The Engineering Ethos Behind MSR

“Mountain Safety Research is an organization of persons interested in promoting mountaineering safety, as part of their own enjoyment of the sport,” wrote MSR founder and Seattle engineer Larry Penberthy in 1969.

That’s true to this day.

But the reality is, it takes more than a passion for the outdoors to design quality gear that keeps adventurers safe out there.

Properly functioning equipment must withstand myriad factors, including environmental challenges (fluctuating temperatures, rain, rock, sun, altitude); abuse from humans (misuse, accidents, obsessive love, incessant use); and things we can’t possibly anticipate, but must try to account for in the design anyway.

While the adventurer recognizes problems she or he faces in the wild, it takes a calculating, ingenious mind to imagine up and devise ways to solve those problems.

What’s made MSR equipment so cutting-edge yet reliable over the decades is our dedication to both exploration and engineering.

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At MSR, we are adventurers who, by training, are engineers, scientists, tooling designers, and manufacturing leads—and, by passion, tinkerers.

“On the MSR team, you have engineering geeks, pure users and people who like to tinker,” says Chris Parkhurst, senior vp. “They have very strong opinions on how a product should work. You get hardcore engineering expertise and hardcore user knowledge, and when it collides, it’s really cool to see.”

Here, our ethos is to put product on a pedestal. We hail creative, improbable ideas. Those ideas that “would never work”… until, with a lot of trial and error, material science, tests, sparks of inspiration, and refined CAD drawings… they actually do.

And we fiercely debate those ideas. Are they worthy of MSR? Do they meet our intense standards for quality, radical innovation, user experience? (The author of this post has argued her fair share.)

As Chris says, “MSR gear is your trusted companion. It’s the gear that you rely on: It has to work. It can’t fail. The brand is based on these really solid principles.”

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MSR’s Design Principles: Functional, Simple, Reliable

In a 1996 MSR catalog, the headline next to an image of a towering, wind-whipped granite spire, declared: “It doesn’t make it into this catalog, until it makes it out here.”

Indeed, the true test of engineering success is the brutal real world. MSR’s founder knew this and rigorous testing is embedded in MSR’s DNA.

But before any tests can occur, a set of principles must guide a product’s design. Ours are three tenets that have directed five decades of gear:

Functional, Simple, Reliable

We believe highly functional, high-performance gear improves your safety and experience in the outdoors. Gear that pushes the performance paradigm enables historic human feats in the mountains. But, just as importantly, it enhances the mere act of enjoying everyday adventure.

We believe the best gear is simple. Quality gear should give you everything you need and nothing you don’t. There’s a certain strength in simplicity. Gear that’s simple is easy to use and easy to maintain, allowing you to keep your focus on the adventure at hand.

Finally, we believe reliability is paramount—because you should be able to trust your gear when you need it most. This belief is at the core of MSR design. It’s why our gear is trusted on everything from remote and pioneering expeditions to family backpacking trips.

Our three pillars work in concert to give MSR gear its signature quality. When we achieve the right balance of the three, we create equipment that performs above expectations, is built to last, and is intuitive, which makes it safer.

“The key is to take a complex design that is often difficult to use and repair under real-world conditions, and make it as simple and elegant as possible,” wrote design engineer Phil Hitch in an MSR catalog back in 2002.

Today, Phil is a 20-year veteran of MSR and our director of product development.

The Faces Behind Your MSR Gear

Maybe it’s the free rein we enjoy here, but Phil’s not alone in his long tenure. He’s part of an old guard that’s protected the brand for 20 to 30 years as the market has shifted around us.

Yet there’s a new guard too. And in those meeting rooms, it’s a level playing field. The fresh recalcitrant perspectives square off against deep-rooted design wisdom. Together, they fuel MSR’s fire.

50 years after we were founded, we’re still a company of inventors and unruly dreamers. Our vice president is himself a decorated engineer who led a team of 20 on Boeing 737 wing spoilers before coming to the outdoor industry. At the helm, he challenges our engineers in a way that can’t be done by someone without the same technical prowess.

Below, you’ll see more of the faces behind MSR’s innovations of the past, the present, and those that will help define the future of backcountry equipment.

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Celebrating 50 years of unruly dreamers50 years ago, MSR began as one man’s quest to create better, safer, more reliable mountaineering equipment. Today, we’re still an intrepid team that believes in challenging convention to engineer greater solutions to real-world issues. Along the way, we’ve remained inspired by you—the world’s passionate and unruly dreamers. Join as we celebrate this milestone and 50 Years of Unruly Dreamers.