From The Lean-To: Wilderness Experience

Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness, nutrition, and adventure courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+.

Yes, there are many old outdoor companies that flourished in the 70s and 80s but unfortunately failed to make it to 2012. One of those companies is the infamous Wilderness Experience, which, to this author, is the best of the lot. Fans of the Chatsworth, CA based brand scour Ebay for coats, packs, shorts, and yes, even ski suits. For many, it's the cream of the crop, some of the best “stuff” ever made.

Is it true? I'm not sure. But it sure is handsome, and there's a pretty cool history to the Wilderness Experience's founders, the Brothers Thomsen, after the jump…

(Pictured above: The Taliban using Wilderness Experience sleeping bags in the 70s)

Upon coming back to California from a short trip to Mexico in 1970, Greg Thomsen, who had worked for Kelty Mountaineering while attending UCLA, was offered to manage a mountaineering store in Tarzana, California called The Mountain Store. His brother Greg, fresh off the boat from an around-the-world trip that included a quick stop at Mt. Everest, joined him at the store. Along with Greg's wife, Laurie, they started a guide service taking kids into the High Sierra wilderness. (The brochure from that venture can be found here.) 

While the brothers continued to climb and do the things that people do in the mountains of California, they bought a sewing machine and started making backpacks. (Heard that story before.) One of their earliest models, the Klettersack (pictured at the top of this post), was one of their most popular and, as I'm sure you might know, has been copied by countless companies for the last 40ish years. Stores started buying them, the company grew, and in 1978, while at a trade show in Chicago, Snow Lion, a manufacturer of tents, sleeping bags and apparel, announced they were going bankrupt. And what's a booming outdoor backpack company to do? Yes. You got it. Buy em out and fulfill their orders. 

So in the late 70s, Wilderness Experience started designing the clothes and outerwear that people like me drool over. The brothers eventually left in the early 80s and they were bought out by K2. I'm not sure of the exact year that they actually stopped making Wilderness Experience, but some new versions of the old bags have been popping up in Japan as of late. Of course there's much more to the story than that, so if you're interested, head on over Jim Thomsen's website to get a full history and see a wealth load of pictures that I didn't include here. 

And hey, you've got a little drool on your chin…

Jeff Thrope is the editor and founder of Cold Splinters. For more ways to pretend you're sleeping under the stars instead of reading the Internet, visit and

promo logo