Most of us have probably heard of the big brand names when it comes to outdoor gear manufacturers... backpacks made by Osprey, shoes made by Salomon, or bikes made by Trek. Many of those brands are almost household names. However, there are a huge range of other manufacturers out there too, many of whom are smaller scale but doing amazing things.
There are many small scale, "cottage industry", manufacturers in the outdoor gear world designing cutting edge innovative products. In many instances, those smaller manufacturers can provide a better experience for consumers through a more direct relationship with their customers. For example, they are often happy to provide pre-purchase advice, many have lifetime warranties on their products, and they often allow customised orders on their gear.
Here at Ultimate Gear Lists, we aim to put the spotlight on lightweight backpacking gear manufacturers you may, or may not, have heard of. We believe that each of the manufacturers we highlight here in our Manufacturer Spotlight are doing something cool and innovative that is worth checking out!
Tarptent - as you can probably guess - is a manufacturer of tarps and tents! Since pre-2000 they have been designing and manufacturing innovative shelters suitable for a variety of backpacking and bikepacking adventures.
They make single or double wall, freestanding or stake supported, single or double entry, and one-person through four-person designs. All shelters are fully enclosed with "no-see-um” netting to provide full protection from bugs and insects. They have a focus on being lightweight, for example their three-person Cloudburst 3, shown below, is massively spacious and still weighs in at 52 oz (that is less than 1.5 kg)! They also make designs suitable for use with trekking poles which can provide additional weight savings for those hikers who use them. You can check out Tarptent's full product listing page here.
Some of the cool and innovative things we love are, for example, the sidecar add-on which converts one of your vestibules into a shelter for your dog...
Or the popular Double Rainbow has a really cool design that can be set up with open vestibules that provide full shelter even in heavy rain...
Their website also includes a bunch of tips and useful info, including this Tarptent Basics 101 page that is worth checking out. One important thing to note is that their tents do not come seam-sealed by default. That means that a standard purchase will get you a tent that is not fully waterproof on arrival! Rather, you need to paint the seams with silicone yourself (Tarptent sell pre-mixed silicone for you to use). Alternatively, if you are happy to pay a little bit extra (fixed cost of US $35), Tarptent provide a seam-sealing service so that your tent is ready to go as soon as it arrives on your doorstep!
Tarptent are based in Nevada City, California, USA, with their shelters being sewn in Seattle, Washington.
Zpacks — without a doubt — make some of the best ultralight backpacking gear available today. They focus on making gear ultralight, whilst also retaining functionality and performance.
Since starting business in 2005 Zpacks have grown steadily and consistently, both in terms of product lines and customer base. Today they are one of the most popular manufacturers of ultralight tents and backpacks. However, their product line now also includes sleeping bags, quilts, rain gear, clothing, and other numerous backpacking accessories.
Joe Valesko — the founder of Zpacks — is an accomplished thru-hiker who originally built homemade gear for himself. When numerous other hikers on the trail started asking him where he got his gear, and then whether he could make them something similar, he realised their was a market for Zpacks to fill. Starting with one sewing machine in his lounge room, the business has grown to numerous staff operating out of a manufacturing facility in Florida. All gear is still built in the United States.
Zpacks initially focused on making gear from DCF material (formerly known as cuben fibre). DCF is strong, waterproof, and ultralight (it was originally designed as a material for yacht sails). However, DCF is extremely expensive and not quite as durable as some other alternatives. Therefore, Zpacks have now branched out slightly. The majority of their gear is still made from DCF — including all their tents, dry sacks, and rain gear — however, their backpacks are now available in either DCF or Dyneema fabrics.
Our favourite item is the Zpacks Triplex… as a 2-person three-season shelter this tent is unbeatable. But we also have many other items we could list off as favourites too. From the ultralight wallet that I carry in my pocket every day, to the ultralight fleece beanie I use daily in winter, to the Zpacks pillow dry bag which we awarded top pick for best dry sack pillow.