Hiking in Finland

Climbing, bikepacking, skiing & packrafting in the north

Interview: Grant Sible From Gossamer Gear

Last week I had an interview with Glen Van Peski from Gossamer Gear, though the Story of Gossamer Gear and its success can not be told without Grant Sible, the President of the company. Grant joined the company as Glen was looking for a way to wind up the company, which to the benefit of many lightweight and UL hikers didn't happen. Grant moved the GQ to Texas and has made Gossamer Gear the successful cottage manufacturer it is today. Without further ado, here we go!

Grant entering the Tetons.

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

I’ve been outdoorsy my entire life but I recall my first real backpacking trip was in the late 1970’s with some other high school students. I’ve hiked ever since, mostly in the American West but also a bit in the Alps and in South America. I lived 3 years in the Andes in Quito, Ecuador where I did a fair bit of hiking and mountaineering and I’m lucky enough to have gotten the opportunity to hike in Patagonia as well. Oddly enough since I started working for a backpacking company I don’t get out as much as I’d like to but that is changing.

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

I hiked the Appalachian Trail with 2 friends in 2002. I hadn’t done much climbing or hiking in a number of years at that point and as I was getting ready for the thru-hike one of my fellow hikers sent me a copy of Ray Jardine’s first book and that kind of got the ball rolling downhill for me. After all my years of hiking with more traditional gear it made so much sense to me. The defining “moment”, if there was one, was when after 3 days on the AT I ditched my nice Italian leather boots for a pair of running shoes and it all started making sense.

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 ended up at the company, and how it developed since you took over?

I think the biggest change in our product line since I came on is that we now make more “transitional” weight gear. Without getting into a bunch of definitions let me just say that most hikers really aren’t comfortable going truly or entirely UL. Most of our customers are very happy in the 8 to 10 pound base weight area and so we now design and make gear for them as well as for the 5 pounders. As more people are finding their way to the light side we’ve beefed up the gear some and focused on making it work better for the kinds of use it is now getting. Also we’ve broadened our line as a whole to include a wider range of products and some entirely new categories like the adjustable carbon fiber trekking poles, the LT4’s.

At Gossamer Gear, also the President knows his stuff. Grant in the GG shop building LT4 trekking poles.

Gossamer Gear aims to be innovative, ultralight and affordable. Glen told that you both do R&D at Gossamer Gear, but your focus is more on customer products? Can you tell a bit what kind of products you're working on? And do some of your clients inspire you for new products?

Right now I’m working on a larger version of the Gorilla, I think there is some demand for that. Also I’m working on some additional carbon fiber products, for example an adjustable carbon fiber shelter pole for those who don’t use trekking poles but based on the technology in our Lightrek trekking poles. “Working on” to me means it is in my head, so the list of what I’m “working” on is really pretty long. A lot of what we do is collaborative, ideas and even prototypes come from customers and Trail Ambassadors, we mock something up or change it and send it out to them for some testing, it comes back with suggestions, etc. We have a new pack cover, unlike anything else I’ve seen, that was designed by Trail Ambassador Rik Christensen and modified here by me that is now in its 4th revision and is just about ready for production. We also have a 1.6 oz day pack/stuff sack that Rik designed and should see the light of day soon.

What is the most sold piece of equipment from Gossamer Gear? Where do your customer come from?

The most popular product ever from GG is the Mariposa series of backpacks hands down. Our customer base is all over the map. We have customers all over the world from all ages. I think our team reflects that as well, our youngest Ambassador is 13 and the oldest around 70.

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?

I don’t really pay that much attention to the mass market folks, they live in different waters than we do and as such I don’t think we’re really competing at this point. Beyond the obvious scale differences our model is completely different, we design it, we make it here in the US, and we sell it directly to the consumer via our website. Much of what we do is educational or informative and our size allows for a level of intimacy with the customer bigger companies cannot maintain.

Once more back to gear: What kind of new innovations can we expect in the next years from Gossamer Gear?

We have a LOT of ideas - lists of ideas actually and when something is compelling enough and there is time it makes its way to the top and gets done. We have some new takes on old ideas and some new ideas as well, too many to list here and since I never know which will get done next or if at all I’d better stop at that.

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

My current favorite backpack is the Gorilla and although I don’t actually sew myself I can take some credit for the concept and design. The idea there was to make a shallow athletic pack – get the center of gravity close and very manageable in terms of volume and shape – and beef it up a bit so that it would be suitable for a bit of off-trail hiking or some climbing or perhaps some racing. It really is my riff on the Mariposa, which Glen originally designed 5 or 6 years ago. Having a favorite is difficult since I have a closet full and each one has features that incline it to certain types of trips. I view my gear as a quiver full of arrows and I just reach for the ones I need in the moment. My current favorite shelter is the SpinnTwinn for its utter simplicity and functionality. I prefer “Cowboy” camping and the venerable Twinn is a great insurance policy.

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 trip was to The Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming about 6 weeks ago. Frankly I didn’t take a scale with me and didn’t get a final base weight but experience and an early weighing tells me about 7 or 8 pounds for the base. I change my setup every trip as I’m always experimenting and testing and also I sometimes carry redundant gear for that reason. This past trip I had 2 complete cooking setups and some redundant sleeping gear to test so that added some extra weight. Every trip is different and I pack differently for each but I try to keep my base under 8 or so and have gotten down around 5 to 6 at times. I have found that I am, like most hikers, arriving at a personal comfort zone with my gear, that is to say I got lighter and lighter until I missed something and then stopped and/or added a bit back. To me the gear is just a means to an end and we all need to take what we need to be confident and safe – for some this is 5 pounds and for some it is 10. Like many I tend to have a lighter base for longer trips or ones where there are a lot of miles to make, I am more careful about “extras” if I’m to carry them a few weeks but not so concerned on an overnight or into a base camp.

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 that UL hiking will continue to grow and will certainly influence the sport as a whole as it already is but I think that there are some roadblocks to UL hiking going mainstream too quickly, those being primarily educational. A LOT of UL hiking is technique and skill and requires some thought and planning and practice. I think that UL hiking is the kind of movement best grown organically from hiker to hiker and it will just take some time.

On the summit of Mt. St. Helens.

Glen told about the yearly "Brain Trust" hike, are you usually also taking part in it or are you too busy running the company? Are you otherwise in touch with any of the other cottage manufacturers, and talking about developments and the like?

I haven’t yet gone on a “Brain Trust” hike although someday I’m sure I will. I am in touch with other manufacturers and in fact just talked with Henry Shires of Tarptent a few days ago and we chatted about things like zippers and fabric.

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

Just that all of our gear is manufactured in the US and always has been.

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!