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Bike racer Michael Eidson was looking for a better way to stay hydrated during a sweltering road race in Texas, the "Hotter'N Hell Hundred."

The emergency medical technician filled an IV bag with water and slipped it into a tube sock.

He stuffed it down the back of his bike jersey and sipped from the IV tube as he pedaled. Eidson didn't have to slow down or take his hands off the handlebars while he raced.

That's how CamelBak was born 24 years ago.

Today, the Petaluma company is the world's largest maker of "hands-free hydration systems," with more than $141 million in global sales last year.

First popular with mountain bikers, CamelBak's water packs are used by hikers, hunters, skiers, runners and the U.S. military.

Now CamelBak is expanding into other markets, backed by a $145 million investment from its new owner, Compass Diversified Holdings, a Connecticut-based equity fund.

It's rolling out new products including portable water purification and environmentally-friendly, reusable water bottles.

"Everybody has an essential need to hydrate," said Jeremy Galten, who heads CamelBak's research and development team in Petaluma. "We're reinventing the way people hydrate and perform."

Compass Holdings has high hopes for the company, according to a filing last month with U.S. securities regulators.

"CamelBak has made significant strides introducing new products that target activities outside its core biking and hiking audience," Compass said.

It's poised to grow as consumers turn away from disposable water bottles, the equity fund said. CamelBak also has growth opportunities in Europe, Asia and South America, according to Compass.

The Petaluma company's sales rose more than 15 percent in 2011 as it launched new products and broadened its customer base.

CamelBak has been adept at riding consumer trends since it first found traction with the mountain biking set in the early 1990s. Its water packs became hot items at the annual Burning Man gathering in the Nevada desert.

As hikers, runners, skiers and other outdoor enthusiasts began using its packs, CamelBak designed sport-specific models for them.

They're also popular with construction workers, farmers and others who work outdoors. They sell from $30 to $200.

During the Gulf War, U.S. combat troops took the company's gear into battle, and it quickly became a big seller at military exchanges.

CamelBak's defense business grew during the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. By 2005, it was the Pentagon's largest supplier of water packs. U.S. and foreign military and other government customers now account for about 40 percent of CamelBak sales.

The company has gained a reputation for rugged, durable products. At CamelBak's test lab in Petaluma, the company's polyurethane water reservoirs are twisted, stretched, crushed and heated to make sure they stand up to years of use.

Bite valves are compressed thousands of times on test equipment to ensure they last.

About 80 people work at CamelBak's green-certified LEED headquarters in Petaluma, where the company has management, sales, marketing, product development, testing and customer service. It manufactures products at other locations in the U.S., Mexico and Asia.

In 2006, the company jumped into the water bottle business. It was a calculated risk, Galten said.

"It was a decision we fretted over," he said. "We were the un-bottle company."

But CamelBak saw an opportunity, Galten said. "We thought we could bring a bit of functionality back to a market that had been neglected."

CamelBak's taste-free bottles use patented bite valves that prevent leaks and allow easy sipping, the company said. Since 2008, they've been made without Bisphenol A or BPA, an industrial chemical in lightweight plastics that has been linked to health problems.

Last year, water bottles represented almost 31 percent of CamelBak's sales.

The company also sells a line of high-performance gloves for military and government markets.

In January, CamelBak launched All Clear, a portable water purification system that uses ultraviolet light to make a bottle of water potable in 60 seconds. The rechargeable battery-powered unit costs $99.

A line of new packs for the military features reservoirs that resist chemical and biological agents. They're designed for use with gas masks.

CamelBak has had a series of owners since Eidson first sold it to San Francisco toymaker Kransco for $4 million in 1994. It moved to Petaluma in 1999.

Investment bank Bear Stearns acquired it for $210 million in 2003.

Compass paid $258 million for the company last August. The publicly-traded equity fund buys "middle market" businesses with annual revenues between $50 million and $1 billion, targeting niche market leaders with solid growth potential, it said.

CamelBak "fits very nicely within our criteria for subsidiary businesses," Compass CEO Allen Offenberg said last month.

While CamelBak faces competition from companies such as The North Face, Nalgene, Sigg and Platypus, the company still controls 80 percent of the hands-free hydration business and 30 percent of the market for specialty water bottles, Compass said.

CamelBak's top retailers include REI, Dick's Sporting Goods, Target and The Sports Authority.

The company's growth could be affected by a drawdown of U.S. forces in the Middle East, according to analysts. But CamelBak stands to gain from a trend toward decentralized military purchasing, Compass said.

With new products in the pipeline, CamelBak isn't resting on its success, Galten said.

"Innovation is key," he said. "It's what we do. You rest and you die."

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