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Q&A: Big Agnes' Sally Gentling

Designer sees ‘comfort’ as a top priority in keeping people outdoors longer

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Sally Gentling was raised in Colorado by a couple of outdoor enthusiasts.


So after studying design at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in southern California, she was ecstatic to find a path where her love for the for the outdoors could result in a career designing for the activities she enjoyed most.

She started as a designer with Patagonia and has worked her way back to her home state in Colorado as a product developer, taking some time off in between to travel, ski, raft and climb.

The combination of her education, experience and personal time outdoors has taught her a lot about what consumers are looking for, and she talks to us about what’s trending in design.

You spent some time at Patagonia on the apparel side. Was it tough to make the switch to hardgoods at Big Agnes? 
Design is all about finding solutions to problems, working around certain construction rules, to create a product that is comfortable, efficient and attractive.

Tents and sleeping pads are really different from apparel. I had to learn a whole new set of design rules. Apparel is different and at the same time similar to sleeping bags. I look at designing sleep systems with the same consideration for comfort as I would a jacket.

You also spent time as a ski patroller and rafting guide. What ideas came to you during those pursuits? 
I really think that the more comfortable you are in the backcountry, the more likely you are to go out, and the more likely you are to stay out longer. As a patroller, I learned what equipment works and doesn’t work, how things wear out, how things break, and personally experienced how it can ruin your day to have a piece of equipment flat out fail. As a guide, I really got to see how a client’s gear, and their level of comfort in using the gear, can make or break their outdoor experience. I try to bring all those experiences to the table with each new design.

It’s not all about “lightweight” gear anymore. Why do you think “comfort” has become a big priority in the outdoor industry these days?
It’s always a balancing act between weight and comfort. There is a lot of different ways people recreate — people who spend more time car camping or rafting, tend to gravitate more towards comfort, whereas when you have to carry the equipment on your back and speed is safety, it’s a different story. Ultimately, not everyone wants to or needs to be an ounce counter, and at the end of the day being comfortable in the backcountry — whether it’s a tent that functions properly in the rain, or a sleeping bag in which you actually get a good night sleep, can really make or break your trip.

What are some of the pervading design and development trends you are seeing these days in the outdoor industry?
Integration of electronics into our outdoor world is huge right now. I think the industry fought it at first, but now brands are embracing it. Companies are thinking of new ways to enable people to bring their electronics with them, and thus breaking down some barriers of why certain people may or may not go camping.

What do you look to accomplish when you go to Outdoor Retailer?
I enjoy getting out of the main hall and checking out the new and upcoming brands, and manufactures in the other parts of the show. Also, I love looking for fabrics or trims that would not usually be used in tents, pads or sleeping bags.

–David Clucas