Hiking in Finland

Climbing, bikepacking, skiing & packrafting in the north

Interview: George Andrews of AntiGravityGear

If you like warm food, George from AntiGravityGear is probably someone you are familiar with. One could say that he is the inventor of the pot cozy, that useful bit of kit which keeps your food warm on any day. AntiGravityGear has more to offer than pot cozies, though, and to find out how the company started out and where they are headed, read on!

George, 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 George Andrews of AntiGravityGear, LLC and my trail name is Tin Man. My wife Carolyn and I live in Wilmington, North Carolina where I retired in 2006 after a career as an air traffic controller. I am also a commercial pilot and aircraft mechanic. I have 3 grown sons who all backpack. My love of backpacking started in 1973 in the Gila Wilderness Area of New Mexico while in the Army and stationed in nearby El Paso, Texas. Being bored with barracks life, a friend suggested we go backpacking for a weekend and that first hike hooked me for life. We would go backpacking and fishing whenever we had a long weekend. Even back on those early hikes I started thinking about how I could lighten my pack load and kept a journal of everything I carried and the item weights. If a piece of gear didn’t get used or could be replaced with something lighter and better, it stayed behind for the next hike. There wasn’t a lot of guidance around back then so we did things like cut the handles off our tooth brushes to lighten them but then would carry a SVEA123 stove and fuel which weighed a ton! I still keep a journal of my gear whenever I hike.

I guess no one gets to go hiking as much as they want but I try to make it out for one big hike of 2 to 3 weeks and several shorter excursions each year. Ironically, I have never hiked less in my life since starting a backpacking related business because the busy season is when I need to be in the shop. Go figure!

George on Mt Whitney with his 12.39 base pack.

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

I consider myself more of a lightweight backpacker. My typical base weight is in the 15 to 17 pound range. My retirement gift was a hike of the John Muir Trail and my base weight for that hike was 12.39 pounds. I tend to pay more attention to the grams and ounces on the longer trips and tend to take more luxuries for the shorter ones.

AntiGravityGear sells a lot of different gear, from tarps over stoves and cookware to cozies and stuff sacks. Can you tell us a little bit about the beginnings of AntiGravityGear, the birth of your product lines, and how it developed over time?

My youngest son and I were hiking on the Appalachian Trail in 2002. On impulse, I purchased an alcohol stove from Mountain Crossings Outfitter at Neels Gap and was absolutely fascinated. We probably burned that thing 4 or 5 times a day on that hike finding any excuse to fire it up just to watch it work. It was so light and powerful. When we got back from the hike, I started making stoves and experimented with jet size, placement, stove height and any number of other things to find the ‘sweet spot’ of efficiency. Before I knew it I had made over 50 stoves before settling on a configuration. I then made the tooling to produce them consistently. The Tin Man stove of today is identical to ones I made in 2002. My son’s Boy Scout Troop needed money to purchase backpacking and camping equipment so I started selling the stoves on eBay. As sales increased, a crude website went up and I took on the name of AntiGravityGear.

Along the way, I found some material in the local hardware store that was extremely light weight and thought it would make a good insulator for my cooking pot. I was tired of my food cooling down before the third bite so made a few pot cozies. About that time, there was an article about alcohol stoves in Backpacker Magazine and I decided to send one in to the gear editor because I thought mine was superior to the ones I read about. There was extra room in the shipping box so in went a pot cozy. They were not at all interested in the alcohol stove but really loved the pot cozy. Next thing I knew they had awarded the Editors’ Choice Award of 2003 to AGG for the pot cozy and that was when the company really took off. We now make pot cozies for over 50 stock pots and make custome cozies as well.

George, we love to be let in on the work-in-progress stuff! Can you let us know a tiny bit on what kind of new products we might be able to get in the future from AntiGravityGear?

I am currently working on shelter designs and rain gear. My 10’ Basic Tarp is the main building block for my convertible shelter system. There will be a net tent released later this year that has a bathtub floor that mates up with the Tarp. This was one of the shelters I tested this past summer. The Poncho Villa rain poncho joins to the front of the Tarp to form a vestibule for an additional 17 square feet of shelter area. My rain jackets are popular and I will have some rain pants on the site soon. There are some other projects on the table just waiting for the time to develop them properly.

