Hiking in Finland

Climbing, bikepacking, skiing & packrafting in the north

Interview: Matthew Lagas-Rivera From Elemental Horizons

Monday morning, interview morning. I'm really excited to be able to present you a little know cottage, Elemental Horizons, today. Matthew Lagas-Rivera is the owner of this still very young company, which makes a variety of gear for lightweight backpackers as well as kayakers and canoeing folks. And because he didn't like to waste material, he developed very stylish garments in addition to his packs and accessories! But please, take that cup of coffee or tea, open up another work related tab in case your boss stops by so that you look busy, and enjoy!

Matthew on the John Muir Trail with Half Dome in the background, August 2008.

Matthew, please briefly introduce yourself and tell us who you are. Since when are you backpacking, and how did you start? How often are you out backpacking nowadays?

My name is Matthew Lagas-Rivera. I grew up in central North Carolina which is a great place for people who love all sorts of outdoor activities, you are close to both the mountains and the coast, nearly equidistant to both. My parents were avid campers when I was younger and many of my fondest memories are of time spent camping, fishing, canoeing, and sailing. I fell in love with hiking, backpacking, and rock climbing in College in the mountains of North Carolina where I often hiked and climbed 5 to 6 days a week (after my work and school responsibilities were over of course). During this time was when I designed my first pack.

After living in the mountains for about 6 years I moved back to central NC where I began traveling extensively to pursue the outdoor activities I love. I regularly climbed and hiked all over the southeastern US. Also during this time I began doing a lot of sea kayaking. I began instructing and guiding for a couple of local companies and doing several week to two week long trips a year. 2000 and 2001 were big years for me. I started in March 2000 and paddled from the NC/SC state line to the NC/VA state line approximately 330 miles in a total of 5 weeks. Then in September I did an 11 day self supported bike tour on the Blue Ridge Parkway totaling 520miles. In January and February 2001 my wife and I traveled to Australia and New Zealand for 6 weeks where we hiked, paddled, snorkeled and experienced as much of those two amazing countries as possible. I also applied and was accepted to a sea kayak instructor course with the National Outdoor Leadership School (N.O.L.S.). I participated in the NOLS instructor course where we paddled more than 200 miles of the outer coast of British Columbia, Canada and finished off the 2001 season as an instructor on a course in Prince William Sound, Alaska.

I now live in Southport, NC, a small town on the coast, with my wife and son. I get to go back packing a few times a year, mostly shorter trips, as my life and work responsibilities allow. Unfortunately I have been plagued on recent trips with problems in my knees and hips, and have been forced off trail on several recent trips to prevent further injury. These experiences have spurred in me an even greater interest in light weight gear and methodology. My son is at an age now where he is really excited about camping and doing things in the outdoors and I am trying to cultivate that interest as much as possible so that hopefully he will develop the same love of the outdoors that I have. So far I have a great camping partner in him.

Matthew with his son as they are departing on a day hike at Cliffs of the Neuse State Park early winter 2009.

Are you a lightweight/ UL backpacker? If so, what is your typical baseweight?

I consider myself a light weight backpacker. My base weight varies depending on the weather and time of year, but is generally in the 14 to 17 pound range. I like to experiment with different gear lists and try different things and so my weights can vary quite a bit. Because of reoccurring knee and hip problems I am actively exploring ways to lighten my load even more.

Elemental Horizons makes a some very original gear, from the Northern Lite backpack over to the Utility Belt and other accessories and apparel. Can you tell us a bit how you decided to start the company, how you developed the Northern Lite bag and where you plan to take the company?

Elemental Horizons has grown out of my love of the outdoors, my personal philosophy of learning and problem solving, and the fact that I am a hopeless gear nut. I have lived, worked, and traveled in the outdoors and outdoor industry for as long as I can remember, and my love of the outdoors and passion for technical, fully featured gear drives me and my products.

Many of the products that I make with Elemental Horizons have developed out of personal wants or needs. My first product was a kayak paddle bag, which I designed to protect my paddles while I traveled. The original bags were as much attractive as they were functional but were incredibly time consuming and expensive to produce. They were a major learning process for me about design and manufacturing. My fleece hats and sunglasses cases came about in an effort to conserve materials and reduce the amount of waste produced by my company. The original paddle bags had multi-color fleece exteriors and created a great deal of scrap. I designed the hats and sunglasses cases to better utilize this waste and because I love wearing a comfy warm fleece hat on cool days.

The packs have been an ongoing design and development process. I designed my first back pack in college more than 10 years ago. But at the time I did not know how to sew let alone make a pack and so I drew it up in one of my many idea books and did not do anything with it for years, until eventually I learned to sew. One day I was talking to George at AntiGravityGear and decided to make that pack. Well, some of the features that I want to incorporate in that design have proved to be a little more challenging than I originally anticipated and it has still not progressed into a fully functional prototype. However, during the process of learning to make that pack I have designed several others including the Northern Lite. One of my major life and design philosophies is to always be learning about and from everything around me and to seek out new solutions to problems. I adamantly believe that there is always a way to do anything, it is up to me to find the way - I don’t believe in “can’t”. The Northern Lite is a great example of this philosophy. I literally worked on the lower compression system of that pack for months before finally settling on the design in use today. The lower compression straps of that pack not only compress the load in 2 places but also lift the bottom of the pack, thereby providing excellent compression and load stabilization as well as preventing the feeling of low riding that some packs have. And they do all this without interfering with the usability of the large mesh pocket. I think more than anything else this process of learning and problem solving is why I like making gear.

