Bikepacking is the trend in the UL scene of 2012 (and it will carry over into 2013 as more and more will start to explore the forests and hills with their bike) and hence it is my pleasure to interview one of the most exciting bikepacking cottage manufacturers, Scott Felter of Porcelain Rocket. Scott makes superb bikepacking frame & seat packs and in this interview he tells us how Porcelain Rocket came to be, where that name comes from, and what the future holds. Enjoy!
Scott, please briefly introduce yourself and tell us who you are. Since when are you backpacking & bikepacking, and how did you start?
My name is Scott Felter, and was born and raised in New Orleans. The Deep South is not exactly known as the epicenter of backcountry adventure, so I suppose it all really started when I was a junior on a road racing team in New Orleans. There were several mountain bike races that took place up in the ‘mountains’ of Mississippi and Arkansas, and I was drawn to those events for some reason. That is where the trail took hold of me, I would say. Ever since, I’ve made conscious choices to make my home in places where mountain biking and trail culture were alive and paramount. I have lived in and amongst the Appalachians of SW Virginia, the Sangre de Cristo mountains of Northern New Mexico, the Canadian Rockies, and now the rainforest of Vancouver Island.
How often are you out bikepacking nowadays?
I am out on the trails fairly regularly, mountain biking or hiking. I try and squeeze 1-2 night local bike tours into my schedule about once a month, with the aim of doing a major tour (1-3 months) every other year.
Are you more of a “weekend cycler” or do you have some long distance trips under your belt?
I would consider myself a little of both. I certainly enjoy a nice evening trail session with friends, followed by a few pints, but there is also a part of me that really craves a bit more. There is something incomparable about being a few weeks into a multi-month off-road bike tour. The challenges of logistics, physical preparedness, and technical riding are something that really attract me. I have ridden many of the big ‘bikepacking’ routes in North America, mainly the Divide Route, the Arizona Trail, the Kokopelli Trail, Kananaskis Country, and tons in the Moab, UT area. While living in Santa Fe, NM, I regularly spent weeks riding and exploring in the amazing landscape of Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado. All self-supported, of course!
Which category would you put yourself in: SUL, UL, or Lightweight? What is your typical baseweight?
I’ve never been much of a weight-weenie. I definitely like to have a few comforts along on a bike tour, so if I had to characterize my packing style, I would say that I am a Lightweight kind of guy. My complete bikepacking setup, ready to ride, weighs right at 50 pounds, or about 23 kilos. This includes the bike, gear, and enough food and water for 2-3 days. My bike is a custom, fillet-brazed steel, Rick Hunter 29er. It is built with bikepacking in mind, so Rick built it to accept a Rohloff internal gear hub, lots of bottle mounts and big open spaces in the frame for framebags.
Please tell us where the name “Porcelain Rocket” came from, and what it stands for.
Haha! This is a frequently asked question! Well, it has been a long, winding, journey to the gear-building phase of life that I currently find myself in. While studying for a design degree at Virginia Tech, I worked as an assistant for a ceramist in Blacksburg, VA. Mostly studio assistant type jobs, and manual labour kinds of tasks. However, I really found the physicality of making beautiful, and functional objects with one’s own hands insanely attractive. It wasn’t long before I began identifying myself as a ceramic artist, and my whole world revolved around clay; porcelain in particular. I worked in many different facets of the ceramics industry, from studio assistant to mold-making. All the while, I was growing as a mountain biker, and soon the moniker The Porcelain Rocket took hold. I think it still defines my personality almost perfectly. While I no longer work in any ceramic medium, I still think that there is nothing in this world more beautiful than well-made porcelain, and I will forever hold handmade culture near to my heart.
Porcelain Rocket makes custom bicycle bags. Can you tell us how the idea to start the company emerged and how you see its future?
I began making my own gear mostly out of necessity and curiosity. At the time, ‘bikepacking’ was just getting going, and availability of gear was tough. I, like many folks still, was planning a trip and needed gear. I had a plan for some commercial gear, but in the end that didn’t pan out, so I made my own. It turned out surprisingly well, and it performed better than I had hoped. It wasn’t long before friends began asking, word of mouth took over, and well, that’s it…
Honestly, I never intended to go into building gear commercially. I just made packs to the best of my ability, acquiring the tools as necessity dictated, and I started a blog, mostly so that my friends and family that lived far away could see what I was up to. I’ve had a build queue ever since.
Porcelain Rocket has grown a lot in the last year or two. I now have 4 specialty sewing machines, tons of cutting and patterning tools, and an ever-growing stock of raw materials. I am forever finding a need for more advanced tools, and equipment to make things better, easier and faster. My father once said to me, “You should never regret buying tools. They will only make you better at what you do.”
I am planning a fairly big change to the way things work at Porcelain Rocket in the coming months. I would really like to focus on making the highest quality, custom gear possible. It may mean making less, but making better, and more inspired work.
You have a degree in design, did that help in any way in starting to sew frame and seat packs?
