Saturday, 28 April 2012

Robert Saunders - Tent Maker

I was saddened to hear recently of the death of Robert Saunders, one of the pioneers of modern lightweight tent design. Back in the 1970s he was the first British tent maker to design lightweight nylon tents suitable for backpacking. My first proper backpacking tent was a Saunders Backpacker II, a tapered ridge tent with a thin breathable nylon inner and a large porch that weighed around 2kg. It pitched flysheet first and stood up to some wild weather on a Pennine Way walk one April, my first walk longer than a weekend. As the 'II' suggests it was designed for two people. There was a smaller Backpacker I but I've always preferred roomy shelters and the weight of the II was hardly prohibitive for solo use.

The Backpacker tents tapered ridge design has remained a functional one every since and has been given a new lease of life with the popularity of trekking poles, which were unheard of when Bob Saunders came up with it. The tent I used on the Pacific Northwest Trail in 2010, over 30 years after my Pennine Way walk, was nearly identical to my old Backpacker II. Good designs remain good designs.

The Backpacker tents were made with polyurethane coated nylon that eventually stiffened and cracked, meaning tents had a relatively short life (it was far inferior to today's PU coated nylon but all that was available). Dissatisifed with this material Bob Saunders was on the look out for something better. He found it too. At a trade show sometime in the 1980s I remember him showing me some new tent material. "Go on, tear that", he said. I couldn't. He handed me a piece of heavier PU coated nylon. It tore easily. The new fabric was silicone nylon, then unknown to UK backpackers. Soon Bob had a range of tents made from this innovative new material, with the lighter Jetpacker replacing the Backpacker. The Jetpacker was his lightest tent but more popular was his roomy single hoop Spacepacker, the first single hoop design to appear. Silnylon tent fabrics and single hoop designs are common now. Back then they were revolutionary.

Through the 1970s and 80s Saunders was one of the names in lightweight tents. Bob also supported the then new Backpacker's Club, advertising regularly in the club journal and turning up at AGMs with a display of tents. He also founded the Saunders Lakeland Mountain Marathon, which I took part in several times in the 1980s and which is still run today.

Robert Saunders Tents ceased trading a few years ago. Now Robert himself has gone, at the grand old age of 82. His name and designs should live on in the history of backpacking and lightweight camping equipment. He really did make a difference.

I am pleased to see other reminiscences and obituaries elsewhere on the web - see My Outdoors, Outdoors Magic, The Outdoor Warehouse.

53 comments:

  1. I will never forget going to buy my first real backpacking tent. A Robert Saunders GC2 Plus. It had two poles at the front and a short pole at the back. I replaced it with a three pole geodesic design that I am not convinced was really any better. In the end I modified the fly from the GC2 to make a tarp. They were great tents.

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  2. So sad. I never knew him but i seemed to have an affinity after all these years since my first Saunders Jetpacker.
    His designs stayed the test of time.

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  3. I had the Saunders Basecamp and a fine tent it was.

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  4. First lightweight tent that I used in the Scouts in the late 70's. Before that we lugged cotton Blacks Good Companion tents on our backpacking trips. As Alan said his designs have stood the test of time.

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  5. The Robert Saunders Backpacker II was also my first tent and accompanied me on many long distance trails in the 1980s. Sadly I lent it to someone who then went and lost it! Even after all these years I still have good memories of this tent,

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  6. Chris,
    Was the tent Hamish Brown used on his Mountain Walk a Saunder's ?

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  7. Alastair, no. Hamish Brown used a Tulloch Mountaincraft single-skin tent. That company is long gone and was only ever very small.

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  8. My first decent tent was a Spacepacker with the cotton inner. Why oh why did I sell it? Wonderful tents, wonderful designs, wonderful customer service.

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  9. Still got my backpacker 2 always wish i had invested in the A frame poles for the entrance but too late now

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    1. I still have my backpacker 2 with A frame, bought it at Cotswold Camping in Shepherds Bush for my 18th birthday in 1982. Used it hundreds if not thousands of times, put a new zip in it, reproofed it once, and it's still the best. It's going to Snowdon again at Easter. Why change something that is perfect. Robert Saunders RIP.

