Hiking in Finland

Climbing, bikepacking, skiing & packrafting in the north

Interview: Ben Smith From GooseFeet

Warm feet are essential in winter, as I learned a few weeks ago. If I had been smart, I would have had a pair of GooseFeet Down Booties with me. Ben Smith is the man making these wonderfully warm and light booties, and he tells us how he got started with his cottage business, and where he plans to take it in the future.

Ben and his down filling station. All down is weighed out to the nearest 20th of a gram.

Ben, please briefly introduce yourself and tell us who you are. Since when are you backpacking, and how did you start? How often are you outdoors on a trip nowadays?

My name is Ben Smith and I am the owner of GooseFeet Down Socks. I am 21 years old, and attend The Georgia Institute of Technology, majoring in Industrial Engineering with a Minor in Materials Science and Engineering. I started GooseFeet in January of 2010, and it took off quickly. I was introduced to backpacking when I joined my local Boy Scout troop in 2000. I did all of my backpacking with a traditional load for 8 years or so, until I had the chance to go to the Philmont Scout Ranch in Cimmaron, New Mexico. I decided that I wasn’t satisfied carrying 50 pounds of weight and reduced my loaded pack to about 35 pounds with 5 days of food. After I got back from Philmont, I did some more research about how I could have done things differently, by going even lighter. I started investing in new gear, and went on trips that were local to test things out. Now that I am running GooseFeet and attending school full time, I don’t get out as much as I would like, but usually go on 3 or 4 weekend trips a year, with 2 or 3 week-long trips during the summer.

Are you an UL or lightweight backpacker? If so, what is your typical baseweight?

As a gear geek, my load is constantly fluctuating, but for 3-season trips, my typical baseweight is between 6 and 8 pounds. In winter, that will go to 10 pounds; in summer, I can go to 5 pounds.

Please tell us where the name "GooseFeet" came from, and what it stands for.

My first product was my down socks, so I decided to come up with a name that would conjure up images of what I sold. I use down that comes from geese, and you use the socks on your feet, so “GooseFeet” was the obvious name for this product. As my product line expands, that name doesn’t still fit, but since my down socks are still my primary product, the name will stay.

Ben working on sewing up a stuffsack.

GooseFeet makes innovative lightweight down booties. Can you tell us how the idea to start the company emerged and how you see its future?

As I was working on lightening my load, I was looking for a pair of down booties or socks to be able to keep my feet warm at night. As I researched my options, the only products that I saw were either heavy, expensive, or both! I had been playing around with fabrics when making some of my other gear, so I decided to make some for myself. I found that what I came up with was much lighter than other options, as well as being fairly inexpensive. I decided to test the waters for a market on the BackpackingLight forums, and found that there were many other people that were looking for the same thing that I was. I invested in some high quality materials, and started producing the socks right away.

As I get closer to graduating from college, I will have a clearer idea about where my career will be taking me. I will continue GooseFeet on the side for as long as possible, but there may come a time when I cannot continue producing my products because of career or family choices.

The GooseFeet booties and overboots are real UL products, aimed at people who want to go really light but wanna have warm feet in winter. Can you tell us a bit how you went about the design process of these two garments, and where the inspiration came from?

The idea and design behind the booties are in the answer to the previous question, but the overboots were not my original idea. Within the first month, I had customers asking for a lightweight waterproof cover to use either around camp or at night. I designed the overboots using the same pattern, again using high quality materials, and my first try worked very well!

Socks in progress.

Ben, 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 on at the moment?

Currently, I am selling pillows from my website. The current model works well for back or stomach sleepers, but since I am a side sleeper, I was not satisfied using this on my trips. I am working on a side sleeper version that will require the use of the customer’s current pillow. This will be a down pillow-topper that weighs about an ounce. For example, I use a small inflatable Flexair pillow, and a large Kookabay pillow. I would make a pillow topper that would fit over these uninsulated & inflatable pillows. Thus, you have the support of an inflatable with the comfort and insulation of down for around 2 ounces (flexair) or 2.5 ounces (large kookabay).

I am also working on a lightweight pullover vest, with or without a built-in hood that would be used for extra head and torso insulation while in your bag or under your quilt.

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

I use a little of both. For example, the socks and pillow were my original idea, but the overboots were customer driven, as I don’t even use these on my trips! I welcome custom orders for socks, as well as orders for other items, such as pants, mitts, or balaclavas. I love trying new things, so if someone has an idea about a product, but doesn’t have the sewing skills to try it themselves, I would be happy to come up with a solution for you.

Where do your customers come from?

As shown on my wall map, most of my customers are from the US, but I have had customers from Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia.

Ben's map of all the locations he has shipped to. There are GooseFeet all over the world (Except Finland :-O )!

Are you in touch with other cottage manufacturers in the USA, Europe, Japan or other places?

I work closely with Titanium Goat to promote my products, and I have discussed materials and product ideas with Evan from Black Rock Gear, and Tim from Enlightened Equipment. I have not hiked with or met any other cottage manufacturers in person.

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

My favorite backpack is my ZPacks Blast, which I use for all seasons. My favorite sleep system are quilts of my own design, along with my Kookabay pads. My favorite shelter is constantly changing, but currently I use a Mountain Laurel Designs Duomid for trips with high winds or snow, and my custom ZPacks Hexamid Twin tarp for all other trips. My favorite pieces of gear - other than my GooseFeet products - that go with me on all of my trips are my Black Rock Hat and my Gossamer Gear LT4 trekking poles!

Hiking in the Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana in July 2010.

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 season?

My last longer trip was as a junior leader for the Montana High Aventure Base in Dupuyer, Montana. I had a baseweight of around 8 pounds for a 6 day trip into the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area. My next planned trip is 3 days on the North Carolina section of the Appalachian trail in late March. Winter is my favorite time to backpack in the Southeast!

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 don’t think that UL will become mainstream any time soon, but I believe that lightweight backpacking will become more popular, as I see more mainstream companies trying to lighten some of their products.

Ben, thank you for taking the time to answer my questions =) Is there something you would like to add?

I think the UL and lightweight community are some of the best people to work with, and I hope to be a part of this community for many years to come!