Few companies in the outdoor sphere can boast prouder heritage and greater experience than Pocket Rocket purveyors MSR and Sleeping Mat specialists Therm-a-Rest. Each has humble yet entrepreneurial beginnings, driven by engineers with a love for climbing and mountaineering. By producing the highest-quality gear, aimed at giving those that share their enthusiasm for the outdoors an easier, safer and more comfortable experience, both MSR and Therm-a-Rest have made the extremes more accessible, reshaping industry standards in doing so.
It’s no coincidence that Therm-a-Rest and MSR are two of the top trending brands in our outdoor department, so we thought we?d tell you a bit more about where they come from. Let’s take a look?
We’ll start with Therm-a-Rest?
What happens when you combine some out-of-work engineers, an old gardening pad, and their insatiable need to be comfortable in the outdoors? The world’s first self-inflating mattress. Just as relevant today as it was in the early 70’s when Seattle-based climbers Jim Lea, Neil Anderson and John Burroughs identified the huge opportunity created by the uncomfortably thin, closed-cell mats of the time.
Since 1971 Therm-a-Rest has gone on to perfect the craft of producing the warmest, lightest, most compact and comfortable sleeping surfaces there are, for purposes ranging from family camping trips, to expeditions that fit into folklore, driven by the realisation that a long day in the hills is made longer by a poor night’s sleep.
Warm and comfy
Jim Burroughs had his lightbulb moment whilst gardening. He moved his weight on his kneeling pad, noticed a flow of air from one side to the other and realised that the combination of foam and air cells would work perfectly as both an insulator from the cold and a cushion from the rough ground he often found himself sleeping on when on climbing trips.
Early prototypes of Therm-a-Rest sleeping pads were made from open cell foam that rebounded, and Jim recognised that their mats would self-inflate by securing air in chambers in the foam. By Including a valve, he would be able to control the internal pressure, getting comfort levels just right, without sacrificing warmth on those colder nights.
The Seattle trio knew they were on to something ? being part of a large collection of mountaineering enthusiasts in their own state, they had little doubt that their product would become an integral piece of gear for years to come. European demand became so high that Therm-a-Rest opened an Irish production and distribution facility in 1984, and by continuing to keep the manufacturing process within the company, John, Jim and Neil were able to maintain their exceptional standards and stand by their warranty promise.
Through the 80’s Therm-a-Rest became a household name, and the brand even returned to the old closed-cell foam that that inspired the trio of engineers in the first place. The RidgeRest Sleeping Mat had thermally formed peaks and valleys that turned their uncomfortable inspiration into a durable rival for anything on the market. Along with the ZLite series, it remains a staple in gear collections today.
For fifty years, Therm-a-Rest continued to add ?world’s firsts? to their offering ? their mid-nineties mattress and sleeping bag integration was ahead of its time and is still prevalent in their products today. The company continued to improve their flagship products by creating variations of their pads, integrating better foams, using pressure-mapping tech for comfort, adding new products to the range, and making women-specific mats too.
Therm-a-Rest picked up many awards along the way too ? their air mattress concept was voted amongst ?The Most Influential Gear of All-Time? by Outside Magazine. 2009’s NeoAir Mattress is still considered the best warmth to weight system in the world, and the brand’s most revolutionary development since their very first product.
Commitment to quality
With an eye on maintaining their impeccably high standards, Therm-a-Rest continue to have most of their products made in their own facilities, by their own employees. One factory in the brand’s Seattle origins and one in Ireland, both creating product and serving warranty issues. Returns are dealt with by Therm-a-Rest employees, and it’s likely that the person who made the product from scratch will be the one to repair it, with the same tools and materials.
The Therm-a-Rest of it
Whilst the Therm-a-Rest sleeping mats are the epicentre of the brand, sixty years of production has also seen them move into cosy sleeping bags, hammocks, and a range of outdoor seats and accessories that make your time under the stars that bit more comfortable.
Now let’s have a look at Larry Penberthy’s MSR?
Who better than an engineer and inventor based in Seattle, on the doorstep of Washington’s Cascade and Olympic Ranges to make mountaineering products? Whilst that logic is undeniable, it wasn?t always Larry Penberthy’s goal for MSR. In 1969, Larry’s outdoor enthusiasm led him to question the quality and safety of gear available, so he formed Mountain Safety Research (MSR) ? a newsletter dedicated to improving mountain safety by putting the available gear under proper scrutiny.
Larry and MSR quickly gained a core following of mountaineers and climbers in the states, and quite naturally, he moved into researching and manufacturing his own gear. His aim was to make products that didn?t need regular replacing, so were kinder on the environment that he and his counterparts were so passionate about. Larry’s logic is still applied to the products they make today.
The MSR newsletter quickly gained traction as a reliable safety resource for climbers and mountaineers. Testing products to identify weaknesses, and challenging manufacturing quality, the idea was to let readers know how safe the products they were using really were. It quickly became clear that the next step for Larry and MSR was to produce gear, because nobody else was doing it well enough. He wanted products that met his rigorously high standards of safety and performance, and that would meet the requirements of those taking the pursuit of peaks to next-level extremes.
