A cottage gear manufacturer is one that manufactures their own products, rather than outsourcing them to a contract manufacturer. In the backpacking industry companies like Mountain Laurel Designs, Tarptent, ULA, Hyperlite Mountain Gear, Yama Mountain Gear, ZPacks, Elemental Horizons, and Superior Wilderness Designs design, fabricate or sew all of their own products in-house. Most of them also sell direct to consumers over the internet.
There are some companies in the backpacking market, like Gossamer Gear, Six Moon Designs and Hennessey Hammocks, that were cottage manufacturers earlier in their history, but have since moved their manufacturing off shore to Mexico or Asia, in order to lower their costs and keep up with demand. They’re often grandfathered-in and referred to as cottage manufacturers, even though they’ve outgrown the label.
In some ways, being a cottage manufacturer is a lifestyle choice. There are some companies that have resisted expanding their production capacity because they like things the way they are. Others prefer to put their time into new design innovation and marketing and are willing to outsource the production details to others.
Advantages and Disadvantages for Consumers
The upside of buying gear from a cottage manufacturer that makes their own products is that you can often have it customized for a small fee. The downside is you often have wait for several months to have your gear made, since many small manufacturers have such long backorder queues. These smaller companies don’t have the business experience or cash reserves to pre-buy large quantities of fabric or to hire and train part-time workers to help expedite orders during periods of high demand.
Cottage companies also innovate much more quickly than larger companies because they don’t have to buy huge lots of materials in advance that they get stuck with if they make a change. While that can be good for consumers, you might not get the same product that your buddy bought 6 months ago. Not all innovations are “good ones”, if you follow me.
One thing to watch for when buying products from cottage companies are their return policies and warranties. This isn’t REI. If it’s custom-made, you probably can’t return it if you don’t like it. If it’s not, the return policy is still going to be a lot more strict than if you buy it at a big retailer. Pay attention to this! The same holds for warranty guarantees. While most cottage companies will go out of their way to keep you satisfied if a product you’ve purchased fails catastrophically, they’re likely to charge you for any self-inflicted repairs.
The upside of buying from a small manufacturer that offshores the manufacture of their products is that usually have more inventory available and can ship it out to you more quickly. The downside is that it’s strictly off the shelf, since they lack the ability to do any customization.
Bigger Gear Companies
Some cottage gear companies “grow up” and become industry giants, like Osprey Packs, Gregory Packs, MSR, and others. But in doing so they outsource most, if not all, of their manufacturing to others and run lean design and marketing staffs. They also stop selling direct and begin to sell through retailers, like REI, Backcountry.com, and others. For example, REI buys a huge lot of goods from these manufacturers, usually at a 50% discount, and then sells them to consumers at full MSRP. This results in much slower new product development cycles because retailers have to sell off old models before they can buy new ones. If a manufacturer were to release a new product before the old ones are sold out, their customers…the retailers, get screwed selling older model products at a discount.
The upside for consumers is that REI and larger retailers will take product returns 6 months out, no questions asked, which is not an insignificant benefit. The downside is that their store staff usually lacks the expertise or motivation to make sure you choose the right gear and get fitted properly for your adventures. Can’t have it both ways.
Visit the Cottage Gear Directory
Nice article! I would really love a “How It’s Made” on some of the cottage gear stuff – from the design process to manufacturing. If anyone were interested in that type of PR, I’d lap it up like a…. thirsty dog, I guess. That took an awkward turn, but you get it. The Venn diagram of engineers who like to backpack and who like How It’s Made is a circle (and I’m in it).
Cottage manufacturers, hit me up when you start making videos about the cool people you have sewing the stuff I buy. (The handwritten name inside my WM bag is so sweet to me. I say thanks to the person who sewed my bag on particularly cold nights.)
That’s just brilliant!
If your ever in SW Colorado your always welcome to stop by the Alpine Luddites shop and see how everything is done.
I have to say John, I really like the look of those packs and bike bags (he said, packing up a very battered CCW Chaos).
Thanks for publishing the article giving a balanced look at ¨tiny¨and the ones who outgrew tiny. In my opinion we should not forsake a quality manufacturer just because they sort of outgrew the cottage industry label. After all, that’s what business is all about really; grow or stagnate. The attached directory is an excellent resource and it is clear that you put a lot of effort into it. Some of these tiny companies aren’t even on radar yet. You are giving a tremendous service to your readers and to the hiking and biking communities and to the cottage gear industry. Thank you for doing that!!
Of the several cottage mfgs on the list that I’ve personally dealt with, I can say the customer service has been excellent. No complaints and will continue to patronize their businesses.
I’d like to add that the label of “cottage manufacturer” isn’t worth a hill of beans to me if they don’t pay a living wage to their workers in the US.
Well, some of the “cottage” folks outsource, although not overseas. I understand that Tarptents are sewn in Seattle (which actually makes them more “local” for me than central California). And thank you very much for the directory! The one I had bookmarked is over 10 years old, so the update is most appreciated!
I don’t worry as much about where it is made, but how it is made.
Just got a US made tent that came with a California warning label about how dangerous the flame retardant used on it is. Seems that flame retardants are required in some states, so most major companies do something to comply. (This is a complicated issue.) But say if i decided to avoid tents treated with chemical flame retardants, my only options would be to buy a tent made by from a cottage vendor or a non-US manufacturer. Nice to have the choice.
I do hate buying expensive items sight unseen that are difficult or impossible to return though.
It might be a real chore to keep this directory up to date, but I think a lot of your readers appreciate it. It’s a great resource. Thank you.
It’s not that bad. I use it to (and I’ve got things pretty well automated on this end).
I assure you, it was an impersonal attack. While I know some very qualified retail personnel, I avoid outdoor brick and mortar retailers because I can’t help interrupting floor staff when I overhear the crap advice many give shoppers.
Great article & compilation Phil! We are going to take advantage of those discounts!
But how about a listing for Zelph’s Fancee Feest Stove? I know you reviewed it and we love ours!
Actually, I haven’t reviewed it. I keep buying it meaning too, forget about it, and buy another again!
I love the first line of this article. The definition also agrees with investopedia.com
The directory does seem to blur the lines. There are true cottage companies that really manufacturer in house. Should there be an asterisk or a 2nd list for those that moved on and essentially source products from similar sources as the big boys like is pointed out with Gossamer Gear? Since it would be hard to track when companies shift production, it would be understandable that that is simply not realistic.
However, there are startups that outsource their manufacturing to the cheapest option like the big companies with the intent to directly compete with existing cottage manufacturers. For example, it appears that Durstan and Outdoor Vitals do exactly this. Have these companies ever met the “cottage” definition?