Enlightened Equipment: How This Ultralight Quilt Maker Grew from Basement to 50 Employees

Startup StoriesAmy Hatch

Enlightened Equipment Ultralight Backpacking Thru Hiking Quilts and Gear Startup Story

When Tim Marshall started making ultralight outdoor gear in his home basement in Minnesota back in 2006, he never imagined that one day it would become his full-time career. In fact, he says that he only started selling his gear “because it was the only way to feed [his] gear making habit.”

Fast forward to 2018 and Tim’s company, Enlightened Equipment, has over 50 employees and a production facility, and is a dominant force in the growing industry that caters to anyone whose approach to the trail is fast and light.

Best known for quilts, Enlightened Equipment has expanded its product line in recent years to include sleeping bags, bivy shelters and apparel, with an even wider variety of offerings planned for the future.

Enlightened Equipment Ultralight Backpacking Thru Hiking Quilts and Gear Startup Story

Tim says that his mission is to create the highest quality gear at the lowest possible price. Competitors in the ultralight industry tend to offer products that are far outside the budget of many customers, but not Tim. His product designs are informed by a no-frills philosophy that focuses on delivering the essential features customers need from their backcountry equipment, while eschewing extras that weigh adventurers down or gouge their finances. He is committed to ensuring that Enlightened Equipment can consistently keep up with ever greater demand and an expanding customer base by offering gear at low, medium, and high price points.

When asked what originally got him interested in making gear, Tim cites the influence of his wife (for getting him into backpacking in the first place) and the OG ultralight backpacking guru, Ray Jardine. He read a few of Jardine’s books and became inspired by their minimalist, self-reliant ethos. Jardine sold kits at the time to help his readers make their own gear, and Tim says the first pieces he ever made were Jardine’s designs.

For more than a year, Tim strictly made gear for himself. Then, in 2008, he started selling his own original products. In its first three years, Enlightened Equipment was a single-man operation, which Tim ran while still working another full-time job.

Enlightened Equipment Ultralight Backpacking Thru Hiking Quilts and Gear Startup Story

As demand for his products grew, his small business became ever more difficult to maintain as a side project. Eventually it became so large that it demanded more than just his spare time, but was still not large enough that he could justify quitting his other job.

By 2011 Tim decided he needed to walk away and offered the company up for sale. A few months later, he was approached by a group of friends who offered to let him work under their business umbrella so that he could hire a small staff and re-launch. Tim finally went full-time as a gear manufacturer, and the rest became history.

Enlightened Equipment Ultralight Backpacking Thru Hiking Quilts and Gear Startup Story

In terms of challenges he has faced since then, Tim jokes that the only major one has been getting used to the idea of himself as a businessman. Yet apart from having to occasionally don a suit and tie, he has been overwhelmed by the amount of support Enlightened Equipment has received. The company has built a loyal following in the thru-hiking community, particularly on the Pacific Crest Trail. 

From a design perspective, it is the needs of thru-hikers and the feedback of the long distance backpacking community that continue to drive Enlightened Equipment’s innovations.

Going forward, Tim has big plans for Enlightened Equipment. In the future, he hopes to take over the Appalachian Trail the way he has the PCT. There will be a wider variety of designs and a larger range of price points in order to meet the demands of every possible kind of thru-hiker.

Enlightened Equipment Ultralight Backpacking Thru Hiking Quilts and Gear Startup Story

He also plans to expand the company’s offerings well beyond the realm of sleep systems. And while he currently manufactures some of his products in China in order to keep up with demand, he believes that by 2020 Enlightened Equipment will be able to produce its entire line domestically at an equal quality and cost.  

In the meantime, Enlightened Equipment will continue churning out high-performance sleep systems and apparel from its Minnesota factory, listening to thru-hikers and dreaming up ways to deliver the best-performing ultralight equipment that any backpacker’s money can buy.

 

 

Enlightened Equipment Quilts & Gear

 

 

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