Lightwave Founder and Engineer Carol McDermott – Interview

If you are an ultralight camper or hiker you’ve probably heard of Lightwave. Lightwave are dedicated to the design and development of high-quality lightweight and ultra-lightweight tents and rucksacks.

As we see it at CheapTents, Lightwave offer great products which cater for the specific needs of ultralight and lightweight adventurers and campers. Lightwave balances the needs of durability, weight, comfort, ease of use and function amazingly well.

Mount Cook
Mount Cook in New Zealand – source fotopedia

A little about Lightwave and Carol:

Lightwave was founded by Carol McDermott in 2002, a New Zealander resident in Britain and France. He has climbed all over the world, with ascents including Shivling, Gasherbrum II, Ama Dablam (solo) and Mount Cook (a dozen times) as well as some epic, unsupported treks in the Karakorum. Carol started Lightwave with the aim of making high-quality, functional and honest gear designed for genuine enthusiasts – people who prefer to think for themselves about the sort of equipment they want, rather than accept the features-driven designs that so many brands insist they need. Lightwave’s functional approach means that all Lightwave products are uncluttered by unnecessary features that add weight and complexity.
~ Lightwave Website

Carol McDermott Interview

We wanted to know more about what drives Carol and Lightwave…

You set up your own companies (Lightwave and Crux), as the companies you worked for in the industry were not developing specialist products, can you confirm if this was the case and if so why did you feel the need to start producing specialist products?

LightwaveIn working for other brands I was responsible for the product development of mountaineering products (for example) that I – as a serious, experienced mountaineer – would never use. After that, it was simply a case of products that I (and many contemporaries) would use if we could get them, but simply weren’t available in anything other than diluted form. A very large proportion of the products simply don’t have any serious competition because the niches are too small or insignificant to be worthwhile for the big brands. Finally, there were opportunities for some products where, quite frankly, there was room for improvement and I could provide it.

Do you think that in the ten years since the creation of Crux, the larger manufacturers have gone even further towards catering for the fashion customer?

Yes, there has been a definite convergence in the market by the big brands, but not necessarily driven by fashion. Whilst it is true that “outdoor” clothing, and in particular footwear, has become trendy or at the very least widely acceptable in the non-outdoor high street world, I don’t consider them so much as driven by fashion as just being more functional or better value (eg compare a lightweight trekking shoe with a sports trainer).

What has definitely happened is that to become bigger a brand must make its products appeal to a wider market and incorporating contemporary fashion is part of that process. Additionally, the big brands have moved from being “equipment” brands, or “apparel” brands or “footwear” brands to being multi-product category brands and essentially trying to become all things to all people. And in the process of doing this, there is a convergence in the behaviour of brands in the way they try to appeal to a wider market, and slowly they all start to look the same and it is only the logo that distinguishes them.

This is, of course, a good environment for small specialist brands to start up in, but the challenge is getting oneself known. And of course, there has been a lot of consolidation in the past couple of years of big brands buying up small ones to fill gaps in their ranges or expertise, or to strengthen their position in a market(s) where they may be weak. So, it is never easy for small brands.

The outdoor industry like every other industry has taken a buffeting with the various economic crashes, as a specialist manufacturer are you seeing this and what do you think the future holds for the industry as a whole?

Yes and no. It is a very challenging economic environment to be sure, but actually the biggest problems my brands have faced are supply-side reliability, and whilst this is to a certain degree part of normal life for a small brand, much larger brands have had similar problems.

The climate is also very important – last winter was very warm and as a consequence my warehouse has been full of down clothing all summer. There is no doubt that consumers are behaving in a much more considered manner now, with spontaneity being tightly reined in and people purchasing exactly what they need and nothing more.

As most of the crux and Lightwave products are very specialist, they rarely fall into the spontaneous or carefree purchasing category. Most of my customers research what they are looking forward very carefully, and if the crux or Lightwave is the product that fulfils their need best, they buy it.

Could you explain what the differences are between your two brands Lightwave and Crux and what their ethos is?

The two brands exist because they target two different markets which have very different requirements and, equally important, respond to different tones of communication. Crux targets mountaineering, period. Excepting the Mag-22/28 daypacks and chalkbags, there is not a single non-mountaineering product. This means all the collections are very small, tight and focused. There is no attempt to attract a wider market and everything is communicated in a very direct, unemotional way. What you see is what you get – take it or leave it. Basically, climbers/mountaineers figure out their own personal way of dressing/layering, their system of racking up (hardware) etc, and crux does not tell them how to do it. All products are simple and robust. Colours are solid. Branding is minimal. Everything in mountaineering is a calculated risk, all your kit is a compromise between weight, durability, cost, functionality and crux products are about getting to that ideal balance – understanding of course that there is no ideal balance as every climber has different perspectives, even on the same (mountaineering) objective.

