Hiking in Finland

Climbing, bikepacking, skiing & packrafting in the north

Interview: Kim Coupounas From GoLite

Today will start a one week article series called "Woman in the Outdoors". I believe it is time to give the women who go out backpacking and hiking more attention and time in the spotlight, and I hope that this one week will show that also women enjoy the outdoors. We start off with an interview with Kim Coupounas, Co-founder of GoLite, which we will follow up with a couple of Gear Reviews done by my lovely fiancée, a photographic trip report and a list of female outdoor bloggers will conclude this week dedicated to the women! I hope that both men and women will find it interesting, and are inspired to go to the outdoors together. Thus, without further ado, lets start with the interview of Kim Coupounas from GoLite!

Kim, 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?

Thanks Hendrik. It’s an honor to be interviewed by you and HikinginFinland.com and a pleasure to be able to communicate with your readers! My name is Kim Coupounas, and I’m one of the two founders and currently the Chief Sustainability Officer of GoLite. We’re an outdoor company that makes high performance, lightweight, sustainable equipment and apparel for outdoor enthusiasts of all kinds, including our original customer, the ultralight backpacker.

Personally, I’ve been hiking and backpacking since I was a small child when my family would spend our summers camping in beautiful forests and seashore spots along the East Coast in the United States. My first long backpacking trips didn’t happen until I met my husband, GoLite’s other founder, Demetri “Coup” Coupounas, in 1990. We spent many months backpacking, hiking, and mountaineering in our early years together, including climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro for our honeymoon in 1992. We’ve backpacked and mountaineered in gorgeous places all over this incredible planet, but we’ve not yet had the chance to hike in Finland. We have many Finnish friends, and we’re looking forward to vacationing in Finland in the years ahead.
We are very fortunate to live in a town like Boulder, Colorado, because we are surrounded by hundreds of miles of hiking trails and wilderness literally right out the front door of our home. While normally I’m out hiking or trail running most days, I’m doing far less of any of it these days because I’m 36 weeks pregnant with our first child and due to deliver in just four weeks! I plan to get back out on the trail, though, as soon as possible after the delivery. I miss it a lot!
Are you a UL backpacker? What is your typical baseweight?

Yes, of course I’m an ultralight backpacker! My base weight (not including consumables) tends to be about 10 pounds (about 5kg) on average. My husband goes even lighter than me (about 6 lbs / 3 kG) on average. I’ve chosen not to go “super ultra-light” (SUL), because there are few personal items that I take with me as a woman that make me feel a whole lot more comfortable in the backcountry.
You are a Co-Founder at GoLite, please tell us a bit how the company started, developed over time, and where it is headed. What was for example's Ray Jardine's involvement in the company at the beginning, and was sustainability always so important to GoLite as it is today?
Back in 1994, my husband and I had found our first opportunity in years to escape the paper-pushing, fluorescent-lit bustle of our “yuppie” jobs. We were taking a much-needed backpacking trip in New England – alleluia! A float plane deposited us and our humongous backpacks near Monson, Maine, at the southern end of the Appalachian Trail’s “One Hundred Mile Wilderness.” To return to the real world in time to keep our jobs, we needed to cover just ten miles per day. Through the first 1.5 days we were on pace to cover the distance, but we had yet to experience a single moment of fun. Our back-breaking loads had turned our desperately-needed holiday into a nightmare. We sat down on a boulder, shell-shocked and miserable. We realized there just has to be a better way.

