Washington Trails Association
Trails for everyone, forever
The nontraditional career path of professional gear icon Tom Bihn | by Cassandra Overby
Outdoor gear designer Tom Bihn (tombihn.com) has developed a devoted following for the inventive — and nearly indestructible — travel and outdoor packs he conceptualizes, manufactures and sells out of his Seattle factory and showroom. But the successful designer might never have become a gear icon at all if it weren’t for the do-it-yourself attitude of his parents, his contrarian nature and a nontraditional career path.
It all started in Santa Cruz in 1970, when 10-year-old Tom caught the outdoor bug. To some degree, it was inevitable. From an even younger age, he’d camped and backpacked with his dad and brothers. But in 1970, Tom discovered his own reason for getting outside — wildlife.
“I’ve almost always preferred the company of animals over people,” he said. “But being outdoors and seeing wildlife became a really driving force for me.”
The budding naturalist wanted nothing more than to get outside and see animals in their natural habitat. And that meant he needed more outdoor gear — his own backpack and a down jacket. When he asked his parents for the gear, they instead gave him a choice: get an after-school job and earn the money or figure out how to make it yourself. Tom was up for the challenge.
“I’m kind of a contrarian,” he said. “I’m not a person inclined to do the obvious thing or what everyone else is doing. So I decided to figure out how to make it myself.” Initially, it was a family effort. Tom’s grandma had an old Singer sewing machine that his brother fixed up for him, his mom taught him how to sew, and his dad schooled him in the basics of engineering. It didn’t take long before Tom was proudly sporting his first creation, a pouch for his “Golden Guides” to birds and mammals. He’d also discovered his calling in life: making outdoor gear.
Tom threw himself into his new hobby with the same gusto he’d given to — and would continue to give — his outdoor pursuits. The timing was ideal. Outdoor equipment was just starting to come into its own as a legitimate industry, and a variety of small startups selling backpacks, down jackets and sleeping bags had popped up all over Santa Cruz. Tom started riding his bike into town to visit them. He didn’t just admire the gear — he studied it, looking closely at how everything was made and trying to deconstruct it all in his mind. By the time he was 11, Tom was a regular at a small, two-person gear shop in Santa Cruz that was owned by a young Vietnam veteran named David Meeks.
“David was just a super generous guy with his time,” said Tom. “He saw that I was interested and he showed me a lot of stuff about making equipment. He ended up being my mentor.”
Tom frequented David’s shop into his teenage years, until it closed its doors.
“(David) saw the direction the outdoor gear industry was headed in the mid-’70s,” said Tom. “It wasn’t about equipment anymore. It was about fads and fashion. People were buying outdoor equipment for everyday use and he just thought that was complete bullsh*t. So he quit the whole industry and became a beekeeper.”
Despite his change in profession, David continued to mentor Tom. He set up a corner of his barn with a cutting table, and Tom rode his bike out there for marathon days of sewing. His skills grew considerably thanks to the long hours of practice. Occasionally, Tom would ask for help with a particularly challenging project, but for the most part, he taught himself through trial and error. There wasn’t really any other choice — the industry was still so new that no classes, tutorials or books existed on how to master it. Luckily, Tom’s years of sewing experience were starting to pay off.
“What’s kind of interesting about the world of sewn stuff is that once you’ve done enough of it, you can pretty much look at what someone else has done and deconstruct it in your mind,” he said. “You can almost always do that. Sometimes I have to take it apart. It’s a good skill to have, to be able to deconstruct stuff.”
For his creations, Tom saw a lot of value in the do-it-yourself attitude he’d inherited from his parents.
“You can draw any line you want on a piece of paper, but it’s a lot of work to take ideas and turn them into the real thing,” said Tom. “It’s interesting to know how things work and to make them yourself. It’s interesting and it yields a better product.”
Tom loved learning sewing techniques, but he hated conventional school. When he was 16, he dropped out due to extreme boredom. Because he’d never considered designing and building outdoor gear professionally, that passion was shoved to the backseat.
