The History of Gear: Warmlite aka Stephenson's Warmlite Equipment Co., located in New Hampshire (page one of two)

"This guy is a bloody genius" -- Wayne Gregory, founder of Gregory Packs

Pioneer: Jack Stephenson. An outdoor gear Inventor and notorious nudist with many big firsts since the late 1950s. Born 2/28/1933.. He's a major Pioneer whose many serious contributions have been consistently under-rated, derided, copied or forgotten... And his company (recently being run by his son William) is still in business today! I give Warmlite a longevity and Made in America Award, found at page bottom. BREAKING NEWS: R.I.P. Jack Stephenson passed away on February 18, 2017, at age 83. As you read these two pages about his genius, take a moment to reflect just how far ahead of his times he truly was!

 

BOOKS: "Warmlite: Still Controversial After All These Years" (cover is pictured above). There are two versions. The first is a short book about Warmlite history and products, published 2013, and well before Stephenson's death. This is the only one of my books offered in an inexpensive 6x9 inch, black&white format. 40 pages, and the price is under $8. Click here to see a book review, or, Click here or on the book cover to see a 15 page preview and purchase it from my publisher. Or, Contact me (oldgear@oregonphotos.com). To read my Biography as a writer, click here..To read some Book Reviews of my books, click here.... For my discussion of my book pricing and quality, click here..... Big Note: the much more in-depth version of my Warmlite book is nearly completed. It commemorates Jack Stephenson's life and will be 108 pages in length and in my usual 8x10 full-color format as a hardback or as a softback.... And please note: I will offer the 108 page book as $15 PDF download that I will send you myself (oldgear@oregonphotos.com). Finally, you might want to take a look at a short and very modern new site that I have created that focuses on all six of my books; it's a short alternative to the vast detail in my main pages below; see, www.historyofgear.weebly.com.


"Before the Ultralight Revolution there was Jack Stephenson"

PACK INNOVATOR--- I have laid before me on the table a simple black and white photograph of a young Jack Stephenson wearing a shiny, unorthodox hip-carry frame pack in about 1957 (for historical context, 1957 is the year when a young climbing bum named Yvon Chouinard started selling climbing gear out of his beat-up old car in Yosemite).

TENT INNOVATOR--- Near the 1957 pack photo, I have a Kodachrome slide dated 1961 that documents a definitely non-A-frame tent of Mr. Stephenson's manufacture made of bright red lightweight nylon (see image). I have an even earlier picture of the Model 1, "Original Filmgap tent," dated 1958.... Both the pack and the tent design were fully functioning and for sale many years before other companies brought these innovations to the camping public.

The earliest pack, as pictured, was named the "Jack Pack," and was marketed from 1957 to 1961, and after that for many years was sold as the "Go-lite" pack mostly the same design, but minus the rodent-proof aluminum box)...Click here for more about the Jack Pack and its padded hipbelt system..... The first Warmlite tent for sale to the public was the Model 6 in 1964. The picture shows an earlier model in 1961....Note: all pictures this page compliments of Jack Stephenson, except where noted.

Meanwhile, my 2005 issues of Backpacker Magazine contain many ads and even a feature article about the newest revolution to sweep backpacking, the so-called Ultralight Revolution. An entire week's worth of hiking can now be done with half the weight that old-timers like me are accustomed to wearing. Twenty-two pounds for a week in the wilderness. Wow.

But over 40 years ago Mr. Jack Stephenson was endlessly experimenting with tent, pack, and sleeping bag designs that were ultralight. He could have named his company "Ultralite," but instead he named it "Warmlite." Warmlite is still a going concern, and their philosophy has never changed--- Innovation based on solid science and modern materials. And, "Convention be damned," if need be.

Visit Warmlite, page two, "A Warmlite Gear Extravaganza." And a new take on classic Warmlite gear display


Please Note: All Material on this page, 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...Many of the materials on this page were directly contributed by Jack Stephenson, and Wayne Gregory, founder of Gregory Packs and longtime friend of Mr. Stephenson has also contributed.... Editors and Writers: Please contact me at oldgear@Oregonphotos.com if you have interest in publishing any of this work.