I’ve just completed the Southern Mountains section of Pocket Profiles for the Appalachian Trail. This is an entirely new product that combines trail data, a map, and an elevation profile for specific sections of trail. Some hikers on the AT eventually cut the elevation profile off their large maps and just hike with that. We combined the elevation data with trail information, resupply points and town information to make a great hiking tool. They weigh about 4 grams each and are printed on an almost bulletproof, waterproof plastic. Pocket Profiles are in the works for other trails as well.

Part of the AntiGravityGear stock room.

How works the R&D at AntiGravityGear, 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?

Both methods, really. I like to find a need and fill it and solve problems for customers. I have the best customers in the world and they are constantly providing feedback that helps in product improvement or results in new product development.

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

We sell a lot of pot cozies, alcohol stoves, Caldera Cones, Tyvek, Tree Lines, Water Bags and stuff sacks. Our rain jackets are starting to sell a good bit too. Our customers are from around the world but most are from the USA. We also sell to backpackers in the UK, Germany, Japan and Australia.

We know that you are cooperating "behind the scenes" with the guys from Trail Designs, but are there other cottage manufacturers with whom you are in touch?

Yes. In addition to Trail Designs, we have always had a close working relationship with Enertia Trail Foods. They make the best tasting dehydrated backpacking meals on the market in my opinion. We have tested food for them and make a pouch cozy for them that fits their meal bags. They have a lot of exciting ideas and new meals coming out this year and are a company to be watched. Most of the manufacturers in the light weight gear business keep in touch with each other because our paths often cross at shows and hiker gatherings. The industry really is a loose-knit family and we often refer customers to each other if a need can be better served by a competitor’s product.

What is your own favorite backpack, sleep system and shelter?

My favorite backpack is a pack called the Northern Light made by Elemental Horizons. Matthew Lagas-Rivera makes the most comfortable sub 3 pound pack I’ve ever carried. I argued with him at length when he was developing the pack about making it lighter for the 15 to 20 pound load range. But he wanted to fit the broader market of 30 to 35 pound range. Fortunately I lost the argument. The result was a pack that weighed in at 2 pounds and 5 ounces and yet was incredibly comfortable when carrying 30 plus pound loads. I don’t like to carry that much weight but it’s nice to have that capability when you have an 8 to 10 day un-resupplied section of trail to cover.

I use either a Western Mountaineering Mega Lite down sleeping bag, or down quilt or down sleeping bag I made along with a pad from Gossamer Gear. My shelter of choice is the AGG 10’ Basic Tarp with vestibule at 15 ounces.

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 in North Carolina?

My last long hike was a 10 day hike in Montana’s Bob Marshall wilderness. The spring hiking season is starting and business will probably not allow me to hike much before summer. We are thinking about the Wind River Range, the Sierras, back to New Mexico. We shall see.

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 think the ultralight segment of backpacking will remain fairly small. Ultra light gear is generally less rugged and sometimes not as convenient to use so most of the weekend warrior types of backpackers are content to get their loads into the 30 – 35 pound range and keep them there. The more serious backpackers will always be trying to shave a gram here or there but represent a smaller group.

George and his associate Matthew testing gear in Yosemite above Nevada Falls.

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

Absolutely. When seeking new gear don’t just go to the big-box type stores. Take the time to search out the small specialty manufacturers when seeking new gear. They are the tip-of-the-spear in gear innovation and are run by people who actually hike and have a burning passion for what they are doing. Trail Designs, Gossamer Gear, Enertia Trail Foods, Six-Moon, Jack-R-Better, Speer Hammocks, ULA, are just a few of the smaller customer service oriented shops that immediately come to mind but there are many more. So much gear, so many trails, so little time!

