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Designing a better way with Sierra Designs

Testing the Sierra Designs Cagoule Rain Jacket last summer near Green Lakes after bailing off the Wind River High Route. (c) Peter Bakwin

Testing the Sierra Designs Cagoule Rain Jacket last summer near Green Lakes after bailing off the Wind River High Route. (c) Peter Bakwin

Unless you read outdoor industry press releases or saw me last month at the Outdoor Retailer tradeshow in Salt Lake City, you probably missed the news that I’ve partnered with Sierra Designs. This is not a new relationship, as I’ve been consulting for them on-and-off since 2012, but starting this year I will take on a greater public profile with the brand.

My role

This is not a “sponsorship,” whereby Sierra Designs would support me doing what I do best — adventuring. To the contrary, I’ll be compensated for more conventional work, like any other independent contractor who has unique services or experiences to offer an organization. In fact, I’m not sure that Sierra Designs has even asked what I have planned for this year.

My primary duties are split between product development and marketing. With product, I will help shape the initial line architecture, and then have a big role in product testing before an item goes into production. Currently, my biggest projects are a new backpack and a new shelter, both of which I’m hoping will be available this time next year. I have a few clothing projects too, including rain gear and trekking pants. These won’t be “signature series” products, but it’s probable that my involvement will be part of the product story.

With marketing, I think SD’s intention is to inject additional personality and credibility into the brand, and help it engage more deeply with customers. It’s not a faceless organization, but a small team of passionate individuals like Michael Glavin, Jim Trombley, and Casey Sumnicht. Next week is my first public appearance — Glavin and I are hosting a two-part live online event about shelters on Thursday, February 19th at 11 AM and 1:30 PM PST. Please join us!

Hut trip with a Sierra Designs prototype backpack, available (in better colors) in Spring 2016 probably. It will spec in the 2.5-lb range for 60L with a frame.

Hut trip with a Sierra Designs prototype backpack, available (in better colors) in Spring 2016 probably. It will spec in the 2.5-lb range for 60L with a frame. (c) David Eitemiller

Why Sierra Designs?

Before addressing that question, let me first explain my motivations for a partnership at all. It’s a common misunderstanding among athletes in niche sports — e.g. backpacking, trail running, skiing, and probably a lot of non-outdoor niche sports too — that “sponsorship” is the golden ticket.

Early in my career, I also thought this was the case. But the truth is that while athletes with huge public profiles like Kilian Jornet, Anton Krupicka, and Cameron Hanes can probably support a normal lifestyle (e.g. home ownership, children, calories of higher quality than ramen and peanut butter) based on sponsorships alone, the rest of us will probably earn more income and have more free time by developing real products and/or services for which there will be a demand. In my case, I stopped chasing sponsorship dollars — which I realized to be limited, unreliable, and below-market once my time was accounted for — and instead wrote a book, started a guiding service, scheduled speaking events, and monetized my website.

My hard work has paid dividends, but going it alone has not been flawless. Specifically, I’ve stressed my home life by traveling extensively for business; I’ve had no help in amplifying my “brand” or anything that I do; and my influence on backpacking product and culture has been limited by the size of my own public channels. Enter Sierra Designs.

But I would not have been willing to settle with just any brand. Many things drew me to SD:

1. They were excited to work with me and knew exactly how they would utilize me.

2. I like working with them. They are friendly, competent, and fun.

3. It’s a 50-year-old brand with worldwide recognition.

4. It feels more like a 3-year-old startup. Everyone on the team is new, and there is no “this is the way we have always done it” attitude. This fresh approach has led to innovative designs like the Backcountry Bed, Tentsegrity shelters, and Cagoule Jacket & Rain Chaps.

5. They are based in Boulder, which will make it easier for me to form relationships and create my position in the brand. Also, business travel on behalf of SD will be minimal.

6. Among the wholesale manufacturers — i.e. those you will find at retailers like REI, Backcountry, and CampSaver — that design backpacking clothing and equipment, Sierra Designs is one of the few that proudly describes itself as a backpacking-focused company. In contrast, many of the “mountain” brands seem to think that backpacking is below them. (And this attitude shows in their product — it’s like they still think it’s 1985!) In this sense, SD shares the same passion for backpacking with cottage companies like ULA Equipment and Mountain Laurel Designs — but it has wider distribution, more influence, and better brand recognition.