Below are the first few paragraphs of a feature story which I have written about Warmlite and its origins. Sources included Jack Stephenson himself, an archive of original photos, slides and clippings which he provided, and interviews with others such as Wayne Gregory (the originator of Gregory Packs), and Noah Lamport (who was the original source of the first lightweight nylons used in both Eddie Bauer's and Jack Stephenson's down bags and garments).

Note: Warmlite was founded in California, and was based there, in Woodland Hills, for many years before moving to New Hampshire, where it is still located. Before we move to my feature story, please meet Jack and Joan Stephenson, and hear about their Family.

FAMILY BUSINESS: The story of Warmlite is not a solo story about Jack Stephenson, the Wonder Boy Engineer from Rutger's University become Gear Guru of Warmlite. When I interviewed him, he supplied the picture to the left, with the instructions that any story of Warmlite be accompanied by full-credit to his wife Joan, who has been with him and part of the business since the beginning. In this connection Jack has also insisted that he could not have made a success of the business without the unceasing work of his long-time business manager Jane Fortin (note: and as of May 2009, Jane is still in charge!). In addition, I feel strongly that the Warmlite story is in many ways the story of a FAMILY business, in that both Jack's younger brother George, and Jack's own children Beverly, Laura Jean, Eric, and William were all very involved with the sewing, clerical work, and other aspects of producing the high quality of Warmlite gear; eg. Beverly herself sewed the 3X tent that I have owned since the late 1970s (see below)

Here are the first three paragraphs of my story


"Some Things don't change very much, according to Wayne Gregory of Gregory Mountain Products. One of those is Jack Stephenson. Journeying to Woodland Hills, California in the late Sixties, Wayne and his wife had their first meeting with the already well-known aerospace engineer, whose not-so-secret double identity was that of equipment guru of Warmlite. As we shall see, Stephenson's Warmlite was one of the many small basement enterprises of that wonderful Era when small-time entrepreneurships flourished, and had yet to be crushed by the Rise of modern Corporate Everythingness. Warmlite as a entity was probably more radical than most, but has lasted the course; as of 2010 it has never sold out to corporations or to Overseas manufacturing, and is still small but thriving.

Wayne recalls that first meeting with Jack, "We drove up a long curving driveway, dressed up in our relaxed Sunday best. I saw a BIG boat sticking out of a garage and several cars. Then I saw funny aerospace-type material all over, some on the roof, and strawberries growing up there. The house was dark when we knocked, a light came on inside, there was a commotion in the living room, Jack opened the door, an animal rushed out with a "Whoosh" of down feathers, There was Jack Stephenson dressed in his black bikini underwear." As it turned out, Jack had dressed up for the party, too.

Yes, folks, this is backpacking's famous Maverick, the purveyor of the sport's first, and only, nude gear catalog. Jack is the gear designer who brashly told "Backpacker Magazine's" editor Marita Begley in 1988, "Having happy, enthusiastic customers is a lot more fun than making tons of money." That glossy catalog, and his earlier literature, presented the World with major gear innovations, such as the hip carry pack, as early as 1957, years before competition. And that gear today is still unique, ultra-lightweight, and well worth owning. (I have two pictures of "Jack Pack" ads from Summit Magazine 1958, showing the pack priced at $29.50)."

-- End of sample three paragraphs of the story. The above story excerpt is Copyright 1995 by Bruce B. Johnson, All Rights Reserved.


Stephenson's Warmlite-- a List of key ultralight innovations, most introduced between about 1958 and 1965, years before competitors and imitators:

-- Leader in use of ultralight 700-800 fill power down. Jack Stephenson worked hard on perfecting down sleeping bags between 1955-1957, after a miserable trip to Rocky Mountain National Park with his new wife in 1955 had been saved by a personal visit to Alice and Roy Holubar, and purchase of Holubar's down bags (click for link to my Holubar page). After these few years of development work, Stephenson's fluffy wonder bags covered with ultra-light nylon were introduced to the public in 1958, chiefly in Dick Kelty's store in Glendale, California... Kelty and Stephenson had a relationship in those early years, and in the area of pack design it was marked by a certain rivalry over the proper design of a true hip-carry pack. Below is a picture of Dick Kelty in 1977, contributed by Monte Dodge:


