Interviews: Vargo Outdoors
Vargo Outdoors is an outdoor company that sells specialized gear, nearly all of it titanium, that happens to be a fairly small cottage company yet with a big global reach. Located in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, with a population of about 6000 people, Brian Vargo (founder/owner of Vargo Outdoors, hence the name) and Chad North (the #2 guy at Vargo) recently took a bit of their time to allow me to interview them!
Hello guys and thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions!
Before we get started, anything you would like to just throw out there for readers?
For those who aren’t familiar with Vargo, we are a titanium outdoor gear manufacturer based in Central Pennsylvania. The company was started in 2002 by Brian Vargo a few years after his thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. With an innovative approach to product design and an almost exclusive use of titanium, we aim to create unique products that help lighten loads and meet the needs of adventurers worldwide.
So I would like to start things off with a few business related questions.
Vargo Outdoors has been a company that seems to span into a few outdoor hobby activities. Hiking, biking, packrafting, and such, but Vargo also have a fairly well established place in the bushcraft, prep’ers, survivalist, market as well. Any insight into how the percentages equates out in those two different sectors?
The bushcraft, preppers, survivalist markets are relatively new to us compared to the trail sport and camping markets (bikepacking aside). It’s probably a 60/40 or 70/30 split in favor of the trail sport and camping markets (hiking, backpacking, bikepacking, biking, touring, etc.).
How many employees does Vargo Outdoor currently have?
Believe it or not, just two…or four if you include our dogs. They keep our noses to the grindstone and the UPS guy in check.
And how many of those are FTE’s?
Both. We pay the dogs in treats and pats-per-hour.
How many retailers does Vargo Outdoor currently have around the world?
This is a tough question to answer as we sell primarily to business-to-business distributors who then sell to retail stores. However, we estimate around 500 retail stores carry our products. In terms of B2B distributors, we have five domestic distributors and eight international distributors. We do sell directly (i.e. not through distributors) to many retail stores in the US and abroad and also directly to the consumer via our website.
And a follow-up question: And in what countries (if any) do you have retailers?
Canada, Japan, Australia, France, Spain, UK, Germany (services surrounding countries), South Korea, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Tunisia.
Share a brief history of Vargo Outdoors since the idea of starting it up come into being up until the current.
After years of traveling and working abroad, Brian returned to Central Pennsylvania and began working for an outdoor gear distributor in the early 2000s. Early on he noticed a void in the distribution market for titanium products. Instead of selling their products through distribution channels, titanium gear companies at the time forced retailers to set up accounts with them if the retailer wanted to get those titanium products for their customers (a hassle for retail stores to do). Also wanting titanium products that he saw missing from the market, he decided to launch his own line of premium titanium products and plug them right into distribution to make access to them easier for retailers and, thus, customers. So in 2002, Vargo Outdoors was born!
Starting small and bootstrapping the company himself, he first offered titanium tent stakes and then very quickly after that sporks and the Triad. As sales and revenue continued to grow, he continued to offer new titanium products of his design to an eager market. And that’s pretty much what we’ve been doing since.
Also at the same time, Brian ran a successful site called HikeAdvice.com to share his trail knowledge with others. Due to the traffic he was receiving, he began selling outdoor products there, including his own, and changed the URL to VargoOutdoors.com (very similar to what backpacking.net/BackcountryGear.com did around then). For years we sold other companies’ products on the site, in addition to our own, but have since siphoned those off and now only sell our products. Now 100% of what we do is create new products (most fun) and sell them (also fun) to distributors, retailers, and customers the world over.
Any thoughts on the future of Vargo over the next three to five years?
We’ll be continuing to do what we’re doing now–increasing our footprint in the industry, finding opportunities in the market, and continuing to innovate and create new products (about 3-4 a year on average) to meet the needs of our customers.
Stoves & Pots:
Ok, moving into the stove side of things for Vargo.
So Vargo has been selling stoves since, correct me if I am wrong here, 2003, right at 14 years or so. How many different stoves has Vargo designed and brought to market over those years?
Yep, it started with the original Triad Alcohol Stove in 2003, which was the first commercially available titanium alcohol stove and only alcohol stove with a built in pot support, and we’ve since brought to market six other stoves.
In order they are the Triad Alcohol Stove (now Triad Multi-Fuel Stove), Triad XE Multi-Fuel Stove, Decagon Alcohol Stove, Jet-Ti Canister Stove (discontinued), Hexagon Wood Stove, Fire Box Grill, and the Converter Stove. With the new update to the Triad Stove, we’re discontinuing the Triad XE to bring our total stove offering from six to five.
