The first Gear Talk post of the year, and I thought I'd report on two pieces of equipment which surely not many other UL backpackers carry with them. That doesn't mean that they're heavy, by no means, but there are lighter alternatives out there, that is certain. However, these two items are very traditional, and have a long history here in Finland.
Puukko & Kuksa.
Lets start off with the Kuksa, it's a traditional Sami drinking cup made of gnarled birch from Finnish Lapland. The cup is hand made, and carved out of a piece of wood. I got this for my birthday from my parents in law, and I was super happy about such a beautiful present - after living eight years now in Finland, it was about time I got one =) My Kuksa is 121 g light, so double the weight of a titanium cup if you like to think that way, but a lot more beautiful (and sustainable!). What's really handy about it is that its a good isolator as well, keeping the coffee or tea warm while I still can grip it without burning my hands. There's also no need for detergents to clean it, rinse it with water and you're done.
Now in winter I carry my Puukko with me, because it is a lot easier to cut wood with it for my wood burning stoves. Its also a very traditional item from Finland, and mine is from the renown Iisakki Järvenpää company. The knife is 88 g light, and the sheath is 30 g, so together they're even lighter than the Kuksa!
As I said, the puukko is very handy now in the winter, because it is more difficult to get dry wood for the stove, so a solid knife with a fixed blade is my way to go. It ensures that I can cut through thicker branches to reach the dry wood in its middle, and get the fuel I need to melt all that snow and cook my food. Its perfect also to cut bread, reindeer ham, fruits and make sharp sticks for the BBQ! Filigree works also goes easy with this knife, a real multi talent.
If a reader of this blog ever would come to Finland, I'd seriously recommend thinking about getting one or both of these items. They're something you will have for a lifetime, and even can pass on to your kids some day. From an aesthetic viewpoint I'd say they are some of the nicest pieces of gear I own, and I really like using them.
Today's interview is a first: Its a double interview with the two esteemed owners of Jacks 'R' Better, Jack Tier and Jack Myers. Very well known in the Hammock community, the two Jacks also make great gear for us ground dwellers, most notably very fine down quilts, various down products and tarps and a unique hammock. Take that cup of coffee and read on to find out how this cottage manufacturer got started and what you can expect from them in 2010!
Jack Myers aka Smee & Jack Tier aka Pan from Jacks 'R' Better.
Jack & Jack, please briefly introduce yourself and tell us who you are and what your role at Jacks 'R' Better is. Since when are you backpacking, and how did you start? How often are you out backpacking nowadays?
Good morning Hendrik, and to your readers. Thanks for the opportunity to share a few moments about ourselves and our company, Jacks ‘R’ Better, LLC.
By way of introduction Jack Tier’s trail name is Peter Pan. This handle was fist hung on him 25-30 years ago by his wife, when she exclaimed, “You will never grow up!” as he was launching out on another adventure of motor cycle racing at that moment. Fast forward to the early 2000s and it became a trail name as Jack launched out for a 650 mile section of the Appalachian Trail. Today it is convenient shorthand for our many customers and hiking community friend to know which “Jack” is which. Our most frequent question is always, “hello, is this Pan or Smee?”
Jack Myers, Smee and I have been friends 15 years or so. We met through our wives’ business association in Mary Kay and had a perfectly normal relationship of weekly dinners and bridge games until the day in 2002 Smee asked if I hiked and would I like to take a hike? As a recovering cancer victim, Smee needed a challenge and some excitement. Since I enjoyed hiking in earlier days having backpacked portions of the AT in the Shenandoah National Park and the White Mountains and still possessing a shed full of external frame backpacks and heavy synthetic sleeping bags I said of course. We plotted a trip over Old Rag Mountain and White Oak Falls in Central SNP. We slept on the ground with self inflating Thermarest Pads in a two person tent and carried 45 pound external frame backpacks. Well, it whipped our aging butts, but we continued to hike and over the course of the next couple of years we strove to find lighter and more comfortable gear. In recent years we manage to fit in two hikes a year totaling 100-150 miles each year and we go to three organized weekend group hangs of the hammock community. Pan also gets in couple of weekend to several week long motor cycle trips each year where nightly hammock camping is the norm.
Are you two lightweight/UL backpackers? If so, what is your typical base weight?
Yes, we are ultra lighters, although not extreme or Super UL. Pan’s base pack weight is 10-11 pounds for three season trips and 12-13 for winter weekends. Smee is normally 1 pound heavier as he carries the camera, tripod, and extra socks. After all, he is the younger Jack.
Jacks 'R' Better has quite a year behind its back, 80% growth in 2008 and 2009 and adding lots of new and innovative products to your line-up, as well as making a foray in wholesaling in the USA. Can you two tell us a little bit about the beginnings of Jacks 'R' Better, the birth of your quilts, and how it developed over time?
