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!

Wilderness Guide Internship With Upitrek: Multiactivity Tour

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And on to my second week of internship at Upitrek, the Winter Fun in Finland Tour. The idea of this trip was to give the clients an introduction to different winter activities, and hence tour is ideal for families with children and people who're not settled on one thing yet and like to try different ways to enjoy the snow and cold.


Our dogs.

It started on Sunday night as I met my fellow guide Tumppi and our seven clients from the Netherlands in a restaurant in Kuusamo. After a good dinner of typical Finnish cuisine we retired to the hotel in the centre, as the next day we would go direction Ruka for some Husky sleigh ride. This was the first time ever I went on a Husky trip, and it was quite enjoyable, even if it was short. I am a dog person, so this was quite exciting and I enjoyed the time with the dogs a lot. I can imagine to do a longer organized trip, of a few nights, with Huskies in the future - it must be quite something to travel with these great creatures through the white fjells and forests of Lapland.


In the sleigh.

After coffee, sausages and pulla (a Finnish pastry) we continued to Hossan Lomakeskus, our basecamp for the week. Following lunch we gave out snowshoes and some instructions, before some of our eager clients went for a walk to get familiar with snowshoes.


Setting off over the lake.

Tuesday morning I set off with the clients towards Hossan Luontokeskus (Hossa Nature Centre), where we would have a look at the Museum and enjoy lunch. It was good fun to go with the clients, after we climbed up the ridge via the skiing and snowmobile track we went along on top of the ridge, until we went in a zick-zack method the good 40 m in elevation down. For people who stood the first time on snowshoes this was a challenge, though everyone made it safe and sound down to the lake. And to top things off, we saw a few female Black Grouse taking off while going down!


Going down.


On the lake.

We were faster than I thought so I did a few pranks (walking in circles, zick zack, getting lost =) before we climbed the small hill to the Nature Centre. Lunch time. The weather was very much on our side - which is always nice - so we set off towards the cabin at which we would spent the night. Now going through the National Park area we followed the summer trail markings, this was easier than going off-track - the sun meant that the snow was melting and becoming a mush which made it more difficult to walk on top of it - unless you're Legolas (See the Everytrail Trip of this day)!


Almost at the cabin.

As we arrived early yet again, and there was plenty of daylight still, one of the clients and me went for a fine walk through the forest and back over the lake. We witnessed two Raven - in many parts of Europe very rare, here more common than crows at this time of the year - fly into the dusk, which was very beautiful - the photo doesn't do it justice.


Dusk.


The warm glow of light from the sauna and cabin.

Wednesday we snowshoed back to the Hotel in Hossa, with a lunch stop at a cabin. Groups separated, and while the Gentlemen and me made in a straight line through the forest the Ladies and Tumppi followed the skiing track to the cabin. The wind was blowing pretty hard over the ice, but it makes for a beautiful sight seeing the loose snow speed over the ice crust, swirling up in a little vortex. At the cabin I showed the clients how to start a fire just with birch bark, a fire steel and a puukko which resulted in some "Ahs!" and "Ohs!" and soon sausages were being grilled and the water for the coffee started boiling.



We continued on a easy route towards the hotel, though again we were so fast (Dutch people are the tallest people in Europe and hence have super-long legs =) that we made a little extra round over the lake, taking photos, making snow angles, and enjoying the winter sun (See the Everytrail Trip of this day).


Rudolphina.

Thursday was fairly relaxed, with a visit to the Hossa Reindeer Farm. Lovely creatures, and so tasty. After spending some time in the enclosure with them, feeding and petting them, the clients went for a short sleigh ride á la Santa before getting into the beautifully renovated house to warm themselves next to the fire and enjoy a good reindeer soup. A video about reindeer farming and history later we continued back to the hotel.


I found this little fellow a lot cuter than the reindeers =)


I was a bit bored at the hotel, so I went for an extra skiing round.

Friday was our skiing day. I am now totally hooked on skiing and looked very much forward to this day, so right after breakfast we started with some basic instructions - how to fall right, get up again, how to get forward, get up and down a hill, and break. A few rounds on the beginner circle before we moved to the advanced circle and hill, where I went with some of the clients for a small tour already - they stood the first time on langlauf (Cross Country) skis and did really well, very excellent!


It had snowed a lot that night and morning.

After lunch I went with a small group for an afternoon trip to the Hossa Nature Centre (Everytrail Trip), which was very nice again. To see beginners so eager to go for a trip is very rewarding, and while there were some falls everyone arrived in one piece back at the hotel in the afternoon while feeling that they accomplished something great - I was pretty proud of them!