Our first international design award was for the Hexagon Wood Stove in 2010, which helped to open up the bushcraft, prepper, survivalist markets for us. It is still our #1 selling product worldwide.
As you mentioned, in early January 2017 Vargo released a new stove called the ‘Triad Multi-Fuel Stove‘, a reworked version of the widely popularly Triad Alcohol Stove. Share some story into why the decision was made to make an updated version with a few different design changes, instead of just revamping the current Triad XE.
Almost since its inception, users have been wanting to be able burn solid fuel tabs on the Triad. Most simply flipped the Triad over and used the bottom to burn the tabs, but on uneven ground the tabs would slide off. Additionally, filling the Triad could be cumbersome as the filling hole was rather small to help create and maintain pressure during a burn. A bottle with a flip top cap was usually required to ensure filling without spilling.
Brian later developed the Triad XE Multi-Fuel Stove so that users could burn alcohol in its inner canister (which was also easier to fill) or fuel tabs or gels in the stove’s base when the inner canister was removed. It was a solution but never one we really liked. With two separate pieces to the stove, a wider diameter that didn’t always fit smaller pots and mugs, a slightly heavier weight, and a more difficult to light process (according to some users), the Triad XE never truly fit our simple and light design philosophy. It worked though and continues to have a loyal user base.
In developing the Converter Stove (which flips over to burn alcohol or fuel tabs/gels like original Triad users had done), we saw the benefit of adding an indent to the bottom of the stove to burn fuel tabs and gels while also figuring out how to increase the size of the filling hole without losing pressure (a concept we borrowed from the Decagon Stove). When we finished designing the Converter Stove it was a simple leap from there to updating the Triad with what we learned. It was a long, roundabout way to make those changes, but design is evolutionary and sometimes you don’t see the easy answer right in front of your face :)
Going back to the different hobby/markets of hikers / bushcrafters, do you find most of your stoves being used by the hiker community or the bushcraft community?
It’s probably approaching equal overall, but for actual usage hikers tend to use the alcohol stoves more and in larger quantities than the wood stoves (except in Japan), which are used mostly by the bushcraft, prepper, survivalist communities. Our Japanese customers, who are mostly hikers, love using the Hexagon Wood Stove as a windscreen for their alcohol stoves and typically only for that reason.
The Hexagon Wood Stove and the BOT pots seem to have become fairly popular within the bushcraft community. I often see videos of them being used by the youtube bushcraft crowd. Does Vargo market some of their stoves/pots to hikers and some to the bushcrafters, or has Vargo just gotten lucky and have had the different groups find use for each unique product?
We’ve gotten very lucky. We don’t do any specific marketing to each group. When we launched the Hexagon Wood Stove, we originally made it with backpackers in mind, but it met a want in the bushcraft community that had been there for a long time (a one-piece, lightweight, collapsible, easy to assemble wood stove). As we were one of the first to offer such a stove, a number of writers and key influencers in that community snatched up the stoves and shared them with their audiences. We didn’t expect it would be such a huge hit (and still don’t!). We are very grateful.
Vargo has been selling a Sierra Cup for years… and a rather large one too… and it even has a lid which is something almost no other Sierra cup I see offered these days have. Would love to know the history behind the Vargo Sierra Cup. How long have you been selling them. Did it originally sell with a lid. Is there still a market out there buying Sierra Cups?
When Brian was first expanding his product line, he created a smaller titanium Sierra Cup without a lid, and it sold rather well in fact. He always liked how they were easier to clean and eat out of, due to their bowl shape, compared to other available pots and mugs. However, this smaller version was too small to cook out of and when the production mold for it broke, he redesigned it to make it larger and added a lid so that it could be used for cooking.
Let’s talk BOT for a brief moment or two. The BOT has had a huge following the last few years – with a fair share of die-hard lovers and some rather outspoken non-lovers. The biggest complaints I have seen have been within the Bushcraft community, with guys complaining about the plastic ring melting, the all-to-well-known issue of the pot getting stuck, and the price tag compared to most other pots out there. On the lover side of things have always been the ability to carry within the BOT due to the lid, the ability to toss it onto an open fire (with the lid off of course), and the profile/size really falls into how the bushcraft community likes things. Could you share with us some of the insights and thoughts from your end on the BOT pots?
