Hiking in Finland

Climbing, bikepacking, skiing & packrafting in the north

Interview: Chris McMaster From ULA Equipment

At the beginning of the week I saw, with some surprise, that ULA had changed owners. So the maker of my beloved Ohm had changed owners like that over the late autumn - no surprise I didn't get an answer from Brian Frankle upon my interview request. Chris McMaster, together with his wife Sally, took over the helm at ULA Equipment and I was able to get in touch with Chris to answer my questions.

Chris and Sally on the Pawnee pass, Colorado, this summer - 2 minutes before a blinding hail/ lightning storm sent them running off the top.

Chris, since when are you backpacking, and how did you start? How often are you out backpacking nowadays?

I began backpacking as a student at Colorado State University, I had always loved the outdoors, and exploring the backcountry was a natural extension of that interest. We usually get out for one good trip a year, but I have many outdoor passions, including cross county skiing, mountain and road biking, and fly fishing. For instance last Saturday I hiked up to 8500 feet with my skis, skied for a while, came down a bit and hunted grouse on the lower aspen covered benches, caught a few trout in the logan river, and then went for a 2 hour mountain bike ride.

When and why did you start to go lightweight/ UL?

I really wouldn't call myself an ultralight backpacker, as most of my trips involve some other sport, usually fishing, and I schlep along quite a bit of extra gear. Sally is an amazing artist, and again most of our trips also involve carrying a small easel, seat and paints. Check out her website sallycastleman.com.

ULA Equipment is by many considered one of the best backpack manufacturers when it comes to smart design, usability on the trail, durability while still being lightweight. Brian, and with him Casey and the sewers, were the backbone of ULA, so many of us are now wondering how ULA will continue. Can you give us all a little insight what you and your wife Sally have planned with ULA? Also, are you going to be sewing yourself, or will you be responsibly solely for the business side?

We have retained all of the employees, including and especially Casey, as he is the one who is truly a part of the UL community, and other than Brian not being there every day at some point in the future, nothing has changed. I'm trying to learn everything that happens in the back, but the sewers are so skilled that I can't imagine ever spending much time behind a machine, and I'm not so sure that me sewing would do much to further our reputation for quality.

The new ULA workshop - more space, same people who produce awesome packs.

Will Brian be still be involved in ULA, maybe in a similar role as Glen Van Peski at Gossamer Gear, or will he be gone and pursue his own adventures?

I can't speak for Brian, I know he's ready for some much deserved time off, and we'll see after that.

How will the R&D now work at ULA? I read you were testing a new alpine style backpack, which you and Brian both were thinking off independently, and which you were testing already. Will Brian be part of R&D?

The Alpine pack is total speculation on the part of a blogger on another website, and it is not the next product we will unveil, however for the time being there are several Brian designs that we have that have not been brought to market, and Casey and I have a few ideas of our own, but I wouldn't look for a flood of new stuff in the near future.

Even if you just bought the business, do you know what is the most sold piece of equipment from ULA Equipment?

The Catalyst is our biggest seller.

How easy, or difficult, do you expect it to be to compete versus the mass market manufacturers which come out with always lighter backpacks?

When I look at our products, and the products of our fellow cottage industry manufactuers I am amazed that we use much more expensive materials, our labor costs are 5 times the big guys, yet we produce a better product for the same price as their inferior ones. While certainly lighter is always going to be a big selling point, we are more concerned with producing a pack that does it's job for a very long time.

What kind of new innovations can we expect in the next years from ULA Equipment, besides the mentioned alpine backpack?

Again, the alpine pack does not exist, but look for us to branch out into equipment for other endurance sports.

Chris climbing in Boulder Canyon, Colorado.

What is your own favorite backpack, sleeping system and shelter, and did you make it yourself?

Other than my Catalyst my equipment would make most light weight folks cringe, and I have never sewn anything larger than a button.

What was your last longer backpacking trip, and what was your baseweight? Are you trying to get lighter and lighter still, or did you already reach your perfect setup?

My last long trip was into the flattop wilderness in Colorado, my base weight was about 20 as I carry the tent, cook gear, ect. not to mention my flyfishing gear.