Off track with langlauf skis. Where there's a guide, there's a way.

Saturday was our last day, and clients could choose an activity they'd like to try more or go for something new. So the morning was spent with ice fishing, while some went snowshoeing as well. I spent time packing and reading, as also I would travel back home on the following day.


High endurance sport.

Sitting around the dinner table the question for northern lights came up. While we saw some very weak ones on Monday night, our clients felt that they'd like to see "proper" northern lights on their last evening. While there is no switch to put Aurora Borealis on, a sacrifice to the pagan gods can help make them appear =) I put on my jacket to see if there's a show on, and much to the joy of our guests, there was. It was spectacular, with even red and yellow northern lights to be seen besides the green ones. Fantastic!


Aurora Borealis.

And so the week ended with a great show. Sunday morning a last breakfast together, collecting the gear the clients loaned, packing and jumping on the taxi bus to Kuusamo. I myself jumped on the bus and started my 10+ hour trip back south, planning routes for upcoming trips, reading, tweeting and looking forward to sleep to my loved one in our own bed.


A guest enjoying the show.

And so my internship ended. While it were long days it also was fairly easy and relaxing, as I was doing something I enjoy myself a lot. Having smart, funny and interested clients helps a lot as well to make this "work" seem less like work but more like having a good time with mates. I will wrap up this experience in a separate post and tell more about what happened at school in the meanwhile, so stay tuned =)

Wilderness Guide Internship With Upitrek: Russian Border Skiing

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From the beginning I knew that this is going to be a kickass internship. While the words "obligatory" always leave a bitter taste in my mouth, I decided that an internship, even if obligatory, would be beneficial for me in many ways. As I rather do my practical training with a company I can look up to and which gives me a good and appropriate task, the companies to choose from got small. Very small. And so I sent off last autumn one email to Upitrek, asking if they'd like to enjoy my free labour for a few weeks in the spring. The answer came soon and was positive, and so I studied the Upitrek website, their different winter programmes, and kept in touch with them.



At the end of January was clear that I will go on their Russian Border Tour and the Winter Fun in Finland Tour. Lots of skiing first, and then some more skiing with snowshoeing, husky sled driving and a visit at a reindeer farm. It could be worse.

I arrived on the 27th of February in Kuusamo and continued to the airport, where I would meet my fellow guide and our clients. Much to my luck, my fellow guide Laura is someone I knew already, and our clients would be Dutch. After we collected everyone, stored their luggage in the trailer of the bus we started the drive towards the Hossa Hiking area, where we would start the trip. During the dinner I then revealed that I spoke and understand Dutch, which created some good laughs among the clients =)


Skiing Day One.

After breakfast on Monday morning all were eager to start skiing, despite the snow and wind outside. Day One started rather relaxed, and after a while everyone was back in the rhythm of kick-and-glide and it took just a bit under two hours to reach the first lunch place, the Hossa Visitor Centre. We enjoyed a look around the Museum which described the history of the area and its flora & fauna, before sitting down for a good lunch next to the fire place.


At the Hossa Visitor Centre Museum.

In the afternoon we continued skiing for another two hours, with a brief visit to the Reindeer Farm, before going to the hotel, the Hossan Lomakeskus. Sauna, dinner and some conversation before going to sleep. This was an easy day, and I had my own skis on, which wasn't a problem as the distance was short and I was the guide at the end. Though the next day we'd be skiing 25 km and I decided to switch to real Langlauf skis (44 mm width), which were a lot lighter and faster. I combined the boots with my new Urheiluareena Pilot overboots, which kept my toes warm and dry. A smart decision, as I would learn the following week.


Day Two starts cold.

After a late breakfast we left the hotel, for a 25 km skiing day. Today I was the leading guide, which was a bit of an extra challenge in addition to the new skis. But the first 11 km to the lunch place went smooth, through fine forests, over lakes and swamps, always following the track our snowmobile guide has made for us. Arriving at the lunch place we were welcomed with a warm cup of hot juice, a delicious soup as well as bread - something to look forward to after a morning's skiing! I helped serving while the clients one for one arrived, everyone in their own speed - it was their holidays, after all.


Lunch fire.

Well fed and with their thermos cans refilled, we started again. The sun was warm and the conditions for skiing great, and again I took off with the leading group. More swamps, lakes, hills, forests to ski through, and after a final climb we reached Kovavaara, the destination for the night.


