BOB HOWE: THE LIFE OF A TENT DESIGNER (1960s-2013 and beyond)

Please Note: All Material below, and in all my "History of Gear" webpages, is copyrighted, and no usage of my material is permitted unless explicit permission is granted by me, Bruce B. Johnson, owner of OregonPhotos.com. Much of the material below is derived from interviews and/or correspondence with both Bob Howe and North Face head designer Mark Erickson, as well as my own research..... Editors: Please contact me if you have interest in publishing....Others: if you were involved with one of the old-line, vintage gear companies and have a story to tell in these pages, please contact me soon.

How does a tent designer like Bob get started? Bob writes, "I don’t know if I have told you, but my first tent was built from Cunningham’s patterns in “Light Weight Equipment.." (Gerry Cunningham, founder of GERRY, who published at least three editions of his ground-breaking equipment-making book beginning in 1959).

Bob Howe, August 9th, 2006:

"Hi Bruce, Here are a couple of pages I scanned out of "Dome Notes" by Peter Hjersman published in 1975 in Berkeley. I included the bibliography to illustrate just how many people were working with geodesics at the time. Note that most of the dates predate xxx's work by years. A quick look at the page regarding the "Great Circle Dome" anticipates much of what xxx claims to be his right down to the fact that it was made of PVC pipe and covered with sheet plastic to make a greenhouse. Whether xxx arrived at his ideas independently I cannot say, but all of this was happening in a rather small community centered around Berkeley and certainly predates his work.
The other comment I would make is that the "Great Circle Dome" was the direct genesis of the first geodesic tent I made for Snow Lion. I developed other unique geometries on my own later, but my first one was inspired from this book.
I also included a photo I grabbed from the internet of the The North Face Mountain 25, one of the most durable of my designs."

Bob Howe
Designer
Lafayette, CA 94549

In the Bay Area of California in the early 1970s Buckminster Fuller's geodesic domes became all the rage. Many folks had caught the geodesic bug and were experimenting and building both temporary and permanent structures. A key resource for the movement was published in Berkeley in 1975, named "Dome Notes." Tent designer Bob Howe says that he was heavily influenced by this book, and others published a bit earlier in the "Dome" movement. In fact, he told me that his first back-packable geodesic tent was directly derived from the geometries of the "Great Circle Dome" that he found described in such written resources... He built his backpackable geodesic tent in 1975 (see image at top of this page). This was the same year that North Face introduced the "Oval Intention," which they proudly claim to be the world's first backpacking geodesic tent. However, 32 year old Ned Gillette, famous expeditioneer who had been sponsored with North Face products on previous trips, did not choose the Oval Intention for his Spring 1977 Arctic expedition.... Instead, Bob's new expeditionary tent became the bombproof wonder that Ned trusted for his winter expedition to the High Arctic's Ellesmere Island.... At page top, please see picture of a young Bob Howe holding up the finished tent prototype in his Berkeley backyard in 1975, and to the left see the tent in actual use at Ellesmere Island under severe arctic conditions. According to Bob, Ned raved about how much stronger and better this geodesic tent was compared to anything he had used in past expeditions....See page bottom for an obituary about Ned Gillette.

Two Examples of Bob Howe Well-known Tents

The Meridian Tent: Bob's Great Circle-derived geodesic dome was so successful on Ned Gillette's expedition that the two variations of it that Bob was introducing to the public seemed sure to succeed. Bob had hooked up with a major, well-regarded gear company for the introduction. The company was Snowlion, a very well-known and well-regarded Bay-Area manufacturer during the 1970s. Interestingly, Snowlion was concurrently one of the sponsors of Ned Gillette's arctic expedition (described above)... Below is an image of the Meridian from page 49 of the 1977 Snowlion catalog.