Of course. I reference my design training daily. I would say that the aspects that I draw on most often are those of clean aesthetics and colour. I’m a maker, and will always be. So, I really respect and admire traditions where design and making are one-in-the-same.
What makes Porcelain Rocket different from other cottages?
Obsessive attention to detail, and pride in perfection are the things that I think set Porcelain Rocket apart. I would much rather make fewer amazing packs, than lots of mediocre ones.
You’re starting to get more exposure in bikepacking circles, previously it was only Eric from Revelation who came to mind when commercial bikepacking bags were a topic. You think some of the big cycling companies will start offering bike packing packs in the future? I’m sure. It seems only natural that a larger bike company would want to outfit their bikes with gear, and be able to offer a complete package to the consumer. Sort of a ready-to-roll setup.
Can you tell us a bit how you went about the design process of the El Gilberto Frame Pack, and where the inspiration came from? El Gilberto is my top-the-line custom frame pack. It draws inspiration from the truly inspiring velojournalist and adventurer, Cass Gilbert. Cass is my ongoing hardcore R&D guy, and a great friend. Features in El Gilberto are those that mimic the style in which Cass prefers in his own setup. When Cass comes up with a new feature, it gets added to El Gilberto. Bombproof and highly functional are the two things that will always be paramount for Cass, and El Gilberto.
You recently introduced the Salsa Aything Cage bags - what drove this development? I had tons of requests! I was receiving an inquiry at least once a week for custom bags to fit these little racks. So, after a while, I just gave in and designed something! They have been very popular.
Scott, 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? I am always mentally designing and redesigning, while I work. I am really excited with the direction that things have been going lately, and would like to continue pushing the boundaries of what people have come to expect from bikepacking gear. I have built a few prototypes for new top tube packs, and an improved seatpack design. I am also stoked to be working with Jeff Jones on packs designed specifically for his unique brand of bikes.
Any new lightweight materials that have you all excited?
Well, I think like many gear-builders these days, I’m liking all of the Dyneema materials that are becoming more available. This stuff is truly amazing from a lightweight and abrasion resistance standpoint.
How works the R&D at Porcelain Rocket, 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 receive lots of feedback from clients. One thing that I am continually amazed with is the willingness of people, who have paid their hard-earned money, to give back to Porcelain Rocket, in the way of feedback and critique of the gear that I produce. And it is all 100% unsolicited. I really like that. Being a custom-oriented business, I rely on this sort of thing to make suggestions and to help clients make the best choices possible for their own gear requirements.
Where do your customer come from?
All over, but I think the popularity of bikepacking is biggest in the US, so that is where a large majority of my gear goes. Europeans are really starting to get into this style of travel, so I am seeing a growing number of across-the-pond inquiries.
**Do you think bikepacking and the ultralight principles it is based on will become more popular and break into the mass market, or will it continue to be something for a small group of people?’‘
I think the popularity of bikepacking will peak at some point. Just like any niche outdoor activity, I think there will always be a core group of folks who will always need the highest quality custom gear, and that is where I feel like I would like to focus my attention. I’ve never been a mass market kind of guy!
Are you in touch with other cottage manufacturers in Canada, the USA, Europe, Japan, and other places?
When I was starting out, I connected with a few small builders, and the help that I received from them was amazing. Sometimes, just seeing someone else’s shop space, or finding out about a source for a certain material is so helpful. I would love to have a community of gear-builders close-by, but there just aren’t that many of us in Canada. I also love talking to guys who are just starting out themselves, as I believe strongly in building communities, not competitors.
Any other favourite piece of gear which you always carry with you?
Haha. Honestly, my gear choices change almost every trip. I do have a few foods that I bring along religiously. Mostly Haribo gummy bears, Jolly Ranchers, and peanut butter & honey. You can put peanut butter and honey on anything. And of course Nutella. My father-in-law carved me a wooden spoon on a trip to Mt. Assiniboine a couple years ago, and it has become a staple in my kit now.
When and where was your last bikepacking trip?
A friend and I are working on pioneering a route that will eventually traverse BC’s Vancouver Island from Port Hardy to Victoria (north to south), on as much dirt as possible. So, we have been doing lots of scouting trips. Once we have linked it all together, we hope to host an ‘event’ to showcase what is possible on this little-known island paradise. While it is a necessary evil of modern society, logging has been a major industry on Vancouver Island, and as a result there are endless forestry roads zig-zagging the island, many of which are out of service, but still very accessible by bike.
And where is your dream bikepacking trip taking you?
Well. There are a few ideas kicking around in the ol’ noggin these days. The more adventurous, hardcore route would be the Canning Stock Route in Australia. The more luxurious, but more mountain bike-oriented trip would be the Swiss Alps. Something will happen in 2013!
Are you planning to get out for a trip soon, and enjoy the Canadian summer?
Always. I have been very busy lately with endurance racing season gear-building, so I am in need of a little getaway. The great thing about living in BC, is there is always something close by!
Scott, I thank you very mucho for taking the time to answer my questions =) Is there something you would like to add?
Just a big THANK YOU to all of those that believe in and continually support handmade culture. There is hope for this world, after all!