Hiking in Finland

Climbing, bikepacking, skiing & packrafting in the north

Interview: Ron Moak From Six Moons Designs

A rather fortunate coincidence that the next interview is with Ron Moak from Six Moons Designs. Fortunate, because Ron just announced the upcoming products for 2010 and the new website just went live as well, and as soon as the weather in Oregon clears up there will be even videos of the new gear! But before you go and check out the new look and products of Six Moon Designs, take your morning coffee and enjoy this interview with Ron!

Ron Moak.

Ron, since when are you backpacking, and how did you start? How often are you out backpacking nowadays?
My first backpack trip was in the late 60’s. So you can say my career spans some 40 years. There were a number of years in the 80’s and 90’s I didn’t get out as I was concentrating my time on career and family. After a bout of cancer in the mid 90’s, I decided I needed to get out an reconnect with the out of doors. So I rekindled my love of backpacking.
Now days I’d like to get out at least a month every year. I would have this year except I got sick on my hike and ended up spending several days in the hospital. But that’s another story.
When and why did you start to go lightweight/ UL?
I’ve always been lightweight. In 1977 my wife and I were the first couple to southbound the Appalachian Trail. At the start of the hike, our packs weighed around 35 pounds with 10 days of food. One advantage we had was there were few pack shops to sell you lots of unnecessary gear. Plus I was inspired by people like the legendary Granma Gatewood who hike the AT in tennis shoes and a shower curtain for a shelter. I didn’t have the guts at the time to go that extreme but worked hard at trying keep my pack weight down.
In the years after the AT, I dropped my tent for a tarp and made other gear changes. Then when I read Ray Jardines “PCT Handbook” in the mid 90’s, I learned to think about gear more as systems. This lead to other weight reductions. Now days I’m sub 20 pounds with a week’s worth of food.
Six Moon Designs produces some award winning tents, and aims to offer lightweight, high quality and affordable backpacking equipment. Can you tell a bit more about how you ended up starting the company, and how it developed since you offered your first product in May 2002?
After hiking 700 miles of the Appalachian Trail in ’97 on a 20th year reunion hike and the 2600 mile Pacific Crest Trail in 2000, I was ready for a career change. I’ve been sewing and designing gear since the late 70’s and had a few thousand trail miles under my feet, so I figured I had a good base upon which to build. I was a reasonably good self taught software engineer for over 20 years. So I felt I had the analytical skills needed to learn whatever was needed to start up this business.
Plus there seemed at the time to be a major hole in the ultralight market. Most of us were forced to make our own gear because it simply wasn’t available. At the time no one had any idea how big the potential market might be. We all did it on the proverbial “wing and a prayer” feeling.
Ron, we love to be let in on the work-in-progress stuff! Can you tell us a tiny bit on  what kind of products you're working at the moment?
Clearly to be successful in the long term you can’t just build one line of gear and then demand that customers conform their needs to your gear. Over the last few years, gear used by the Ultralight community has evolved significantly. People are quickly learning that there are many potential paths to achieving both a light pack and a comfortable nights stay in the back country.
It’s incumbent on those of us in the UL manufacturing community to expand our products to reach and ever widening audience with diverse wants and needs. This is very evident in Henry’s expansion into ultralight standalone tents. Others are taking similar steps.
We are working ultralight double walled shelters to be available early 2010. This includes a tarp/net tent combo that will easy accommodate a person 6’5” and weight in at just over a pound and a half. A two person shelter is also in the works. The goal is to expand UL principles into wider markets. There’s no reason to force a person who’s more comfortable in a double wall shelter to a single wall tent or tarp if you can accomplish their needs at a reasonable weight.
What is the most sold piece of equipment from Six Moon Designs? And where do your customer come from?
The Lunar Solo and Duo are our biggest sellers. Our customer base is worldwide with products shipped to every continent.
How easy, or difficult, is it to compete versus the mass market manufacturers?
I don’t personally try to compete against mass market manufactures. They have what they have we have what we have. I have see several larger companies attempt to duplicate some of the gear produced by UL manufactures. In every case it’s disappeared from the market in a couple of years.
Once more back to gear: Do customers inspire you with new gear ideas, for example if they tell you about a need they have and you set off to think & sew?
Our gear designs come from a variety of sources. All of the major innovations, such as the Gatewood Cape, come from me. I’m one of the few backpackers that can honestly say they hope to fail on a backpacking trip. As an engineer, I’ve found that failure breeds innovation. I can’t solve a problem if I don’t know it exist. While I do hope that my trips are enjoyable, I’m always happy where there are a few incidents that I can look back and ponder about.
Enhancements to products generally come from our customers. They will use gear differently from how you originally conceive. So I love hearing back from people on how things went on their outings. This includes both the good and the bad.
What is your own favorite backpack and shelter, and did you make it yourself?
My favorite pack and shelter are often the last one I designed. But they aren’t always the one I design for production. I’ve designed lots of stuff that never will go into production simply so I can experiment with different fabrics and sewing techniques. Sometimes I design things simply to push the weight down to the absolute minimum.
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 hike was on the Continental Divide Trail in the Red Desert of Wyoming. My base weight was around 9 pounds, but that included about 3 pounds of video gear.
For me, there’s no such thing as a perfect setup. UL is about compromises. If I’m doing a recreational backpacking trip, what’s import is to select the gear that help to maximize my enjoyment of the experience. Sometimes this may mean going really light. Other times I may pack along a few extra pounds of 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’ll probably be dead and gone when someone can look back and properly answer that question. I do know that none of us thought it would be as big as it is today. I’m simply glad it’s large enough to attract a cadre of UL manufactures that can make a reasonable living and continue pushing the limits on designs.
Ron, I thank you for taking the time to answer my questions, and wish you the best of success with Six Moon Designs!