Kim and Demetri.
Fast forward several years and dozens of mountaineering expeditions and hiking adventures later. For each trip, we earnestly tried to cut weight: we trimmed map corners, cut toothbrush handles in half, sliced off straps, and left behind our creature comforts. But our noblest efforts barely moved the needle. Our suffering persisted because our core items – packs, sleeping bags, shelters, and clothing – were way over-built and over-engineered (read: HEAVY) for even our toughest "big mountain" trips.
In 1998 we picked up a copy of a book by well-known outdoor adventurer Ray Jardine who outlined some pretty radical ideas about how to "lighten up.” It even provided directions on how to make our own lite-weight gear. We saw it as a handbook for revolutionaries – gear revolutionaries! We personally wanted these lighter products but didn’t have the time or training to actually sew them ourselves. Figuring that other people would also want high quality lite-weight gear but wouldn’t have the time to make it themselves, we launched GoLite in July 1998, and we’ve never looked back. In August 1998, we launched with 12 simple, well-designed products for the ultralight backpacker. Ray Jardine was the designer of these original 12 products, and we had a royalty arrangement with him in our early years. While he was a large part of what inspired us to start GoLite, we have not had a business relationship of any kind with him in many years.
Today GoLite designs and brings to market a wide range of simple, beautiful, high performance gear that’s light on the planet. Our product line includes men’s and women’s apparel and equipment for active outdoor pursuits, including waterproof, windproof, and insulated outerwear, performance baselayers, adventure travel wear, activewear, backpacks, tents, sleeping bags, and adventure travel luggage. Our products are now sold in 23 countries worldwide.
But as you know, GoLite is far more than a collection of products. Our very name is a philosophy, a commandment to do more with less, and a foundationally sustainable proposition. We believe that lighter products are not only better for the environment (less materials means less weight, less carbon, less energy used, less waste, etc), but they make the experience of being outdoors more fun. The more fun people have outdoors, the more they want to spend time in nature. And more people in nature means more people dedicated to the cause of preserving and protecting our planet.
Where are we headed? We want to continue to make beautiful, high performance, lightweight clothing and equipment that serve the need of the outdoor athlete, including the ultralight backpacker, while having as small an impact as possible on the environment.
Corporate responsibility has been part of GoLite’s ethos since our founding in 1998. When we first started, nobody really knew the term “sustainability,” which has really gained broad understanding only in the last five or so years. In our early years, we strove to be good corporate citizens, having sound environmental practices in our headquarters operations, working to have fair and safe factories, and giving back to the community. Wanting to do more, in 2006 we made the firm commitment to pursue a rigorous and aggressive path to true sustainability. Not window dressing. Not lip service. The real deal.
GoLite is now following a multi-year, metrics-based path to sustainability. We are striving to eliminate or mitigate 100% of our environmental footprint and be a model company in how we treat our people and community. Our long term objective is to aim past neutrality towards becoming “net positive” to environment and civilization across our entire value chain. We don’t have a “green collection:” we are striving to address 100% of our products and 100% of our operations. As we do this, we are maintaining or increasing our stringent end use and testing requirements so that as we move forward, we are actually improving product quality and technical performance, not sacrificing them. We have an integrated set of mission, vision, values, policies, guidelines, and goals that guide every decision we make. If any of your readers are interested in learning more about our efforts, I encourage them to read our 2009 Sustainability Report.
GoLite is one of the few lightweight gear manufacturers which has a dedicated women's line, not only for garments but also for backpacks and sleeping equipment. This is a segment which is ignored by many other outdoor manufacturers, so it is of course especially great to have a UL manufacturer produce gear for women! Did GoLite have a women's line from the beginning, and what made you pursue this market segment?

Thanks for pointing this out! Yes, we are very proud of the fact that we make products specifically designed for both men and women, and we have done so since our founding in 1998. From the very beginning, Coup and I both felt strongly that we would not fall victim to the habit that other companies do of what they call “shrink it and pink it,” in other words making product that was really designed for a man but just making it smaller and in pink. We know that there are many products that from a functional and physiological standpoint need to be different for women and men, so we try to design to those differences without sacrificing the performance of the product for any user. Our customer base is almost 50/50; it would be foolish from a business standpoint to ignore or underserve half our customers!
Some critics of GoLite are calling the company "GoHeavy" since the 2010 line was revealed, and criticize the increase in weight of popular items like the Jam and Pinnacle backpacks. Could you tell us why this [weight increase] is the case, and if we should expect a decrease in weight for the 2011 line?