Over a swamp, along the Finnish - Russian border.

Again our great snowmobile guide Antti was waiting with hot juice or tea and breads for the hungry skiers, while I tried to stretch my thighs - it was exhausting, that skiing. After the last ones arrived, the clients were shown their cabins, the sauna and toilet while Antti, Laura and me prepared the dinner and warmed up the sauna. In the sauna with the clients I introduced them to the great "Olut löyly" which was much liked, and after a refreshing wash with snow all headed back to the main house. Antti prepared a delicious dinner, and after that the Northern Lights spectacle began.


Northern Lights at Kovavaara.

The Northern Lights were spectacular, and our clients were very delighted to have witnessed them. With a smile on their face everyone went to sleep in their warm cabins. The next morning came, and Antti and I started to prepare the breakfast. It was a beautiful morning, with fine sunshine and crisp temperatures. After I did the dishes for 18 people we set out, today I was again the guide at the end, which was perfect as I still felt my tights.

We continued along the border zone in perfect skiing weather, with clear views towards Russia as we skied in our snowmobile-made skiing track. Short breaks to snap photos, or to have a cup of tea and a snack were had, until we reached the lunch place. Hot juice, good soup, breads, fire, a welcome routine.


Do not cross! There be dragons on the other side =)

After only skiing 17 km today we reached Arola, where we were welcomed with the most delicious home-made pie and great coffee - just thinking of that pie now makes my mouth watery =) Some clients went for an extra round skiing, while others went to their apartments and got ready for sauna. After sauna we were again treated with the best home cooking on this trip, with delicious elk, pikeperch, mashed potatoes and a variety of vegetables and salads. Everyone enjoyed the great food, and after an equally fine dessert we retired to our rooms for a good nights sleep.


Main house at Arola.

Day Four was a daytrip, as we would spent another night at Arola. A good 20 km skiing in less than perfect conditions - from white-out and over-blown tracks to full frontal wind and snow sticking to the skis, but fun was had by everyone nevertheless. Another fun evening with sauna, delicious food, song and laughter was had - as you can see this guide life is hard =)


Less than perfect conditions, fun nevertheless.

On the fifth skiing day I again was at the end of the line of skiers, and after a final good breakfast at Arola, many thanks and good byes to the perfect hosts we continued onwards. Another short day with only 17 km, and to mix things up lunch was next to a very nice hut, which was welcoming after the first leg of skiing.


Setting sun at Arola.

After lunch we continued towards Martinselkoksen Wilderness Centre, where we were welcomed with coffee and pastry. If you start to think that there's a lot of food involved, you're right! We were joking with some of the clients that it is more like a food trip with skiing in between =) Again the sauna was visited, "Olut löyly" was enjoyed, before dinner was served. The evening was passed by playing fun games and chatting, before slowly everyone retired to bed.


Towards Martinselkoksen Wilderness Centre.

Saturday was the last day where Antti, the snowmobile guide, would make a track for us. The group of fourteen clients was fairly split in the middle between those who would like a longer round, and those who'd prefer a shorter round. I was happy to go with the short (17 km) round group, and retire early - after all, there was sauna, dinner and evening programme to be enjoyed.


A last fine day of skiing.

Laura had a bag of instruments with her, and our impromptu jam session was fun and a great way to spend the final evening. More games and some fine Dutch Jenever made it an "gezellige avond" as we say in Dutch!


Fresh Wolverine tracks.

Sunday Laura left early and I was responsible for keeping the clients happy until the bus to the airport came to pick us up. Part wanted to go for a stroll, others wanted to try snowshoeing and some went for another short skiing round before packing commenced.


Embers.

As the bus finally arrived we packed the gear into the trailers, before the trip back to Kuusamo began. And so my first week as an "apprentice guide" went towards the end, but even before we reached the airport I left the clients with a nostalgic feeling as I went to meet the second group, and a new "Master Guide" for dinner in Kuusamo.


A old mill we visited on the snowshoeing trip.

Looking back on this week, after an estimated 111 km of skiing, six saunas, five different beds, plenty of tasty meals and fourteen happy clients, I know I made the right decision to do the wilderness guide education and do my internship with Upitrek. If this trip sounds appealing to you, and you want to hone your cross country skiing skills in pristine Finnish wilderness, all while staying in a warm bed at night with plenty of good meals, check the Russian Border Tour site at Upitrek - and who knows, maybe we might meet in the future on a trip like this!