Cottage Gear Defined

by Andy Amick on July 17, 2013

in Backpacking, Bikepacking, Gear

cottage gear makers for bikepacking and backpacking

When you get into the world of lightweight or ultralight camping gear, a large majority of that gear is made by very small companies.  A lot of these companies are even single person operations with gear made in their basement or garage.  The term “cottage” gear maker is given to these sorts of companies.

Obviously, companies like North Face, Patagonia, Kelty, Trek, and Go Lite (still one of my favorites) do not fall into this category of cottage gear.  There is nothing wrong with these companies.  They all started out as cottage gear makers when they began, but they have grown into larger corporations and have to appeal to a broader market.

Cottage gear makers, on the other hand, focus on a much smaller customer segment and can take the time to do custom one-off work.  An example of this is the pair of custom rain pants made by ZPacks.

What Is Cottage Gear?

The term “cottage gear” means different things to different people and there is no standard definition.  For me, it’s simply:

A designer and manufacturer of outdoor gear that employes 1-5 people.

A few notes on the definition:

First, it’s short because, well, who needs a 200 word definition with multiple sentences?

Second, a cottage gear company has to design and make products.  This would include anyone that makes their own gear.  So if you’ve made your own alcohol stove, congratulations, you’re a cottage gear maker!

Third, a company needs less than 5 employees and preferably less than 3.  If a company has more than 5 employees, it’s still a very small company, but there had to be a cutoff somewhere.  Maybe that number will get revised as I research a few of the larger cottage gear makers.  For now, it’s a guide to give a sense of the smallness I look for in cottage gear makers.

Fourth, there is no mention of where the gear is made.  Ideally, the gear is made in the company’s shop or garage.  However, if some of the work is contracted out then a company still qualifies as cottage.  This allows companies such as Lawson Equipment and Gossamer Gear to remain as a cottage gear maker because they make most but not all of their gear in-house.

Is Cottage Better?

cottage gear campsite

A two person campsite almost complete outfitted with cottage gear.

This is a tough question to answer.  It really depends on what you are looking for in your gear.  If you want custom gear or super ultralight gear, then cottage makers are going to be better.  If you are looking for cheaper gear, then cottage gear is not always going to work for you.

Here are a few other qualities of most cottage gear makers:

  • Innovative
  • Lightweight
  • Custom
  • Small Business
  • Experimental

One example of how small gear makers exhibit these traits is the use of cuben fiber.  This material has yet to gain mainstream adoption because of it’s cost.  However, cottage gear makers have embraced it to make backpacks, tarps, and stuff sacks that push the envelope of design and lightweight limits.

Another simple example is in bivy sacks.  Cottage gear makers like Borah Gear make bivy sacks that are comparable in price and fabric to those found at large camping retailers such as REI.  That’s where the similarities end.  The cottage bivy can be customized to fit your needs and they are also much lighter due their simple design and better use of fabrics.

There is a tradeoff in both of these examples.  For cuben fiber products, it’s the addtional cost.  For the lightweight products, it’s less creature comforts.

A final aspect worth considering is the support of small businesses.  I don’t go to Wal-Mart because of how they affect small businesses.  I do search out cottage makers because they are small businesses and they care about their work.

How To Get Started With Cottage Gear?

One of the easiest and cheapest ways to try out cottage gear is through cook systems. There are a variety of companies that make ultralight alcohol stoves such as Mini Bull Designs.  For trying out MYOG (Make You Own Gear) to turn yourself into a cottage gear maker, ZenStoves is the best resource for designs and plans.

Bikepacking bags is another area where cottage gear makers practically own the market. Companies such as J.Paks and Bedrock Bags make excellent gear that can be customized for your bike or adventures.

Cottage gear makers exist for sleeping bags, tents, backpacks, and rain gear.  Heck, they even exist for water bottle holders, stuff sacks, and bug nets so there are cottage gear options for everyone.  It takes a bit of research to find cottage gear makers, but in my opinion, it’s well worth the effort.

About Andy Amick
A little bit nutty in general, a lotta bit nutty about bikes. Each of his boys received a bike helmet for their first birthday and the three of them have been biking together ever since.

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