The world of recreational tents is extremely competitive with many outdoor powerhouses seeking to dominate the market, so how does a small family owned business from Sweden take on the big boys and make some of the best, most versatile tents in the industry… just ask Petra Hilleberg, daughter of the owners and founders (Mom and Dad), and President of Hilleberg Incorporated.

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Go from the Sound to the Summit in just one tent – photo by Petra Hilleberg (Washington’s Olympic Peninsula)

“The goal is to always keep the goal the goal; and making the highest quality tent possible has always been our goal,” says Petra. High quality bombproof tents are exactly what Hilleberg is known for. High quality, and that they are particularly well suited for the conditions found in the Pacific Northwest.

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Many of Hilleberg tents are designed for all-season use – photo courtesy Petra Hilleberg

Wanting to learn more about Hilleberg’s unique design, I went to Feathered Friends – one of the few authorized dealers of Hilleberg tents in the Seattle area – and talked to a member of the store’s experienced sales staff. The sales person said that Hilleberg occupies a sweet spot in the tent industry, particularly for the Pacific Northwest. This sweet spot was created by Hilleberg’s industry leading design and material, said the sales person.

Hilleberg has been innovating tent design since the company started over 40 years ago. Initially it was what Petra calls “kitchen table design” with her Father and Mother sitting at the kitchen table sketching out designs then sewing them up. One innovation that is particularly useful here in the Pacific Northwest is the linked inner and outer layer design. This feature essentially integrates the rainfly into the tent allowing the whole structure to go up simultaneously. No more getting your tent soaked while trying to put it up in a rain storm… then putting your rainfly on after your tent is already wet. The Hilleberg tent goes up as one unit, keeping your tent always dry, even in a downpour. Another advantage of this design is that it allows you to remove the outer layer (rainfly) if you want to dry it on the outside of your backpack while you move, and the dry inner layer can be put in your pack without getting the rest of your gear wet. If you have camped more than a few times in the Pacific Northwest, you know how valuable this feature is for comfort and safety.

Another industry leading first for Hilleberg was the development of silicon infused nylon; the proprietary process makes the tents bombproof in all types of weather and incredibly strong and lightweight. Petra highlights all the testing her family’s tents go through, including intense wind tunnel testing. The salesperson at Feathered Friends hands me a fabric sample from a Hilleberg tent, the sample has been cut already and he challenges me to tear the fabric further… “this should be a piece of cake,” I say. The salesperson says he’s buying the first round if I can do it. I take a good grip and try to increase the tear with all my might…nothing. Petra says it’s not the rip-stop nylon, but the silicon process that makes the tents so crazy strong.

This one-of-a-kind strength is important for many reasons. First, you can put a trekking pole or crampon spike through it and the expedition is not over – the tent is still plenty strong for whatever conditions you face. Petra stresses that most of the company’s tents are “all-season” and can handle a variety of extreme weather conditions. The other advantage is that these tents will last two to three times longer than any of the popular brands you can buy at the big outdoor retailers.

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Bombproof – Hilleberg tents on Mount Baker ready for extreme conditions – photo by Alasdair Turner Photography

 

A Different Kind of Company, a Different Kind of Executive

Many outdoor outfitters will launch a whole new line of products every year. Not Hilleberg, the company introduces around one to two new products every year or so says Petra. Some of the designs the company sells have remained virtually unchanged for decades, “when it is a great design, it is a great design,” says Petra. The attention to detail, strong construction and knowledge of what the user needs in multiple weather conditions makes Hilleberg tents some of the best in the industry.

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Light and strong, Hilleberg will take you places other tents fear to go – photo by Rolf Hilleberg

 

The best tent you may never have heard of. So, if Hilleberg tents are so great, why don’t you see them in all the outdoor retailers and the company’s logo on puffy jackets all over the ski slopes? The answer is in the family’s philosophy. Remember, the ‘the goal is the goal,’ comment by Petra; well, the goal is making the best tents on the planet and only tents. The company has a conservative business model focusing on sustained growth over time, and they have exceeded growth expectations in the last five years. This business model has kept Hilleberg out of the traditional spotlights other companies covet. Hilleberg doesn’t sponsor big Everest expeditions or world-class climbers making speedy first ascents, and since the company does not launch a new product line every year, it is often overlooked in annual gear reviews done by outdoor industry magazines. Petra also says that the company only works with retailers that understand the value of the product. Hilleberg tents cost more than most you will find in outdoor stores, but the value is in the design, strength and longevity of the tent, says Petra.

An Executive that lives her passions. If Hilleberg does things a little bit different, it is because of the family’s dedication to unequaled quality and the desire to help people enjoy the outdoors. Petra’s Father, Bo, launched the company in 1971, but it wasn’t until he met his future wife (and Petra’s Mother) Renate that the company really took-off as an innovative tent maker. Until recently, Petra’s brother managed the company’s European operations and, while Renate no longer sews the tents, Bo is still the head of product design. Petra inherited her love of the outdoors and business acumen from her parents and knew at a young age that she was going to expand the family’s business to the United States. Petra started Hilleberg’s North American operation at the end of her senior year as a business student at Seattle University and, days after graduation, she mailed out her first tent. “I use to take customer complaints a little personally at first. I would think – Hold on, my Mom made that tent,” explains Petra. After more than 14 years as the President, Petra has firm control on the company’s reigns and has overseen the expansion into South America and other markets. “We are doing a lot in the North and South Poles and Greenland crossings,” says Petra.

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An accomplished equestrian and ski instructor, Petra Hilleberg balances corporate demands with a love of the outdoors – photo courtesy Petra Hilleberg

 

For Petra, balance is important – she stresses that work should not be one’s only passion. She combines her love of the outdoors and active lifestyle to pursue challenges outside of the boardroom as well. Petra is an accomplished national competitor in the demanding equestrian sport of Dressage and, in the winter, she trains ski instructors right here in Washington State. If this wasn’t enough, Petra also serves as the President of the Swedish American Chamber of Commerce.

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Petra camping in Rogen National Park, Sweden – photo courtesy Petra Hilleberg

When I ask Petra what is next for her and the company, the foundational love of family reemerges, “I’m going back home soon to watch my Father receive an honorary Ph.D. from the Mid-Sweden University for his assistance in setting-up a performance fabric testing facility at the University. It’s pretty neat, I’m very excited.”

 

Business and Life: Words of Wisdom from Petra Hilleberg, President of Hilleberg Inc.

1. Don’t wait, do it (whatever “it” is), don’t be afraid, believe in yourself.
2. Don’t listen to naysayers and never second guess your choices.
3. Don’t be afraid to hire people you know if they are a good fit.
4. Pursue your passions outside of work.
5. Go outside and enjoy the outdoors.

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