Sure, recall that after our hike in 2002, we were on a quest to lighten up and become comfortable. Like many who became ULers we found Ray Jardine’s book, “Beyond Backpacking” and were off designing and making our personal gear. We got light fast. But the real story was in getting comfortable. Smee was convinced that a hammock was the way to go. We got a couple of 11 oz Traveler Hammocks from Byer, hiked a few miles to a campground high over a bend in the James River during the Christmas holidays. Our backs were fine this time but the wind and cold froze our butts. Once again we were off to find a better way.
In the next year we went through twenty some combinations of pads, fleeces, felts, and mylars in the quest for warmth and comfort in a hammock. We learned from each attempt but ultimately we classed all of these approaches as failure for one shortcoming or another. Eventually, we faced the fact that nothing was going to give the warmth, light weight and breathability of down. This coupled with the realization that the only way to achieve hassle free warmth and comfort in the hammock was to remove all insulating pads from within the hammock and attach insulation to the underside of the hammock. By the next winter we had designed our first down filled under quits and suspension system. We went back to our winter test site on the James River. We set up in the cold drizzle and rain of a 30-32 degree night. Now in Hennessy Hammocks, our down quilts attached we climbed in to warm up. We chatted a bit then drifted off for a warm uninterrupted night of sleep. When we woke up after 8 solid hours of sleep we knew we had a winning approach. Those under quilts were a little shorter than today’s models and included a unique opening slit that married right to the Hennessey hammocks so the user could enter and depart as effortlessly as simply entering the hammock. The original hammock under quilt became known as the “Nest”.
Shortly thereafter, we decided to test market our under quilt approach. We built a batch of eight Nests for the Trail Days festival in Damascus Virginia in May of 2004. Word leaked out of our project and they were all sold prior to trail days. We kept the last two as demonstrators that were shipped the day after the festival. We returned home and began the process of forming Jacks ‘R’ Better, LLC. Business licenses and State bedding manufacturers license were obtained a web site was built and we set about filling our back orders.
We were members of Whiteblaze.net, a large internet community of Appalachian Trail enthusiasts. There was a new hammock forum on the site so we started a thread entitled, “ Under quilts the best approach” in it we stated our findings and approach and went on to ask the community what features they might like in under quilts. Among the many comments received, one member, Sgt Rock, suggested having a sealable head hole so that the quilt could be worn as camp insulation. As fellow military men who had cut head holes in poncho liners over the years we set about designing such a quilt, with then state of the art sealing tape and hidden closure internal to the central baffle section. Sgt Rock’s signature tag line was “no Sniveling. So, with his permission, the No Sniveller quilt was born.
Since those first two quilts some 23 quilt models have been developed for year round support of both hammock camping and tradition ground use. JRB has also developed unique weather shield systems for hammocks, as well as unique tarp designs for hammocks and more recently the world’s only true lay flat hammock, The Bear Mountain Bridge Hammock.
Jack and Jack, 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 Jacks 'R' Better?
As you know, in response to requests from the ground dwelling campers JRB introduced the Sierra Sniveller in October and November 2009. This quilt widened the head end of our most popular No Sniveller quilt to 52 inches all the way through the hip area then tapers the foot end to 42 inches. It is proving popular. As a result, we plan to introduce a full four season model. Your readers can expect to see the JRB High Sierra Sniveller Quilt by late summer of 2010 to support winter use. Like the JRB Rocky Mountain Sniveller it will have 3.5 inches of single side loft thus be capable of use in winter camps of 0-10 degrees Fahrenheit.
Also new in the last 60 days is a fleece quilt liner. It also works great in warm weather as a standalone blanket/sheet. Although it is light at 18 oz, we have an effort on going to make this form of a quilt liner in a micro fleece at about 2/3rds of that weight.
There are a couple more irons in the fire here, but we will wait a while to announce them. We will mention that once or twice a year we update our “Waypoint and Azimuth” article in the about us section of www.jacksrbetter.com to summarize where we have been and where we are going as a company.
How works the R&D at Jacks 'R' Better, 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.
Actually, it is some of both. We Jacks definitely had a need for warmth and comfort in a hammock. Thus the JRB Nest, which started it all, was conceived and brought to market.
Fellow hammock community member and hammocker, Sgt Rock, believed in the value of the oft modified GI Poncho liner with a resealable head hole. The JRB No Sniveller is the result of his suggestion.
Francis Tapon sent us an e-mail asking for sponsorship before his first ever Continental Divide Trail YOYO a couple years back. He asked for a No Sniveller and a JRB Down Hood. Four days into his hike, Pan found a phone message praising the No Sniveller but citing an urgent need for single digit protection. Shoulder season weather and camps above 10,000 feet were colder than anticipated. That night Pan sewed Old Rag Mountain winter baffles into a set of No Sniveller quilt body panels, recomputed the down requirement, stuffed and shipped the prototype quilt that was later to become the JRB Rocky Mountain Sniveller quilt.
Many other items were developed to solve issues that surface on community forums such as Backpackinglight.com, Whiteblaze.net, Hammockforums.net and HikingHQ.net, as well as others, where we are active members. Such items as Jeff’s Gear Hammock/Pack Cover, Self Tensioning Lines (STL), JRB Tri-Glides, JRB 8x8 Tarp, the unique JRB 11x10 Cat tarp and the only full hammock tent, the JRB Hammock Hut, Hammock Weather Shields, all resulted from community recognized needs.