I’m so glad you’ve given me the opportunity to address this. To be honest, personally it really bums me out to read the blogs calling us “GoHeavy.” We have an incredible team of people here who are, to a person, dedicated to making great lightweight products for our customers, and if and when we have made any design changes that added an ounce or two here or there, it’s usually been for a good reason.

Part of the GoLite staff on a community service day. This one was a tree planting and river environment restoration project on Earth Day last year in Boulder, Colorado.
That said, the interesting things to note about the 2010 line are that while a few of our backpacks got a bit heavier, ALL of our tents and shelters got lighter! It’s also important for our customers to recognize that 2010 product launch marked a HUGE reduction in the environmental footprint of our products. Greater than 67% of the mass of the materials in our products are now made of environmentally preferred materials, mostly Tier 1 recycled nylons and polyesters. And we accomplished that without one iota of decreased product performance.
“Lite” is in our name – how could we ever become “GoHeavy?” It would be akin to corporate suicide! I just wish that when some people start ranting on blogs that they would give consideration to the fact that some decisions we’ve made might be for better reasons than they’ve assumed, often without full information or context. In other words – give us the benefit of the doubt – for the most part, we’ve earned it.
There are still many incredible ultralight products in the line, and season to season we introduce more such products. Admittedly, some seasons some of our best ultralight products gain weight (such as Spring 2010 with the Jam and Pinnacle). And some seasons some of our best ultralight products lose weight (such as the Poncho Tarp which in Spring 2010 went from 10 ounces down to 7 ounces). The changes we made to the Jam and Pinnacle were honestly hard for us to make, but the overwhelming number of our customers and dealers were asking for these changes, and the new versions have been received incredibly well in the marketplace.
There are two things that we spend a lot of time thinking about here in terms of designing great ultralight equipment and clothing. One is how do we best meet the needs of LOTS of customers, not just a handful. We want to make products that still serve our ultralight customer while also making lightweight products that are commercially appealing enough to draw more people “into the light” so to speak. What good is it if we only make product for a handful of customers but never provide a bridge for other customers to join us? That’s not a movement; that’s an exclusive and self-righteous club. We and all your readers agree that going lighter outdoors is better for the body, the soul, and the planet: we’re doing our best to get the word out and to convert as many people to that philosophy as possible.
The other big related issue is the fact that we insist on being able to warranty our products (and our dealers demand it). Some ultra-light products out there are so lightweight that they can only be used by experts and even then they risk being damaged and turned into “throw away” gear. We want our products to serve our customers for decades not only because they should last that long but because that’s a far more environmental way to make products. This philosophy requires that we make products that can withstand the habits of ordinary, everyday people – the people we want to join our movement! We do our best to educate our customers about how to take care of their products, but that’s no substitute for durability. So we are constantly trying to find that optimal balance between lightweight and durability. The best ultra-light cottage industry companies offer limited or no warranty at all. This isn’t meant to be a criticism of anyone, just a fact and a point of differentiation.
Kim, we love to be let in on the work-in-progress stuff! Can you let us know what kind of new products GoLite is working on the moment?

Oh, we have a lot of really cool products in the works, but unfortunately I can’t tell you about them yet!

How does R&D work at GoLite, 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?

Most of our new product introductions come out of long product design discussions and field testing done by our internal design and development team. Our entire staff gets outdoors regularly so we all pitch in with ideas and field testing of products. Many of our products are drawn up from scratch to serve a particular need while others are modifications of existing products that are trying to address a specific challenge. We also get great product ideas from our customers, ambassadors, and non-profit partners who email, write or call us with their needs and ideas. We love hearing from our customers!

2009 GoLite Summer Barbecue and Field Day where the GoLite team got outside and played fun/ silly games together like tug-of-war, three-legged races, volleyball. Most of the games involved drinking some amount of beer!
What are the bestsellers from GoLite? Also, where do your customers come from?