The BOT best reflects Vargo’s approach to gear design. Instead of just carrying lighter titanium versions of gear (a pot and water bottle), we replaced the need to carry two different pieces of gear with one. Literally, I think Brian was on a trip and asked himself why he was carrying both a water bottle and a cooking pot when the two could be combined into one simple, effective unit that could also save weight at the same time…hence, the BOT! They’ve been one of our top selling products since their release in 2011.
What most people don’t realize about titanium and why it’s so expensive is the sheer amount of labor and difficulty that goes into extracting it, converting into raw material, and then working it into final product. Titanium does not play nicely or work well like other metals. The main cost of the BOT is the absolute difficulty in stamping it out to that height uniformly with that much material. Very few places in the world can make something like this. Stainless steel, on the other hand, is simple to extract and simple to work with, hence the cheaper cost. The BOTs have a low tolerance for manufacturing error yet titanium has a naturally high margin of error due to how difficult it is to work with. Combined, it makes for a very hard, very costly product to make.
Regarding the issue with the lid, it’s simple physics. The larger the lid, the greater the force holding it down, especially with a wider bottle. Unfortunately a trade off for a product like this.
As for people melting o-rings in the fire… well… they learn and then ask us for new ones. Simple solution: remove the o-ring before putting it in the fire :)
Would like to also talk about the Titanium Water Bottle. A number of hikers, myself included, have been using these as hot water bottles for deep winter season. Filling them up with hot water, screwing on the top, tossing into a sock, and then tossing into the bottom of our sleeping bags. In fact, Trauma & Pepper had one on their 2015 PCT Winter Hike, they had it wrapped with duct tape I think. I have mine wrapped with medical tape. How else have you seen the Titanium Water Bottle being used, besides just as a day to day water bottle?
Well, day-to-day usage varies from person to person. Some prefer its narrowness as it’s simple to hold while running or hiking, others like its light weight, while others simply prefer the biocompatibility of titanium and would rather drink from a titanium container than a plastic, aluminum, or stainless one. Those around salt water like that they don’t corrode or rust in salty environments (we have a scuba diving school near San Francisco that buys a ton of these for that reason). Those bushcraft guys, though, love stringing bottles above fires to boil water rather than using a pot, so there’s always that use.
So the Titanium Para-Bottle. The “oh sweet that will attach to my MSR filter… oh wait.. it is HOW MUCH?!!!” container. I recently acquired the new MSR Purifier Filter, a virus level water filter that is at the top of the hiking water filter market right now. The Para-Bottle plays really nice with these style of filters from what I understand. But as a consumer, the price tag of the Para-Bottle just makes me go “nope”. Also not a para-code kind of guy – much more a bushcraft thing than a hiker thing. Was the Titanium Para-Bottle superficially designed for the bush crafting community? And, while talking about the Para-Bottle, by all means, share any further thoughts about it beyond just what my initial question here is.
Haha.. .yes, the titanium Para-Bottle™ was not designed as an ultralight backpacking bottle. We actually designed it as an outdoor/backcountry water bottle (non-UL specific activities) that could also transition into an everyday carry water bottle with the idea being that for those instances where some extra cord is needed, you’ll have it available. People were begging us for years for a one liter sized water bottle, even though we offered the BOT, for various reasons. Some just love titanium as it’s a premium material, others because of titanium’s biocompatibility (safest metal to drink and eat from), and, as we found, others didn’t care as much about the weight as they did about functionality.
As we continue to grow, and as you’ve seen, other markets gain interest in our products and don’t always care about the UL aspect of things. Side note: the bottle annoys a lot of the bushcraft guys because they have to undo the cordage before dangling it over a fire to boil water, so no, we didn’t specifically design it for them, superficially or otherwise, much to their chagrin. We love our bushcraft customers a lot (they have skills more backpackers need to learn), but our pots do a much, much better job for cooking and boiling water.
As for price, again, it’s all about the amount of material and the labor involved. If you look at any other titanium water bottle on the market (I know, there are few), you’ll see that the bottle’s threading is rolled into the material and the lid sits inside of the bottle like the BOT. That’s done because 1. it’s cheaper due to less material being used and 2. it’s cheaper due to less labor involved. In order to get the Nalgene-style compatible threading with titanium, each lid and bottle threading must be manually machined out which involves a lot more labor and material, hence the significantly higher price.