And now you can go and check out the new Six Moon Designs website =)

Day Trippin'

Next week I will be going on the Finnfacts.fi Cleantech Bloggers Tour and besides visiting some of the leading Finnish Cleantech companies there is an excursion to the nearby Nuuksio National Park. Reason enough for me to think what to take clothing-wise for the day out in order to stay warm and dry and divulge my knowledge on this area =)

As a baselayer I recommend something warm and soft which doesn't smell. Synthetic baselayers always promise to not get smelly, but in my experience that doesn't hold true. Merino wool on the other hand has all the benefits of being warm, light and not smelly, even after days out. I'll take my Woolpower long johns and longsleeve, and if someone still needs a set then Retkiaitta in downtown Helsinki is the place to go. Of course merino underwear from Smartwool and Icebreaker is just as good, and those can be had in Partioaitta which is just opposite of the other store.

I reckon if it is going to be anywhere as rainy as it has been these last few days here in Southern Finland, some good rain gear is essential. I'll trust on my Rab Momentum Jacket and the Drillium Pants, and in case the sun is out they pack small and will disappear in the pack. Rain gear over a baselayer will usually be enough clothing, as walking will keep one warm, and when there's a break one can put more clothes on. This ensures that one doesn't overheat, but of course also depends on the person.

Currently the temperatures in Helsinki are around 7°C, but with some wind and outside of the city it could get colder. I'll take my new synthetic insulation pants and jacket from Integral Designs with me for when we sit down, those can stand some light rain and remain some of their warmth when wet, unlike down which collapses.

Finally, for Footwear I'll take my new Inov-8 Roclite 295's with me, some nice warm merino socks and in case of rain also my GoreTex socks to keep my feet dry. We're going to be walking on marked trails, so no need for heavy boots, trailrunners will be just fine and will offer good grip on the wet surface.

Then just the camera and I'm set for a nice day out in nature, which will be wrapped up with sauna and swimming!

Interview: Ron Bell of Mountain Laurel Designs

If you get into ultralight backpacking, at one point or another you will come across one company name, usually abbreviated. MLD. Mountain Laurel Designs. Its at the moment probably the company with the most demand on its products, leading to waiting times of up to four weeks, sometimes even more. Using MLD gear seems to be like wearing a Levis 501 back as I was a teenager, you're "In". And for good reason: High quality materials and superb craftsmanship, paired with a owner who knows UL like the back of his hand, coming up with fresh designs and innovations equals a winner. Ron Bell is the Design Minister at MLD, and he took out some time of running the business and answered my questions (probably that means some order will come a day later ;).

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

I started sleeping in the woods as a little cub scout. I’ve probably slept outdoors about 900 nights since then - once for a whole year in a tent in Yosemite. I get out into the woods about 100 days a year now - mostly on day hikes, trails runs, and for mountain biking or paddling and most of my overnight backpacking trips are with my daughters - we love weekend overnights on the Appalachian Trail.

Ron out on the trail.

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

I was always interested in lightweight gear and started MLD as a hobby in about 2000. By 2005 I was making more and more products and in in 2006 it became my full time job. In 2007 we opened a larger shop, trained craftspeople, invested in a lot of equipment for UL materials and worked with fabric suppliers to help develop UL fabrics for our products. We’ve still fairly small and still have fun in the shop building the gear.

