A journey from spacesuits to tents
In the early 2000s Cam Brensinger was a student at the Rhode Island School of Design and working in a lab at MIT whose mission was to create a better space suit for NASA. He was also an ambitious rock and ice climber who worked as a guide and sought to challenge himself on the region's spiciest routes.
Today, he's the CEO of NEMO, a company whose products routinely vie for industry and outdoor media awards and has become one the most innovative tent and bag manufacturers out there. I recently got a behind-the-scenes look at their offices and interviewed Cam while out and about in New Hampshire's White Mountains.
While working as an engineer in a lab at MIT, building space suits for NASA, you decided to start a tent company instead. Why?
It was a good 15 years ago now, and the outdoor industry was so much simpler. I’m not sure I’d have the same impulse today. Back then, however, there was simply not a lot of seasonal innovation. We were sleeping in the same sleeping bags, using the same pads, pitching the same tents year after year. Just being that I was in school for industrial design, I was very product centric. At the time I was also employed by an office at MIT creating the next generation of space suits. I was surrounded by talented designers and just very hungry to create new stuff.
Then I'd see the various outdoor catalogs come out, and they have the same products in them over and over again. A lot of my initial inspiration for NEMO was to bring the level of engineering that I saw at MIT and the level of creativity I saw at RISD to the [outdoor] industry.
A night in a bivy bag is always miserable. And I laid there thinking, "God, there’s got to be a better solution."
I loved rock climbing and ice climbing and would spend a lot of time out in the mountains in New England. A buddy and I, during the winter of my senior year at RISD, on a whim one Friday decided it’d be great to do some ice climbing in Huntington Ravine. We decided that we’d hike in that night, then wake up in the morning and climb and be back for dinner. Being 20-somethings we didn’t bother to check the weather. We started hiking after dark and, of course, a huge storm comes in. I remember it like it was yesterday because the trees were bending down sideways to the ground. So we dug in.
We had bivy bags and made a little snow cave and spent the night. And it was miserable. A night in a bivy bag is always miserable. And I laid there thinking, God, there’s got to be a better solution than a bivy bag. And so that was the impetus to the Airbeam.
My thought during the night was, “What if I had four of my Therm-a-Rests in a little tunnel, joined edge to edge?” That would create an air volume and help solve one of the annoying things of being in a bivy. It’s on your face the whole time, and the fabric blows around. And you have to get this unattainably perfect alignment where the snow can’t get in but the oxygen can. I thought this air volume could be warm and quiet. But it’d also be heavy and there’d be a lot of air to fill. That lead me right to the Airbeam. So at school the very next day, I went down and got on a sewing machine and sewed a fabric sleeve over a bicycle inner tube just to see what would happen. And it really didn’t work.
Turns out there are really particular fabric properties you need for a fabric to become rigid. One of my classmates was a former pro kite surfer from Hawaii, and as soon as I told him what I was doing, he said, "Dude you gotta check out my kite!" And so he brought in this five-meter kite and when I saw that thing inflated for how little it weighed and how rigid it was, it was very clear that you could potentially make an air-supported, inflatable tent.
A tent is your home in the wilderness. It’s a more profound product, and you have a more intimate relationship with it compared to other kinds of gear. I figured if we learned how to make a tent well, it’d also teach us how to make a lot of other things down the road.
So that became our innovation. And as a brand, we decided if we were going to enter the market, we needed to hit the ground running. We were entering a space with all of these legacy incumbent brands like Mountain Hardwear and Marmot and The North Face, and we’re not going to out-market or out-distribute them, as a tiny startup. So we needed to do something notable that would put us on the map. The whole notion of an air supported tent struck me as the place to start.
So you had a real-world problem and an innovative solution. You had design challenges and innovative solutions. And then you navigated marketplace challenges to bring the product to light. How do you continue that level of innovation as a brand? Do you feel plagued by that standard?
No, I love it. We had to learn many hard skills painfully along the way. How to produce efficiently, reach competitive prices, and deliver on time. But what’s kept NEMO sustainable is having a good process.
One of the things that’s key to a great design process is going as slow as possible and as fast as necessary. It’s hard to do that in the current climate. Everyone is talking about acceleration and needing to compress old timelines and do things faster. But I find I do the poorest job of coming up with an idea if I put a pencil and blank sheet of paper in front of me. But I do the best job if I really just let my subconscious do the work, so I really tried to build that into our design process. So we’re constantly entertaining ideas. And if an idea needs to percolate for a year or two or five, so be it. This hammock we’re launching now, we filed a patent related to it 10 years ago.
We filed patents related to packs in 2006—and I’ll tell you honestly that packs are not on the radar for future launch. But we really think of ourselves as a design and engineering firm that gets its greatest joy out of coming up with cool new ideas that create better experiences in the outdoors. And we try to put a good process in place for identifying the best of those ideas and the ideas that have the greatest market potential and make sure we can deliver them on time, all without killing that original ability to just sorta freely brainstorm, blue sky, not force it or demand that every idea you talk about has to make a certain amount of revenue.