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 you can find a sport where the trend isn't towards lighter and stronger, so from the standpoint of equipment I think that trend will continue, but I am very concerned that people, particularly on the coasts, are so unconnected to the outdoors, people are so filled with fear about everything that it's not uncommon for an 18 year old boy to have never been alone in the woods, so I'm not sure where the next generation of backpackers is going to come from.

We heard from Glen Van Peski that there is "Brain Trust" hike every year in which the cottage manufacturers hike together for a week. Will you be there with them in the future?

If I'm invited I'll be there!

Chris, I thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. I wish you and your wife Sally, as well as Casey and the sewers, all the best and am looking forward towards the developments at ULA Equipment!

And here the interview stops. It thus seems that Chris and Sally will work together with Brian, Casey and the sewers and we do not need to be afraid of radical changes to ULA Equipment in the future - no need to buy now multiple copies of your favourite backpack and hoard them! I'm feeling good about this news, being an entrepreneur myself, and having grown up in an entrepreneur family, I understand that it can be difficult to keep that spark going over long periods and that therefore some fresh blood can be a good thing.

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Isojärven Kansallispuisto Trip Report

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Last weekend I was out on a 24 trip with Xavier, a French UL backpacker living in Finland who found me via my blog. Lucky me to find another UL enthusiast in Finland to go backpacking with, he even brought his Gatewood Cape for me to see it. I suggested the Isojärvi National Park where I have been earlier this year for our short trip, as I really liked its landscape of lakes, small hills and bogs, together with some interesting wildlife.

It was a cold weekend, as it snowed a little the night before and temperatures didn't get over 0°C during the day and dropped to -8°C at night. We met a few other backpackers and day trippers, who weren't particularly lightweight on the trail.

Finland, the land of ultraheavy.

Frozen marshes and lakes with a light powder cover.

Xavier wondering.

We also got some ridges in Finland.

It got dark already very early.

But not without some spectacular dusk.

We met two day trippers at the campsite with whom we had a conversation, and again it showed that the Finns you meet in the forest are Grade A people. They liked our woodstoves - I had my Inferno with me, Xavier a Bushcooker. They left late after darkness fell, and the two of us continued talking about backpacks, shelters, mats and other gear till the moon shone down on our shelters and we crept into our quilts.

My shelter for the night, the MSR HUBBA HP 2010 version.

The next morning, Xavier is getting slowly up from under his Gatewood Cape tarp.

The walk back to the car park.

There's a sizable beaver population in Isojärvi, and we witnessed many felled trees along the trail.

It was a very enjoyable trip, short on kilometers, long on stories. Gear-wise everything performed excellent, expect the combo of Z Lite and NeoAir, which certainly weren't up to the low temperature. I think I might need to test a Ridge Rest like Xavier, or a Multimat like Phil. The NeoAir just gives me pain in my back, besides the cold. It now goes into hibernation and will come out again in the summer, I somehow need to find out a way to avoid the back pain. For the moment I still need to decide on a tarp and a bivy - thank you all for the great comments and suggestions - as I am convinced that that's all which is needed for three season use in the Finnish forests.

Xavier, thank you for the great weekend, talking gear and life, sharing food, beverages and stories. Next time I bring the red wine, I promise!

Interview: Glen Van Peski From Gossamer Gear

Gossamer Gear was the first name I came across when looking for UL gear. The Mariposa backpack was totted as an awesome pack by many of the German and UK UL blogs I am reading, and the shelters, trekking poles and pads rounded out a very nice selection of UL gear. I got in touch with the two men who are behind the company, Founder Glen Van Peski and President Grant Sible, who's running the company today. This week Glen answers my questions, and next week Grant will tell his story and in which direction Gossamer Gear will develop.

Glen on his trip in the Sierra, a couple of weeks ago.

Glen, since when are you backpacking, and how did you start? How often are you out backpacking nowadays?

