Less different but better: Brand flip of Sierra Designs in 2018

The new Nitro bags, which are classic mummies with a few thoughtful features and best-in-class prices. Available in 35, 20, and 0 degree ratings. Women-specific bags in 20 and 0.

Last week was the semi-annual sales meeting for Sierra Designs, during which shelters, sleeping bags, backpacks, apparel and accessories were shown to our domestic and international sales representatives. Most products will release in February 2018.

Sierra Designs is a 52-year-old brand, and for decades was a dominant player in multiple categories. But due to a range of factors — e.g. changes in ownership and leadership, the evolving retail landscape, mission creep, and strong competition — Sierra Designs lost its pole position.

I joined Sierra Designs in early-2015, a year after then-Brand Manager Michael Glavin and his team had launched a slew of innovative new products, like sleeping bags with bed-like features, rain gear with long torsos and chaps, and single-wall tents with generous ventilation and dedicated gear storage areas. An essential design criteria was that everything be “better and different.”

This relaunch earned Sierra Designs significant press and flattering awards. Sales improved but were not sustained. Stubborn consumer behavior, noncompetitive prices, an unintuitive line architecture, and lack of succession planning were probably most to blame.

A year ago the brand was given new life, when Stephen Barnes took over. The “new” SD will be no different than the old when it was most successful: better designs and functionality at more affordable price points. (In this Facebook Live interview, Stephen and I talked in-depth about his vision for the brand.) The brand personality — which is captured well in SD’s Instagram feed — is already in place.

Stephen’s influence will first be seen this September, when four new tents from the 2018 line become available from select online retailers. They will be followed up with 31 other new products in February 2018.

The Sweet Suite and Studio tents convey the brand flip perfectly. They are free- or semi-freestanding double-wall tents, available in 2- and 3-person sizes, with either a 1-door/1-vestibule or 2-door/2-vestibule configuration. Due to the pole geometry and the use of pre-bent poles, these models have more livable space than category benchmarks from Big Agnes, MSR, Nemo, and REI.

The double-wall and semi-freestanding Sweet Suite 2, which has two doors and two vestibules. It weighs 3 lbs 1 oz and will retail for $400.

The new tents won’t excite the UL crowd, but three other new products might:

  • Nitro bags ($300, 1 lbs 6 oz and up), featherweight mummies with thoughtful features and best-in-class prices, available in 35-, 20-, and 0-degree comfort ratings, plus 20- and 0-degree women-specific models;
  • Highside ($280, 1 lbs 14 oz), which will compete with other coffin-sized double-wall tents like the Big Agnes Fly Creek HV UL1 and Nemo Hornet 1; and,
  • Animas Pillow ($25, 2 oz), an unnecessary splurge that’s exceedingly more comfortable than a sil-nylon stuff sack filled with dirty socks and a fleece.

The two products currently in the Skurka Series — the High Route Tent 1FL and Flex Capacitor 40-60 Pack — remain in the line. Our plan is to grow the series in Spring 2019, with a tarp & bivy system, sleeping quilt, smaller backpack, and perhaps a Core 13 Clothing-inspired collection.

I’m not an industry pro and I’m reluctant to predict how SD’s new products will be received in the marketplace. Needless to say, I hope that it’s turned a corner.

Whatever happens, I want to applaud the current team — notably Stephen, Casey, Candyce, Sako, and Suzanne — for what we saw at the sales meeting. The flipped brand represents an astounding amount of deliberate thought, coordinated effort, and hard work.

Posted in on May 21, 2017
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35 Comments

  1. Mick on May 21, 2017 at 10:21 am

    Is SD going to start selling gear overseas to countries like Australia as part of this change? I’m sure there would be plenty of people over here that would buy SD gear if you did.

    • Beean on May 21, 2017 at 4:32 pm

      @Mick or even ship Canada for that matter. I don’t buy SD products as much as I’d like to because I can’t buy them…

  2. A fan of Sierra Design products on May 21, 2017 at 12:35 pm

    My first outdoor produc in 1999 was the Sierra Designs Meteor Light Tent CD (CD meant Computer Designed) 2P.
    http://www.trailspace.com/gear/sierra-designs/meteor-light-cd/

    So just like your first love, all future others in your love life will be compared to the first.

    Here is I liked from Sierra Designs:

    Beefy zippers that never jam.

    Honesty when they say 2P it means 2P plus 2 backpacks inside and plenty of space for 2 bros to keep space.

    Aluminum Poles and stakes that are light AND durable.

    Quiet logo subtle not flashy neon billboard

    Colors that blend into the environment

    Most of all is the feeling that I made the right choice after the first night on the trail.

