Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Being Of Unbelievable Lightness

So far it's been fun.

I've been swimming in the light end of the pool since late 2000. It started with seeing someone cook for two on an alcohol stove. Up until then every source I read, if they included a mention of alcohol stoves, treated them as a cute footnote. A pointless plaything. Interesting but too cool, too slow, and too crude to bother with. Lame.

Yet here were two people, right in front of me, making it work. Odd.

In following up, and trying to find a seller of Trangia stoves (what they were using), I tripped over a lot of other things. Shelters, small flashlights, packs, a whole philosophy. The preeminent spokesperson was Ray Jardine, who a few years earlier, along with his wife Jenny, had reintroduced to the world the idea of traveling light, traveling simply, and traveling cheaply, often using equipment they made, and doing without a lot of things that everyone else knew were essential.

This was inspiring.

Back then, in 2000, and for a while after, there was a real shortage of light shelters, packs, sleeping bags, clothes, stoves, cook sets, and so on. But there was a serious supply of enthusiastic experimenters. People felt liberated. They felt like explorers at the border of a new world. They were filled with possibilities. Unbounded possibilities. Backpacking began to evolve.

Fringe Loonies

In the beginning was the weirdo. Some people would try anything. Go without food? OK, see how light you can travel. Sleep in a trash bag. Sure, let's do it. Shave your whole body to save time and expense by ignoring any fuzzy regrowth until the finish line. Yeah, that too. Don't cook. Bathe in the rain. Shop at rummage sales. All of the above.

Just Like That But Different

That generally hurt too much. Not all the time -- some things worked, but throwing out every sacred cow meant no steak dinners either.

So here and there, every now and then, a mind buzzed with thought, and some new thing came along. The obvious place to start was with existing designs of real stuff. Just do it smaller, lighter and better somehow.

So you started to see some home made shelters and packs. People tinkered. Instead of a big double wall tent, maybe a small one. A 30 liter pack of 500 denier fabric instead of an 80 liter pack of 500 denier fabric. Carbon fiber poles to hold up the tent, instead of fiberglass. Smaller canister stoves. And so on. The first glimmerings.

Ideas From Space

And they saw it and it was good. But not good enough.

Converting from high, heavy leather boots to high, not so heavy fabric boots helped, but there was more to do. Somebody tried trail running shoes, then sandals.

Shelters evolved from copies of double wall designs to new single wall designs. And these were easy enough for most anyone to make at home.

Then a few people stood out under the starry night skies and looked up. They wondered "What if?" Eventually the cold air got to them and they went back inside for warm cocoa and cookies but they kept on thinking. Then in the dark, while they slept, the ideas came gently to them.

Silnylon. Spinnaker cloth. Empty soft drink cans. Hmmm.

How about using radically different materials to make truly innovative items? We got the GVP Gear G4 pack, the Pepsi Can Stove, the Gearskin, the Tarptent. Hobbyists started rethinking everything from the ground up.

"Hmmm", someone thought, "What if I took a tiny amount of this newfangled waterproof fabric and made a shelter with no seams in it?" Carol "Brawny" Wellman designed the "Brawny Shelter".

"Hmmm", someone thought, "What if I took some brass and my jewelry making skills and made a small, durable alcohol stove?" So Aaron Rosenbloom started Brasslite, LLC in 2002.

Scott Henderson released his designs for the Pepsi Can Stove, and although he never manufactured them the ideas caught on. Who, before then, would have thought to make stoves from aluminum can garbage?

Glen Van Peski was interested in packs. He designed one for himself. Then he made it. Then he offered the pattern, free, to anyone else who was interested. The materials were light, the design was simple and effective, and practical, and it was a different sort of pack -- it used a sleeping pad for a frame, you could pad the shoulder straps and hip belt with spare socks, it was covered with pockets of light mesh.

Money From Space

But not everyone wanted to make their own equipment. Glen Van Peski couldn't give away his plans. People wanted him to make and sell packs. Henry Shire's original tarptent plans floated on the internet for a long while before he rethought and rethought again, and began selling even more radical shelters.

People actually wanted to buy these.

Kim and Demetri Coupounas found Ray Jardine, liked his ideas, and thought they could make a business based on them. GoLite. Still going. Still light.

New Age Light Industry

Before long there was Moonbow Gear, Six Moon Designs, and Then Gossamer Gear turned Glen Van Peski's ideas into a commercial venture. Count AntiGravityGear, Hennessy Hammock, Mountain Laurel Designs, Oware, Speer Hammocks and Ultralight Adventure (ULA) Equipment among the contenders.

Hey! We've got a whole new industry. First a few who would try anything. Then serious thinkers who shared around what they thought. Then a small crowd of people who thought they could make an out-of-garage living. Then after all that some full time businesses actually supporting their owners, with investors and warehouses and all.

A whole separate industry. Whooda-thunkkit?

Tiptoeing Toward Production Quotas

Now the big guns like North Face, and Sierra Designs and Kelty and REI all have "ultralight" equipment. Take a pack. Only four pounds, nine ounces (2 kg and a hair). Ultralight! Amazing! Unbelievable lightness of construction! Designer colors! Cupholders!

Nevertheless, the smaller manufacturers hang on. They have become established. They are closer to their markets, part of the team. Real backpackers. They know what their customers want because they are their own customers. They do their own thinking. They are the innovators.

In September I asked Ron Moak where his ideas came from. "Do you get a lot of requests from your customers?" I asked. "Is that where you start?" No, he said. He thinks about what he would like, and goes from there. Feedback, sure, that's invaluable, but he's a backpacker and he starts from his own experience.

Glen Van Peski is a backpacker. So is Henry Shires. Brian Frankle, Carol Wellman, Ron Bell, Jonathan McCue. And the others. They not only have a clue about what backpacking is and what kind of stuff backpackers want, they have a different business sense. Ruling the world isn't the goal. Neither is removing a forest to expand the corporate parking lot.

Some are gone now. Brasslite is closing. Aaron Rosenbloom is a psychotherapist and he prefers to do that. Carol "Brawny" Wellman no longer sells shelters. I heard that the sewing got to be too much. She has a YouTube presence now. Glen Van Peski consults and designs for Gossamer Gear. Some others have come and gone.

Even Scott Henderson's Pepsi Can Stove plans are off the internet now. That hurts. That was my biggest inspiration. But Mini Bull Design is going strong.

This is a new industry, grown from nearly nothing in a few years, but it's also a new kind of industry. It appeals to skilled practitioners of the trail arts. It may stay small, or smallish. But it looks like it's here to stay, and like it will stay lovable.

Meanwhile, I continue to learn.


Brasslite alcohol stoves
Brawny and Rainmaker at Trailquest
Brawny on YouTube
Glen Van Peski
Ray Jardine
Ray Jardine

(See links sidebar for everything else.)