Alite Designs cofounder Tae Kim at the Ranger Station library. Photo: Mary Catherine O'Connor
Tae Kim grew up in Anchorage, Alaska, where, he says, “your crazy uncle teaches you how to go camping.” (His crazy uncle really did teach him how to go camping.) But in the lower 48, he found the concept of “the outdoors” much less accessible to people. Looking at most outdoor gear company offerings, you’d think the only way to go outside is to go huck a cliff, or climb a mountain, to take on a major expedition.
After a six-year stint as design director at The North Face, Kim co-founded Alite Designs in 2008. Specializing in packs, tents and camping accessories, San Francisco-based Alite targets young, hip, urban consumers who want to spend more time outside but don’t really know how to get out there.
“Tents are a huge hurdle for people to go out and buy,” he says, and what’s the point in buying a tent if you’re not sure you’ll use it more than once? “Our whole mission is to get people outside, especially young people. We want to make sure they’re not scared or inadequately equipped. A lot of these people grew up in suburbia and moved to the city and never really spent time outside,” he says.
REI and other outdoor outfitters offer gear rentals, but Alite wanted to make getting outside even more attractive to people. So, modeled after the tool lending library in Oakland, California, the Alite Ranger Station program is a free lending library that connects camping newbies with a kit of gear. The kits are completely free (unless the gear is returned dirty, then there’s a $50 cleaning fee).
Sure, the program is a marketing tool. Some of the 11 pieces in the kit—the tent, camp chair and backpacks—are Alite products, but it also includes a cook-set, lantern, sleeping pad and other essentials from other manufacturers. Stoves and sleeping bags are not included, but those who are borrowing the kits are generally camping with other, more experienced campers who provide stoves. And just about anyone can borrow a sleeping bag from a friend.
The lending library—available only in San Francisco, for now—is proving to be very popular, and it’s part of a larger program that Alite is developing. The goal is to link city dwellers with places that are often very close to the city, yet well outside their day-to-day routines. And it’s not all about campgrounds and beaches: organic farms and vineyards are also on the itinerary and play a major role in Kim’s vision to connect his customers with the land their food comes from.
“It’s about a brand. What does a brand really do for customers?” he asks. “For us, inspiration and inspiring people are key facets to Alite. It’s not just product design.”
Kim likes to use the analogy of a cooking show. “You know how they show you two or three recipes, and they show you the ingredients and how to make it. We feel like traditional outdoor stores just give you the ingredients. They’re not really showing you how to cook, or how to get inspired. Our products are our ingredients, but you’ll be seeing in the next year, we’ll be putting cookbooks together.”
He means that both figuratively and literally. Food plays an important part in the time that Alite customers spend outdoors—especially in the foodie haven of San Francisco. And Alite is collaborating with local chefs to produce an outdoor-focused cookbook. Videos and events will likely also be part of the recipe.
—Mary Catherine O'Connor
Sign photo: Rona Lee; Disclosure: I own the Alite Designs Monarch camping chair and I love it.