17th March 2021 | Words by Matt Jones @ WildBounds HQ
NEMO Equipment’s self-professed brand mantra is this: “never bring anything to market that doesn’t offer a meaningfully better experience than what’s already out there”. It’s a refreshing attitude in the outdoor industry, where a seemingly insatiable demand for new gear means a wave of fresh products season after season, in which even the slightest changes to existing bits of kit – whether it’s a tent, a sleeping bag or heck, even a camping spork – are hailed as ‘innovative’ and ‘game-changing’. Proponents might justify this by pointing out that top climbers and mountaineers are just like other elite athletes, whether 100-metre sprinters or Formula 1 racing drivers, in that even the most marginal gains can deliver the edge needed to win, to conquer, to prevail. That might be a reasonable vindication for the outdoor industry’s relentless pursuit of performance. On the other hand, since most of us aren’t summiting 8,000-metre peaks, climbing 5.15s or nailing first ascents and fastest known times on a regular basis, cynics might say that it’s all just a ruse to get us to buy more and more outdoor kit.
NEMO isn’t a brand driven by sales volume though. ‘Pile it high, sell it cheap’ is categorically not how they do things. Instead, there’s that phrase: ‘meaningfully better’. That means creating products that deliver enhanced experiences for the end user – whatever their outdoor passions. As brand founder Cam Brensinger puts it: “It’s really about recognising that time and resources are precious and life is short. If we’re going to make something, it should be our very best effort, every time, and it should be worthy of its place in the world”. He adds:
“Every NEMO product should improve the customer experience and be produced as sustainably as possible, which starts with making the highest quality and most functional designs possible, so they stay in use and out of landfills.” – Cam Brensinger, Founder and CEO
Essentially, the company wants every piece of NEMO Equipment you purchase to become your favourite bit of kit, your go-to item of gear whether you’re an ultralight backpacker planning your next long-distance thru-hike, an avid wild camper pitching up high in the hills after a day spent summit-bagging, or a committed mountaineer digging out a snow ledge on a far-flung expedition in the Himalayas.
Maybe that talk of ‘better customer experiences’ jargonises things a little. If you want to keep it simple, ultimately NEMO is a brand rooted in a pure love for adventure. This is a brand that truly appreciates the sheer, unbridled joy of quality time spent in the great outdoors. But NEMO Equipment was also born out of adversity, and it knows that occasionally, nature can be a cruel mistress. Specifically, the eureka moment occurred in the unlikeliest of situations: in the midst of a winter storm on the side of the 6,000ft Mount Washington, the most prominent peak east of the Mississippi. The mountain is notorious for its unpredictable weather, and the night in question was no exception. As Brensinger huddled for five sleepless hours in a poorly designed bivvy, he vowed to create something better.
As a student at the Rhode Island School of Design, an affiliated school of Ivy League founding college Brown University, he was well placed to do that. After graduating, he set up operations in a restored textile mill in New Hampshire and got down to work. The name of his fledgling company – New England Mountain Equipment, or NEMo Equipment – was a tribute to both its northeastern home and a sly nod to Jules Verne’s enigmatic Captain Nemo. That subtle link to the visionary scientist and his remarkable submersible, the Nautilus, appropriately reflects NEMO’s maverick spirit as an independent outdoor brand, and their unwavering dedication to meticulous, precision engineering.
Indeed, this epitomises the other central pillar of NEMO’s approach to their craft, which almost reads like a product designer’s bumper sticker: “design like you give a damn”. In practice, that means the NEMO HQ is filled with a team of creative, driven and passionate designers, continually developing and prototyping new products. The result is a wide range of innovative and genuinely useful outdoor gear, including their super-comfortable spoon-shaped Forte synthetic and Disco down sleeping bags, Tensor air mats, packable Fillo camping pillows and luxurious Stargaze camp chairs – not to mention some of the best lightweight backpacking tents we’ve ever used (the class-leading Dagger being a case in point).
Brensinger is particularly proud of the Stargaze chairs. “Chairs have existed for millennia and are an almost ritualistic favourite challenge of industrial designers. We weren’t sure at the outset that we could really create a totally new sitting experience. So, the fact that we did, by building a packable, swinging and auto-reclining chair, which had never been done, was a big win. We also had to learn a lot of new skills and build a new supply chain. It was a long road that started in 2013 and didn’t hit the market until 2018, but the runaway success of the chair has given our team a lot of confidence and emboldened us to keep setting the bar higher as we go forward”.
Having enjoyed countless campfire sessions reclining in our Stargaze chairs, we can only agree. We’re far from being the brand’s only admirers, of course. Over nearly two decades of growth and expansion, NEMO Equipment has picked up a slew of outdoor industry awards, proving the enduring value of careful, considered and thoughtful design. Back in 2005, NEMO was the overall winner of the ISPO Brand New award. In the same year, their products were name-checked by TIME magazine and Popular Science as among the 100 best inventions of the year. That proved a seminal year in the brand’s development and also acted as a springboard to take NEMO to the next level.
Today, they’re an increasingly influential player in the outdoor industry, albeit still fiercely independent and therefore relative minnows compared to global megabrands like The North Face, Patagonia and Columbia Sportswear. Yet the fact that NEMO continues to push things forward, punching well above its weight, only makes the brand’s achievements more impressive. The latest range for spring 2021 is a case in point. Highlights include the category-defying Kunai, a full-on, four-season mountain tent with the lightweight build of a backpacking tent. Its tapered profile, aggressive brow pole, and wind-blocking inner tent are designed to keep you protected in extreme weather, including shrugging off high winds and spindrift. Few tents are this adept in every season in a package this compact and lightweight – it tips the scales at under 2 kilos.
NEMO has also turned its attention to the bikepacking craze with a new iteration of the ultralight Dragonfly Bikepack, optimised for cycle touring. With an extra-durable, roll-top stuff sack featuring a reinforced patch with adjustable attachment straps, and a compact pole set with shortened segments, it is designed to attach perfectly to the handlebars or frame of your bike. A large porch area with NEMO’s new Landing Zone storage tub offers plenty of gear organisation and protection. And it comes in a muted colourway and non-reflective materials to keep your camp discreet, ideal for stealthy roadside or just-off-trail camps.
When you think about it, the secret of NEMO’s success to date is obvious: intelligently designed gear makes for better adventures. But the brand argues that it also makes for better adventurers: people who are invested in nature and the great outdoors, who are conscious of the environmental impact of our throwaway consumer culture, and devoted to a better way, to sustainable solutions and kit that lasts. That’s a rationale we can’t argue with – and just one more reason why we’re proud to carry NEMO Equipment here at WildBounds.