Exotent Exo-1 Inflatable Tent – Concept to Prototype
This is the story about how I came up with the idea for the Exotent Exo-1 Inflatable Tent written by Tony Hawkins
As I get older, I realize the idea of camping can be more appealing than the actual camping experience; I find even summer camping can be thoroughly uncomfortable, and the hassle of pitching a tent makes me reach for the hotel brochures. A couple of years ago, my friend and I went camping in some deep woods in the Lincolnshire Wold, in July. It was difficult to find a suitable flat area to pitch our tent, so we found the least rooty area and set up camp. I woke up freezing cold at 3 am, with a root digging into my back. It was at this point I started wondering if there couldn’t be a more comfortable way to enjoy the Great Outdoors.
I came up with a crazy idea of sleeping in an extended Zorb (those double-skinned inflatable balls that people roll down hills in); the air would be an efficient insulator, as it would be like having double-glazing all around you, and sleeping on an inflatable base would smooth out the bumps, whilst also insulating from the cold.
The more I thought about this, the less crazy it seemed. In fact, it could be ideal for extending the camping season right through winter; the air keeps in the warmth, and the lack of poles means they can’t break in storm conditions. Taking the idea further, I suspected an inflatable tent might perform better in avalanche situations too, and with no poles, should be a breeze to pitch. I was really excited by the concept, and couldn’t stop thinking about it, so I started chatting to an engineer friend about how we could turn my idea into reality. I also shared the idea with another friend, who happens to be a sewing whiz, and I realized we had the beginnings of a startup design team. And we were off!
Early designs looked pretty, but complicated to make:
I liked the inherent strength of the geodesic shapes, but it needed to be simpler if it was ever going to reach the manufacturing stage. The initial concept was to have two skins and inflate the space between them. This proved difficult to engineer, and would not have provided any protection, so any thorn or sharp object could have easily compromised the structural integrity. The very lightweight Silnylon we had chosen for inflation was also infuriating to work with – it’s slippery stuff, and we could not find a glue that would hold it together, and sewing it would ruin the airtightness. We went back to the drawing board.
We then simplified the external design to the current Exo-1 shape. The technical design also evolved to allow for greater protection of the inflatable elements, by mimicking a diving stabilizing jacket; it has an inflatable bladder, a very tough and abrasion-resistant outer, and is lightweight. Lives depend on the performance of the jacket, so we agreed that this would be an ideal design cue; after all, if this tent is going to be used in extremely cold conditions, it needs to be constructed like any other life-saving kit, which in this situation means resisting punctures.
Once we had a virtual design to work towards, we started to make paper models. We were surprised at how sturdy even the paper versions were.
The next step was to make the inflatable bladder, which proved difficult to model. But we tried, and came up with this Frankensteinian beast:
It did inflate, and it did stand up, which were about the only things we could learn from it. We also considered the question of ventilation, as inflatable items are vapor barriers by design, and although a moist night is something you apparently can get used to, I felt it would be an easier concept to sell if you didn’t wake up clammy. So we worked out the water loss of an average human (which happens to be 800mL per 24 hours), and with the breathability figures of the outer material, calculated the size of ventilation holes required. We also have two doors in the Exotent Exo-1 Inflatable Tent design. Primarily to allow exit if snow has built up overnight blocking the main door, but this feature also affords flexible ventilation options.
At this point, we had very thoroughly thought about it, but now needed to actually make something to test our assumptions. So we headed off to find a manufacturer for the first prototype bladder. RF-Works in Herefordshire (UK) fitted the bill nicely; they quickly understood what we were trying to achieve, and almost repeated our design process in fast-forward, considering and then rejecting various design features. I went over and spent a couple of days at their facilities, learning about RF welding, and what can and can’t be done. Test pillows were made to differing internal designs, which included cable ties, lengths of string, batons of TPU film, treasury tags, and with differing separation distances.
Having decided on string connectors for the first model, the next day we marked out the template and started welding dots onto the film.
The knotting was a slow and laborious job, which was carried out offsite (in my kitchen) over a couple of days:
It was then sent back to RF Works for final sealing. A few days later it arrived, so we could test the inflation:
We were all delighted that it stood up, and surprised at how warm it was underneath! It was very encouraging that our early assumptions had been proven correct, and that we were on the right path. On the downside, this first Exotent Exo-1 Inflatable Tent prototype is a touch small; inflatable structures have a habit of shrinking as they inflate, and calculating this in advance was really difficult. The next version will likely be larger, but we will only know this for certain once we have an outer layer to constrain the bladder.
The current state of play: we are still moving ahead with this model to test the design of the outer, and finalize pegging points, zip positions, etc. Our expert sewing engineer is slaving away over a hot sewing machine to make the first outer, which we should see in a couple of weeks. This will hopefully look good enough for promotional pictures, which we can use for the Kickstarter campaign we have planned for 2017. Due to the nature of the product, it is likely to launch towards the end of 2017 to catch the winter market. Other items on the ‘to-do’ list include determining the best inflation options, deflation options (a full deflation was proving tricky due to the shape of the bladder), the design of the base mattress, etc. but I feel we are making steady progress.
Enter our competition!! If you would like to win one of these revolutionary Exo-1 tents and be kept up to date with this project, simply enter the draw at www.extremophilegear.com – it’s our way of saying ‘thank you’ for taking an interest.
Thanks for reading this Exotent Exo-1 Inflatable Tent article, the Gear Assistant team cannot wait to test this one!