    I have disposable income, but give me good stuff and you can have my money.

    Give me a reason to replace all my high end gear with SD.

    Male 1973 and look like short fat Wally from Dilbert

  3. Matt on May 21, 2017 at 4:22 pm

    I just want a tent for camping near my car that can withstand the strong winds we get in Colorado and Utah, but that’s not as expensive or as hot as a 4 season tent (most have limited ventilation and/or no bug mesh). I have a great ultralight tent for backpacking (where I can carefully select a site and carefully pitch it), so I have no interest in all the lightweight tents on market which sacrifice strength while still being significantly heavier than the lightest options. It’s not exciting, but if sell an affordable, well though out tent that’s wind tunnel tested to 45+ mph (ideally 60 mph. ) I’d buy one. I think wind rating would be a good selling point compared to all the other tents on the shelf for people who either don’t backpack or want something more comfortable than an ultralight tent for base camping. Weight doesn’t matter, so it could be over engineered with strong inexpensive materials. It could be positioned somewhere between Coleman tents and ultralight tents like the copper spur UL in terms of price. It would compete as a big upgrade to a Coleman tent or as an alternative to something like a REI half dome.

  4. BCap on May 22, 2017 at 7:03 am

    Though I realize that this post wasn’t asking for input on the SD product line… I’ve been meaning to comment at some point that I’d be very interested in a SD High Route sized for 2 (in the bugnet). I’d preorder it even. I basically want a quality double walled (modular) tent for 2 that uses trekking poles (my wife and I carry them anyway), that doesn’t feel like a coffin. Important to me is to be able to pitch with net alone weather permitting, so I can see the stars at night. Most of the vetted trekking pole tents (e.g. the Duplex) are single walled and don’t give the view I’d like (and in the case of the Duplex, cost a fortune b/c they are only offered in Cuben).

    • Andrew Skurka on May 22, 2017 at 8:44 am

      Not going to happen. The HR1 geometry does not lend itself well to a 2P shelter, unless you want to sleep head-to-foot, in which case it’s great. But that’s a pretty small market, and we’re already chasing a small market with the HR1.

      You might want to look at the Tarptent Straosphire 2, which shares a similar geometry but is 2P.

      • BCap on May 22, 2017 at 11:33 am

        Well poop. In any event its good to know its def not in the pipeline. Yeah, I’ve been eyeing the TT Stratospire or TT Saddle which were compared recently (https://intocascadia.com/2017/05/10/tarptent-saddle-2-vs-stratospire-2/). I’m in no huge hurry to get a new tent so perhaps I can wait till after Dan’s GDT hike to hear his longer term impressions of the saddle. Thanks for the response.

      • Brenden Woolley on October 5, 2017 at 9:19 am

        Hi Andrew

        I agree totally about the 2P comment, the only reason I have not purchased a High Route tent was because of the limited bug net size. For the large footprint under the tarp – it just crys out for an equally large bug tent to accomodate 2 peps or 1 plus your gear/pack inside the bug tent. 2P Sleeping head to foot is fine. Please Please design and offer a 2P bug tent to go with the next version of this amazing tent, then the weight would work much better – split across two people carrying it.

        Also, Have you seen the new Yama Mountain Gear “1P SWIFTLINE” tent. Man its like your High Route tent – but hybrid sewn in bug net and lighter weight. Yama is just going into production and offering them for $300 special as pre-order. They have a very cool section on their website called – Yama labs – which allows customers a window into and contribution to latest product development. It is a very sweet concept that creates community, collaboration between users and designers and hopefully results in amazing new products that meet and exceed users expectations.

    • Alex on August 6, 2017 at 3:45 pm

      Check out Yama Mountain Gear Swiftline 2p tent.

  5. Katherine on May 22, 2017 at 3:17 pm

    If you get into clothing design– I’m on a search for the perfect hiking dress. It would be a cross between Columbia’s PFG Freezer dress and the Montbell dress.

    Freezer good: perfect fabric, well-ventilated pits
    Freezer bad: seam at top of shoulders (though it hasn’t actually bothered me – just in theory), no sun protection for shoulders, empire waist seam is a bit too high

    Montbell good: shoulder coverage, like the princess seams
    Montbell bad: fabric too thick, would rather more air/less fabric under the pits

    My perfect dress would be the Columbia fabric, with princess seams, and minimal “cap” sleeves for both sun coverage on the shoulder and flat fabric under pack straps.

    While you’re at it in a light blue for high sun exposure trips and a dark plum for wet & woodsy trips.

    I promise I will buy it!