It’s refreshing to see a product through a lens that isn’t only about revenue. And pretty rare!
To ensure we don’t only pursue ideas that potentially correlate with strong sales, we divide products into three categories: Foundation, Boundary, and Iconic.
Foundation is the bread and butter of our business. An idea may come to mind like, say, the Spoon Bag, where it seems like a no-brainer that the market will appreciate that, because there are only mummy bags and rectangles and this is a smart compromise. This is a foundation thing that keeps the business going.
What guides us is the experience.
Iconic is the stuff we make just because we are committed to serve the apex of the market or because we think it’s fun or because we think it’s good for the brand as an exciting, interesting thing. An example is our -40 degree bag.
The one with the gills?
Yep, that one. It’s $1100 and we sell very few of them. But if everything we made had to fit in that Foundation bucket, we’d never make a bag like that. But we say right in the beginning let’s make the absolute best extreme cold weather mountaineering bag on the market. Do we need to make money from it? No. It’s Iconic.
Then our Boundary design category, which is probably my favorite. It’s stuff that we hope will someday become foundational to the business, but there’s no way to prove it because something like that hasn’t exactly been done before, and there isn’t market research on it or sell through data.
It’s an experimental category.
Yes, and the Cloudview Hammock is an example of that. We asked ourselves what’s not so awesome about a hammock experience. It envelopes you when you lay in it, it’s hard to be social in the camp setting because you're buried down in this thing, your body position isn’t ideal, you can’t leave it out in the rain without it getting soaking wet. So we made this hammock borrowing a patent we filed 10 years ago, patterned where your feet start lower than your butt when you’re laying in it. Your back is uphill, so you have this sort of beach lounger body position. The spreader bars keep it really open, and we have little beer holders integrated. We used fabric from really high-end office chairs because it’s sun and water impervious and rain and air can flow right through it.
So for us, we totally believe in that as a solution, but it’s twice as expensive as a normal hammock. If we were a big corporation, publicly traded, and our design team was driven by P&L level managers just wanting to know what the profit contribution is going to be, that may never go to market. We hope it becomes a mainstay of our business in the future, but we don’t have to know that right now.
What’s been your favorite product that you’ve made? Either to use or as a design process or both.
That’s a tough question. Wow. [Long pause.] No one’s ever asked me that explicitly. The truth is that almost all of our products start with me still, so they're all my children. It’s like asking whether I love my daughter or my son more.
One way to answer that might be our Helios shower. Because once we felt we understood how to make a good tent, the next question for ourselves was can we make a good pad? Then we proved that. And then it was can we make a good sleeping bag? Then we proved that. But those were three obvious parts of a family of products.
Core items everyone needs to get out there.
Yes, and Helio was the first thing that was an obvious step outside of that path. It was originally going to be an accessory for this sort of uber two person tent we envisioned. I was on a trip with some friends in Baja, and my buddy’s wife hadn’t done a lot of camping. We lent them a backpacking tent, and this was a vehicle-based, beach-to-beach trip, and it made me wish that we’d made a comfortable family oriented tend, or uber-two-person. Part of that vision was building a shower room into it, with a retractible floor with mesh and stuff. We made a few prototypes and then went looking for a good shower and couldn’t find anything in the market other than these hanging solar showers and water is so heavy that the tent would have to be really tall and way overbuilt in order to support that. Plus they don’t have much water pressure anyway. So we were already playing with inflatable and I thought why don’t we use the foot pump that we developed for our tents and use it to pressurize a volume. So I took a two-liter bottle and connected it to our pump and made a first prototype. It worked well. Then in our next workbook we had a picture of the uber two person tent and had what became the Helio pump in the background. It wasn’t even on the price list. What we learned was that no one wanted that tent, but everyone wanted to know more about the pump, which has become a mainstay.
What are your favorite climbs near your offices in Dover, New Hampshire?
No doubt for a climb, the Black Dike on Cannon Cliffs. It’s a classic New England ice climb. It's up and inside a dihedral on about a 600-foot face with a lot of choss and stuff. It’s famous in our area for being first ascended by John Bouchard, the founder of Wild Things, solo as a teenager when the route was considered beyond what was technically possible in that era. It has this great history and was one of the first serious multi-pitch ice climbs in the country. And I used to do it as my first ice climb of the season every year.
If you went up there in late November or early December the weather would be mild, not a lot of snow built up. If you hit it in the first few iterations of it taking shape, the ice would be just perfect. It’s a little bit epic; it’s a full day thing. It’s been a few years since I’ve climbed it, basically since I had kids.
We recently discovered Pawtuckaway State Park. There’s awesome bouldering there and wonderful little trails. It was absolutely perfect for the kids. Fun scrambling and really a breakthrough for us as a family for all having a really good time together. Perfect for a weekend.