I started backpacking as a Boy Scout, in Massachusetts. Our troop had a series of campsites in the local woods that we went to periodically. Each patrol had it's own campsite, improved with a fire pit, latrine, and all sorts of lashed furniture. Definitely not "Leave No Trace". When my sons joined Boy Scouts, in San Diego, we joined a troop that did real backpacking, culminating every year with a week-long trip to the Sierra. These days, my backpacking is somewhat limited. I have a demanding job as a civil engineer, as well as remaining involved in Gossamer Gear, but I still manage to typically get in 20 days of backpacking a year.

When and why did you start to go lightweight/ UL?

When my oldest son joined our local scout troop, my friend Read Miller was the Scoutmaster. He read Ray Jardine's original book, The Pacific Crest Trail Hiker's Handbook, and started reducing his own pack weight. He got me to read the book also, and I started lightening my load about the same time. We challenged each other to move lighter and lighter, continually weighing gear.

Gossamer Gear is one of the most outstanding UL cottage manufacturers, mainly due to the very popular backpacks, like the Mariposa and Gorilla. Can you tell a bit more about how you started the company, and how it developed over time?

When I had to 'gear up' for our Scout troop's Sierra trek, I went to the local REI and explained I was going to the Sierra. They loaded me up with all the old standbys: An internal frame pack that weighed 7 lbs empty, a huge sleeping bag, a MSR stove with a set of aluminum pots and pans, sierra cups, insulated mugs, plates, steel utensils, rain gear, tons of clothes, big boots... a huge load of stuff. Upon reading Jardine's book, I figured out fairly quickly that a pack weighing seven pounds empty represented a great opportunity to lighten up. I made my first pack, dubbed the "G1" based very loosely on the Alpine Rucksack that Jardine mentions. I ended up using this pack for the next several years, even though it was big and ugly. My second attempt, the "G2" was made entirely out of 1.1 oz. silicon-coated nylon. My son Brian had the misfortune to use this pack on a John Muir Trail trip where it shredded. It was later reconditioned and traveled the California sections of the Pacific Crest Trail. Read and I started going on hikes outside of Boy Scouts. As we hiked along, we kept thinking up ways to improve the packs and make them lighter. This led to the, "G3" and finally the "G4". I provided instructions for making the G4 pack on a website. Periodically I would get emails asking if I would sew a pack for someone else, to which I would answer no. These were the very early days of ultralight backpacking, and the emails kept coming; and I finally started to feel bad about telling people "no". So I invested the time in generating a real pattern and detailed instructions, and lined up some people to sew. In the beginning the packs made locally, real locally, by my wife Francie, and other women in the neighborhood. The packs were custom orders, with the customer choosing fabric color and options. As the waiting list got longer, I decided I needed to see about getting the packs made commercially. I found a manufacturer in Seattle, and went through the iterative process of obtaining a suitable quality product. The manufacturer, who had previously made packs for major manufacturers, initially was nonplussed about making the packs. After a series of exchanges back and forth, with me explaining why they were still not right, the manufacturer summed it up with "These are not like other packs we've made..." That hurdle crossed, production started in earnest.

The manufacturer told me that normally his minimum order was 100. I figured that if I had 25 packs made, everyone who wanted one would have one, and I could get back to my family and my engineering business. We compromised on an initial order of 50 - I figured I would have the packs in my garage for a few years, but that eventually I could get rid of them. Initially, the packs were available in one size, and four colors. It quickly became apparent that I had underestimated demand. Word spread quickly on the internet, and G4 production became an ongoing reality. My son Brian put together a website to take orders. Several years later, to accommodate new products, the website was completely revamped by my sister Brooke.

In early 2004, the decision was made to ramp up GVP Gear, in an effort to generate a critical mass that would allow me to get back some of my life. By that time, the business was consuming a large part of my time, without contributing financially to my family. Rather than raise prices, we decided to increase the number of products offered to generate some synergy, and create enough volume to allow automated systems to be put into place. So the move to Gossamer Gear was launched.

With the new products, including shelters, sleeping bags, stoves, raingear and many other innovative products, volume did soar. The order fulfillment portion of the business was outsourced, which freed up my time. Shipping was eventually brought back "in-house" when my wife Francie was looking for something to do now that the kids were older. Eventually, however, as more and more ultralight enthusiasts discovered Gossamer Gear's innovative products and low prices, my time managing the business kept expanding. Eventually I was working 60 hours a week on engineering and another 30 on Gossamer Gear (still without salary). I was making a good living with the engineering, so the money wasn't an issue, there just weren't enough hours in the day for living.