First ascent into gear
MSR’s first generation Snow Flukes brought with them new levels of stability and placement accuracy, and whilst they’ve since been modernised, they?re still on offer today. Some soft goods quickly followed, and then more climbing-specific gear too ? stable ice screws and safer climbing ropes that started with a reliable 10.5mm double braid, swiftly followed by other lengths and thicknesses to suit differing backcountry needs.
Next up, Larry looked at improving safety in the most extreme conditions. Using cut-out PVC plates that prevented snow from caking onto crampons, he helped eliminate the dreaded “concrete feet” problem. Beyond that, MSR introduced new-age ice axes with stronger handles, reliable rescue pulleys and more. By the end of 1970, there was enough of a catalogue to open the flagship showroom in Seattle.
The MSR stove revolution
If you?re already familiar with MSR, it’s quite likely that you’ll know all about their famous Pocket Rocket Stove and its counterparts. Stoves have been part of the MSR journey from near enough day dot. In the early 70’s the remote fuel revolution and MSR’s first stoves allowed mountaineers to melt snow more quickly than before to combat dehydration at altitude. Over the years, MSR’s stoves have become lighter, more compact and safer, with better performance in the wind. As early as 1995, MSR sold its one millionth stove, exceeding Larry Penberthy’s wildest expectations.
Not stopping at stoves, MSR has developed a ranges of cookware and accessories to make consumption in the backcountry that bit easier. In 1973 stove efficiency was greatly improved by the introduction of lightweight heat reflectors and windscreens around the flame and pot sides ? still used today. 1986 sparked the release of MSR’s XPD Cookset, with a temperature-bolstering Heat Exchanger shield, and down the line, further cookware products have become a part of MSR, including their famous folding utensils.
High altitude hydration
Penberthy often reminded MSR readers of the necessity of staying hydrated at altitude, and he aimed to develop products to combat dehydration. As well improving stove efficiency to melt snow quicker, MSR came through with a plethora of other hydration products that would help mountaineers hydrate on the go. The Dromedary Beverage Bag and other reservoirs in multiple volumes, along with ground-breaking water filters that eradicated waterborne bacteria were added to their ever-growing product catalogue.
MSR started making their technical mountaineering tents in the early 1970?s. In testing, due to lack of having a proper wind tunnel, MSR famously used a platform mounted on the back of pick-up, gained a wide-load permit and sped down Washington highways to wind test their tents.
After being acquired by Seattle-based Cascade Designs in 2001, MSR Tents was redefined with product ranges like the Hubba ? a lightweight, single pole pitch mountaineering tent that stable in the wind, rain and snow in the most extreme cases.
The list of innovations MSR has made to climbing gear is endless: hardy tubular ice screws, ice hawks, Denali Snowshoes in partnership with inventor Bill Forrest, grip friendly I-Beam carabiners, 4-piece avalanche probes, and weight-spreading packs to name but a few.
MSR has broken ground to improve the safety of climbing helmets. Early on they amended poor helmet positioning and implemented better strapping that made sure helmets stayed put. Upon request, they would replace a climber’s helmet for free so they use the old lid to analyse how their helmets performed in an accident.
Making better gear for the mountains
They’re not really known for their soft goods today, but early MSR products included synthetically insulated parkas that were one of the first garments to include the ?pit-zips? we see in most technical jackets today. MSR was an early adopter of GORE-TEX too ? Washington’s wet climate the inspiration for better waterproofing. Headlamps have always been part of MSR ? they were one of the first to use lithium batteries for longer life and better performance in fluctuating temperatures.
Throughout the company’s history, MSR gear has supported countless expeditions around the world, and in many cases their gear has been recognised for saving lives. In 1971, during Jim Wickwire and Ed Boulton’s attempt to climb the Willis Wall Central Rib on Mount Rainer, sheer ice caused them to have to self-arrest. They both later credited MSR’s Thunderbird Ice Axes with saving their lives. In 1985 Robert Swan led an expedition to the South Pole, MSR’s WhisperLite stove serving the company well throughout. And in 1995, MSR sponsored a ground-breaking 60 night summit of Pakistan’s Trango Tower, providing a full gear set-up from harnesses to haul bags.
Two companies that have tackled different faces, but essentially with the same goal ? making time in the outdoors safer and more comfortable. Their continued success could be credited to many things: the influence of engineers and inventors, a boom in outdoor exploration, the amazing mountains on Washington’s doorstep, or perhaps a combination of them all. Call us romantics, but we like to identify with the simple fact that they loved the outdoors, and by making it easier to do what they love, they were able to offer better enjoyment to us all. It’s hard to define, so we’ll just leave you with Larry Penberthy:
?Better, safer, more reliable equipment is the key to unlocking greater adventures.?
And albeit less poetically, you don?t need a better reason to make great gear than John Burroughs sentiment:
“We got started because I wanted a better mattress.”