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  10. I pitched my Jet-Packer Plus yesterday in some horrendous weather. Only a few hundred yards from home, and only for an hour... and only so my 5yo lad and I could play games, tell stories and have our own mini-adventure.

    And so my 'Bob Saunders' continues onto another generation :)

    Gotta love those little tents he made!

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  11. I had my GC2+ since about 1980. It has been with me half way round the world on a 3 year cycling expedition. I survived a blizzard in Everest base camp in Tibet in 1987 thanks to the tent.

    Apart from a rip in the groundsheet, it was still a reliable shelter until some local brats trashed it with a knife in the last week or 2 - I was using it as a work shelter in my woodland. Very miffed about the wanton destruction. If it was stolen to be used, I wouldn't be so pissed off (pardon the French).

    Emyr

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  12. hello

    I am a french guy, 50 years old.
    My parents bought a robert saunders light weight tent in the middle of 70 ... we were living in turkey in that time, and they used it many time for travelling... after that, as a young man I used many times for travelling and hicking in the mountain. 10 years ago, I decided to do a all around africa on a motorbike, 2 years of journey .. still with the same tent ... 4 months ago I did 3 weeks of hicking in senegal : still the same tent .. and I just came back of a small trip of 2 weeks in spain on my motorbike : my tent was still with me ...I am 50 years old .. I use that tent still 40 years ... baudorrejj@hotmail.com

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  13. and my question is : do you know if it s possible to buy another one... baudorrejj@hotmail.com

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  14. baudorrejj, your experience shows just how good Saunders tents were. I'm afraid you're only likely to find one on eBay or similar site now.

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  15. Thanks... I will try !

    Baudorrejj

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  16. I had a Backpacker 2 bought in the early 70's. My family knew it as the 4lb wonder. In later years I added side guys and dinner plates under the poles and took it into the snow cross country skiing. It was a great tent.

    Chris

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  17. Having moved to Texas 8 years ago, I am out of touch with many things, and have only just discovered, to my great sadness, that Robert Saunders had died and his tents were no longer available. I still have my original 1977 Fellpine, a budget-priced, but very lightweight 1-2 man tent, and a much more recent Mountain Trek, a great tent, superbly made and extremely strong. I have seen other, more expensive versions of this, made by higher-profile brands, but to my mind nothing compares with it for features and quality. It has done good service in bad weather in Scotland, and I am now very thankful I got it while I still could.

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  18. I still have my GC2+, its instructions and a Saunders brochure with £86 written on the GC2+ page. I can well remember struggling to persuade the front poles to stay up while erecting the tent in anything but the calmest weather. Happy days.
    Richard

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  19. i worked for bob saunders when i was 17, a good few years ago now. loved it, a real family business with his 2 daughters and his wife joan x x it was my first paid job and i still have the basecamp tent to remind me of happy times in their back garden, can still see Lady the dog playing in the garden x x happy memories and a great product x x

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  20. Shame there is no webpage on the net that records all the history and pictures, brochures etc of the tent and the man whos name they carry..

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  21. Sad to hear the news. My partner and I cycled London to Athens with a Spacepacker and it was perfect. We later used it for a three-month Europe and US trip with equal success. Eventually its water resistance gave out a bit but Bob Saunders gave us personal advice on squeezing out a few more months of use. Hats off to a great innovator.

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  22. I bought a Jetpacker second-hand back in 1985,and I've used it every year on several cycling holiday trips all over Europe since then. Some stains and wear on the ground sheet but everything else is still in perfect working condition after all these years. Always had a good night's sleep in it, even in very foul weather. With some carbon tent stakes replacing the old aluminium ones, it is now even lighter than before. Thank you, Robert Saunders, for making this great tent. RIP.

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  23. I am sorry to learn of the death of Robert Saunders - but the tents live on.

    I lived in Chigwell and have owned a Saunders Mountain Trek for longer than I care to remember. The tent has kept me cosy in all weathers all over the world.