-- Warmlite was a real Leader in use of ultralight nylon materials derived from the sailing industry to replace heavy cotton and polyester cotton materials then in use in all tents, packs and clothing. For decades, since about 1956, Stephenson has used 1.1 oz. ripstop nylon for his bags and clothing, eschewing the heavier 1.9 oz. which became the standard when
Eddie Bauer began using it during this same time period (Bauer's nylon was supplied by Jack's friend and fabric-supplier, Mr. Noah Lamport (now deceased) (Source: personal interview with Mr. Lamport prior to his death). And in tent fabrics, Warmlite not only used much lighter fabrics, but by 1980 had deserted typical urethane coatings in their tents in favor of an advanced polymer coating, and then adopted the latest technology, the new silicone coatings, by about 1994 (Soar-Coat, a cousin of Sil-nylon).


-- Leader in use of a variety of exotic materials for superlight, superstrong packs, sleeping bags and tents--- products which still rival or surpass the lightest of the most modern ultralight gear. Examples include "gold mylar" tent material, and aluminized nylons for heat retention and heat rejection (eg. on tent canopies and sleeping bag interiors). Credit for the development of the innovative "gold mylar" fabric, says Jack, goes to Noah Lamport....Seen below is my Warmlite Model 3X tent, at the time of the photo was nearly 20 years of age and still holding up well. It's main fabric is an exotic laminate, with vapor-deposited bronze or brass (the "gold") applied to a polyester base fabric and overcoated with mylar (a 30 denier polyester). This very spacious 3 person tent weighs only 3.2 pounds!

-- Leader in the use and modern application of Vapor Barriers in outdoor clothing and sleeping bags. Stephenson championed this not-very-well-accepted concept for decades, often against industry derision.... He experimented with various vapor barrier materials (VB) finally perfecting a "warm fuzzy" material that went a long way toward making the VB more comfortable to the wearer. Recently, I have been pleased to see VB concepts revived and taken another step toward full acceptance. In the USA, a main company on this path is located in Connecticut, not distant from Stephenson's long-time location in Gilford, New Hampshire... This relative newcomer started about 1998, and is named RBH Designs. Its focus is on insulated VB handwear and footwear. Major customers have been expeditions and folks working in Arctic and Antarctic environments. Recently the product line has been expanded to include items more suited to average outdoor users.

-- Hip-Carry Packs with true padded waistbelts. The Stephenson "Jack Pack" was being sold with a fully-padded, hip-carry suspension system in 1963, a full ten years before Kelty packs began to use padded hip belts! This is a little-known fact in the History of Gear. (I have a picture of several Jack packs on a 1963 trip, which clearly shows these waistbelts). For a picture of the waistbelt, click here to get to my page two about Warmlite).


-- Creator of a major new tent design which has become one of the two or three major new tent designs of the Twenty-first Century. The Warmlite design (the Elliptical Arc) threw out the heavy A-frame design tents used everywhere during the first half of the Twentieth Century, replacing it with an extremely strong, lightweight, 4-season hoop design constructed with high-tech materials and requiring only 3-4 tent stakes even in severe weather.... The label on a left is from a 1976 vintage Warmlite tent (see image)..... After 40 years, Stephenson tents are still lighter/stronger than nearly anything else available. (visit the Warmlite website to view pictures of Warmlite's new expeditionary 2 person Model 2R tent, weighing an extraordinary 2 lbs. 10 oz, Click
"Climbers Tent".)......Please note that within the modern ultralight hiking movement, one must take care to compare truly comparable products, eg. in the tent category, one should not confuse 10 or 12 oz. ultralight shelters (most with no floors and requiring 6-12 stakes) with the Warmlite tent, which is a true 4-season tent with a full floor, total bug protection, and the strength to withstand any possible extreme weather combination of rain, wind, and snow.

Personal Note: I have owned a Warmlite Model 3X tent since 1978 (see image above). It is spacious for three people and all their gear, and weighs a few ounces over 3 pounds, with a packed size a miniature 5 x 17 inches...As shown in the label to the left, it was sewn by Beverly Stephenson, daughter of Jack and Joan Stephenson.... We have dubbed it "The Golden Voyager" due to its fantastical gold mylar outer skin. Although it condenses somewhat on the inside if the weather is cold and very humid, there is plenty of room inside to get away from water contact, and usually simple sweeps of an ordinary kitchen sponge keep everything under control. Here is a link to Warmlite tent images and technical descriptions on the Warmlite website.

