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Montana manufacturers make hunting camp comfortable

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Reliable Tent & Tipi (reliabletent.com) began manufacturing awnings, irrigation fabrics, tarps and wall tents in Billings in 1945 as Reliable Tent & Awning. Initially, awnings and tarps used for agricultural purposes were the mainstays of the business. The company made a concerted push into the wall tent market in 2003, aggressively seeking to establish brand identity and capture significant market share. “We’ve grown about 30 percent since then and tents are a big part of it,” says Dave Nemer, company president.

Along with wall tents, Reliable also manufactures yurts. A partner wood company crafts the frames; Reliable creates all the fabric components and insulation. They’re currently in the process of building two Goliath-size yurts measuring 40 feet in diameter. Some 40 to 50 yurts exit the doors of this Billings business each year.

Online marketing, computer design and automated fabric cutting seem far removed from elk camp deep in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Yet it’s these contemporary business practices that allow Reliable Tent & Tipi to remain competitive in the national marketplace. “About 70 percent of our tents go to out-of-state buyers,” Nemer says. Many of those are marketed through an extensive dealer network in the western United States and Alaska.

The Internet component of the business tends to be informational. “This isn’t a $100 fishing vest they’re buying,” Nemer says. “The average customer wants to call and talk about their purchase. At that point we have the chance to guide them to the best product for their needs.”

Traditional, rectangular wall tents make up the backbone of Reliable’s product line. Standard models in their basic “Big Horn” line include an 8-by-10 tent that’s perfect as a solo camp or a cozy cabin for two, and a 16-by-20 monster that will easily house half-a-dozen hunters and their gear with plenty of room left over for cooking and poker. Prices start at $427 and reach $1,265 for the largest tents, with additional costs for bonus features like flooring and tie-in screen doors.

Wooden poles, commonly cut from standing dead lodgepole pines at the campsite, are historically used for pitching wall tents. Internal frames formed from metal tubing and joints make the job much simpler, and give hunters the flexibility to set camp in areas where natural materials are unavailable. Although an internal frame costs more than half as much as the tent itself, I wouldn’t be without one.

Specialty tents, such as the hexagonal “Glacier” model, boast simpler setup with fewer poles than a traditional wall tent. All Reliable models can be customized to the buyer’s specifications, including such niceties as extra zippered windows, doors on either end, and custom stove-jack placement. Some customers opt to have their initials emblazoned on their tent.

New designs and automated fabric cutting have changed wall tent manufacturing since the days when bolts of fabric were unrolled on the floor and panels were cut by hand. Nemer recalls his company's purchase of an automatic cutting machine in 2002. “It really increased our cutting accuracy. It also minimizes waste and reduces our production time,” he says. The machine is essentially a very long, wide table that flattens and holds canvas securely on the top by suction. A moveable, programmable head then runs over the tabletop, cutting the fabric to specifications fed from a computer.

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