My goal for Elemental Horizons is simple: Total world domination! Seriously though, I would like to continue to make the best gear I can as long as people like what I am doing and as long as I enjoy it. I have ideas for several new packs one of which will hopefully be available later this season, this year we are launching a line of mesh bags and duffles for paddle sports, and I would like to branch out into bike touring accessories in the future as well.

Matthew, we love to be let in on the work-in-progress stuff! Can you let us know what kind of new products you're working at the moment?

Well as I mentioned earlier we are launching a new line of mesh duffles and bags this season. There are 3 different sizes with varying features. Two are duffle style bags and the other is a tote style with a single strap. And of course there is the new pack. This pack is designed to be frameless, and to accept one of my aluminum frame stays. It is smaller in volume than the Northern Lite, and is designed for lighter loads. It is also significantly lighter in weight. I just sent a prototype off for testing and feedback, and already have a few tweaks in mind. My hope is to have it in limited production by mid May but we will just have to see how things go.

How works the R&D at Elemental Horizons, do you have a need yourself that you try to fix, or do some of your clients inspire you for new products or ask you for solutions to their problems?

I get my inspiration from all over the place. Some products I want or need personally, others are suggested by customers, and sometimes ideas just pop into my head. The UL insulated water bottle holder is a great example of a customer suggested product. That product was suggested by the first customer to buy a Northern Lite. He needed an insulator that he could use during the day to keep his water cool in the Sierras and wanted to be able to use the same insulator to rehydrate his meals at night. We bounced ideas around for a while and I came up with a holder similar to what I sell now. It worked great for him on his High Sierras Trail hike this past fall! I love talking to other gear nuts! People who use the gear day in and day out know what works and what doesn’t and really get my creative juices flowing. Sometimes the highly specialized or specific needs of one person won’t necessarily fit the broader market, but I am more than happy to make custom gear for people.

What is the most sold piece of gear from Elemental Horizons? Also, where do your customer come from?

I sell more accessories than the big ticket items. I sell lots of accessory pockets, water bottle holders, and hats; stuff like that. But the packs are catching on more and more and I think as I introduce more designs and people start to hear about me more my sales in other areas will increase. I have customers all over the world.

Are you in touch with other cottage manufacturers in Europe, the USA, Canada or other places, besides AntiGravityGear with whom you cooperate very closely?

Yes, the outdoor industry is a pretty close knit group of companies especially the smaller companies. We all go to the same events and shows like Trail Days and talk gear and swap stories. Many of us use each other’s gear and love checking out the newest coolest brain storms of each other and we do occasionally work together on projects. For example last summer I made a pack for Russ over at Trail Designs that might eventually go into production. Jacks ’R Better and Trail Designs are two companies that I speak to pretty regularly. I have not yet had the opportunity to meet any of the companies from Europe or Canada but I welcome the opportunity.

Matthew at the Appalachian Trail celebration at Amicalola Falls State Park in George, where Matthew was sharing a booth with AntiGravityGear and showing his products. The gray and green pack is the new prototype design.

What is your own favorite backpack, sleep system and shelter? Any other favourite piece of gear which you always carry with you?

I have to say that right now my favorite back pack is the Northern Lite. It is perfect for me right now, but I am really excited about this new pack I am working on as well. My sleep system is one area that I have been doing a lot of experimenting with recently. I have been testing out quilts and am experimenting with hammock camping some too. I have a Jacks ‘R Better quilt which I really like both on the ground and on the hammock which also is a JRB. I generally use an AntiGravityGear tarp on backpacking and bicycle touring trips and a Sierra Designs tent on paddling trips. I also really love my Caldera Ti-Tri - I just got an Inferno set to go inside and plan to use it on my next trip.

When and where was your last longer backpacking trip, and what was your baseweight? Are you planning to get out for a trip soon, and enjoy the winter/ spring season?

My last longer backpacking trip was in 2008. I was supposed to hike a 5 day stretch of the John Muir Trail in California. But I blew out my knee early in the trip and had to come off the trail. My base weight for that trip was about 15 pounds. It was my first trip to the Sierras and I was not really sure what to expect - I definitely would go lighter next time. I had a trip planned for 3 weeks ago and had to reschedule due to hip issues. It is looking like now it might be May or June. But I am really looking forward to it.

MS Tour to Tanglewood 09 – In September 09 Matthew participated in a Multiple Sclerosis fund raiser bike ride, where he rode 47 miles in the rain on the first day of the event. This picture was taken at the end of that first day, and the other person in the picture is his good friend and teammate Cliff Pender.

Do you think ultralight backpacking will become more popular and break into the mass market, or will it continue to be something for a small group of people?

I do believe that light weight backpacking will become a more mainstream facet of the sport. As with everything, I think there will always be a select few who really push the envelope of the sport and themselves by being truly ”ultra” light, but as more and more people start to use light weight techniques and gear more companies will begin to offer a wider range of products for the light weight enthusiasts.

Matthew, I thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. Is there something you would like to add?

I would like to thank you for inviting me to participate in this ongoing discussion. It has been my pleasure to share my thoughts and ideas with you and your readers. I am excited about the many opportunities awaiting me and my company in the future and hope to be able to be a part of this great community of outdoors people long into the future. Happy Trails!