  6. Nicolas on May 22, 2017 at 5:36 pm

    Hello Andrew,

    Great to hear that there is renewed momentum behind this awesome brand. I own a Tensegrity FL 2, UL Trench and Backcountry Quilt and love all three–I feel that they are still quite innovative. It’s a shame that the sales haven’t picked up.

    I am quite interested in your mentioning a tarp and bivy system coming down the pipe. I would like to break through that final comfort barrier, the tent, and try out a tarp. I have been looking at MLD’s tarps. Would you recommend an A-frame or a square tarp for a noob like me? And would it be worth waiting for your design to hit the shelves or is it still too early for you to comment on the merits of your design? After seeing your backpack and solo tent design, the bar has been set high 😉

    Cheers!
    N

    • Andrew Skurka on May 22, 2017 at 7:52 pm

      Of the products you mentioned, the only one sticking around is the Backcountry Quilt. Its sales are consistent and the current team was happy with the pricing and performance.

      My tarp, which we’re stringing up on Wednesday and which will arrive back in prototype form in June, is a play on the High Route. Similarly easy to set up, but smaller and lighter. The bivy or insert is less certain at this point, as it relates to another conversation we’re having about a Skurka quilt, which we may sew-through and which therefore would benefit from a bivy; if we baffle it, we’d be able to go with a more traditional nest.

      Oh, let me keep going. I generally prefer A-frames over flat tarps. The latter has more versatility, but on almost all occasions I go with an A-frame shape anyway. If you get an oversized A-frame, you have plenty of interior room and can keep the weather out. If precip is still driving in beneath an oversized A-frame, you’re using the shelter in a campsite or season when you should not be.

      • Zachary Groff on May 23, 2017 at 9:14 am

        Hi Andrew,

        Great content. Much appreciated. I am glad to hear the back country quilt is sticking around. Will there still be the various versions including the newer, lower degree rendition? Or is it too soon to tell. I don’t do much winter backpacking as of yet but would like to in the future.

        • Andrew Skurka on May 23, 2017 at 9:17 am

          In 2018 there is a 30 and a 15 degree quilt. Personally, I’d only use the 30. If I need a 15-deg bag, I’m going with a mummy. Quilts, even the BCQ, are just too drafty in temps regularly below freezing.

      • Nicolas on May 23, 2017 at 1:28 pm

        Thank you for the great information, Andrew! I look forward to seeing it hit the shelves in 2019. I am now thinking of sewing my own A-frame tarp in the meantime as a fund project.

        Mea culpa: I realized after posting that it was out of turn for a stranger such as myself to address Michael Glavin’s comment head on. I was simply surprised by the discord between your two accounts, and I certainly did not mean any offense either to Michael or yourself. Thank you for clearing everything up and letting me know about his new company, which I will promote to my hiking friends.

        PS, I recommended your FlexCapacitor to my younger sister and she couldn’t be happier with it. I love my Circuit, but I am definitely a bit jealous: it’s a great looking pack!

  7. Walter Underwood on May 22, 2017 at 7:19 pm

    Two of my favorite tents were from Sierra Designs. A “sleeve” Flashlight, before they went to clips, and a Kingdome.

    The Kingdome was our family camping tent. Our son loved it so much that we called it “spaceship Kevin”.

    Love the SD bright white tent fabric.

  8. Michael Glavin on May 23, 2017 at 8:37 am

    It is false to say that “sales generally did not follow suit” after the SD reboot. We doubled gross profit and dramatically increased full price sales. We also demonstrated the courage and respect for the brand that was necessary to eliminate the discounting of “me-too” product that had been the staple of the business.

    Contrary to your statement, we modernized both the Clip Flashlight and the Hurricane Jacket, dramatically increasing the profitability of both. Those items did not “make matters worse”. The opposite is true: due to their volume both were essential to returning the brand to profitability.

    It is clear from your article that you don’t understand and/or respect what we accomplished at Sierra Designs, which I find pretty sad. I’m quite proud, and you should be too, that we took a dying brand that was losing almost $3M a year and returned it to profitability in 3 years without resorting to dumbing-down the product.

    It’s an amazing story, and an amazing accomplishment by an amazing team of people. The fact that you or anyone at a sales meeting would mis-characterize it to justify a new direction does not demonstrate the same respect for the brand that I demanded when I was there.

    I suggest you focus on the positive aspects of what Sierra Designs is doing going forward, which is what I intend to do.

    • Nicolas on May 23, 2017 at 10:10 am

      Hello Michael,

      From the little that we, the customers, know, you did a great job while at SD to improve and modernize a brand with a great legacy. I personally enjoyed many of the products that you worked on.

