This Outdoor Brand Just Invented the Holy Grail of Sustainable Tents

Photo: NEMO Equipment

Plus, 3 other ways NEMO Equipment is pushing the envelope on sustainability.

In 2021, NEMO Equipment announced a new tent material called OSMO. The fabric, a polyester/nylon composite that took two years to develop, is sustainable, ultralight, and a little out of this world—but what else would you expect from a brand founded by a spacesuit designer?

Before starting NEMO Equipment, CEO Cam Brensinger was working on spacesuit design for NASA with a team at MIT. One weekend, during a winter bivy in particularly bad weather, he realized that he could revolutionize tent design by making an ultralight shelter that supported itself via inflatable beams. That prototype eventually led to the founding of NEMO, now one of the industry’s most iconic brands.

While most of NEMO’s tent designs today use modern aluminum poles, Brensinger has continually been behind some of the tent industry’s biggest innovations—particularly in the realm of sustainability. In 2008, the brand launched a fully recycled tent using bamboo poles. A few years later, it started a program to upcycle old tents into bags and wallets. The company also monitors its carbon emissions and the impact of its supply chain, and plans to be carbon neutral by April 2022. But OSMO represents a new era where environment and performance go hand in hand. 

For years, camping tents have been made out of one of two materials: nylon or polyester. Nylon is light and strong, but tends to stretch and sag when wet. Polyester doesn’t absorb water or stretch out, but ultralight polyester fabrics aren’t as strong as ultralight nylon.

Enter OSMO. The new fabric, which NEMO will pilot in its Dagger and Hornet Elite tents in 2022, offers the best of both worlds. It’s made by weaving nylon and polyester together, which has never been done before in tents at commercial-scale. This might be because it was surprisingly difficult to do.

“The two different yarns have different shrinkage rates in the weaving process and different stretch,” explains Gabi Rosenbrien, NEMO’s product development manager. “So we had to tinker with that quite a bit.” After hundreds of iterations, the team came up with OSMO, which offers three times less stretch and four times better water repellency than the nylon fabrics traditionally used in lightweight tents. And, importantly, NEMO was able to use 100% recycled fabric (the polyester is recycled from water bottles and the nylon from post-industrial waste). The material is also free of PFC, PFAS, and fire-retardant chemicals, all of which can be toxic to the environment. After one year, NEMO will make the OSMO’s recipe available to other brands, as well.

“Sustainability was a big target for us, but we knew it couldn’t come at the cost of performance,” says Rosenbrien. With the OSMO, NEMO has achieved the holy grail of fabric performance: both.

A NEMO tent Photo: NEMO Equipment

3 More Ways NEMO Is Tackling Sustainability 

Reduced Plastic Waste: 100K Polybag Project

Even if you haven’t heard of polybags, you’ve likely encountered them. They’re the clear plastic baggies that protect clothing, outdoor gear, and other products during shipping. And while they do a great job of preventing scratches and snags, they’re not exactly the best for the environment. In fact, polybags take over 500 years to decompose. The polyester bags that tents and tent poles usually come in aren’t much better (after all, polyester is a type of plastic).

So, in 2021, NEMO started shipping all its tent poles in reusable fabric bags. The bags are undyed (read: no chemical waste), and are made from recycled water bottles. If all goes according to plan, the initiative will eliminate 100,000 polybags by 2023.

Reduced Foam Waste: The Chipper Sleeping Pad

A foam sit pad might sound like a luxury item, but many backpackers and cold-weather campers will tell you quite the opposite: For staying warm and comfortable in harsh conditions, sit pads can be essential. Equally essential? Making them without creating excess waste. 

The idea for the Chipper, NEMO’s recycled-foam sit pad, came from a NEMO product manager. He was visiting a factory and spotted a truck piled high with bags headed for the incinerator. Each bag was stuffed with pounds and pounds of foam bits leftover from NEMO’s Switchback sleeping pads.

So, the NEMO team decided to do something about it. Today, all those foam bits (as well as off-cuts from other brands’ sleeping pads) are remolded into Chipper foam seats, saving thousands of pounds of foam from filling landfills or getting turned into noxious smoke.

Reduced Chemical Waste: Partnering with Bluesign

The OSMO fabric’s low-chemical design is not the only piece of NEMO’s quest to reduce chemical waste. In 2021, the brand became a bluesign System partner. That means it’s cleared to offer products that are officially “bluesign-approved,” a certification indicating that the product’s materials are made with the lowest chemical toxicity possible. (The OSMO fabric being used in NEMO’s backpacking tents is one such material.)

“Bluesign has always been viewed as the gold standard in terms of chemicals management and social responsibility,” says Rosenbrien. “We just finally got to the point where we have the team to manage that relationship and get our supply chain on board.” The move is an exciting one for NEMO which, from bamboo tent poles to recycled materials, has prioritized sustainability from the beginning.

“We’re excited to evolve to the next level in being leaders in the outdoor space for both sustainability and material innovation,” says Rosenbrien.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.