-- Creator of the DAM-- Stephenson created an air mattress filled with his ultra-high quality down, held in place by baffled channels (DAM = "down-filled air-mattress")...His 20 oz. creation was inflated by use of a large stuff-sack, which kept damaging body moisture out of its interior. He had experimented with prototypes of it as early as 1958, but it was not officially added to theWarmlite product line until 1973-74. In very recent years, the new Ultralight backpacking movement has revived Stephenson's concept and more than one manufacturer is now selling nicely- done, down-filled air mattresses.

1974 CLASSIC WARMLITE CATALOG: A classic, highly collectible outdoor gear catalog is Stephenson's landmark 1974 "Main" Catalog. Produced when Warmlite was still in Woodland Hills, California, it is 47 pages in length in an 8 1/2 x 11 inch glossy color format. It is densely packed with Jack's highly detailed product information and design theories. And then of course there are lots of nude models, which I believe have always distracted many people away from Jack's genius for gear. On page three, you can see 32 people all lined up, and all are fully clothed and conventional-looking. Jack's catalog states, "Stephenson's is a small family-home business. It started as a simple do-it-yourself project to get better mountaineering gear, and slowly expanded (mostly through word-of-mouth advertising by customers) into a full time business spread over 16 different homes, with about 32 various full and part time workers." Warmlite was a true "cottage industry," and to this day its business model remains strictly "Made in the USA." The label below dates from Warmlite's Woodland Hills period. Interestingly, if one examines the backside of the label above (the one with Beverly Stephenson's name on it) they can see the old Woodland Hills address underneath!

History of Gear 2016 Award

"To Jack Stephenson and his Warmlite company, for being probably the sole surviving Gear Pioneers to have never sold out to modern Corporate America."

(click for details of how it is after a classic company has fallen to Corporate-ness)

 

Main Page: Essays and pictures about the Pioneers of the Outdoor Gear Revolution, 1935-The Present, 45+ plus pages, four books published about the History of Gear, and still ever-expanding!

MSR-- led by another Iconoclastic Engineer

Comments about the modern Ultralight camping movement

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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. Contact me at: oldgear@Oregonphotos.com

CORPORATIONS TAKE OVER: The classic gear company of high repute called "The North Face" was another of the Bay Area companies springing from the roots of The Ski Hut.... The North Face was founded by Hap Klopp in the latter half of the 1960s and was solely owned for many years, up until 1988. It had garnered for itself an excellent reputation as an innovative maker of extremely well-made and well-guaranteed mountaineering and other camping/hiking gear; they supplied many big-name expeditions.

But after 1988 and the sell-off to corporate interests, things became more and more confusing (not necessarily all bad, but certainly "North Face" became a far different entity, and one that would-be consumers were not fully aware of when they would visit a "North Face" store and confidently buy an item emblazoned with the "North Face" label, see below).

A big corporation named Vanity Fair acquired The North Face in the mid-90s after Bill Simon got out of it. This was a time when TNF seemed to be loosing out in a more and more competitive market with many more companies and so many "clone" goods of reasonable quality coming out of the Orient. Here's what the reader will be amazed by! In addition to The North Face, Vanity Fair Corporation subsidiaries include Jansport, EastPak, Napapijri, and Kipling. So you thought that these were independent competitors of The North Face? Silly you! And the list of Vanity Fair holdings goes on and on--- In jeans and other denim, the group includes Wrangler, Lee, Riders, Rustler, Brittania, H.I.S., and several others. Vanity Fair is one of several "intimates" divisions and was the original company that created the VF Corp., that is the overall "holding company" of today. Corporations are often several deep in subsidiaries (wholly and partially owned, joint ventures, etc.).... And to put even more confusions upon the subject, often a given company sells under several brand names, so in 2009 it can be very difficult to know/trust that the high-priced, brand name outdoor gear you're looking at is really what it claims to be! (Much of the above information is from my contributor and Classic Gear collector, Alan).

See a classic North Face quality tent from before the sell-off

For another example of a corporate take-over, see my Moonstone Mountaineering Section

Last Revision 06/06/2017

Below is a review of my Warmlite book by a woman who was a journalist working in Scottsdale, Arizona as a Features writer: