Remembering Bob Swanson- Sierra Designs Co-Founder

The outdoor industry has lost another giant.

It seems that is happening more frequently, but I suppose that is inherent in the age of our industry. We are young in the grand scheme of business but many of our important founders are now getting into their 70’s and 80’s. Bob Swanson was one of those founders, having started Sierra Designs in 1965, with George Marks.

Bob had developed an interest in kayaking, which “somehow led to lots of hiking around Big Sur and an interest in the mountains.” That new interest took him on all sort of adventures across the west but eventually back to the Bay Area by 1963 and he started working at one of the first cool outdoor stores in the Bay Area, The Ski Hut, managed by another icon, Allen Steck. It is there that Bob first crossed paths with George Marks, a bond was formed and in 1965 they started Sierra Designs. “We were both interested in the mountains and in climbing and backpacking, and making gear for those activities seemed like a happening business.”

Sierra Designs was always renowned for its tent designs, and those came from the mind of Bob. This was the formation of ideas that would change our industry for years to come. After Bob and George sold Sierra Designs to a VC group, they stayed on board and managed the company for a while, but eventually discovered it was not as much fun anymore. This would become a recurring theme. They eventually joined forces again to work on several different tent companies and started Walrus tents in the mid-80’s. Buckminster Fuller had created the first geodesic dome tent at The North Face in the mid-70’s and Bob started working on ideas to alter that design for lighter weight and more varied functionality. Those ideas came to fruition with Walrus. Eventually they sold off Walrus as well, to Cascade Designs, and that transfer became the foundation of what is today the MSR tent line.

Bob Swanson (left) & George Marks (right) in 1965

George headed off to China and today still works in his factory in Yangzhou.

Bob then went to work with a tiny tent company from Steamboat Springs, CO. That company is Big Agnes. Wow. Quite the heritage and a legacy of great tents over the past 50 years. Thank you, Bob.

I first met Bob in the early 90's, when he had that cool little tent company called Walrus. He provided us with a few prototype tents for a trip on Denali. Those tents withstood some pretty nasty weather as if it were a balmy day at the beach. The only real problem we noted back to Bob after that trip was that the tents did not shovel themselves out during the storms we encountered. While Bob certainly appreciated that humor, he did also promise to work on that feature for future tents.

Soon thereafter they sold Walrus off to Cascade Designs and those old Walrus tents were the foundation of what is today the MSR tent line. If I recall, he went to work for MSR for a few years but the next time I crossed paths with Bob he had landed at Big Agnes and was again changing tents and helping create more award-winners!!

And in one of the coolest twists of fate, after those early Walrus explorations, I ended up being sponsored for further AK adventures by Sierra Designs. It was my first brush with a then 30 year old outdoor brand that had been founded by Bob, and his then partner, George Marks.

That brand is now 50+ years young and I find myself as the Director of the brand, now housed alongside Kelty, Ultimate Direction and other outdoor brands under the Exxel Outdoors umbrella. What a small world to have crossed paths so many times with Bob and Sierra Designs. And to Bob, you will be missed by many! Your contributions over all these years to changing the face of what we all expect a tent to be and to look like are greatly appreciated. Your innovation and vision altered the course of tent sales around the world. Thank you!

Bob Swanson passed away this past weekend in Maine, where he lived in recent years.  

Stephen Barnes is the Brand Director at Sierra Designs.