This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
In it, he covers the industry from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state.
“Here, pick this up,” says Scott Jensen, shedding his backpack on the convention center floor of the Big Gear Show.
“It’s only 18 pounds,” he says, pointing a potential hiker to a sign detailing the 30 items in the pack, including a featherweight sleeping bag, two-person tent, titanium cookset, rain gear, water filter and a camp seat that can hold 250 pounds. He’s selling his ready-for-the-trail Near Zero pack for less than $1,000.
“You’d spend close to $2,400 for all of it separately,” says Jensen, a 43-year-old father of five from Arizona.
When Jensen dreamed up his Near Zero business plan — selling an array of ultralight backpacking equipment — he was going to target the niche world of long-distance backpackers who spend countless hours shaving grams from their gear. But after a couple weeks with the instructors at the ICELab at Western Colorado University as part of the Moosejaw Business Accelerator program, Jensen has a new plan.
“The Moosejaw program has been life-changing in the sense that it has helped me better understand my target market,” he says. “I’ve learned that I need to target the beginner backpacker. I did not realize that before. I need to be about backpacking for dummies.”
The idea for a bundled, $1,000 Near Zero backpacking kit was born in a classroom in Gunnison where Jensen and entrepreneurs behind three other outdoor businesses are participating in a unique program that shapes concepts into business plans. The 4-year-old Moosejaw Business Accelerator Program also is helping that major retailer better connect with the next generation of outdoor innovators while establishing Western Colorado University’s growing status as an institutional hub for the outdoor recreation industry and the Gunnison River Valley as a hotbed for outdoor businesses.
For eight weeks, select business owners — who won their slot in the accelerator program with creative videos and a popular vote — are learning from mentors, business leaders and other graduates of the ICELab program, which is short for the Innovation, Creativity and Entrepreneurship Lab. Graduates of the program get legal advice from Holland & Hart and a debut of their products at Moosejaw.com.
The accelerator program received 40 applications, and program administrators whittled that group down to 10 finalists. Then a public process with more than 5,600 votes picked the final four startups to go through the program.
Kara Hardman and Arwen Turner created a video to apply for the Moosejaw Accelerator. The video application featured plus-size hikers enjoying the snowy outdoors in their underwear next to nonplus size hikers in technical apparel. The two innovators have created an outdoor apparel line called WNDR — or “Wander” — for plus-sized people.
“Sixty-seven percent of the population is plus-sized. We wanted to demonstrate the absurdity of the lack of gear and apparel,” Turner said. “And it was snowing. So it was extra absurd.”
The eight-week program involves two weeks of online classes, five weeks at the Western campus in Gunnison and a week in Denver during the Big Gear Show. At the five-day gathering at the Colorado Convention Center, the business owners visited with other nascent brands and consumers, honing their messaging and networking skills.
“This is good practice for us,” said Turner, who is working remotely as the executive director of Vermont’s Come Alive Outside, a nonprofit that connects underserved communities with outdoor recreation opportunities.
She said her years with the nonprofit working with people who maybe don’t consider themselves outdoorsy “have been really good market research for this endeavor.”
“In the nonprofit world, we try to learn from each other as much as we can and that’s kind of like what we are doing at the ICELab,” Turner said. “Trying to identify pitfalls and best practices so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”
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The rotation of successful entrepreneurs and business experts who have rolled through the ICELab in recent weeks has helped Hardman and Turner hone their investment strategy as well as learn about compliance with federal financial regulations when seeking investors.
“And storytelling. That’s been one of my favorite things. Learning how to best tell your story and get it out there,” Hardman said.
The main mission for WNDR is to increase the number of plus-size people recreating in the outdoors.
“We want to create a community. There are a lot of communities out there, but we want to bring them together and help them be better served, with the right equipment they need to be safe and comfortable outdoors,” said Hardman, who hopes to eventually expand beyond technical leggings and into shorts, sun shirts and rain jackets. “Our biggest goal is to get more adventurers out there and make plus-sized gear more accessible.”