When I could not longer handle it, I was prepared to have a big sale and close down Gossamer Gear. When I happened to share this with a longtime customer and dedicated hiker, he convinced me to bring in some equity partners who would hire staff and take the time burden off me. So in December 2005, the Gossamer Gear offices moved to Austin, Texas, where the new President, Grant Sible, hired staff and took over the day-to-day operations. I am still Chairman of the Board, and actively involved in product development, policy and vision, and of course product testing! There are more statistics and a timeline on our website, under "About Us".

On the WTS course in the Wind Rivers.

Gossamer Gear aims to be innovative, ultralight and affordable. Are you yourself developing still a lot of gear, or did Grant take over this responsibility?

We actually both work on this. From his day-to-day running of the business, Grant has a much better idea of what customers are looking for. I am more interested in what I want to make. For instance, our most popular pack, and the only to be recognized as "highly recommended" by Backpacking Light, the Gorilla, was designed by Grant (Gorilla is his trail name). I work on items that are of interest to me, some of which never make it to production because there's not enough of a market for them.

What is the most popular piece of equipment from Gossamer Gear?

Hard to say. We are generally best known for our packs, and those generally are our best sellers. The G4, having been around for over 10 years, has a substantial following, including a Yahoo group devoted to people making their own G4 packs. The Gorilla will probably end up being our best seller after a year or two, as it provides a way for transitional hikers to lighten their loads.

What kind of new innovations can we expect in the next years from Gossamer Gear? More "soft goods" like the complete pack raincover or also new "hard goods" like shelters and backpacks?

We have a number of products we are pursuing. Unfortunately, with limited resources, we can't pursue everything we're interested in. We have a new one-person, double-wall shelter we're looking at, and several pack ideas. We want to do another 2-person shelter, and some lighter variations on our existing shelters.

What is your own favorite backpack, and did you make it yourself?

For many years, our pack line traced my personal journey in lightening my load: I started with the G4, then moved down to the G5 (no longer manufactured), and am currently using the Murmur. I used a prototype Murmur that I sewed myself for many years, but am now using a stock Murmur. It works great for me for trips 6 days or less without a bear canister. Since my total loads are typically below 15 lbs, I do not use the waist belt.

You were hiking this with Backpackinglight.com's Wilderness Trekking II course. How did you like the course, and will you be on similar outings in the future?

This year I had a great opportunity to help Andrew Skurka lead the Wilderness Trekking II course for BPL's Wilderness Trekking School (WTS). They have a great team at WTS headed up by Mike Clelland!. It was great to spend time with Andrew again, and I learned as much as the students I'm sure! We were in the Wind River Range in Wyoming, which is beautiful countryside. I also participate in local courses through Wilderness Outings (WO), but the WO trips are in local mountains that I have traveled a number of times. Anyone who can get in on a WTS advanced course should do it. I doubt I will have time to participate in 2010, as I have been asked to do a lecture series and hike in Japan, and I have other planned trips as well.

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?

Ultralight backpacking HAS trickled down into the mass market, witnessed by the offerings of mainstream manufacturers. A lot of the innovation is still being driven by the cottage manufacturers, but you're seeing lighter and lighter offerings by the major manufacturers.

Are you the cooperating "behind the scenes" with other cottage manufacturers? Are you for example in touch with Henry Shires from Tarptent, Brian Frankle of ULA or any of the other cottage manufacturers, and talking about developments and the like?

A few of us cottage manufacturers get together once a year for our 'brain trust' hike (although in 2009, due to injuries, it ended up just being Henry and I). It's a great time to get together, trash talk each other's gear, and dream. We don't really formally collaborate on designs, although you can certainly see some common elements in some of our offerings. But we do talk about where things are going generally.

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

My passion is getting out into the backcountry with light loads that maximize my time out there and my enjoyment of the time in the backcountry; and making gear available to help other people do the same. But the important thing is not the gear, it's getting out there!

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