The story of Wilderness Equipment‘s beginnings has much in common with those of many worldwide outdoor brands. The ingredients have frequently been the same – young people, little money, a passion for what was then called ‘rope and rucksack’ pursuits, a critical eye for design and quality, and an incurable need to be making things. What is interesting is that for WE it all came together in the south-western corner of the flattest and driest inhabited continent on earth, some would say, the farthest outpost of western civilisation.

We recently sat down with the founder of WE Ian Maley to find out about Wilderness Equipment, the brand’s design ethos and about the man himself.

Paddy Pallin: Hi Ian, Can you tell us a little about yourself and Wilderness Equipment?

Ian: I’ve always been hands-on. I was good at science and maths but I was also born with a fatal obsession for making stuff. As and engineering student at UWA I joined the outdoors club, saw a tent in a European gear catalogue that I couldn’t afford so I decided to make it. Then I used that tent with my partner for a year of travel in all the states of Australia. People we met were impressed.

What was your journey to where you are now?

A long and interesting one. When I got home from travelling in 1977 I went back to uni but also bought some industrial sewing machines. That was when I registered the brand name Wilderness Equipment and eventually I had to choose between studies and WE. I started making daypacks, bicycle panniers, tents and sleeping bags out of home, helped on the tools by drop-out uni mates. We imported specialist fabrics from the USA and sold our products locally, to friends, and then to friends of friends. In 1979 I moved into an old warehouse in Fremantle for several years before buying a factory building in North Fremantle. That was 1983 and about the time we started supplying shops on the east coast and at the same time the range expanded to include full size backpacks and rainwear. We also did a lot of specialist, made-to-order stuff, including all the tents for the Australian Antarctic Division. I operated the North Fremantle factory until 2000. Falling tariff protection for local manufacturers combined with globalisation in general forced virtually all the mainstream textile, clothing and footwear sector in Australia to move offshore.

Since then I have developed close relationships in Viet Nam where WE rainwear, packs and tents are all produced under my supervision. With the move to manufacturing in Viet Nam also came our distribution partnership with Sea To Summit, a dynamic outdoor company who grew up alongside WE in Perth. Four years ago I set up a sample room in Viet Nam to streamline my product development and give us the sort of flexibility we enjoyed back in the North Freo factory. When you look closely at the creative process and how I work little has changed over the years.

Today my son Henry has taken over management of the WE brand, working under the Sea To Summit umbrella. While he looks after sales (and tells me what I should be doing) I keep the products coming.

Do you remember your first outdoor experience?

Yes, if you don’t count the family winter weekend picnics as a kid, mucking around in the creeks in the Perth Hills, it was a canoe trip on the Blackwood River with the UWA outdoors club. That was in May 1971 and it rained non-stop for the whole week. We were complete novices!


Where is your favourite skiing/hiking/travelling/climbing etc spot?

A hard question, of course. I’ve done a lot of back-country trips in many places over many, many years but I think my answer is close to home: Karijini National Park – east to west crossings on foot, picking up all the gorges. That is stunning country and once you go more than a few hundred metres from the tourist sites you are utterly on your own. You don’t get that so easily in Europe or the USA.

Tell us, where is your dream skiing/hiking/travelling/climbing etc location is?

Recently we (my wife and I) have fallen in love with Iceland so now the Pyrenees have slipped to second place. Following a cycling trip before the peak summer season last year we went back again this year for a month of walking. I organised a two-week circuit of the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve in the far NW. Brilliant. Mixed weather conditions, as to be expected, but we were mostly on our own. There were times we wished we had our skis. That’s another trip to look forward to in the future, late in winter.

Why do you love skiing/hiking/travelling/climbing etc so much?

If you do enough walking, ski touring, mountaineering or paddling you inevitably fall in love with this Earth. Then you can’t stop. We also sail, and that’s the same. You’re on your own, no one’s telling you where to go, looking after yourself comes naturally and you see everything in true perspective. That all adds up to a fair part of a satisfying life.


What is the current relevance of Wilderness Equipment for Australian skiers and hikers?

