A familiar theme emerged when we talked to eight of the people at the reins of the premier family-owned-and-run outdoor gear companies in America. "It all began as a hobby," says Hal Stephens, speaking of his father’s interest in scuba diving, the ignition for a business that early on sold a single diving flashlight – and over 35 years became now a multi-million dollar tactical lighting company the younger Stephens now runs. "It wasn't overnight, of course. there were quite a few hard knocks on the way."
In fact, each of these companies, from a bootmaker whose wares last for decades, to a paddle-crafter working in high-tech carbon fiber, in some part spun out of a free-time pursuit. These families aren’t making widgets to fill some blank space in the product universe; they’re making the gear they’d want to use go to out and explore the world in the open air on Saturday and Sunday. We talked to each of these leaders about their company’s heritage, and one product which evinces it best.
Hilleberg Keron Tent
The Hillebergs released their first tunnel-shaped tent, the Keron, in 1980, nine years after the company's founding. Little has changed to it in the years since, but the roomy 3-and-4 person model has become a standard choice for polar adventurers due to its extreme durability and wind-resistant design. Of course, the all-season tent works on your more common summer weekend expeditions too. "It's still the tent I grew up in," says Petra Hilleberg. "Most of the bigger companies will change their tent models just to change them, and they'll get publicity for it, but we do it differently." says Hilleberg. "Other companies just send their sketches to Asian factories to be produced, but our development process, including testing, takes years. It's all done in-house." [FRom $895; hilleberg.com]