Tom spent the next decade traveling and working a variety of random jobs, everything from manual labor to special education. He even spent a couple of years living in a tent in the mountains.
“There wasn’t much I didn’t do in my 20s,” he said.
Tom had done a lot — but he’d failed to find anything that captivated him as much as making outdoor gear. That realization hit at a Ghandian nonviolence center in Carmel Valley, California. Tom had gone to the center to hear Ira Sandperl, a political ally of Martin Luther King Jr. and singer-turned-activist Joan Baez, speak about nonviolence. His aha moment came at the end of the talk, when the scholar opened up the floor to questions.
“Somebody asked him … ‘If you could change one thing about the world that would make it a more peaceful place, what would it be?’” said Tom. “And Ira said, ‘If everyone got to do just what they like to do the most.’”
The message resonated with Tom.
“In a way, it gave me permission to say that what I liked to do was a good thing in the world and not selfish,” he said. “And I took it to heart. I was like, I like making stuff. I’m going to go back to making outdoor equipment. That was the game changer.”
Soon, Tom opened his own gear shop in Santa Cruz. Initially, it was tiny — just 275 square feet with room for a cutting table, a sewing machine and a few chairs. But it had the same feel as his old mentor’s shop, and Tom ran his business in much the same way.
“There are many things about my company that I basically inherited from (David’s) point of view,” said Tom. “One is that I gave the company my name. His company had his name. He felt like if you were going to do something, you should take responsibility for it and put your name on it.”
Tom didn’t just put his name on his gear. He also put his heart and soul into each piece in the way that only a person with an all-consuming passion could. His gear quickly became known for its quality — every piece was hand-fashioned, every zipper was reinforced, every product was guaranteed. Tom made everything himself out of the very best materials available, regardless of cost. And he’d never been happier.
His shop was soon a hotbed of community, filled with outdoorsy people who came in as strangers and left as friends after one of Tom’s famous cups of tea and some conversation. As the shop’s reputation started to grow, so did Tom’s sales.
Eventually, Tom could no longer fulfill all the orders himself, so he found a contract manufacturer in Minnesota to help him manufacture his bags. He moved his shop to a larger location in Santa Cruz. And in the late ‘90s, he registered one of the first commercial domains on a new-fangled thing called the Internet and started listing his products for sale online. Tom tackled the project with the same doit-yourself attitude that he’d brought to mastering outdoor gear.
“I initially didn’t want anything to do with (the internet),” Tom said. “But my brother, who’s a computer kind of guy, was like, ‘Tom, get serious. Get a website. It’s the future.’ So as a present he gave me a Mac computer, and I took classes in HTML and completely designed and built my own website from the ground up.”
Almost overnight, Tom’s business exploded.
“We had orders coming in from everywhere,” said Tom. “My company went from being a very localized phenomenon in Santa Cruz to a thing that spread across the whole world.”
In the 20 years since he put his outdoor gear online, much has changed. Tom moved himself and his business to Seattle, brought manufacturing completely in-house once again by establishing his own factory in the SoDo district of the city, and is now producing and selling more products, from day hiking packs to travel bags to urban commuting bags, than he ever could have imagined almost 50 years ago when he sewed his first guidebook pouch.
What’s even better is that much has also stayed the same. Tom still loves coming up with and perfecting new designs. He still builds all of the product prototypes himself. And he’s still a fixture in the manufacturing process. At the factory, he knows the name of every single employee and can often be found tinkering with a sewing machine or having an animated discussion about the latest in fabric technology.
“There’s not a process in this factory that I cannot do,” said Tom. “My people do it better than I do. They do it faster than I do. And they do it all day long. But I know how to do all of this stuff. I like getting out there on the floor.”
For Tom, making outdoor gear remains an all-consuming passion — one that might never have been discovered had his parents just gone out and bought him the outdoor gear he wanted as a child. The serendipitous nature of it all is something that’s not lost on him.
“I am an incredibly lucky person, a very, very fortunate person, to get to do what I do,” said Tom. “I love it. I totally do.”