From SD's photo booth at Outdoor Retailer, with Paul Magnanti, one of my assistant guides and a host of The Trail Show

From SD’s photo booth at Outdoor Retailer, with Paul Magnanti, one of my assistant guides and a host of The Trail Show

Have I sold out?

Absolutely not. Sierra Designs has been adamant that I continue to do what I’m doing and to be who I am. My authenticity and credibility were huge attractions for them, and they are the pillars of my long-term value, for them and for me. If SD simply wished me to be their marketing whore, I never would have agreed to it. If we maximize the potential of our relationship, the only difference you will see will be better, more innovative backpacking clothing equipment at your local retailer — with a Sierra Designs hangtag on it.

Posted in , on February 15, 2015
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42 Comments

  1. Martin Rye on February 15, 2015 at 2:55 pm

    I like the fact they want to make kit that is specific for the backpacker and not just climbers and day hikers. Good luck with this Andy, and we (I) hope to see some really great backpackers kit come from this.

  2. Gabe on February 15, 2015 at 4:36 pm

    As sad as it was to see GoLite go.. well.. away. Sierra Designs is an excellent company and I am certain they will benefit from the insight you can provide.

    • Andrew Skurka on February 15, 2015 at 9:10 pm

      It has been sad to watch GoLite’s decline. GoLite was the reason I originally came to Boulder — for an internship in 2003 — and the owners Coup and Kim were big supporters of my earliest trips. In fact, I distinctly recall a dinner at The Med in Boulder with Coup, Kim, and my parents during which they tried to convince my parents that I should do the Sea-to-Sea Route after graduation.

      Even though I haven’t worked with GoLite since 2011, and not closely since 2007, I still root for the company and I have kept in touch with Coup & Kim. Kim did a knockout job in officiating our wedding in August 2013.

  3. Tom Foote on February 15, 2015 at 8:15 pm

    I’m glad that SD will benefit from your assistance and vast expertise. I bought a SD Backcountry Bed which I generally like; but it would be way better if they would just put a cinch in the giant opening (like you normally have on a conventional bag) to help seal it up when it gets cold. Would easily add 5 degrees of comfort and weigh almost nothing.

    • Andrew Skurka on February 15, 2015 at 8:47 pm

      Thanks for the feedback. The opening on the Backcountry Bed is designed such that the quilt will stay tucked in there, but your suggestion of a cord and cinch lock would certainly make it more secure. I’ll bring it up with them. In the meantime, keep the feedback coming!

  4. Roman V. on February 16, 2015 at 12:23 am

    It seems that a bottle can fall out of such angled pocket.

    • Andrew Skurka on February 16, 2015 at 7:25 am

      Yes, a bottle can, but perhaps not easily if the pocket is designed well. We’re still trying to figure it out. In the pictured version of the back, we had not; but I’m optimistic that we have for Prototype 3.

      One of my biggest peeves with backpacks is the inaccessibility of side pockets. Some packs are definitely better than others, and some users struggle more than others (those with less dexterity and girthy torsos). It really bothers me to watch my clients struggle to access their side pockets — their backpacks should be designed better.

      • Roman V. on February 17, 2015 at 1:18 am

        I like to think about side pockets as accessory pockets. May be for water bottles it is better to use special pockets, like on AR packs http://www.outthereusa.com/images/AS-2_Green_Diag.png
        or chest strap pockets?

        • Andrew Skurka on February 17, 2015 at 8:54 am

          We’re looking at those options, too. I think the consensus is that EVERY backpacker must have at least one place to store a water bottle and have it accessible. Even if you lack dexterity, have short arms, and a thick torso, you can access a water bottle strapped to your shoulder strap. For everyone else, we will try to make those side pockets as useful as possible.

          • Roman V. on February 17, 2015 at 9:34 am

            I was thinking about this problem too. Don’t you think that introducing bottle pockets beneath regular side pockets makes the side pockets less useful (less volume, depth)? Shoulder strap bottles are pretty good, you can drink during the walk or run if it has a straw. I’m thinking about one more solution, maybe will post later.



          • Andrew Skurka on February 17, 2015 at 10:50 am

            We have abandoned that particular design since the top pocket was not deep enough unless you made it really tall, which would make it impossible to reach while wearing the pack. But we have not given up on the idea of side + top entry.