Very quick question regarding your stakes. More and more hikers, myself included, have stopped using Shepard stakes and moved back to stakes that have better holding power and can take a beating. My question is simple this… which is closer to the MSR Groundhog, which my guess is probably the most popular stake out there, the Titanium Crevice or the Aluminum Summit. Specifically curious which has the better holding power and which can take a better beating?
Purely from aesthetics, the Aluminum Summit Stake is almost exactly like the MSR Groundhog in size, shape, material, and weight. The Titanium Crevice is a v-shaped as opposed to y-shaped tent stake like the Summit and Groundhog.
Technically, a y-shaped tent stake has more holding power due to increase surface area as compared to a v-shaped or shephard’s hook, but we’ve yet to hear or see a Crevice Stake lose its holding power when staked correctly, let alone when compared to a y-shaped tent stake in the same scenario.
We also haven’t seen a Crevice Stake get damaged or broken. We do with the Summit and comparable stakes (usually the heads bend when beaten too hard or put in the ground incorrectly). Also, the Crevice Stake has the ability to be used as a deadman anchor, hence the tiny cut outs about halfway up the stake, and makes a great cathole digger!
I remember back a few years ago when Vargo introduced their apparel lineup. I was rather surprised that Vargo decided to get into the apparel market. Share some of the insights into why Vargo decided to get into the apparel market, how much oversight of product development you guys had, and of course, how the outdoor industry market (we the buyers) have taken to it in regards to sales and reviews.
It was a concept we had a hard time not taking advantage of! We’ve wanted to dabble in the apparel market for a long time but knew we needed an angle that made sense for us and was different enough from anything else on the market. Of course we thought of titanium. After researching the market and available technologies we found university research on titanium dioxide and its effects on textiles. We were amazed! Even better yet, no one was using it in apparel! Once we sourced a titanium dioxide-based compound we were happy with, we did our own laboratory testing to confirm the compounds use and characteristics in apparel.
We were even more amazed after we got the results. Not only did it have excellent odor neutralizing, self-cleaning, and heat transfer properties, it also dried wet apparel 25% faster than non-treated apparel (read: it helps the shirt stay fresher, cooler, and drier during activity) – all this while also being 100% environmentally friendly and safe (NOTE: you can see our lab results). After that, we immediately began designing the apparel and the TiFusion™ line was launched.
Interestingly, the market has been a little less than enthused about it. While all of the testers, reviewers, and customers who’ve used it love it, it still hasn’t caught on as much as we had imagined. The apparel market, as we knew, is insanely competitive so the visibility for this isn’t as easy for us to come by as it has been for our normal hardgoods. We still have hope for it just because we know how great the technology in it is and how well it works.
I have decided to leave the Vargo backpacks to the end of this interview. I have given the Vargo Ti-Arc a fair bit of use over the last few years, published an article about it, done a few videos on it, and have answered probably over a hundred emails that I have received about the Vargo Ti-Arc from hikers around the world.
There is not much need to rehash all of the aspects of the Ti-Arc within this interview, but if there is something you would like to share about the Ti-Arc by all means, share away, consider this your chance to share some history about the development of the Ti-Arc, how it has been accepted, what others have thought, and what future it might have.
We think the Ti-Arc also aptly demonstrates the core design philosophy behind Vargo, specifically pairing titanium with an innovative design to solve a problem for backpackers and outdoors people. When you look at backpack design and function across the board you’ll see a core principle at work: the lighter a pack, the less support and weight transfer (i.e. comfort) it offers, and the more support and weight transfer a pack offers, the more it weighs typically. And when you compare external and internal frame backpacks, by design and function externals offer more support and weight transfer than internals but at a weight penalty.
Before we released the Ti-Arc, I believe the lightest external frame we could find was around 4 pounds or more. Internals, on the other hand, vary in the level of support and weight transfer they offer (some okay, some terrible, and all not as good as an external) but they typically beat out externals in the weight, ascetics, and form factor (more streamlined) categories. Tragically, externals have become near extinct as manufacturers and marketing departments quit pushing them to customers.
In fact, when we showed it to Kristin Hostetter, the then Gear Editor for Backpacker Magazine, at Outdoor Retailer years ago she said it was the first time a company had showed her a new external frame backpack in over 10-15 years (she is also a big fan of externals for their superior carry). This time lag between innovations in external frames has also, sadly, relegated them to the back of most customers’ minds or doesn’t exist as an option at all.
