Tentmaking It


Dec 1, 1999
Outside Magazine

What is the mantra of a full-time tent designer and tester? Repeat after us: "Seams leak. Real wind is better than wind tunnels. It's not a vacation, it's a field test."

For the past two decades, Martin Zemitis, master craftsman and engineer of outdoor equipment, has worked hard to rationalize and advance this crucial refrain and—to the great envy of his friends and colleagues—make a living sleeping under the stars. As a designer for The North Face, Sierra Designs, and now Mountain Hardwear, Zemitis, 41, has thought up, drawn, prototyped, and tried to destroy everything from fanny packs to extra bouncy bungee cords to intricately vented backcountry cook tents to massive, 15-person shelters. (Last May, Babu Chiri Sherpa spent 21 hours on the summit of Everest in an expedition tent Zemitis designed for the feat.) Perhaps most impressive, he's never spent more than three weeks at a time in his Berkeley, California, office.

Take last year, for example: To test his tents in every kind of extreme weather and terrain, Zemitis climbed the flanks of Mount Rainier, sea-kayaked the Everglades, and whooped over rapids on the Tuolomne and the Salmon. He filled notebooks with trenchant commentary about setup time, ice-encrusted stakes, and the deleterious effects of UV rays on titanium dioxide tent fabric. In short, he's a truant on a salary. "Being outside is my job," he says. "And, no, you can't have it."

Not that Zemitis's work is an endless backcountry idyll. Once while rafting the Colorado, torrential rain infiltrated a theoretically bombproof prototype tent; and during an ascent of Mount Washington, he was lashed by 115-mph gales. Lesser visionaries might retreat to the safety of a watertight, climate-controlled design studio—but not Zemitis. "This is the only life I can imagine," he says. "I get to think about tents. I get to live in tents. And because I make the tents, I can assume they won't leak. Most of the time."

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