One of the more interesting stories is how the JRB Bear Mountain Bridge Hammock came about. For years we spread the gospel of hammock comfort and their four season use. Over and over, we heard the excuse, “I sleep on my stomach, so a curved hammock won’t work for me”. After one such exchange Smee and I sat shaking our heads. After few minutes Smee, said something to the effect, “we know how to build a flat hammock ... maybe we should just build one”. Shortly after that, well a dozen prototypes or so later, the JRB Bear Mountain Bridge Hammock was exhibited at Trail Days 2008. Using the design approach of a suspension bridge a true flat bottom hammock was born. Incidentally, the Bear Mountain Bridge carries the Appalachain Trail over the Hudson River in New York. It is the lowest point on the AT at 127 feet and at the time it was built in 1924, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world.
What is the most sold piece of gear from Jacks 'R' Better? Also, where does your customer come from?
In the beginning, the Nest was clearly our leading seller. However, today our No Sniveller style models are the heart of our business. And the Mt Washington models are becoming very popular. Among our accessory items, the very high demand for Self Tensioning Lines is definitely a challenge to keep up with.
Our customers come from all over the world. We have sales in 49 out of 50 states in the United States as well as Washington, D.C. And we have sales in 24 countries on 5 of the 7 continents. Does any reader in North Dakota, Antarctica, or Africa need a quilt?
The Jacks at Trail Days.
Do you participate in fairs or happenings, like the Outdoor trade show in the USA or Germany, or other happenings?
Yes, annually we participate in Trail Days in Damascus Virginia. In 2008 we exhibited at the national Outdoor Retailer show in Salt Lake City, Utah. On a smaller scale we participate annually in the hammock community winter group hang at Mt Rogers the highest point in Virginia, and at the Spring and Fall Mid-Atlantic Hammock Hangers Association events in western Maryland.
What are your own favorite backpack, sleep system and shelter?
Pan favors Gossamer Gear Miniposa backpack but has recently joined Smee in testing and use of the Elemental Horizons pack. Its cavernous main compartment allows the packing of Hammock, attached UQ and top quilt in one convenient stuffing process, and the full wrap around outer pocket is super easy to use.
Favorite sleep system and shelter are simple; JRB BMBH and our newest, state of the art, JRB Mt Washington under quilts with JRB No Sniveller top quilts. The entire setup hammock, two three season quilts, a large JRB 11x10 Cat Tarp, complete with Self Tensioning Lines and Titanium tent pegs come in at a couple ounces over six pounds.
When and where your last longer backpacking trips and what were was your base weight? Are you planning to get out for a trip soon, and enjoy the winter season in Virginia?
Last year we had two trips on the AT in Pennsylvania as well as getting to three hammock group hangouts. Base weights were as stated above right at 11 pounds, probably 23 with 5 days of food and water.
Currently we are watching the upcoming weather for the end of January, Fourth Annual Hammock Forums Winter Hang at Mt Rogers.
The last two weeks of August 2010 will find us hiking the Hundred Mile Wilderness section of the Appalachian Trail in Maine, to include the northern terminus of the AT, Mt Katahdin.
Do you think ultralight backpacking and hammock camping will become more popular and break into the mass market, or will it continue to be something for a small group of people?
Clearly both ultralight backpacking and hammocking are leading the developments in established outdoor markets. Major manufacturers are lightening many items and adding hammocks. As the trends grow, and they will, more manufacturing will follow. The leading edge of development and available state of the art will stay with the cottage industries because mass marketers will continue to seek sales safety in proven items with many features and more durable items.
Are you cooperating "behind the scenes" with other cottage manufacturers? Are you for example in touch with any of the other US cottage manufacturers, and talking about developments and the like?
Perhaps the largest grouping of cottage manufacturers occurs at Trail Days in Damascus each year. Cooperation and sharing of ideas and sources is much more open than major manufacturers. By way of example, each year Pan registers Jacks ‘R’ Better, Speer Hammocks and Anti Gravity Gear as a block entry to form the anchor store for the mall of vendors along the river at the Trail Days festival. Evenings are spent sharing meals, discussing trends, markets and developments. We also use this event to spend time discussing industry issues and trends with Ron Moak of Six Moons, Ron Bell of Mountain Laurel Designs and Grant Sible of Gossamer Gear.
Jack and Jack, I thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. Is there something you would like to add?
We want to say thanks to you Hendrik for including us personally and Jacks ‘R’ Better, LLC in your interview series. Six years ago there were only a handful of hammock campers and most of them put their hammocks away when the summer ended. Our goal was to promote four season hammock camping as an alternative, lower impact, greater comfort camping style. Specifically we intended to develop and provide the gear that supported that goal. We are pleased that JRB enjoys great customer support and that our gear is widely used all over the globe.