          • Dave on May 23, 2015 at 2:27 am

            Look like Kurt Racicot came up with a solution: http://www.stoneglacier.com/accessories/hydro-holster



          • Andrew Skurka on May 23, 2015 at 4:14 pm

            Have not seen this in person, but web photos leave me highly skeptical that we can’t do better, much better actually. This pocket will not work will all packs. Because it is not attached, it is prone to getting snagged, moving, and bouncing. Finally, its usefulness appears limited to a water bottle, or non-water bottle items, not all of the above.



          • Dave on May 27, 2015 at 10:19 am

            Yeah, I share similar thoughts as well. I wished Racicot delivers a pack bag which have the slanted side pockets built into the bag. Would save weight, and make for less tedious bushwacking.

            But it’s definitely an option which is not offered by many companies.

            Will have to send him an e-mail about the possibility of doing a custom job.



  5. Pretzel on February 16, 2015 at 10:21 am

    Am I the only one the Mags kind of looks like Jello Biafra? I mean the most complementary of ways.

  6. Dylan on February 16, 2015 at 10:38 am

    Congrats! However, companies such as hyperlite and MLD are and will be far superior to foreign made products from Sierra designs. UL backpacking is best left to the cottage companies something you seemed to have strayed from recently?

    • Andrew Skurka on February 16, 2015 at 11:09 am

      “Superior,” why? Because of local versus foreign production? If you’re making a moral argument (“Buy USA”), that’s fine, though I think the workers where Sierra Designs manufacturers its products are just as happy to have the work, and in some respects need it more because their countries aren’t wealthy enough to provide a social safety net. Plus, international trade trends over the last thirty years (i.e. unskilled labor being outsourced to Asia and to other countries with less expensive unskilled labor) suggest that Americans choose lower prices over American manufacturing when they have the choice, which we almost always do. I know that this has put the squeeze on a lot of small towns and an entire sector of the work force, but the real perpetrator is the American consumer, not the manufacturers who cater to them.

      If you’re making a quality argument, I’d strongly disagree with you. Cottage companies are absolutely not immune from manufacturing flaws. They’re also not immune from design flaws.

      I’m not even sure what “UL backpacking” is — that term does not get used on this website. If you’re referring to that elitist “sub 10-pound base weight” bullshit, you can have it. If you’re referring to a style of backpacking that enables a more enjoyable hiking experience, I haven’t “strayed” from it at all. In fact, I think I wrote a book about it, have given a few clinics about it, and have offered a few courses on it.

      • Dave on February 16, 2015 at 7:32 pm

        I kind of stop giving credit to the ultralight movement after reading Colonel Townsend Whelen’s book On Your Own in the Wilderness. His base-pack was under 10 lbs using 1930s and 1940s technology.

        Especially moreso when his suggestions are just updated version of Horace Kephart’s list from 1904 which its weight was due to canvas, and Whelen was able to take advantage of nylon and polypropylene.

        So, to me, the “ultralight” movement is just an updated version of Whelen.: silnylon or cuben fiber instead of polypropylene and nylon; GoreTex and other successors instead of oilskin or Koroseal; tent poles instead of an axe. Weight of the cooking gears or woolen clothes haven’t really changed at all.

        So, after reading the old books predating 1960s, I am not really sure why ultralight captivated so many people. It’s just the same gear-lists as the men of the Golden Era of Exploration, just with space-age materials.

        • Dave on February 16, 2015 at 7:54 pm

          And keep in mind, in his sub-15 lbs list, he recommended using Alaskan packboard or Bergans alpine pack at that time which were obnoxiously heavy compared to modern mountaineering packs or today’s frameless packs. Even hunting backpacks are lighter today than they were then. Those antique backpacks constituted a quarter of his pack-weight.

          And if one look at many of the gear-lists from the ultralight movement, one sees a lot of famous brand-names like Patagonia, Integral Design and so on. Not sure what’s the harm in Sierra Design getting their names added to those lists.

        • Andrew Skurka on February 16, 2015 at 8:15 pm

          In any other outdoor sport, it would be considered evolution and progress. Shaped skis, 29-in tires, dynamic ropes, etc

          Calling it “ultralight backpacking” was short-sighted, as the implication is that it is an alternative and that backpacking like it is still 1985 is acceptable. Not to mention that it sounds elitist and turns off a lot of potential converts.

          • Dave on February 16, 2015 at 9:44 pm

            Even Ryan Jordan’s superultralight gear-list is exactly the same as the old guys’. Being able to use cuben instead of canvas makes a huge difference. If those guys lived today, they would be sub-5lbs too.