Optimus Crux Lite Solo Cook System - Passaround

Yesterday I went to the post to pick up a small package from Optimus, in it the tiny new Optimus Crux Lite Solo Cook System. This set is completely new for 2010 and will be my first dabbling in gas stoves. No, I will not leave my beloved wood burning stoves behind, but in winter I find, with the cold I am even more eager to get something hot inside my mouth and thus a gas stove will not only add speed, but also convenience - I do not need to collect wood and get right down to the business of melting snow and boiling water for food.

A nice small box, full of win.

Lets get down to the most important thing first: Weight. The whole set is 269 g, and the separate weights are as follows:

- Mesh bag: 12 g
- Crux Lite: 74 g
- Crux Lite bag: 7 g
- Sauce pan: 122 g
- Fry pan: 54 g

The Crux Lite promises to be stable for the pots and would even give me the opportunity to simmer food rather easily. The sauce pan has a pouring lip and you can fit in 600 ml of liquid, that's plenty for a meal and a cuppa. The frying pan allows me to make eggs with bacon on the trail and be the envy of every other hiker, or, more likely, will be the lid for the bigger pan. The whole set packs small (13 cm high and around 11 cm in diameter if you need to know) and also fits a 110 g cartridge inside it, together with the Crux Lite and a folding spoon if that's what you use. The green plastic handles ensure you don't burn your fingers, so you don't need to use gloves. Nifty, and I love the colour.

You know unboxing photo sets of gadgets? Well, what follows is the unboxing and putting together photo set of the Optimus Crux Lite Solo Cook System, a new stage in nerdiness brought to UL backpacking =)

In its mesh bag.

Without the mesh bag, the suspense rises.

Frying pan, sauce pan and the Crux Lite, ready for action.

I can't yet tell you anything more about the Crux Lite and how it performs, as its not advised to use it inside and with the slush on the streets and the slush coming down from heaven I wasn't able to try it out yet. And that's where you come in. I will organize a Passaround of the Crux Lite Solo Cook System, and you yourself get to test it. Curious? Then read on.

Instead of me doing my usual routine I'd like to pass the Crux Lite set around to five different readers and have them test it. If you're a total newbie to gas stoves like me or a seasoned veteran, anyone can apply for a test of the set. So how does this work? I send out the set to the first reader, and he gets to play around with it for two weeks. You need to have access to gas cartridges (I can't send those) and you need to be willing to pay the postage to send it to the next person, but besides that its completely free to you and allows you to test the stove without shelling out the money first. After your two weeks of playing you send the set forward to the next in line, and drop me a short email about what you thought of the set, which will be published here on the blog. In that way we can collect different viewpoints on the Optimus Crux Lite Solo set, and get a nice review together.

You want to take part in the Passaround? Great! What you need to do is leave a comment underneath (preferrably not anonymous), and next week Monday (8th of March) around noon I will randomly pick the five people who get to test the Crux Lite Solo set. While I'd love to have this Passaround open to everyone, sending packages, even small ones like these, is expensive, so I'd would like to limit it to Scandinavia and the Baltics as that keeps the costs for those involved low (except someone wants to share the postage to them if living outside of that area, then you're welcome to comment as well). Before you hit the comment button, I'd like to remember you - you should be able to get a gas cartridge for the test in your town, you need to be willing to pay the shipping costs to the next person, and you're fine with sending me a short statement of your opinion, possibly with a photo or two. So, now off you go!

UL Weight Watchers

What defines lightweight, ultralight and superultralight? These questions pop up time and again on forums and on blogs, so I thought it might be interesting to delve a bit deeper into this subject. Its going to be highly subjective, full of crazy weight calculations and definitions, so if you could care less about how heavy the stuff is which you carry through the outdoors you better don't read on. For all others, I am looking forward to a lively discussion!

