its manufacturing partners. "We have amazing partners. We pay attention daily to the current politics throughout the world because certain things can affect us that we weren't really sort of anticipating. I would say the biggest curveball, you know, even before COVID was when President Trump incorporated the tariffs on China," Gamber explains. "That was sort of an extreme position that he took, and it really affected the outdoor industry."
He adds, "Our biggest challenge is we don't go and look for and find the cheapest manufacturer by any means, we try to find the best. Some of the best manufacturers for certain products are in Vietnam, some are in the Philippines, some are in China, Korea -- it's all over the world, but Southeast Asia is a real hub."
Looking ahead, Gamber and Zanni express optimism that growth in the outdoors industry will continue. "We can't imagine that a high percent of those people aren't going to stay in the industry," Gamber says. "Covid has been a great excuse for people to find the outdoors, either find them again . . . or just people that have never been in a tent before, and maybe they started in the backyard and now they want to venture out."
Adds Zanni: "It's crazy how a pandemic helped fuel that and we certainly feel lucky and fortunate that we're in the space that we're in."
Challenges: "Working from home was always a fringe sort of thing," Gamber says. "The way the workday has sort of changed will be a big challenge for us because we work better when we collaborate and we're all in the same building."
He adds, "Some of the other challenges are just flat out planning for this massive level of growth right now. And then how does that affect us in year two, three, and four post-COVID?"
Opportunities: "We were super fortunate during the first few months of COVID with our staff. We just have such a great loyal staff that believes in the whole brand and what we're doing," Gamber says. "We're just ready to continue to grow and on our own terms."
One potential catalyst: a new, as-yet-unannounced, new product category in 2022.
Needs: "The larger we get sometimes there's a specific sort of talent that we're looking for that may not be readily available in Steamboat. And we are just hellbent to continue to grow the business here. So there's some challenges in that, but ultimately we always find really great people that want to live in town and Steamboat is a great place," Gamber says.