Ashley Lance is picking up strategies for marketing and storytelling at the accelerator program to help grow her Portland, Oregon, company that makes plant-based, gluten-free dehydrated meals for backpacking. Lance is an avid bike-packer who has pedaled from Canada to Baja and across Cuba. She said ICELab instructors “have pushed” her to expand the potential audience for the company, Fernweh, she founded in 2019.
Lance said she’s developing a better story that amplifies her “omni-degradable” packaging, her all-women staff and the careful consideration of ingredients in her meals. She’s looking beyond the niche world of light-is-right bike adventurers.
“I’ve learned all the things I’ve been doing wrong and it’s been so enlightening,” Lance said.
John Peretti spent several years directing research and development at Jet Boil, the lightweight camping stove. His new Coastal Range Equipment stove is lighter with more capacity than Jet Boil.
“It’s about refocusing on users,” he said, pointing to his plans for a lightweight stove that fits into a pot along with a gas canister. “The technology should enable the experience, not be the experience.”
Peretti plans to launch a fundraiser in the fall with his Coastal Range stoves in stores by next spring. His focus at the ICELab is preparing for that launch. He’s been huddling with the founders of Pact Outdoors and Gnara — two companies that started out of the ICELab — for tips on how best to kick start his business plan.
“It’s like you have this institutional knowledge to borrow, which is so great for a startup where you are starting from zero,” he said.
Other accelerator graduates include Pact Outdoors, which offers tools for properly disposing of human waste in the woods. Pet gear-maker Spruce. Adaptive clothing brand No Limbits. SheFly Apparel, which recently rebranded to Gnara. Geyser Systems for outdoor cleaning. And pedal-maker Hustle Bike Labs.
Gnara was born in 2018 as SheFly Apparel, a company that designs zippers for women to swiftly answer nature’s call without tedious shedding of garments. (Tagline: Born to pee wild.) After graduating from the Moosejaw program in 2021 alongside the wildly successful PACT Outdoors, the owners started pondering zippers in all sorts of clothing and changed the name to Gnara to “get away from gendered language,” said the company’s director of development Leigh Monterac.
Today, Gnara is designing its “Go Fly” technology into many different garments and the company is still tapping Moosejaw and ICELab experts as well as offering insight to the program’s up-and-coming brands.
“There are a lot of learning challenges and experiences we have had by making something no one else is making,” Monterac said.
TJ Taylor was a Western undergraduate when ICELab first took shape in 2016. After several years in the outdoor industry he returned to the Gunnison campus last year as the manager of the facility and program. After several years of graduates and a growing book of ICELab of success stories, “it feels like all the pieces are really clicking together,” Taylor said.
“So much of what we do is as a connector. We bring together companies and resources and our network of resources is just growing and expanding every day,” he said. “We have an amazing group of mentors.”
Gunnison County’s tourism leaders transformed the valley’s tourism promotion plan to include more economic development and growing Western Colorado University.
The ICELab helps in that mission as the economic development arm of the Travel and Prosperity Partnership, working with any company that brings cash into the valley while sending products out of the county.
“Our mission in the county is to create more high-paying jobs,” Taylor said. “So things like this at Moosejaw Business Accelerator, we’re exposing these companies, these young companies in the outdoor industry, to not just that network of resources that we’ve built but to how amazing and special a place the Gunnison Valley is to live. It’s become a really good additional leg to our economy.”
Michigan-based Moosejaw was acquired from Walmart by Dick’s Sporting Goods earlier this year to expand the outdoor retailer’s Public Lands chain of stores.
Moosejaw CEO Eoin Comerford said bringing products like Gnara and PACT Outdoors to consumers through the accelerator program “is a huge win for Moosejaw.” He called the process of launching new brands “a virtuous cycle” with benefits for both his company and the business owners.
“I get as much out of this as they do with the passion and energy these folks bring,” Comerford said in the busy Big Gear Show booth where the aspiring entrepreneurs pitched and chatted. “One of the great things about the outdoor industry and outdoor customers is that they are always looking for the next new thing … as opposed to other areas where people are pretty staid and stuck in their ways. So when you find a backpacking company that’s got a better solution, with better performance and lower weight or the same performance and same weight for lower cost, you are all about it, right?”