By Vernon Felton/Originally published (in short form) in the December `13 issue of Bike
You know you’re in for some suffering when the ride you sign up for is called the “Hotter ‘N Hell 100”. This is especially true if you are doing said ride in Wichita Falls, Texas during the month of August. In fact, in August of 1988, when a young road rider named Michael Eidson lined up for the Texas century, the mercury was consistently pushing past a hundred degrees Fahrenheit in Wichita Falls, which made Eidson ponder the following question: How the hell am I going to possibly get enough water?
The answer to that question changed the world of outdoor sports. This was because Eidson, who was an Emergency Medical Technician (or “EMT”) by trade, answered his dilemma by snagging an IV bag from one of the ambulances at work, filling it with water, stuffing it into an old tube sock and safety-pinning the lumpy contraption to the back of his jersey. To get at the water during the ride, Eidson attached a length of surgical tubing to the IV bag, which he sealed shut with a clothespin.
At that very instant, the CamelBak was born and anyone who cranked out water bottles or saddlebags for a living was seriously bummed. That jury-rigged IV bag would soon render both of those products obsolete for millions of riders.
During that century in west Texas, countless fellow cyclists would crane their necks, eye the bulbous tube sock on Eidson’s back and ask him what the hell he was carrying. It never took more than a few sentences of explanation from Eidson before they started asking where they could get one. It was right then that the EMT realized he was onto something.
Within months Eidson had a finished product—the ThermoBak—that he was selling to bike shops in 1990. That first pack was incredibly crude by today’s standards, but a breakthrough for its time. The ThermoBak was basically an insulated sleeve with two nylon straps and a hose. Really, not a whole lot different from the IV bag/tube sock combo—there was no harness, the nylon straps were far from comfortable and there were no nifty storage pockets. That, however, didn’t stop people from snatching it up.
There’s this story about Jeff Wemmer, the 1st CamelBak Sales Rep. The company was still in its in infancy with a staff of no more than five people, when they sent Wemmer out on the road. The plan was simple, Wemmer would go from bike shop to bike shop, spreading the good word of hands-free hydration. He’d take shop rats on rides with the fledgling product, hopefully get them excited about it and then, if all went well, maybe sign a few purchase orders for the ThermoBak, which he’d pass on to the home office in Texas.
A kind of DIY grassroots marketing junket.
Oh, and then there’s this: the budget at CamelBak was small at the time. Tiny, really. So Wemmer would be doing this round-the-nation trip for months and months…on his BMW motorcycle. What’s more, there was only enough cash in the budget for Wemmer to spend three nights a week in a hotel—he’d have to camp out under the stars the rest of the time.
So off he goes. He hits bike shop after bike shop and, you know, he thinks he’s doing pretty well. It seems like people like the thing. Then, somewhere on Northern California/Oregon border Wemmer gets a call from his boss. The trip is called off. He needs to come back in from the road…there are so damn many orders piling up at headquarters that the staff can’t possibly stuff enough ThermoBaks into boxes and mail them off to bike shops. They need every hand on deck back at CamelBak, just to handle the shipping.
You could call it a successful sales trip.
“It was pretty amazing, really,” says CamelBak Director of Product Development, Jonathan Austen. “It just showed that in the cycling world, all they really needed to do was get these things on peoples’ backs. Once that happened, they were sold. We never faced that kind of resistance that other new technologies so often face. Maybe it was because the idea was so intuitive or maybe it was because we really hit the ground when mountain biking, itself, was exploding and evolving. New people were getting into the sport and they weren’t tied to any tradition—everything was new to them, it was a new sport for a lot of people—if an idea made sense, they’d just go with it. It wasn’t like they had entrenched ideas about how great water bottles were.”
We take hands-free hydration for granted today, but at the time, Eidson’s invention was an absolute revelation. No more taking your hand off the handlebars at high speeds while you groped blindly for a water bottle. No more planning your ride around hourly pit-stops for water. No more wishing you had five extra jersey pockets in which to stuff your spare tube, pump, chain breaker, energy bars and map.
Roadies never glommed onto CamelBaks the way Eidson hoped they would, mountain bikers immediately recognized the potential and were the product’s early adopters. It just made sense—taking your hands off the handlebars while riding technical terrain? That’s a good way to lose your front teeth. The CamelBak remedied that problem. Today everyone from Nordic skiers to Navy Seals goes into the field with ingenious hydration packs that are comfortable, spacious and infinitely adjustable. CamelBak, now a massive company valued in excess of $250 million, sells more than a hundred different versions of the hydration pack, all of which are a far cry from the old tube sock/pilfered IV bag combo.