Back when thru-hiking was far less popular and starting a hiking blog was somewhat uncommon, Brian Vargo, founder of the lightweight outdoor gear brand Vargo Outdoors, kept busy doing just that.
The year was 1995, and while taking a break from teaching English in Japan, Brian successfully thru-hiked the 2,190 mile-long Appalachian Trail. To field the incessant inquiries about his journey and the gear he used, Brian started a website, Hike-Advice.com (sadly, now defunct).
After his thru-hike, Brian continued traveling. He returned to Japan to teach, then attended graduate school in Hawaii, and ultimately landed a software job in Seattle.
“Hiking in those days was just a hobby,” he recalled. “I never intended it to be something to do for a living.”
His hobby, however, soon grew into something more lucrative. While on a visit back home, Brian met up with the Pennsylvania-born outdoor gear manufacturer, Equinox. The company, which got its start in the 80’s, was one of the earlier brands to join the ultralight movement. To Brian’s surprise, they offered him more than just the opportunity to sell Equinox gear on his website; they also offered him a job.
Brian excitedly took the position, moving cross-country to “just try it out.”
Brian soon began reflecting on the 40+ pounds of gear he had schlepped on the Appalachian Trail, imagining ultralight gear designs of his own. Working with titanium especially piqued his interest. At the time, there were no other American companies working with the material.
“It’s cool, it’s functional, it’s lightweight,” Brian said. “I just thought it was a great fit for the type of products I wanted to create.”
The first product Brian dreamt up was a titanium alcohol stove; something stronger, lighter, and more cutting-edge. In his parent’s garage, using his dad’s tools, Brian engineered his first prototype. The unique design included stove legs that resembled tent stakes, allowing it to be securely anchored to the ground. With the creation of the Triad Stove, Vargo Outdoors was born.
“Even to this day, all of the products I make, I want. If it’s not something I want, I’ll probably have a hard time selling it,” Brian said.
Brian not only sold his creations on his own website, but Equinox bought from him as well. “I worked for them, I bought from them, and they bought from me. All three things were happening at the same time. It was crazy, but it worked!”
By 2006, Vargo Outdoors was holding its own, and Brian parted ways with Equinox. Still, those were some very lean times for the brand. “All the money I made from sales went right back into developing more products,” Brian explained.
This organic progression resulted in a full line of state-of-the-art, ultralight stoves, mugs, cookware, camp tools, and water bottles; over 80 products in all, primarily made out of titanium.
“Every product has its own story,” Brian said. While “a pot is a pot is a pot” Vargo’s success lies in its innovation and unique design. “We’re not just stamping out another pot or another mug, there is thought that went into it.”
For example, Vargo took a standard cooking pot and engineered strainer holes in the lid. “Nobody did that before,” Brian said. “Now all the companies are doing it.”
The brand also pioneered the Bot, a water bottle/cooking pot hybrid and a backpacking wood stove. Imagine never carrying stove fuel again!
The constant innovation is what Brian loves most.
“I find the creative side really fun and challenging. There are always winners and losers, but when I come up with a new product idea, and others like it as well, that’s a great feeling.”