            That was when I realized the UL and SUL classification weren’t special.



      • Dylan on February 22, 2015 at 5:57 pm

        Simple econ is easy to understand… I also went to college and know that consumers are the problem. However, I still stand behind small companies with individuals whom believe American made is of better quality ie. Voormi, MLD, Hyperlite, Vedavoo. You cannot tell me that these companies are not putting out amazing products and are superior to foreign made ones? I am sure they love having their manufacturing job just as much as those overseas therefore I do understand your mentioning of this. Seems like you were agitated with your response and I did not mean to incite that however, after reading your book and getting excited over your excited towards more cottage type companies it saddened me to learn you partnered with what I have experienced as a lackluster outdoor brand over the last 5-10 years. Anyways, best of luck maybe you will be the turning point for SD.

        • Andrew Skurka on February 24, 2015 at 10:06 am

          If you speak to larger manufacturers regarding the quality of foreign v domestic manufacturing, I think you’d hear them express a desire to have their goods manufacturer here BUT (1) the cost is prohibitive and (2) the skills and facilities are no longer available in the scale they need. Small production facilities are practical, but larger ones would have to be built from scratch unless you started small and grew (the case with Osprey and Cascade and a few others, but not the case with most), and manufacturers are understandably reluctant to do that when the Asian outsourcing complex is so efficient.

          Re SD being a lackluster outdoor brand 5-10 years ago, the brand manager Michael Glavin would probably agree with you. It is changing rapidly, however, coinciding with Glavin’s arrival 4 years ago, and an entirely new team that he hired. Since then, they’ve developed a number of innovative (or alt least different) products like the Backcountry Bed, Tentsegrity shelters, and Cagoule Rain Jacket. And there is more on the way! If I did not think SD had a lot of promise and/or if I did not think the team was excited about what they were doing, I would not have joined them. I think their “turning point” has already happened, and my job will be to simplify amplify it.

      • Gabe on February 25, 2015 at 9:53 pm

        Well said. I really enjoyed your book btw. I still refer back to it and I’ve passed it along to my girlfriend. It’s well balanced, unbiased and informative. I like its article-by-article feel. It really feels like you are reading a magazine with everything you need to, or want to know. Ultimate hikers! Wahoo!

  7. John on February 16, 2015 at 11:10 am

    Interesting to hear, and I’m certainly curious to see what new gear comes of the relationship. I don’t personally have any of Sierra Designs’ gear, but I’ve been very impressed at their recent efforts to engage with their market- Michael Glavin in particular has been very active on BPL in soliciting user feedback, and I feel like this kind of engagement can only lead to better products and a more responsive company.

    If nothing else, I’m just glad to see a major gear manufacturer do something other than churn out 3 lb. double-wall tents ad nauseum.

  8. Emil Friberg on February 16, 2015 at 11:16 am

    Delighted to see you threading the needle…. both in design and life. Sounds like a good plan. Look forward to following your and SD’s progress. I had a down jacket and tent from them from the 1970s…. looking forward to seeing their new products.

  9. Dave on February 16, 2015 at 7:57 pm

    I am looking forward to your design inputs. It would be niche to corner a niche which isn’t being occupied by today’s hiking and mountaineering companies.

    Well, the rain-jacket alone is an example of a niche which haven’t been conquered.

    • Dave on February 16, 2015 at 9:50 pm

      Okay, should had proof-read before pressing enter.

      “I am looking forward to your design inputs. It would be nice to corner a niche which isn’t being occupied by today’s hiking and mountaineering companies.

      Well, the rain-jacket alone is an example of a niche which hasn’t been conquered.”

  10. DonW on February 16, 2015 at 9:36 pm

    I looked at a few of the Sierra Designs links you had and liked what I saw.
    I bought a down jacket by them with money from my paper route in 1969. The jacket had a down hood that could stuff into the collar. I later ordered a tent from them that I read about in Colin Fletcher’s Complete Walker. The tent had a tunnel entrance and other features like a zip out flap in the floor for for waste elimination if confined in the tent. LOL! But it was a sturdy tent that saw use in MI’s UP and in Alaska from the Brooks Range to South Central.
    May you have good success working with them to continually evolve their product line!