Lightwave Fastpack 50 Backpacking RucksackLightwave on the other hand is about trekking, getting away into the wilderness and being in nature. Hence the products focus on shelter (tents) and getting into the wilderness (backpacks). In this environment, lightweight products are important but not the be-all and end-all. An ultralight tent is of little value if, 30 miles from the nearest road, it cannot handle the worst humdinger of a storm you’ve ever experienced. The pleasure of trekking in the wilderness is not the same if your ultralight rucksack is not particularly comfortable. So again, the emphasis is on balancing low weight with durability and being fit for purpose. Lightwave products are “softer” visually and communication is a lot more “friendly” (not that crux is unfriendly, because its not) with more time spent on explanation on “why this fabric” or “why not that feature” than it is in extolling product virtues. What is consistent with both brands is that we treat our customers as intelligent, rational people capable of making the right decision for themselves, and we accept that our products are not necessarily the right choice for a very large number of people.

Being specialist by definition means your market is limited.

How much do you think that Lightwave and Cruxs excellent products and high standing in the industry is down to the fact that you design, test and source fabrics yourself? Something which larger companies can not do.

I can’t answer this question. The fact is that I do design, test and source everything myself. This is because, as an ex-alpinist who has climbed most types of mountains from the steep granite of Patagonia to Himalayan 8000m peaks, and did so for 6 years at the expense of everything else, and suffered immense physical deprivation in pushing my boundaries, know precisely what is required of one’s equipment.

I would also say that I don’t really design – I am actually an engineer. Engineering is problem solving. Having a chemical & materials engineering degree also means I understand fabrics from a molecular level, I understand alloys, I understand fluid mechanics and air permeability and nanotechnology etc etc. So when the line of communication from end-user (me) to designer (me) is very direct and short, ie me again, then you get a very “pure” product that is quite different from one at a mainstream brand where you have “athletes”, a design team, a product manager, material technologist, a sales director and whoever else sitting around a table.

I am sceptical about testing. As far as I can tell, most “testing” is a photographic exercise for marketing purposes. When product “B” is 95% the same as its predecessor product “A”, just how much testing can you do, and what exactly is it you are testing? Actually, and this will sound like a heresy, putting a product into production gets you far more testing (hundreds of users) in ways you just can’t imagine (it is unbelievable what some people do to a product), than you can ever achieve with a few token trips into the hills. This may sound risky, but it’s not. A backpack is a backpack and you can only make it certain ways, and if it’s tricky to make, then you may have a problem. This applies to all products, is where the key to testing requirements lie, and why I keep designs simple.

For you what are your key criteria when designing, especially when designing tents? Can you explain the process and time it takes to go from an idea for of such as a T20 Hyper to production?

First we need to be clear that we are designing tents to be used in areas with limited or no access to mechanised means (helicopters being excepted, of course). This means the tents have to be lightweight and they have to provide adequate shelter when the weather gets really bad. All our tents are 4/5 season – even our “3” season ones are actually pretty good in seriously bad weather.

In the first instance for me the priority is to ensure the tents handle the very worst conditions – their job is to provide shelter. This mean strong frames and taut construction – few people understand the importance of getting a lot of tension across the flysheet. Second to this is the ease of pitching. It has to be quick and easy – and this can be a challenge as this can undermine your first objective. The third and final criterion is choosing the most appropriate fabrics. Tents are all about fabrics, and when one is designing lightweight tents for backpacking, the correct fabric specification is critical.

lightwave t20 hyper xtThe design process for Lightwave tents is quite long for two reasons – I am fastidious about getting the cut of the flysheet right and designing isn’t my only job (sometimes projects get sidelined when new priorities arise in the business). The t20 hyper took 4 years, but this was longer than normal because I ended up changing factory as I was unhappy with the original factory as they were very fixed in the way things should be done. But tunnel tents are much easier than geodesic tents as the shapes and pole configuration are simpler to work with. But the process is straight-forward. I start with the dimensions and pole configuration. The factory makes a sample and I try it out for space and stability (in wind). This takes me weeks as I will use it, make notes and put it away. I’ll then come back to it a few weeks later and have quite different thoughts about some things. I do this several times and when I’m sure about what changes I want and why, send the final notes to the factory. This loop will happen several times. Tunnels usually only take 3 or 4 samples, the geodesics double that (and the crux X2 took about 12 prototypes, but then I consider that tent as my magnum opus). Of course, I have the luxury of being able to launch a product only when its ready and I don’t feel the need to be in any hurry. If I don’t make next year, then it’ll be the year after. In the meantime I am usually already clear about the fabrics and poles.

Fabrics have hardly changed in the last 15 years – there are now ridiculously low denier fabrics available (such as 10, 15 and 20d, all of which I ignore) but I keep going back to the balance of strength/weight/durability of 30d for the 4 season models, and the sheer strength of 50d fabrics for the extreme condition (5 season) models. My tents are expensive – I want them to be a long-term, worthwhile purchase.

Join us next week for Part 2 of our interview with Lightwave’s Carol McDermott to find out more about Carol’s background and the tents he has engineered.

If you have enjoyed this interview why not read more from the CheapTents blog, here are a few posts you may enjoy:


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