Vargo Outdoors Is the Most Influential Gear Brand You’ve Never Heard Of

This article originally appeared on Backpacker

Ultralight gear can feel like an insular echo-chamber sometimes. Low-volume, frameless backpacks, trekking pole shelters, and Smartwater bottles might have you wondering if innovation is being left on the table in the name trend-surfing. One ultralight brand in particular continues to crank out clever new backpacking inventions, marketing buzz be damned: Vargo Outdoors.

Like many founders of cottage companies, Brian Vargo's path as a business owner started with a thru-hike--in his case, the Appalachian Trail in 1995. Shortly after, he launched a website called hike-advice.com, where he published gear checklists and answered questions about long distance hiking. "Everyone was interested, and they wanted to know how to thru-hike," says Vargo. "[The website] wasn't to make money, it was almost a way of making things easier for me. I could say, 'You want to know how to do this, go to my website.'"

Not long after, he got a job with Equinox, which at the time was one of the biggest distributors--middlemen between gear brands and retail stores--in the country. He started to think about selling gear on his website, and at the same time was learning about the holes in the retail market. There was a big one--titanium gear.

By the late '90s, hikers had gotten their first taste of titanium hiking gear in the form of simple cookpots from two Japanese brands, Evernew and Snow Peak. Supply was limited, and hikers and gear shops wanted more options; none of the US distributors had anything to offer. Vargo figured there was a chance that he could step in to fill that gap, even though he had no formal training in design or engineering. He maxed out his credit card to finance his first products: a spork, tent stakes, and an alcohol stove of his own design. In 2002, Vargo Outdoors was open for business. By 2006, he quit his job with Equinox and focused full-time on his fledgling cottage company.

Vargo's Titanium BOT
Vargo’s Titanium BOT (Photo: Courtesy Vargo)

In the first few years, Vargo introduced two different backpacking stoves, the Triad alcohol stove and the Jedi canister stove. The success of the Triad and failure of the Jedi proved a lasting lesson for the company. In the case of the Triad, Vargo was trying to perfect a product that was mostly a DIY project made of soda cans. In contrast, the Jedi had to compete with some of the biggest names in the outdoor industry, like the MSR Pocket Rocket. Even with great reviews (Backpacker deemed the Jedi the "most durable ultralight stove" in a 2005 review), the stove didn't last long. "We just couldn't sell it," Vargo says. "Sometimes, even though it might be a good idea and a well-designed product, the competition is just too tough." While the Jedi was pulled from shelves, the Triad remains one of Vargo's best selling products today.

As Vargo's product line grew, he stuck by those design sensibilities and market realities. Instead of competing directly with mainstream brands or even the most popular cottage brands, Vargo focuses on making things that aren't available anywhere else. In some cases, that's thanks to small design flourishes that no one else seemed to think of first--like a pot lid with a built-in strainer, an alcohol stove with an integrated pot stand, or a titanium pot with a screw-top lid that can double as a water bottle. Others, like the ExoTi external frame backpacks, or the Hexagon wood stove, are unique by their very nature.

Even in the realm of titanium accessories, where the company now has the most name recognition and competitive edge, Vargo doesn't like to rest on his laurels. For years, customers had been asking for a titanium trowel. Vargo resisted, even though his brand by then had the name recognition to sell any titanium accessory he could dream up. "I didn't have any ideas on how to improve upon something like a trowel," he says.

After a number of email requests, though, he started to think more about the idea. Eventually, he landed on a design that was suitably unique: a narrow, serrated spade for busting through roots, a rounded handle that wouldn't dig into your hands, and "boat cleat"-style slots at the top that allowed the trowel to double as a tent stake. He added it to the shop, thinking the concept was destined for limited sales to a niche ultralight crowd that was obsessed with multi-use gear. Instead, the Dig Dig Tool proved a big success. It's now for sale at REI (one of two Vargo products currently on REI's website), and--since Vargo didn't patent the design, which he considered little more than a novelty--spawned a number of copycats that now outsell Vargo's own version on Amazon.

Vargo's No-Fly 2P Tent
Vargo’s No-Fly 2P Tent (Photo: Courtesy Vargo)

Even when Vargo ventures into other categories, like backpacks or tents, he rarely follows the traditional ultralight trends. Rather than frameless packs, he offers a line of ultralight external frame packs (the frame is, of course, titanium). Rather than trekking pole shelters, Vargo sells a single-wall freestanding model, with a trademark design quirk: rather than using clips or sleeves, the poles thread directly through holes in the canopy.

Neither the packs or tents have proven to be best-sellers--a fact that doesn't seem to surprise Vargo. "The funny thing is, I often just create the products that I want. Personally, I think this backpack carries weight better than anything else I've tried," he says. "It's an uphill battle, believe me. The pack is something that I know will never become overly popular. Most people are just like, 'Eh, it looks old.'"

As for turning his attention to more popular products--like a frameless, 40-liter pack, for example--Vargo says he has "no interest" in designing one. "If we just sold the same thing everyone else is selling and just capitalized on the brand recognition that we've created over the past twenty-odd years, maybe we could do that. It would be easy. But what I enjoy the most is trying to think of something new and innovative and creative."

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