When Brian thru-hiked the AT in the mid-90s, he carried a Gregory external frame pack similar to the one Cheryl Strayed used on the PCT around the same time. Though it weighed close to 8 pounds (EMPTY!) nothing else he used after that (and he used lots of packs after that) could compare to the weight transfer, support, and comfort it provided. He was also extremely annoyed at how all packs, particularly internals, kept sliding down off his back regardless of how tight the hip belt was tightened. Backpacking for years after his thru-hike, he still couldn’t shake the idea of how great an external actually works on the trail. Knowing this, he also couldn’t justify carrying a 4-8 pound external frame pack on his ultralight trips. And that’s when his lightbulb went off, as it usually does.
The belief that we had in designing the Ti-Arc was that we could get closer to the holy grail of pack design (maximum support and weight transfer at minimum weight) by attaching a smaller bag, similar in style to other externals, to an ultralight titanium frame. Additionally, by welding a lumbar support plate onto the frame we could exponentially increase weight transfer to the hips and legs while preventing the pack from sagging during use.
Overall, the design concept worked extremely well as you know, but the traditional external frame look and style was too much of a disconnect for most customers who weren’t use to strapping their shelter and sleeping bag to the frame outside of the main compartment bag. People wanted, even Kristin Hostetter, a pack with one large compartment that they could stuff all of their gear into…which is too bad because its current design makes accessing and storing gear so much easier. That’s when we started the design process for the ExoTi™ 50.
The question I am sure almost everybody who is going to read this interview is… tell us more about the next-generation ExoTi™ 50 backpack. (Since this article was originally published at patreon, the ExoTi-50 has now been released!)
What more can you share about the ExoTi™ 50 from when I previously interviewed you guys about this new backpack?
The info from our first interview is still pretty accurate though overall the pack weighs an ounce less than the prototype. It carries like a dream which is about as unbiased as we can be in saying that.
This is our first iteration in the ExoTi™ backpack line so it’s definitely more mainstream in terms of looks and durability, but future versions will focus on reducing the bag’s weight and/or adding other options backpackers may want. The frame and harness system will stay the same, we’re just going to have fun designing other bags.
We haven’t officially tested its max threshold, but this pack will easily be able to support heavier loads than the Ti-Arc and with more support and weight transfer than any other internal in its weight class. Additionally, the load lifting compression strap system pulls all the weight of the pack up from the bottom and supports it from the upper part of the frame to equalize weight distribution and improve weight transfer. It also helps to tighten up the load for a more secure, stable carry that people have come to appreciate about internals.
We’re reluctant to give a max load carrying capacity simply because this is an ultralight backpacking backpack. If one is looking for a pack to support loads 40-50 lbs. or more, then they’re not ultralight backpacking and this pack won’t be for them. But for those UL backpackers who teeter around 30-35+ lbs. with consumables (water and food) or any weights less than that, the ExoTi™ 50 will provide a truly exceptional carry.
All in all, the ExoTi™ 50 looks, acts, and packs like an internal but with the superior support and weight transfer of an external. We are very eager to get these out to the market and, perhaps, even more eager to get them for ourselves.
Here are some of the questions, at the time of my last interview, you could not answer.
Can any of these questions now be answered, being 5 months later?
>> The Ti-Arc hits the scale at 2 lbs. 6 oz, so curious what the total pack weight for the ExoTi50 pack is going to be?
The ExoTi™ 50 weighs in at 2 lbs. 11 oz. The frame is lighter, but those softgoods add up.
>> What is going to be the max torso length for the ExoTi50?
The ExoTi™ 50 will fit torso sizes from 16 to 22 inches.
>> The Ti-Arc has a recommended max load weight of 30 pounds and is 36L in pack volume. Given you have the “50” in the name “ExoTi™ 50” does that mean it is going to be 50 liters in volume, or a max of 50 pounds load weight?
The 50 is for volume (50 liters).
>> When is the new ExoTi™ 50 going to be available to purchase? Do you have an exact date that you can share at this point?
We’re expecting it by February 1 or sooner. As soon as it’s delivered, we’ll get the word out and start selling them. If you want to be the first to know, sign up for our email newsletter. That’s where we always announce our newest products for sale first.
Ok my last question: any products you have in works in the R&D lab that you would like to take this opportunity to share with the world?
We’ve got some in the works, but need to keep them under wraps. The best thing to do is sign up for our email newsletter to be the first to find out about new products :)
A huge thank you to Vargo Outdoors for taking the time to answer all of these questions, and the sneak peak photos of the new backpack!
Thanks for reading!