Richard Rhett is a man on a mission. While sleeping outdoors on a humanitarian trip to Honduras in 2009, his hammock failed him and he saw firsthand the devastating effects of the lack of clean drinking water on the local communities. Upon returning home to Vicksburg, Mississippi, the engineer vowed to change both conditions by creating epic adventure gear with a soul. In 2010, the idea for Sierra Madre Research (SMr) was born, with a purpose of bringing cutting-edge comfort to outdoor enthusiasts while contributing lasting clean water infrastructure to people in need.
“Every time we experience the vastness of the outdoors and our world, we gain a new perspective, a new understanding, of just what our role here is,” said Rhett.
In 2010, Rhett was working for the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center in Vicksburg. This was before he married his wife and SMr co-founder Juli Rhett, the company’s Chief of Adventure, who had been working and exploring on her own right in the dramatic climes of Alaska. Before they secured patents for their game-changing hammocks and Nubé Hammock Shelter, which elevates campers into the sky with protection from insects and all manner of weather. Before he left his job in 2013 and SMr embarked on a successful 2014 Kickstarter campaign that launched the company into full production. And before a 2017 appearance on CNBC’s Shark Tank, where venture capitalist bad-boy Richard Branson bought in for $175,000, a stake Branson pledged in its entirety to support SMr’s (one) Campaign to build water wells in Central America; each (one) product = (one) year of clean drinking water for (one) person in need. Before all of that, it was just Richard, his dream, and a 1979 Sears Roebuck steel sewing machine whirring late into the night.
“I was determined to go out and find a machine and just put needle to thread,” Richard Rhett said. “It taught me the ins and outs of sewing… Honing that skill. That means i gave up a lot of weekends and evenings going out and having fun with friends, but it was worth it.”
The company’s name references the Sierra Madre mountain range that stretches from Arizona to Honduras, connecting two distinct cultures through a common bond. It’s a symbol of adventure, culture, and shared humanity that mirrors the Rhetts’ own values.
“Sierra Madre Research really is two incredible things put together: it’s the passion for the people, but then it’s the passion for the outdoors and the gear,” said Juli Rhett. “Richard is a mechanical engineer, and he is also a perfectionist.”
We’re not all living in America,” said Rhett, “We don’t all have a hot water heater and running water that doesn’t make us sick. At the same time, they’re still living life and they’re still raising kids and they’re still walking through some of the same challenges that we walk through. We see how we can help out around the world with some of the things we’ve been blessed with. And surprisingly we end up being helped as well with new perspective and new juice in our lives.
While the technology behind the products is innovative and complex, one doesn’t need to be an engineer to understand and use the Sierra Madre Research line, which includes the patented shelters, hammocks, accessories, and other gear. The company puts it simply: no longer are you bound to the ground. With both integrated and modular shelters, the Nubé and Nubé Stratos systems encompass and protect the camper and the hammock, hold up to two hundred pounds of gear beneath, and provide as much room inside as a conventional tent. They even accommodate multiple hammocks so campers can sleep two, or “hambunk.” When it isn’t being used for sleeping, the Nubé’s canopy provides shade and shelter as you cook, entertain, play the ukulele, whittle, daydream, or whatever it is you do on a worry-free trip into nature. Relatively new to the scene, SMr’s Inferno insulated sleep system works with the Nubé and conforms to the hammock to keep it warm on frigid nights.
SMr makes outdoor gear for outdoor gear heads. A nationwide confederation of die-hard fans of the Nubé, called “Nubists,” regularly share stories, organize trips, and gather for communal adventures. And because of the ever-present (one) Campaign, even the most playful jaunt into the woods reaffirms the Rhetts’ commitment to their less fortunate compatriots in places like Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala. Seeing firsthand the new wells being dug has been a transformative and energizing experience for the Rhetts.
“We’re not all living in America,” said Rhett, “We don’t all have a hot water heater and running water that doesn’t make us sick. At the same time, they’re still living life and they’re still raising kids and they’re still walking through some of the same challenges that we walk through. We see how we can help out around the world with some of the things we’ve been blessed with. And surprisingly we end up being helped as well with new perspective and new juice in our lives.”
Every week or so, when Richard Rhett was a boy in Vicksburg, his father would pick him up early from school and take him down the river. They’d duck hunt, and bird watch, and learn about the waterways that are such forces in Mississippi life. As much as Sierra Madre Research is about changing the world, it’s also about changing the way people explore their own backyards. Nature, remember, expands awareness and helps build true kinship. “I remember those days mostly because of the time I got to spend with my dad, being able to enjoy the outdoors, and him just teaching me… That was really special. That was the spark of a lot of journeys to come,” Rhett said.
Juli and Richard make sure their twin two-year-old boys know the texture of a riverbed on their bare feet and that they appreciate the vantage of looking up into the heights of an ancient forest. Everything, as everything always does, comes full circle back to childlike wonder and exploration. And if Sir Richard Branson has taught the Rhetts anything about business, it’s the necessity of risk-taking and persistence through growing pains.
“It’s all about going into the unknown,” said Rhett. “About experiencing things that may even cause discomfort originally and initially but that … open up your eyes to a new perspective on the world. On people. On the way people mesh and the way communities form.”
And if, from his present perch, Rhett could deliver a message to his younger self?
“Keep looking toward the future. Because there were plenty of days when I thought that this was not going anywhere… Having that hope of the things to come really helps the human persona dig deep and keep pushing, and create that future that they’re longing for and wanting to shape.”