Black Rock Gear makes hats. Ok, they make really warm, goose down hats. Alright, so they’re also super light and if you pick one up it might feel as if it’s going to fly away at any moment. Fear not though, your nugget is the perfect place for one of these fantastic garments to rest atop. Evan Cabodi is the founder of Black Rock Gear. We recently spoke with Evan; here’s what he had to say about his company, their products, and his take on the Cottage Industry in general. We even managed to learn his favorite ice cream flavor! Check it out…
Hello Evan. Thank you for talking with us today. Please tell us a little about yourself. When did you begin hiking and backpacking, and how much time do you currently spend outdoors?
I’ve been an outdoors person ever since I was young, but I really didn’t get into the ultralight backcountry scene until I started focusing on more alpine climbing. I would have to say that I am first and foremost a climber at heart so most of my hiking and backpacking revolves around climbing something. My Climbing partners and I began taking routes with longer approaches that required packing in and setting up a base camp. We also started doing more fast and light climbs while carrying gear that we could bring up and over with us. So for me that need for lightweight and packable gear has been there from the beginning.
Do you have any favorite places or trails to hike?
Seattle is home base. We’ve got a lot of hiking, climbing and camping areas within a couple of hours but I’d have to say the Enchantments out in Eastern Washington is my favorite backcountry place to hike. Permits for multi-day trips are difficult to get but when you get a chance to walk through the alpine lakes wilderness it’s an amazing place that rivals the high Sierras.
Which of the following terms best describes your personal backpacking philosophy: Super Ultralight, Ultralight, Lightweight, Conventional, Sherpa.
I would have to say that most of the time I’m in the “Super Ultralight” category pushing for “car to car” or “In a Day” trips. That usually means a space blanket is my only backup for an unplanned bivy along with a few layers of warm clothing. My gear philosophy is generally to take only what’s necessary for the specific trip.
What was your motivation to begin making gear? Can you recall the first piece of gear you ever made?
After working in the computer software industry for nearly ten years I needed a new career path. I wanted to build my business around the climbing, camping or backpacking culture.
The first piece of gear I made was the Black Rock Hat. I really loved all my down gear and decided I needed a down beanie that was just as warm and light as my down jacket; at that time though I didn’t quite know if it was possible or even how to go about producing it.
How did you become familiar with fabrics and sewing techniques?
I went to the local outdoor stores and looked through absolutely everything down. I studied how everything was made, to what tolerances and which fabrics were utilized. I’m an Engineer by trade so essentially I reverse engineered everything down to the last stitch, then decided how I would approach it from the ground up.
Which aspects of your gear designs set Black Rock Gear apart from other manufacturers?
I think it’s both the attention to detail and the quality of my gear that sets Black Rock Gear apart from the competition. Our gear is not only made with the lightest weight and highest quality materials but I like to take the designs beyond just functional and make each item their own piece of art.
When did you realize the existence of a market for the gear you were producing and how did this realization come to you?
My original idea for a down hat was to make one for myself. It would need to look good enough that I’d actually wear it around town, yet be totally functional. Though I dreamed about turning production into a business I didn’t know if the market was really there.
I concentrated my efforts on the design, the fit, and the fill weight. After finishing up a half dozen prototypes we took a group camping trip to a local climbing area where I ended up selling 5 or 6 hats that day. After that I built myself a website and have been ramping up direct-to-customer sales every year. Our gear is now all around the world and we’ve got shops that carry our hats from the US to Canada to Europe.
Can you briefly discuss the evolution of your company and your present day role?
Today I’ve got a few people helping me with year round production and we are really pushing to add new products to the line up. We now make the original hat in four colors and generally have that stocked year around. We’ve also got a new unique line of “Limited Edition” hats in custom colors and fabrics which is a creative outlet for us and lots of fun.
As for me, I’ve become busier than ever. I still spend a full weeks worth of time behind the machines making gear but it’s nice to have a bit of help. I also really enjoy designing and making new gear along with updating the website and coming up with new ideas.
Which product or products are your best sellers?
The Original Black Rock Hat is most definitely our best seller. At less than an ounce it provides some of the best warmth to weight ratio for your body. Most people are simply floored when they first pick up one of our hats. For comparison, I tell people that it’s similar in warmth to your heaviest and thickest wool hat you’ve ever owned at a fraction of the weight.
Where are your hats and other products currently manufactured?
Everything is manufactured here in Seattle Washington out of an 800 sq ft workspace in my home. It’s now a full production floor making gear year round. It may be small, but I utilize high end machines, custom made jigs, and a construction process that I am continually refining.
Would you care to share any thoughts on outsourced manufacturing?
I simply won’t do it and I take it as a challenge to create a thriving business that sells top quality product made right here in the USA. My direct access to the products and manufacturing also keeps me agile and ready to change designs or make new gear on the fly. My goal is to create a sustainable business that contributes to my local economy -something that outsourcing can’t accomplish. It may mean that our gear is sometimes hard to get, but at least you know when your wearing it that it was made right here in the USA.