    My kids have just brought it back home and it needs some new poles before it heads on out.

    Can I get these anywhere? Will the Quasar poles fit?

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  24. I lived next to Bob when I was a child, my mum worked for him for as long as I can remember, I spent many happy hours helping making the tents and I used to get to test them aswell, being a young boy this was great fun and really shows how good they was to put up with the punishment of me and my friends jumping in and out of them.

    I came across this site as I'm now looking for a good tent for me and my son to go camping, its a shame I never kept any of the tents :-(

    My mum did tell me that Bob passed away, I only have fond memories of him and his company

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  25. I had a GC2 which I used for backpacking, and motorcycle touring.

    Sadly there's very little 'Made in UK' gear these days...

    RIP Robert Saunders.

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  27. Still using my Backpacker S tent which I purchased in 1982. An ugly looking thing but so practical, so well made and so light.

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  28. Thanks for all the great comments. I have just picked up a 2nd hand Storm Master at a cost of next to nothing. Everything is still intact. It is obvious the seller didn't know what they had. Your invaluable comments on the brand have left me with confidence after the amazing purchase, and I can't wait to try it out.

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  29. When he was 6 my son was given a Saunders Spacepacker by the widow of John Hillaby the long distance walker. He'd been asked to review it as a test tent when it was first manufactured. My son is now 19 and this is still his favourite tent for scout camps. It's obviously got staying power!

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  30. Slept in our Saunders Triton only last night. As always, easy to pitch and plenty of room but sooooo light.

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  31. I managed to acquire a Jetpacker, seems in good condition and still has the instructions. When did RS stop making the Jetpacker?

    Thanks, Robin

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  32. I have just bought a newer and larger zephyros 1 (easier access in and out for an old fella) and am thinking of digging out my old jetpacker and ebaying it.

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  33. I've had a pair of Robert Saunders walking trouser for nigh on twenty years..Testament to his work..

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  34. I still have a Saunders Backpacker tent. Like me, it dates back quite some time.... Also, like me it is still going strong. Now that I've retired it has been with me on a fair few wild camping treks - among them the West Highland Way, Fife Coastal Path, John Muir Trail and a fair few nearer home in the Yorkshire Dales and Lake District.

    Recently re waterproofed, it will be getting a further test as I hope to try the WHW in winter in a few weeks time.

    So many thanks to the man, his work is well remembered and appreciated.

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  35. Bought my backpacker 2 in 1983, used it many many times,mostly cycle camping, till it finally died at a music festival about 4 years ago when someone presumably tripped and ripped the flysheet, The flysheet had been repaired previously, rwhen another camper reversed over it many years ago, and groundsheet was replaced by Saunders in 2000. Still have the inner and poles, so if anyone has a spare flysheet I'd love to get my hands on one. Now use a Vaude Taurus Ultralight, which is going well, but doesn't hold the same memories.

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  36. I have a GC2, not really used it, though I did take it to Glastonbury one year and some idiot tripped over a guy and ripped the tent. Luckily Saunders were still trading, and they repaired the rip for £8; good service. A shame no one took on the business.

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  37. camped last weekend in pouring rain and thunder and lightning in my jetpacker tent I bought in 1986. The tent still works. Testament to the quality. It travelled round the world in 1986

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  38. How easy is the Jetpacker to erect? I picked up a second hand for £10 and may take it over my modern Hilleberg Akto tent.

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  39. I've had a Saunders Spacepacker for 10 years that I got second hand from my mum. After 20 or 30 years of heavy use it's still the best tent I've ever come across. The only issue is the inner is starting to let moisture in through the bottom. Does anyone know if and where I can get a replacement inner from?

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    1. Great that your tent has lasted so long. You don't need a whole new inner, just a replacement groundsheet. Scottish Mountain Gear should be able to do this - https://www.scottishmountaingear.com/repair-service/tent-repairs

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  40. I have my Robert Suanders Backpacker II! Still in reasonable condition! A few of the pegging points have snapped, and I think one of the hooks too hold the inner up have also snapped, Can probably be replaced easily enough. Sad to find that Robert Suanders is no longer with us, and that nobody was interested in taking over the company.