  11. Duncan on February 16, 2015 at 9:59 pm

    Hey Andrew – I’m psyched to see this not just because I know good products will come out of this. But because you’ve taken a big step and set an example for all of us who are trying to merge our passion with the outdoors with “making a good living”. It’s a good move. I hope that more will follow in your path.

    Three cheers to you and innovation!

    Duncan

  12. Jeffrey Rogers on February 16, 2015 at 10:54 pm

    Vapor Barrier Liners? Not just socks but an entire body system?

    • Andrew Skurka on February 17, 2015 at 8:52 am

      I’m sure we’ll talk about it, but that product niche is a really tough sell. VBL’s are really only useful for winter backpacking trips that include at least an overnight, and preferably several. How many people do that? Among those, how many would be receptive to a product story that centers around the complete loss of breathability, which is contrary to every other product story you hear?

      • Matt on February 17, 2015 at 8:31 pm

        I think you’ll have alot to offer Sierra Designs. The startup mentality is great to work in. I hope the SD team is diverse, those situations usually lead to better choices. They take longer to form the choice, but it’s usually a better product.

        Good luck!

  13. Wes Siler on February 17, 2015 at 8:29 pm

    Congratulations Andrew. I may be a relatively new fan, but I’m still very excited for what you can bring to an already impressive brand.

    • Andrew Skurka on February 17, 2015 at 8:51 pm

      Ha, saw your review earlier tonight of the Backcountry Bed Duo. Sounds like they should get on on their team, too.

  14. Jason on February 19, 2015 at 9:18 am

    This news couldn’t make me happier as im a big fan of both you and Sierra Designs. I have the newer backcountry quilt which i love, and when researching it saw a long comment thread on backpacking light with Michael Glavin, and i really liked what i was hearing about their vision for the company. They seem really pasionate and down to earth, and are putting a lot of thought into what they do by bucking a lot of conventions, so im excited to see what you guys come up with. Best of luck to you with the new role!

    • Andrew Skurka on February 19, 2015 at 11:45 pm

      We’re excited that you’re excited. Your impression about SD is consistent with mine — it’s a small and humble team that is really passionate about designing better backpacking gear.

  15. Doug on February 20, 2015 at 12:14 am

    Great to hear that your relationship has expanded with them for your own sake and for all of us as well! Please, please get going on some tall clothing for us tall skinny folks out there. So I’m not exactly an average height at 6’4″ but surely I’m not the only tall backpacker out there. I know you’re not exactly taking requests but I figure it is worth a mention. 🙂

  16. Kane on February 24, 2015 at 9:32 am

    I hope SD can produce a pack that fills the void left by Golite and their Jam pack. Not that it was perfect, but if I was trying to get someone into “ultralight backpacking” (insert appropriate name here) today, I have no idea what pack I would recommend… Niche products made by MLD or GG will never appeal to the masses.

    • Andrew Skurka on February 24, 2015 at 9:56 am

      We are working on a backpack that will spec at about 2.5 pounds with a full frame and 60-liter volume. It will made of a very durable fabric and it will have all the convenient pockets that you’d want and expect. Available Spring 2016, I hope. It’s not a 1-to-1 replacement for the Jam, even if you were to remove the frame (which will only weigh 4 oz or so), but it has so much more upside potential that I think the additional few ounces will be well worth it.

      Until this pack is available, for durable and lightweight packs I would recommend you look at ULA Equipment.

      • Adam on March 15, 2015 at 1:28 am

        That pack is great news, and thanks for the interim recommendation, and all the info you’ve put on this site. I’m very excited to see what you come up with at SD. For what it’s worth from a stranger, my estimate is that you’re doing a great thing by joining them.

  17. Shawn K. on March 10, 2016 at 9:59 pm

    The more I poke around your site, the more I find to like. I knew your decision to work with SD was fairly recent; this kind of candid discussion about the nature of that relationship is refreshing today. I hope it continues to be a good fit for you.

    It’s also refreshing to see the reemergence of Sierra Designs. I remember lusting after their tents many years ago, and I’ve wondered what happened to the company since then. In addition to what’s already on their About Us page, I’d like to see SD develop a timeline of their high points over the entire history of the brand. I believe that telling their story would help bring in new customers, and remind the older ones of the SD of their youth, much like Eddie Bauer has done with their First Ascent campaign.

    I look forward to seeing how well the SD Cagoule & Chaps work together. I’m convinced that ventilation is the key design feature in rain gear, and I’m betting that SD’s approach will be effective.

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