Would you say the term “cottage manufacturer” is appropriate for your company, or do you prefer something else perhaps?
I think “cottage manufacturer” is a perfect term for us. We make small runs of high quality gear and keep our materials and build standards well above many of the big guys. We might not produce a hundred thousand units a year, but we simply make some of the best gear available for those individuals looking to shave weight while on the trail. In the end I think quality gear and quality customer service is paramount.
Do you feel that the Cottage Industry is at odds with the mainstream gear industry, or is there room for everyone?
I think the industries drive each other and that there is definitely room for both. Cottage industries can shift production on demand to utilize the newest materials and designs that may not work in mainstream industry with a more complex business model. The Cottage Industry also produces specialized gear for niche markets, so I think there is a lot of room. However, the mainstream market does drive expansion of the sport by making gear readily available to the masses.
Have you or your company collaborated with any other businesses – cottage or mainstream, on projects or production? What about just hanging out or hiking together?
We’ve got a few things in the works with other cottage businesses though we don’t hang out or hike since our companies are spread around the country. I do think that joining forces with some cottage manufacturers will be the next step in the evolution of truly specialized and unique gear.
What would you say to the folks out there who aren’t familiar with cottage businesses and what to expect in terms of customer service, and product quality? Is there anything about your products, business, or the cottage industry in general you’d like to emphasize?
One item specific to Black Rock Gear that I don’t do a very good job of conveying is our goal toward not only creating a sustainable local business but one that’s as environmentally friendly as possible. We’ve taken a great deal of time to make sure everything we do makes difference. Each hat ships in a recycled envelope and sealed in a shrink wrap that’s recyclable. All invoices are left digital so no extra paper is wasted on a receipt you’ll simply toss. Each hat comes with a hang tag but each is done on recycled paper and printed with soy based ink. We also attach each with a USA made reusable safety pin so when your hat arrives you can recycle the package, compost the tag and reuse the pin. We care about being environmentally responsible as much as we do about our customers, our service, and the craftsmanship of our products.
What does the future hold for ultralight backpacking?
Lighter and more comfortable gear seems an obvious answer, but I still think too many hikers view ultralight gear as bare bones and without comfort. Materials are simply getting lighter, stronger and better designed allowing us to carry more gear while keeping the weight down all while retaining more comfort.
I also think we will continue to see more elaborate coordinating systems, whether it’s your all down sleep system of clothing, your ultralight Cuben fiber rain gear or your big 4 that’s either a hammock setup or a traditional bivy setup that’s weighing in around 3-5 pounds, coordinating gear and layering can be very useful.
Can you tell us what your personal “big four” items are for a typical 3-season, 3-day hike?
Like most I’m an absolute gear junkie and have doubles and triples of numerous items, but if I were to pick my best ultralight setup that I’d pack with me up and over a peak it would have to be my GoLite Jam2 Pack, the MSR-ebivy, my Western Mountaineering Highlight bag and the Thermarest Prolight ¾ pad. That setup weighs in at exactly 3lb 5oz which leaves enough room for climbing gear, food, water and clothing and brings my full pack weight up to around 18-25lbs.
Is there anything new on the horizon that you can tell us about?
My latest release this year was our new undermitt’s designed to provide 4 season warmth in a 1oz package. They are function as part of a layering system so our next item in the works are the accompanying “overmitt” made from an ultralight fabric, seam sealed and simply designed to be the lightest on the market.
We’ve also been working with an avid “hanger” to prototype out a new luxury hammock camping pillow. It’s a very specialized item but with so many hangers wearing our gear I thought it would be nice to produce something that I’ve gotten a lot of requests for. Those should release in the next week and will most likely be available throughout the summer months.
Complete this sentence: “I hope that Black Rock Gear products will …”
…one day be known and used by everyone who backpacks, hikes or camps in the great outdoors.
Ok, this is an important one – what’s your favorite ice cream flavor?
Thank you for taking the time to talk to with us today! Is there anything else you’d like to add, or any sage advice to bestow upon those reading this interview?
I just want to say thanks to Hike It. Like It. for getting in touch with us, and to all of you hikers and backpackers… Happy Trails!
You can check out Black Rock Gear on the web at www.blackrockgear.com. We thank Evan for working with us on this interview. We’re always interested to hear from gear manufacturers and I’m sure Evan would love to hear your thoughts or suggestions on his products. Likewise, we’re pumped to hear your thoughts on this interview so please post a comment to let us know what you think! Hike it Like it.
I think Cottage Manufacturer is a perfect term for us. We make small runs of high quality gear and keep our materials and build standards well above many of the big guys.
We might not produce a hundred thousand units a year, but we simply make some of the best gear available for those individuals looking to shave weight while on the trail. In the end I think quality gear and quality customer service is paramount.
Jacob is the head honcho, wearer of many hats, and modern day berserker here at Hike It. Like It. When he's not out hiking or running the trails you'll find him operating in full capacity as a Super Dad and chipping away at a degree in Kinesiology. This guy likes to stay busy.
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