HOWEVER, In one of the most tragic ironies to be found in the History of Backpacking, the Snowlion catalogs got printed, but never made it into the hands of the public. In fact, I have corresponded with a fellow who participated in the photo shoot for the 1977 catalog (which was marked on its cover as a "1978" catalog*). This man related that the gear photography was shot high on Mt. Hood in Oregon....At the 1977 Outdoor Products Trade Show (Exposition) at the Houston AstroDome, where Snowlion was set to launch the new "dome" tents, an unexpected announcement was made: Snowlion was going bust and closing its doors. Snowlion's part in launching the geodesic tent revolution was erased from the history books. As for Bob Howe, he found himself launched on a lifetime career in the Outdoor Gear Industry. Interestingly, his design for the Meridian tent became popular: Bob writes, "...the tent went on. Wilderness Experience grabbed the design upon SnowLion's demise, and it also surfaced at of all places Cabelas, where it is still sold to this day." (I've also been provided with other images of the SnowLion Meridian tent, which I may post at later date)... * a note about that 1978 Snowlion catalog--- to me, the 1978 Snowlion catalog cover ranks very high as one of the most dramatic, striking, artsy covers in the History of Gear! I think it is rare and quite collectible should you find one in good condition. Should you happen across one, here is a image of the cover, taken of my personal, mint condition '78 catalog! Note the two climbers walking up the ridgeline in bottom center (one is walking into a drifting cloud and is nearly invisible).

1978 Snowlion Collectible Catalog Cover, designed by Master Illustrator/sculptor Bruce Wolfe

 

The North Face "Mountain 25" Tent. The Mountain 25 is an expedition-strong geodesic which Bob Howe designed in 1995. He states it's been one of his most successful and longest-lived designs, in an industry which increasingly changes tent styles like some people do hair styles, it's a testament to the tent's timeless qualities.

 

Although not originally a Bob Howe design, I add this section about the Sierra Designs "Tiros" geodesic because it is a tent that I personally own and like a lot!

The Sierra Designs "Tiros" -- The Tiros is another great tent that Bob Howe has had a hand in designing (he was not, however, the original designer, instead providing some design modifications for the tent much later, eg. 1997's version, the Tiros Guide CD model).... The Marmot Mountain Works store in Bellevue, WA had high praise for the Tiros about 12 years ago in their catalog: "The strongest 4 season tent Sierra Designs makes. This 2-person dome has a built-in vestibule and aluminum shock-corded poles. A large front door and smaller backdoor provide great ventilation. Vestibule will fit over either door." (click here to reach my page about the Tiros One tent in my ownership, with many images!).

 

The Current Status of Bob Howe

He moved to Bend, Oregon and is still busy designing tents, as he has done for some 35 years. Over the course of these years, he designed tents and other products for nearly all of the major companys, and for several of the smaller ones as well. For example, early in his career, he created the "Earth Station" geodesic in 1978 for Bill Nicolai's "Early Winters"company, and in 1979 created the Great Arc Dome for Trailwise, a tent which he still says is probably the strongest backpacking tent he's ever designed, "You could do push-ups off the side of it." Backpacker Magazine loved its strength, but hated the weight and cost of its six-pole design..The American Military still use some tent designs of Bob's. One in particular is a 4 man tent with a huge vestibule fly, with all its pole of equal length (no fiddling when cold, wet, tired and darkness is setting in). Those military tents are made for the military by Eureka Tent. Co., arguably the oldest tent company in the United States.


Continue to Bob Howe's website. Be sure to visit the extensive PDF page describing his latest innovations incorporated in his new "ERT" geodesic tents! I love them in their intended usage for emergency relief efforts, and am also very excited about how these can be modified for backpacking or family camping.

Please Note: All Material above, and in all my "History of Gear" webpages, is copyrighted, and no usage of my material is permitted unless explicit permission is granted by me, Bruce B. Johnson, owner of OregonPhotos.com. Much of the material above is derived from interviews and correspondence with both Bob Howe and North Face head designer Mark Erickson.... Editors: Please contact me if you have interest in publishing....Others: if you were involved with one of the old-line, vintage gear companies and have a story to tell in these pages, please contact me soon.

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Ned Gillette met an untimely end on August 5, 1998. He was sleeping in his tent with his wife in Kashmir, an unsettled border region between India and Pakistan, when he was shot to death by what appeared to be robbers. His wife Susy Patterson was injured, but recovered. So ended a life full of adventure. For details, see the fine Obiturary written by FRANK LITSKY that appeared in the NY Times on August 14, 1998.