Cutting fabric to size.

Mountain Laurel Designs is currently by many considered the leading SUL cottage manufacturer, due to the highest level of craftsmanship and very innovative products like the DuoMid, Grace tarps and the Soul Bivy, among others. Can you tell a bit about how you decided to start Mountain Laurel Designs, and how it developed since you started?

A lot of gear started with ideas and great feedback from customers and various outdoor athletes that use MLD gear - we are blessed to have awesome customers. Our 2010 SuperPack series was inspired by custom orders over the years from hikers and climbers who needed sub 1lb UL super tough packs for Alaska bush whacking and for Everest climbs (a 10oz pack summitted Everest!).

We are unique in the cottage UL gear community. We design and build all our gear in our shop and offer gear in all the major gear categories with lots of options in each category. For example - our Superlight Bivy is offered in three colors, two sizes, two zippers sides and two mesh hood options - That’s over 20 different combinations for just one product - not even counting the special orders. If you add up all the products with just the standard options we offer, we have well over 400 products! The only way we can do that is to build all the gear ourselves in our own shop. We’re owner operators - we design the gear - use and test the gear and craft the gear.

A lot of the products are ones that I wanted to use myself. I like to do a lot of outdoor sports and find diversity helps motivation and creativity - I get lot of ideas while I’m in the woods. In the last few years I’ve gotten the chance to hike, backpack, mountain and road bike, trail run, rock climb, white water kayak, XC ski and surf. Keeping up with this business is also great exercise for avoiding the dreaded Man Boobs. Just this year at 49 I entered my first multi-sport triathlon race - the kayak leg was fun! I can’t wait to find a multi-sport race using a pack raft - I’ve already stared designing specialized gear for that...

More cutting.

How works the R&D at MLD, 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?

We are always looking for ways to make the best gear. We just finished testing a new 20d X 20d PU blend coated shelter fabric that weighs about 1.25oz sq/yd and is more waterproof than most Silnylon (about the same as our new Shield Silnylon). Well... It stretched too much for anything other than small tent panels and so would not work well for tarps and Mids - so that fabric is a no-go but but we gained valuable information on sourcing other fabrics next year. We have many new designs planned for 2010 - Stay Tuned!


How easy, or difficult, is it to compete versus the mass market manufacturers? Have they maybe already tried to approach you and buy the company?

It’s easy to compete with the mass market - offer unique products, continually innovate and stick to excellent personal customer service. We get approached sometimes for partnerships, etc. but I love my work and have no plans to sell - There are too many new designs and product improvements I want to make!

What kind of new innovations can we expect in the next years from Mountain Laurel Designs?

It’s important to try new things and we are always looking at new designs and materials. I worked with the DuoMid for 3 years trying it out myself in the field before we offered it as a product. The new SoloMid in Shield Silnylon, Spintex and Cuben will come out in spring and the updated Dyneema X packs.

Got to love the look of this busyness!

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

I don’t have a One favorite. It depends on the trip but usually it’s whatever I’m prototyping at the moment. So it's a protoype sub 10oz pack and the SoloMid this week.

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?

More and more people will are trying to get outdoors. The last decade saw a shift towards front country sports and less in-the-woods trips but I feel that is changing back. People want to get out in the woods and gain some sense of peace with nature. They don’t always have much time so the UL approach is one way to get out farther and see more in one weekend.

Are you the cooperating "behind the scenes" with other cottage manufacturers? Are you for example in touch with Brian Frankle of ULA Equipment, Glen Van Peski from Gossamer Gear or any of the other cottage manufacturers, and talking about developments and the like?

I’m friends with some of the other small UL company owners and always look forward to seeing them at gatherings like Trail Days. But there’s not really any specific cooperation at the product or market level and that’s good for the consumer - we’re all working independently to make great gear and offer competitive choices. Occasionally we’ll talk about broad business issues that affect the UL industry as a whole like gear trends and the overall outdoor market. For example, in 2008 and 2009 I first spotted a huge problem with some the waterproof materials that I knew a few other UL companies also use in shelters and alerted others about the problem before they built lots of product with the leaky fabric. I cooperate with a few non-competing companies like thru-hiker.com, etc. on sourcing cutting edge fabrics. Overall, I think we all want each other do well because that means the UL movement is continuing to grow.

Ron, I thank you for taking the time to answer my questions.