      Perhaps it would have been better to contact Andrew directly to air your objections to his article and work out on some redactions, instead of doing so publicly. What am I suppose to think now, as a loyal SD customer: that there is bad blood / faith involved? I don’t think that it helps SD’s image or any single party involved, much less draw in customers–you postulated as much in your very comment.

      You an Andrew had, I thought, a great relationship on camera during SD live events. Why not keep it that way in the public eye. Andrew, I am sure, is a reasonable guy and would have no reservations addressing your concerns.

      All the best to you!

      N

      PS, I am not sure at what new company you landed since leaving SD, but please let us know and I’ll be sure to check it out.

      • Andrew Skurka on May 23, 2017 at 11:06 am

        There is no bad blood/faith between Glavin and me. We try to make a point of catching up twice at year at Outdoor Retailer, and this is a case where personal relationships can be decoupled from a more objective matter, e.g. the business of SD. Glavin is rightfully proud of what he did at SD and is free to defend it — a lot of innovation happened in that time, and he was behind all of it. SD also felt like a real “team” back then (and under Stephen’s leadership it thankfully feels that away again, too). After doing some contract work post-SD he started his own brand, Zenbivy. Not surprisingly, it’s a very different take on the sleep system.

    • Brenden Woolley on October 5, 2017 at 9:59 am

      Hi Michael

      Michael, I loved all your work and products. Watching all the SD product videos from your time truly inspired me to get back into the outdoors. I live in Australia and went to the trouble of buying heaps of SD stuff through moosejaw or campsaver and freight forwarding it to me in Oz, all because of the innovative and inspiration product design and great marketing comms you presented on sierradesigns.com. I purchased Lightning 2 FL, Flash 2 FL, Flashlight 1, Flashlight 2, UL TrenchCoat, Cagoul Thru hiker raincoat, solar wind shirt, Pack polo shirt… and the list goes on and on. All because of your great videos that explained the product and created demand in my heart for them. I just cant stop buying SD stuff. Thank you for inspiring me Michael. I like the new SD products too – the Cloud mummy Quilt, and the tents, but they are no-where near as innovative and inspiring as your tenure produced. Customers will probably buy the new stuff in droves!!! Not enough users really spend enough time to think and appreciate a truly game changing product – like all the ones you developed and released. If only they did! Their outdoor experience with your SD products would be much better.

      • Michael Glavin on October 24, 2017 at 3:22 pm

        Brendon:

        Thanks so much for the supportive comments!

        Don’t let SD’s latest talking points fool you: there are LOTS of people out there who study and appreciate game-changing product.

        The issue is that the “industry” just can’t get out of its own way sometimes. The rapidly changing wholesale distribution model and the collapse of independent specialty retailers has led many brands to falsely convince themselves that “status quo” and “commercially viable” are the same thing.

        If you look outside REI and the “big brands”, you will find LOTS of game-changing innovation happening….. You can check out my latest contribution at zenbivy.com

        Thanks again!

        • Zen Bivy on October 24, 2017 at 3:59 pm

          Hi Michael,
          Thanks for the reply. Yes I agree some consumers take the time to research, the dedicated through Hiker types, but the busy multitasking masses don’t have the time. They go to a big camping store spend a few hours and come out with standard old school gear. It drives me crazy. Anyway I try not to let me it bother me. But it does.

          Yes I was delighted to watch the zenbivy product video. I stumbled across it a few weeks ago before I knew it was your baby. After only the first few voice over words I immediately recognised the voice as yours and got much more excited because I knew whatever u had a hand in designing it would be very good. I do really like the Zen bivy, but it’s still too heavy for my liking. I would be interested in an ultralight version with 10D fabric, 850 fill down and possibly loose the top part of the hood to reduce weight further. Ie and open head end ( ultralighers prefer beanie/hat as it’s lighter, more comfortable and less restrictive than an inbuilt hood on bag. Without an inbuilt hood just need a way of cinching down the top of quilt around shoulders.
          Thanks again for pushing the envelope Michael. Love your work. Keep it
          going

  9. Dave Mccaul on August 18, 2017 at 3:16 pm

    2018 backcountry bed duo????

    • Andrew Skurka on August 19, 2017 at 10:58 am

      I don’t think so, but I might have just not paid attention.

  10. Emma on January 18, 2018 at 7:20 pm

    Is Sierra Designs still going to manufacture the Flash tents?

    I’m a big fan of the Flash tent design, and have both the Flash 3 and the Flash 3 FL.

    Best,

    Emma

    • Michael Glavin on January 18, 2018 at 7:49 pm

      I hope so Emma. Outside just named it best all around backpacking tent available. SD is under new leadership (again) and hopefully they understand what they have there. Hopefully the “less different and less better” phase is over and they get back to creating innovations like the Flash.