On the equipment side, our current bestsellers continue to be the men’s and women’s Jam, Quest, Pinnacle, and Odyssey packs, the Shangri-la shelters, and men’s and women’s Adrenaline sleeping bags. Our apparel best-sellers vary dramatically from season to season.
Our customers are remarkably diverse for a Colorado-based company. About a third of our customers come from North America (mainly the US and some from Canada), a third from Europe, and a third from the Pacific Rim (particularly Japan, China, and South Korea). We also sell a bit to South America and Australia and New Zealand. We’re working hard to expand our distribution in Europe, including to Finland!
Are you in touch with other (cottage) manufacturers in Europe, the USA, Canada, Japan and other places, talking about gear developments and the like?

We are so fortunate to be in an industry with such great people and that makes products for something as meaningful and fun as backpacking! Yes, we have close friendships with many of the owners and managers of other manufacturers, both cottage and larger companies, especially in Europe and the USA. We get out on the trail to hike with them occasionally and see them at different consumer events and trade shows. We have a lot of respect for manufacturers who make superior, ultralight equipment and clothing, like Hilleberg, Sea to Summit, Komperdell, Black Diamond, Cascade Designs, MSR, Native Eyewear, Gossamer Gear, and Mountain Laurel Design. I’ve also had the privilege and honor of serving as the Chairman of the Board of the Outdoor Industry Association, the trade association that represents the interests of the outdoor industry in the USA, so I’ve formed close relationships with many of the owners and managers of the biggest companies in our industry, too, such as Patagonia, The North Face, Coleman, and Columbia. While we all take a different approach to designing products for the outdoors, there’s a lot more similarities between the people at these companies than differences, the single most important unifier being that we all love the outdoors!
What is your own favorite backpack, sleep system and shelter? Any other favourite piece of gear which you always carry with you?

I try to update my GoLite gear about once a year so that I’m out there regularly using and testing our latest products. My current favorite fundamentals out there are the 2010 GoLite Jam pack, the GoLite Shangri-la 2 shelter, and the GoLite Adrenaline 20 or 40 degree bags, depending on the season. My all-time favorite piece of GoLite gear is the Ether windshirt. It’s an incredibly versatile layering piece that I end up wearing most of the time on most trips. At a meager 3 ounces, it provides a huge amount of comfort and versatility over a wide temperature range. I also always carry the latest version of Cascade Design’s 1 Liter Platypus. I love that it carries water so well but is extremely lightweight and packs small.
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 spring season?

My last “big one” was hiking the Haute Route in France and Switzerland. It was pure magic. My base load for that trip was about 7 pounds.
Do you think ultralight backpacking for women will become more popular and make a foray into the mass market, or will it continue to be something for a small group of people?

I think ultralight backpacking has become a lot more popular in general in the last decade for both men and women! I like to think that GoLite can take credit for a lot of that cultural shift. All you need to do is get out on one of the long-distance backpacking trails and notice what people are wearing and using and compare it to what you would have seen 10 years ago.

Kim and "Coup", photo by Stephen Collector.
Some of these shifts have been influenced by the fact that most of the manufacturers out there, both cottage and large companies, are now making lighter-weight gear and clothing (though some a lot lighter than others!). It’s hard for a backpacker not to find good lightweight options in even the most mainstream outdoor stores nowadays. This trend is only going to continue. Not only are people now experiencing and understanding how much better it is to “go light” in the outdoors, but there’s also a consumer trend towards simpler, lighter products in general. The downturn in the economy has had a lot to do with this trend as people have expressed a desire for simpler, more natural things and experiences.

At GoLite, we no longer think of going light as a niche – it’s already well on its way towards adoption by mainstream. While not everyone going backpacking these days is ready to make the switch to an 8 pound base load, they are certainly going a lot lighter than they were a decade ago.

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

Thanks for such great questions, Hendrik! I look forward to hiking in Finland very soon!