There's a lot of different interpretations of what is UL, SUL and lightweight, and what I found a good definition is

Lightweight = 12-20 pounds
Ultralight = 6-11 pounds
Superultralight = 5 pounds or less

as posted by the Jolly Green Giant. I live in the metric system, which, with its logical steps of tens, hundreds and thousands is a lot more appealing to me than ounces, pounds and whatnot. In that system the above would translate to the following:

Lightweight = 5,44 - 9,07 kg
Ultralight = 2,72 - 4,99 kg
Superultralight = 2,27 kg or less

For the sake of simplicity, and my love for even numbers, I'd round them up/ down to

Lightweight = 5,0 - 10,0 kg
Ultralight = 3,0 - 5,0 kg
Superultralight = anything under 3 kg

That's completely my own suggestion, and you will see many varied discussions and definitions on this topic. But I have more to say than rounding some number up and down, so bear with me. On the last trip, which was in the sign of UL, of course at some point the discussion turned to weights, and how the whole definition is a bit dodgy and open to interpretation. What we discussed about is that I with my Size S in clothing have it a lot easier to reach a UL weight of someone who's 195 cm tall and wears XXL. My small size is a benefit in every piece of gear, because I can sleep under a smaller tarp, use a smaller backpack and quilt, a shorter pad, I don't need to eat as much and the list continues. So I think someone should start to make a clear definition on those weights, and also on deviations of it.

Before I dive into deviations, lets shortly discuss the different ways of defining the weight. You got the base weight, which includes everything in the backpack minus consumables like food, water, fuel and toiletries. This leaves out the stuff you wear on your body - the clothes you wear, your hat, sunglasses, watch, camera, GPS, shoes, trekking poles, etc. To include them and the consumables, one could use the Skin Out Weight. Everything is in there when using the skin out weight; food, water, the clothes you wear and everything else. I believe the new definition of base weight should be the sum of base weight (everything you carry in the backpack minus consumables) and the stuff you wear on your body. Why? Because everything else is a sham in my opinion. You carry what you wear, and thus it should be included from the start and not as a separate point in gear lists. The other weight I would calculate and list is consumables, the food, water, and toiletries. Those two weights will be what I personally will be using from now on, with mentioning of what is worn in the backpack and on the body but with including both as one point when calculating the base weight.

Back to weight and deviations then. My suggestion would be that size Medium (M) is set as the middle standard, to which the above weights (the UL/ SUL/ Lightweight definitions) apply. You could even go a step further and define it so that someone of a certain size (height) is linked to that, but maybe its better to keep it simple. So if a Size M wants to go UL, he should aim for a three to five kilogram weight. And here the deviation to the current system could come in:

- Size S => subtract 5% from M for weight limit
- Size M => Standard
- Size L => add 5% from M for weight limit
- Size XL => add 10% from M for weight limit
- Size XXL => add 15% from M for weight limit

This might sound all hugely complicated, but in truth I think it would simplify, make the weight more personal and most importantly it would make the discussion more fair. Lets assume someone of Size S would like to go UL, then the maximum (new definition) base weight should be 5 kg * 0,95 (because he needs to subtract 5% from the M weight limit) so his max weight would be 4,75 kg. If on the other hand some who's a Size XL wants to go UL he should aim for a (5 kg * 1,1) 5,5 kg max base weight. This allows for the extra weight his larger clothes, shoes, tent, pad, etc. are likely to incur in comparison to someone who's a size S or M. I chose 5% as the value, not because I have done a scientific research on the differences in weights (not yet, at least ;) but because I feel that 250 g are likely a good number to accommodate the differences in the same piece of clothing if taken a number bigger or smaller.

Well, these were my thoughts on the weight debate. To conclude, this was a nice play with numbers, and hopefully helps to clarify maybe the whole weight discussion a bit. I think using the new definition of base weight would be an improvement to the current system, as you include also what you wear and carry on your body, and so close some loopholes. The deviation system on the other hand would make the weights comparable among people of different sizes, and would not put the larger folks at a disadvantage when it comes to staying under a certain weight limit. Finally, these are just ideas and guidelines, and not the be all and end all of the weight debate. If you're aim is to go UL and you're happy with 5,6 kg even if that would be 600 g over the limit of what is considered UL, as long as you feel good and happy with it, don't bother further about it. Its only numbers, after all, and if you decided to lighten up that's the right step you've taken!

Now I'm done and am looking forward to your questions, comments, and observations =)