Whether you’re marveling at a view, huffing up a steep trail, or lounging in camp, it’s unlikely that you’re giving much thought to where your gear came from. Hint: It’s probably not made in the States.
But even as many outdoor companies take their manufacturing operations overseas, some American brands are choosing to stick closer to home. Here are seven companies that are leading the way, by driving U.S.-based innovation and positively impacting the outdoor community on a local and national level.
Denver-based Topo Designs’ packs aren’t on the cutting edge of outdoor gear—and that’s perfectly OK with them.
“We focus on having this classic, timeless aesthetic that is rooted in mountain culture but also has these modern bits of functionality,” founder Jedd Rose says. “These are packs you can rely on to be stylish and functional in everyday life, on the trail, traveling the world, or anywhere else you go.”
Topo Designs stands out as one of just a few companies that make bags and packs in the U.S., as the labor-intensive manufacturing process typically drives brands to cheaper markets in Asia. About 75 percent of the brand’s products are made in the states, most of them around its Denver headquarters. Rose says Topo Designs’ Colorado origins are an indelible part of its identity, and making its gear in the shadow of the Rockies keeps it connected to its trademark western aesthetic.
“We love the idea that we can make our classic bags where it feels like they were born,” he says. “The history of the product and the things that inspired us to make it are right here in Colorado, right in our backyard. It’s like every bag has a piece of that story.”
Try it: Klettersack, $169
When performance apparel manufacturer VOORMI needs inspiration, it turns to Silicon Valley. That might sound odd for a brand nestled in the mountains near Pagosa Springs, Colorado, but Chief Marketing Officer Timm Smith says that the example set by leading American tech companies guides VOORMI’s efforts to bring breakthrough wool fabric designs to market.
“If you step outside of the outdoor industry and you look at a company like Tesla, which has put a stake in the ground with a big battery factory here in the states, or a company like Apple, I think what we see is an opportunity for a resurgence of American innovation,” Smith says.
The mountain location has its benefits, too. VOORMI sources its wool from the high-elevation pastures of the Rockies, and the surrounding 1.8 million acres of national forest provide the ultimate testing ground for its products.
Try it: River Run Hoodie, $129
Oru Kayak’s American-made folding boats have global roots: they’re based on Inuit designs, and the way they fold together takes inspiration from the Japanese art of origami. The company, however, is pure San Francisco. It operates out of an old auto-body shop, employees take rooftop happy hours, and its website boasts that “we can surf the Pacific in a Coast Kayak in the morning, and head to a Giants game in a Beach Kayak in the afternoon.”
Founder Anton Willis started Oru Kayak in 2012, getting his start out of a friend’s garage and designing his the first models on his own using trial, error and plenty of duct tape. He then crowdfunded his way to market.
“When I talk to people in Europe I get, ‘You Americans are cowboys and cavaliers and work so hard. You’ll invent anything,’” says Roberto Gutierrez, the brand’s chief commercial officer. “I think our modern American touch on it is that Anton wouldn’t let anything stop him from building and making this boat a reality.”
Try it: Bay ST, $1599
Farm to Feet
There may not be any outdoor brand quite as passionate about its American roots as sock manufacturer Farm to Feet, which boasts a 100 percent domestic supply chain. Wool is sourced from the western U.S. and then processed at Farm to Feet's Mt. Airy, North Carolina facility. Parent company Nester Hosiery first set up shop there in 1993, and owner Kelly Nester says that the long-term partnerships it has forged are a core part of its commitment to keeping manufacturing American.
“Those relationships down our supply chain are an enormous part of what we do,” say Nester. “We want to tell the story of how those raw materials become a yarn, how we convert that yarn into a sock, and then the community story beyond that, where the sock ends up in the outdoor recreation economy.”
When night after fitful night of sleep in the backcountry left Therm-a-Rest’s founders desperate for a more comfortable mattress than the closed-cell foam mats of the early 1970s, they built their own. The self-inflating mattress they invented was such a game-changer that Backpacker’s editors gave the brand itself an Editors’ Choice Gold Award in 2003. Today, 90 percent of all Therm-a-Rest products sold are made in the U.S.
“We think doing our production here in the U.S. gives us an advantage from an innovation standpoint, a quality standpoint, and a service standpoint,” says Erik Flink, the company’s brand director. “You can’t replace being able to walk over and check stuff out on the line.”
Flink has now been at Therm-a-Rest for 20 years and has watched the company grow to employ some 500 people at its Seattle headquarters. He says that there’s a sense of pride in what the business does for the local economy.
“I know all of the people on the factory floor,” he says. “They’re my friends, and we’re really proud that we can provide those jobs and make such an outstanding product.”
Try it: NeoAir XLite Mattress, $130-$200
Phunkshun makes all of its facemasks and scarves in Denver for one simple reason: hands-on quality control. CEO Jason Badgley says that the brand decided at the very beginning to bring the entire production process under one roof, where design, graphics, and testing could all be monitored.
“Being made in the U.S. doesn’t mean you should buy the product—the product has to be good,” he said. “You can’t make crap here and expect that someone should buy it.”
The brand has come a long way since its start in the Copper Mountain ski-school locker room, and it now churns out an acclaimed line of products that includes neck tubes, infinity scarves, and “Ballerclavas.”
“One of the reasons we take pride in making our products here is because everyone told us that we couldn’t,” he says. “They said it wasn’t possible or that it wasn’t going to happen, and we love the fact that we’re able to support our local economy when others might not have even tried.”
Try it: Convertible Ballerclava Colorado Classic, $30
SealLine’s greatest asset is its people. Specifically, its adventurers: The company’s employees are paddlers, surfers, backpackers and more. That means they know how important it is to have reliable gear protection in the backcountry and on the water.
When it comes to waterproof dry bags, SealLine is the one of the industry’s leaders. Brand director Karl Fritzsche says that domestic production (about 90 percent of its products are currently made in Reno) helps them keep their technical edge over potential competitors.
“When you manufacture in Asia, pretty much anyone can walk into a factory and see what you are working on for next year,” he said. “We control that here in the US, so we’re able to innovate without that concern.”
SealLine’s product line has expanded from dry bags to include waterproof sacks, packs, duffels and accessories, each with the same commitment to keeping gear safe and dry. It’s the opportunity their gear offers to make customers’ trips memorable that drives the company forward, says Fritzsche, because they know firsthand that it’s those memories that matter most.
Try it: Discovery Dry Bag, $25-$60