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  41. We forget sometimes that these great inventors live out there lives and eventually die, leaving us with some wonderful inventions and designs to further develop and refine. I was only 16 at the time and remember cycling to Manchester and buying my first Robert Saunders tent from Ellis Brigham. It was a GC2. I slept in it only two nights sharing with a friend. Not sure what happened to it. Yet I wish very much that there great designs like the Space Packer didn't also have an end of life. Another example is the Phoenix Phreeranger E.B. I loved that tent and still miss it. But I wore it out. All I have now still are the poles, pegs, guy lines and repair splint. R.I.P.

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  42. Today I pitched my three tents in the garden for a good airing and to answer my grand daughters’ tent curiosity as they will be experiencing the great outdoors for the first time this summer. My tents are a North Face Westwind (produced for over 20 years!), a Coleman Phad 3, and by no means last a Saunders Space Packer which I used for many KIMMs (OMM) and Saunders Lakeland MM. I will always treasure the Space Packer as it gave me many outings into the great outdoors which I will always remember. I was sad to read about Robert’s passing and that there will be no more of his designs. Robert, Rest in Peace. – Mark R.

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  43. I have fond memories of chatting to Robert at past SLMMs about tents, kits and the world in general, a true gentleman that will be missed by all that knew him.
    Our Spacepacker Plus is over 20 years, well travelled, used and abused. In need of some tlc but still holds up strong in all weathers. Would love to replace it with same model ..... Are there any out there in need of a new home?
    Kaf F

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  44. Wow- Quick search Saunders Tents on Ebay now: Some Brand new Saunders tents just turned up, must be the last of the few, got mine...! Paul H Saunders Fan school: " No body did it better"

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  45. Yes just bought a Hill Trek for £99 off ebay. I first had a jetpacker some 20 years ago and only replaced that with an Akto a few years back. The Hill Trek will give me the ability to sit up and do some yoga on long summer trips and dark winter nights etc

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    1. got a new hill trek never been used seemed like fly was to small takes a while to set up and at the front door the hoop held down by the guy seemed that it could be pulled out have you had similar problems

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  46. Just had my mountain trek up. So easy and solid. These really are the british aston martin of the tent world. I laugh at the expensive chinese rubbish in my local camp shops. I will pass my base camp onto the kids one day....

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  47. Just found this page.

    We bought a 'Pakit' tent from a bike shop in London in 1983, along with Pakit front and rear panniers.

    The tent was clearly made by Robert Saunders since his name tag is sewn on the side.

    Two man (tight squeeze) weighed about 1 kg.

    It housed us from Oxofrd to Athens and has remained in perfect condition since, apart from a small hole bitten through the sewn-in ground sheet by an 'emerging moth' when it was pitched for the kids on the back lawn.

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  48. I came across this post as I was searching for some 'spares' for my satellite plus. I just had a great weekend with my kids in my satellite plus that my dad gave me when I was 16- in 1980. Last weekend we camped wild on kinder in really strong wind and rain. My little satellite plus stood up to it all. Great little tent. Now want to find a replacement that will last anothe 30 years!

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  49. I'm heading off to Slioch tomorrow with my Robert Saunders Backpacker II tent which I bought for a cycletour of Skye and Harris in 1976. Some pegs look a bit the worse for wear but otherwise it's fine. I had just rolled out the tent to check on its condition when the thought occurred to me that I should Google 'Robert Saunders'... and found this blog. Every year I think that surely now is the time I should buy a new tent. But in all honesty I can't justify it. Looks like I'll be continuing to enjoy using Bob's 'Backpacker II' for some time yet.

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  50. how sad to read , like the previous comment I googled the tent as I was looking to get a small repair to a zip. I have had my hill trek for 16 years. as a mountain leader this tent is well used. Just reproofed fly sheet and good as new. Still get admiring comments when it is set up.

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