  11. Emma on January 19, 2018 at 3:05 am

    Fingers crossed on the Flash tents. I love the design and being in them. I have Flash 3 and Flash 2 FL. (I mistyped above Flash 3 FL. I use the Flash 3 for car camping / flying-and-camping, and loved it so much I got the Flash 2 FL for hiking).

    I think Sierra Designs needs a really good modern-day strategy for the marketing / influencers / social media, as unfortunately people are like sheep. So while the design of the Flash tent is amazing, because it’s unconventional, it takes more momentum and perceived leaders / influencers to be showing they’re using it or talking about it to lead sheep in a different direction. To alleviate the anxiety people have of doing something “differently” and the fear or risks they associate with that.

    They need to talk about:
    * Style (the architecture of the tent is very stylish)
    * Feel-good (not just liveability – as every tent sells itself as supposedly liveable)
    * Beauty (that they’re beautiful tents to be in, and to look out of the windows and onto nature – something you don’t have in other tents)
    * Experience (that the tents will enhance people’s experience of their trip, of hiking and camping and being in nature.)
    * Long-lasting love (that people that have these vouch for their quality, performance and over time love their tents)

    Perhaps first person stories from Sierra Designs tent lovers about why they love their tent.

    At the moment, the marketing is Sierra Designs staff saying why they think people should ditch the vestibule. While the presenter comes across great, viewers will perceive a bias, and what is being pitched is potentially scary / unknown to them, they’re not sure. Whereas if it was vignettes of long-term Sierra Designs tent users, stories about their experiences (including funny stories, majestic scenery stories, scary weather stories, memorable stories etc) it’s more confidence-building / reassuring.

    Hope someone at Sierra may read this and take on board.

  12. Brenden Woolley on January 19, 2018 at 8:01 am

    Nice suggestions Emma. Yep what you say would be very influential to do, but it takes lots of effort and energy to co-ordinate something like that, and most companies don’t seem to understand where exactly they should be directing their marketing efforts..

    Michael, when did SD get new management again? If it was another recent change, I am with you. Their regression to less different, less risk, BORING me too direction at the moment is a bit dissappointing. They are doing some ok things, like the cloud sleeping bag, and the high side tent, but all the other new tents as such a regression back to traditional tent design it is very uninspiring. Dumb mass market customers will probably lap it up and think its great, but like Emma said, the era in which you designed the Flash 2 tents was all about truly designing a better way, SD just needed to keep the faith and keep iterating the designs you developed and give the mass market public catch up – as it takes them a while – and it takes retailers equally as long to get with big changes like this. Sighes..

  13. Nicolas on January 19, 2018 at 9:00 am

    I am looking forward to meaningful updates to the backcountry quilt (vert baffles; 800+ fill; 30F), a new version of a UL trench-like rain jacket (below hip coverage and good ventilation with hip-belt on), and likewise a new take on the tensegrity. All three original products have performed admirably out west and to a lesser extent in the north east. Whereas there is a need for familiarity and affordability, there ought to continue to be a more elite and innovative series. That’s the Sierra Designs we’ve come to know and love.

  14. dpsphotos on March 8, 2018 at 9:29 pm

    I noticed in a few of your lists you talk about testing a pillow. Was that the Animas Pillow from SD? Can you elaborate on how you like it. I just got a new Cloud bag and love it. Want to add a pillow for those relaxing, fun trips.

    • Andrew Skurka on March 13, 2018 at 3:00 pm

      Yes, it was the Animas Pillow. It looks as if it’s available now. https://sierradesigns.com/animas-pillow/

      I really liked it. Very light, easy to inflate and deflate, comfortable, and durable. And at $25 it’s less expensive than most.

  15. Larry Burke on August 22, 2018 at 12:56 pm

    The flash tents were great and they were popular enough that they are gone from the internet. They should be brought back.

    • Andrew Skurka on August 28, 2018 at 10:24 pm

      Not happening, because not enough people agreed with you.

  16. Scott on October 7, 2018 at 9:14 pm

    Great article. I think going back to double wall tents is the way to go. Despite the claims the single wall tent just didn’t live up to hype. I bought the lightning UL2. I love the external frame. I love how easy it is to setup and yet there is no getting around the condensation. It just happens. I’ve done everything, tried everything. I’m a big lover and believer of SD. As soon as I can sell my lightening I’ll be buying one of the Sweets!

  17. Patrick Ploenzke on April 18, 2019 at 6:18 pm

    I cant get past the retro colors thou….

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