How long do I have? While one doesn’t head out to sea in a storm I have otherwise lived by the motto, ‘never cancel a trip because of the weather’. You can only do that if you have confidence in your gear, one reason I make my own. The challenges of the weather and the back-county haven’t changed. The new ideas and better solutions are still coming, more often than not during our own trips. Because I still do all the design work, understand and control the manufacturing I am always thinking. There is no substitute for using your own products and, I might say, as you get older and the body tends to complain more (I’m 63) you become much more critical. We strive to do the same kinds of trips we did in our twenties and thirties but it is simply not possible to carry the huge loads that we used to back then. That has been a driver in WE producing much lighter-weight gear. As an example, the First Arrow, a tent that we have been making more or less unchanged for 35 years, now weighs a little over half of what it started out at! The same is true of the Second Arrow. But there is a limit and we are not in the race to the bottom. One small advantage of age and wide-ranging experience it that it is possible to know the point at which further weight reduction (and construction short-cuts for that matter) are foolish and may even tip a product over the edge into the disposable category. That is a place you will never find WE gear.

How much does the Wilderness Equipment ‘brand’ enter your design decisions? How different would your designs be if you were designing for yourself rather than for Wilderness Equipment?

I might have just answered that! To guard our enviable reputation in all the products that we offer we continue to hold the line on function and durability, putting fashion second. Henry has said that ‘We make good gear for bad conditions, not the other way around’. Also, while other brands ruthlessly eliminate a product that fails to sell in volume we retain some products in our line-up because there is a demand from expedition and professional users. In a way these products define who we are.

How does Wilderness Equipment continue to resist the pull towards almost every other generic outdoor brand?

Certainly it is easiest to just ‘go with the flow’. But, think about it, you can’t be better by simply being the same. If you make a product which, for good reason, stands out a little then you must be prepared to do the work so the users understand what they are getting. Being ‘better’ can also add to the cost. Since our relationship with our factories goes way beyond a simple negotiation about production cost we must also help our customers understand that part of the value equation.


Field testing the waterproofness of the bath-tub floor at Kakadu

Wilderness Equipment seem to work pretty closely with some top suppliers and makers. Can you talk a bit about those relationships in the creative process?

Once you join the crowd as it were, in the manufacturing centres of China or, in our case, Viet Nam you find yourself in the same pond as the big global brands, with similar access to materials and production technologies. So much that wasn’t possible in Australia becomes suddenly possible so it is important to keep focus. We carefully test new materials before adopting them. Over the past few years I have developed some unique functional components for WE products. Suppliers respect customers with good, creative product ideas, or who insist on particular construction methods, and who take the time to explain the reasons.

Who sets the design briefs? And which customers guide your efforts?

The business school answer is that we adopt a structured process to identify a need in the market and then set about filling it. How can that work when the wider market doesn’t know what it needed until it has it? Big brands spend most effort looking at what their competitors are doing well and, hopefully, improve on them. We are more self-reliant in the good ideas department but, having said that, the seeds of many good WE products have been sewn by our customers, both retailers and end users.

What is the process & how many prototypes do you go through before a product goes into production?

That depends on the product. I work a lot with CAD these days but the thinking begins a long time before any serious drawing starts.

Good, well-engineered tent design is very complex and experience plays an important part. Look around at the wide range of tent designs on the market and it would seem that almost anything goes. That’s true until the wind starts blowing and the rain comes down. Prototype development starts with the ground plan and a sample framework. Crucially, these interact so a lot goes into getting a ‘balanced’ frame. Poles can account for more than a third of the weight of the tent so if ultimate lightweight is the objective there is no option but to keep it simple.



With new backpacks, these are usually a development from an existing model in the range. The ‘back system’ or harness system chosen usually defines the model’s load carrying ability. If the basic success of a tent design is tested by wind and rain, then for a backpack it is maximum loading. Comfort on the move isn’t a simple matter of how much padding there is between the wearer and the pack bag.

How many prototypes? I am very happy if the second round sample can be signed off for production. There is a testing process woven in with all this, something I don’t leave to others. With tents, particularly ones employing a ‘new solution’ it is usually the third, and then maybe with a few final tweeks. Sometimes, less often these days, I reach a point where I realise what I am trying for is never going to work and the whole project must be swept sideways into the bin.

There is an obvious industry trend towards making lighter weight gear. How do you think this impacts durability & is it possible satisfy both requirements?

Lightweight and durability, and I would add function, can only meet successfully when the designer has an intimate understanding of the conditions of use, good experience in construction techniques and a working knowledge of materials. You can bring true engineering – maths, physics and materials science – into the design process but they are more useful in analysing components not the complete textile product. Lightweight can actually become a disadvantage if comfort or security are compromised. I’ve seen plenty of examples out of the USA where designers have lost sight of the bigger picture.

How to you see in the future unfolding for outdoor equipment companies based here in Australia?

