This issue of the Gazette's "Sponsor Spotlight" features Henry Shires, co-owner of Tarptent, one of ALDHA-West’s sponsoring gear companies. We asked Henry a few questions about Tarptent so that we can get to know them better. If you have any additional questions for Henry, please leave a comment.
1. Please give a brief description of your company. What products do you sell? How did you decide which products to specialize in? How long have you been doing this?
Tarptent specializes in lightweight shelters. We officially opened Tarptent.com in April, 2002 but I started making gear as far back as
1998. The first shelters were engineered, floor-less arch and trekking pole supported hybrid tarp structures with full bug protection. As the years went by more and more people asked for floors so about 10 years ago we moved to fully enclosed shelters with bathtub flooring.
We currently offer 14 different models and several more are in the hopper. We offer single wall, double wall, trekking pole, and arch pole shelters for 1-4 people.
We are California based and proudly manufacture everything in Seattle, Washington.
2. Who do you see as your market? How do you reach these folks?
We are a direct-to-consumer company and we ship all over the world. We also have some dealers in Europe and Asia. We have grown organically over the years almost exclusively through word of mouth and Internet searches. Over the last couple of years we have started to build our social media presence and look to engage other markets outside the core hiking market.
3. Did you start as a DIYer? How did you make the leap to starting a gear business?
Yes, I started in 1998 making gear in preparation for my 1999 PCT thru hike. The original tarptent shelter was born from that effort. At the time I had never touched a sewing machine and had no idea what I was doing but over time learned to sew and more importantly learned how to design using very sophisticated CAD tools. The genesis of Tarptent was really quite unintended. My wife, Cynthia, and Tarptent co-owner borrowed my original PCT tarptent shelter to hike the JMT and came home complaining that it was too hard to set up. In an effort to make her a better shelter, a process I thought would take me a weekend but instead took many months, the first two commercial models (Virga and Squall) were born. When I opened tarptent.com  and offered those models, I naively thought we might sell 50 of them the first year. I still remember the shock of 30 orders the first day. In those days I had no manufacturing and no idea how to get it, but did have the sister of a fellow PCT hiker who was a professional seamstress on the other side of the country, and for the first couple of years I would cut fabric and ship it to New Hampshire. It would come back a couple of months later as a finished shelter. We moved to full scale professional manufacturing in late 2004.
4. Do you see the possibility (opportunity and/or threat) that the big gear makers try to buy up the cottage gear makers like we see
happening in the craft beer space?
Beer is a much bigger market than the gear market so, no, that isn’t likely. When gear starts showing up in local supermarkets and gas stations then maybe.
5. What do you think are the greatest market opportunities for your product to expand the US market; Europe, Asia? How do you plan to achieve these opportunities?
There is an interest in the outdoors in many developed countries around the world. We will continue to work at getting the word out and trying to meet different needs and expectations.
6. Your favorite hike?
The PCT profoundly changed my life so it would be unfair to compare anything else against it. I have been fortunate to have hiked all over the Western US as well as in Nepal, New Zealand, the UK, Spain and Canada and I loved each and every experience. I think my new favorite place is the Wind River Range in Wyoming. I did the Wind River High Route a year ago September and it was a spectacular walk.
7. Is there anything about your company that you would like to talk about that we haven't covered yet?
I’m excited about the future. We have a great team and are dedicated to producing great products at affordable prices. We remain committed to making gear in the US and to the direct-to-user sales model. I think we all benefit — producer and consumer — when there is a tight feedback loop. We get better when we hear from users, and users get better gear when producers listen. I love talking to people about trips and gear and my door is always open.
Thank you to Henry Shires from TarpTent for answering our questions and thank you to members Lawton “Disco” Grinter and Mike Unger for the great interview questions.
If you would like to join in the fun and submit questions we can ask our great sponsors, please send them to - firstname.lastname@example.org.