Gear Gurus: Big Agnes’ Bill Gamber

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Gear Gurus is a new series of interviews from Backpacker with some of the biggest names in the outdoor industry. We’re catching up with the movers and shakers, from CEOs to lead product designers, that dream up your ultralight tents and engineer your wind-proof stoves. Where do they find inspiration? Where is outdoor gear headed next? Stay tuned to find out.

Dissatisfied with traditional mummy bags and sliding off of sleeping pads during overnight climbing and fly fishing trips, co-founder Bill Gamber launched Big Agnes in 2001. According to the company, it is now the largest supplier of lightweight backpacking tents in the world. At the very least, you can’t step onto a long trail without seeing one of BA’s Copper Spur tents pitched in a campsite. 

Backpacker: What’s the one piece of gear that got you hooked on your industry in the first place?

Bill Gamber: My very first technical sleeping bag and tent were both from Sierra Designs, and I bought them from an outlet store in Pennsylvania. I think I was in college at the time. Before that I just hunted, fished, and snowmobiled with my dad, so I didn’t really camp a whole lot. It was amazing to me how light the tent was.

Little did I know that 35 years after I bought my first Meteor Lite tent and sleeping bag, Bob Swanson, who started Sierra Designs, would end up working for us until he passed away a few years ago. He became a really great friend of ours, and was super influential in what we did with Big Agnes. That first bag was Bob’s design. Now we’ve surely become a better-known brand than Sierra Designs, and I don’t mean that in any negative way. He probably never even thought the things that we were doing together were possible [in terms of design and technology] after what he had done with Sierra Designs. 

The Scarpa F1 ski boot
The Scarpa F1 ski boot (Photo: courtesy)

BP: What’s one product from another company that you love?

Gamber: One thing I’ve been using a lot recently is my alpine touring setup: my Scarpa F1 boots and G3 Zed bindings. In Steamboat Springs, CO, we have really good access for during-the-week quick hits, so you can stay fit and then get out on some bigger excursions for the weekend. The older I get, the more I love to be able to go out and do something for a quick two hours. We do these company campouts, where we’ll go up to 10,000 feet and be back at our desk in 24 hours, so any of that kind of gear that helps me do that is a bonus. 

BP: What do you think the next big issue in the outdoor industry is?

Gamber: It sounds so cliche, and I never use buzzwords, but I would just say the sustainability of the manufacturing process of outdoor gear. It’s not just the outdoor industry, but they are probably more conscious of it than most. In the manufacturing process, dyeing is probably one of the biggest environmental impacts. One of the current solutions is just using recycled fibers or recycled content. 

We’re now introducing backpacks to our lineup, and we’re using recycled content in our fabric. It used to be that if you used recycled product, it didn’t perform as well and was heavier and less durable. It’s a much better product now than what we used five or 10 years ago. But do I think that’s the ultimate solution? No. 

There are some crazy statistics on how many plastic bottles never make it to be recycled. Completely getting on my high horse, bottled water should be illegal. A ton of good, fresh water that you can get out of a tap is very available to a huge amount of the world population. So if plastic bottles are going somewhere, it should be to people that don’t have clean water. I’m always shocked to see people drinking from a bottle when they’re by a clean tap.

Thule x Tepui rooftop tent
A Thule x Tepui rooftop tent (Photo: courtesy)

BP: What’s the latest outdoor gear trend that you’d like to see die?

Gamber: Did anybody warn you that I’m opinionated? One trend that I really don’t like is rooftop tents. To me they are a really neat product and have a very specific purpose—it’s sort of like camping in a treehouse. 

Where I find such a big fault is that it’s a very impactful product that will not be in the field in five to 10 years, because it tends to be a very cheap tent on an expensive rack. People like to drive around and show it off. I find the idea of throwing one out and buying a new one pretty offensive. They were originally from Africa, where people didn’t want to get eaten in their tent, and were safer on their rooftop. But now, to have them sort of spread all through Moab and Fruita, they’re not a real sustainable product.

We’ve been asked to make car top tents for years, before it was even popular, but we never finished the design process because we started to see all the things we didn’t like about it. There’s a lot of really good companies making car top tents, so I don’t want to talk smack, but it doesn’t work from a long-term environmental standpoint for me. 

BP: If there were no limits on cost or technology, what would your dream piece of gear/apparel be, and what would it do?

Gamber: I love to skin, love to climb, but I wouldn’t say skiing in on, like, a 6-mile snowmobile road is my favorite thing. It would be incredible to get in on your own little drone-type thing, but then everyone would be there, flying around on their drones, so maybe that’s not it. Maybe it’s good to have to work harder to find fish that haven’t been caught or powder that hasn’t been skied. If it was all mine and nobody else could have it? A hydrogen-fueled, zero-emissions personal drone, but you could only fly it to wilderness boundaries, just get you from point A to point B: From the office to the trailhead without any environmental impact.

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