It should be tough these days being a small brand operating mainly in the local market that is now flooded with global brands. It should also be tough for distributors and retailers who face the challenges of direct, global online sales. The first casualty has been service, in product knowledge and after sales. Consumers, by which I mean the end users, are more on their own than ever before. This is certainly the case with the big self-service retailers.

WE has a good story to tell and, when I look around the world, a range of products that stand against any and exceed most. Once all that attention to detail that goes into product design and manufacture has been taken care of a lot of extra effort goes into retailer training and aftersales service. We take this seriously and it is an area where we stand out. To give you an example last week I personally reinforced some stitching on an outer tent skin we through we should check and so asked a customer to return. I sent it back express post the same day. Sure, someone else in the business could have done that but I see it as a luxury I can still afford myself.

Which other brands/designers do you rate?

As someone who has pretty much spent their whole life in product design it is natural that I look at the work of other designers and brands. What you notice these days is how many different ways you can be different. There is good work everywhere but my critical eye is also tuned to construction detail. I can’t help that. Tents and backpacks by their very nature require a particular level of engineering not needed so much, for example, in clothing. As a user I am sensitive to function and ease of use, but as the person where the buck stops when it comes to a WE product problem, I am particularly sensitive to things like durability and ease of repair.

Close to home I know the guys who do the design at Sea To Summit and I have a great respect for what they do. They are innovative across a wide range of products and don’t stop until the last details are just right. Further afield, in Viet Nam I once had dinner with Petra Hilleberg. Hilleberg’s back story is remarkably close to the WE one but with the significant advantage of the huge European market. I see in their tent range a focus on function and a discipline to remain with that theme.


Which design or product are you most proud of?

There’s a lot in our range that makes me smile but, if I must name just one product, then it is surely the First Arrow tent. I designed it back in 1981 and took the first prototype on a six-week trekking and mountaineering trip in Nepal. Talk about self-confidence! In the years since many have commented that this is a truly classic product.

What’s next for you guys?

Product-wise we are getting back into bicycle panniers, something we haven’t made for more than ten years. Hardly a month has gone by when we haven’t been asked for them and out on the roads I see bags that I made 30 years ago still in use. We will also likely add some more clothing to the range.


Ski Touring in the Indian Himalayas

Top 3 tips for new skiers/hikers/travellers/climbers etc

1    Talk to people who have gone before you and make your first trips with people who know what they are doing. I learnt to paddle white water by trial and error over long river trips. I did a lot of that! It would have been faster and safer to join a club.

2    The same goes for gear. Talk to people with experience; you can recognise them by their simple, confident practical advice. Then choose the best you can afford but recognise that good equipment doesn’t translate directly into safety. You need to know how to use it, and to accumulate experience in different weather conditions.

3    Keep things very simple. Don’t exhaust yourself with a pack full of stuff you think you might need but really don’t.

Top 3 pieces of equipment you always take with you?

I can’t keep it that simple but here goes. Let’s take multiday trips. I don’t go anywhere without a tent, WE of course. A good tent translates into freedom and these days the weight is not an issue. I don’t like being dependent on huts or refuges and I like to know I will have a dry, undisturbed night. Next probably comes my rain shell, minimum pockets. Same sort of reasons. It gives you the flexibility to push on when the weather looks dubious. The last thing, and this might seem almost trivial, is a good high-powered headlamp – with full batteries. Many is the time when our enthusiasm has pulled us further out than we planned and the return trip has run into the night.

Paddy Pallin and their customers are very environmentally aware. Can you tell us about what Wilderness Equipment is doing to help the environment?

On a personal level I have been closely involved in the conservation movement, particularly relating to forests and rivers in Western Australia for over forty years. On a purely business level, and I touched on this before, our commitment is to making WE products as durable as possible, not complicated to repair and capable of many years of service life. That’s the very opposite of disposable and directly effective in reducing the consumption of non-renewable resources. The unfortunate fact is that demand for high-performance lightweight products limits the applicability of recycled content in most component materials.

Thanks for your time Ian. We would love to hear more about your journeys to Iceland when you get a chance.

No problems at all. Sounds like I will need to get typing once I’m back from Viet Nam.

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About The Author

Dave Casey

Dave has worked as an International Expedition Leader and in Outdoor Education for over 15 years. He has extensive travel and guiding experience in Australia, NZ, Asia, South/North America and Europe. In his spare time Dave is a keen bushwalker, mountain biker and climber while also dabbling in some mountaineering and sea kayaking.

One Response

  1. Ron Casey

    Wow, your living the life, I’m impressed. Look forward to more posts.
    Ron Casey.


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