Hello Glen. 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?
Well, the history about how I got into backpacking and making gear is pretty well covered on the website (linky
). I have a full-time job as an engineer, so that limits the time I’m able to spend outdoors, but generally I log about 20 days a year in the backcountry.
What are some of your favorite places or trails to hike?
I mostly just like being out. Probably my favorite is being above tree line in the mountains. I’ve hiked more in the western states than anywhere else, no surprise since I live on the west coast. The Sierra is a local favorite. I can drive from my house at sea level to a trailhead at 9,000 feet in 6 hours, which may sound like a long drive, but not by southern California standards.
Which of the following best describes your personal backpacking philosophy: Super Ultralight, Ultralight, Lightweight, Conventional, Sherpa.
I guess most people would put me in the SUL category. I’m typically heading out with a base weight of 5 lbs. I’ve done less, but if I’m just throwing stuff in a pack for a quick trip, it ends up around 5 lbs. So for a 3-day trip into the Sierra, late fall, I’m usually leaving the car with around 12 lbs including food and water.
What was your motivation to begin making gear? Can you recall the first piece of gear you ever made?
I actually made gear as a teenager, using the old Frostline kits. I made several down sleeping bags. For a cross-country bicycle trip at 18, I made my own tarp, and have made panniers. When I met my wife-to-be over 30 years ago, I made her a down vest from a kit.
So, you’ve been able to sew since your teens? How did you learn?
My mom thought that every kid should leave home knowing how to sew, cook and bake, so all three of us kids know all three. We don’t always practice all three, but we all can if we have to.
Which aspects of your designs set your designs apart from other manufacturers?
I don’t claim any special design expertise. I design what I want to use, so our designs tend to have a minimalist approach. Actually our gear line largely traces my progression in ultralight backpacking, from the G4 to the (now discontinued) G5/Whisper, to the Murmur.
We were actually the first manufacturer to use spinnaker fabric in ultralight outdoor gear, when we started making the G5 out of it. A really light fabric requires a different level of care when using. There are always tradeoffs.
Would you briefly discuss the evolution of your company and your role?
I was going to close the company down a few years ago. It had gotten to the point where I was working 60 hours a week on engineering, and 30 hours a week on Gossamer Gear. I was getting paid for the engineering, but had never taken a salary for the gear business. One had to go, so I was choosing to let go of the one I wasn’t getting paid for. Through a series of circumstances, a customer who liked the designs ended up buying 75% of the company and putting money in to hire someone to run it. Now it is being run as a business, just not by me. I am still Chairman of the Board, and am very involved in product design, public relations, speaking, etc. I still don’t receive any salary from the company. I figure so many people have helped me along the way to lightening my load, my work is an effort to pay part of that forward.
Since taking the business to a full time operation, have any products emerged as best sellers?
Currently the Mariposa Plus backpack is our “best” seller but our entire line of backpacks actually sells at a fairly similar volume. Also our trekking pole line now accounts for a significant part of our revenue. Typically our tarptent “The One” is the workhorse of the shelter line but due to a large batch sub-standard fabric we aren’t producing those these season.
Where are your products currently manufactured?
The sewn goods are made in the greater Denver Colorado area and also in New Mexico. We “make” the trekking poles in Austin Texas in our garage/shop- although the carbon fiber parts are made in California.
Would you care to share any thoughts on off-shore manufacturing?
Manufacturing in the US is difficult in many ways. It is not easy to locate and qualify high quality sewing contractors domestically – let alone ones that will work with our materials, designs, and volumes. Because of this we are always on the lookout for quality sewing vendors and have spent a lot of time sourcing them. Another issue with domestic manufacture is price, it is far more costly to manufacture domestically. We could get our soft goods line made overseas for a fraction of the cost but choose not to do so for many reasons. Because we sell direct to consumer we can make this model work but are as a result unable to enter the wholesale arena.
Would you say the term “cottage manufacturer” is appropriate for your company, or do you prefer something else perhaps?
Strictly speaking, not many of the smaller ultralight gear companies would meet a strict, original definition of cottage industry. I would guess that most small gear businesses start with the original founder making gear in their home, but as they grow, typically they have to find manufacturers to sew their gear. In general use, I think the term implies a smaller company, where the founder/owners are still actively involved in the business, and in this case, Gossamer Gear would qualify.
Does having an intimate knowledge of why, where, and how your gear will be used give you an edge, as an independent manufacturer, over the mainstream competition? What about added value for the end user?
I’m not sure that’s in the strict definition, but assuming that for discussion it’s implied in the general usage of the term, that could be an added value. Instead of gear that is designed by professional designers, who are adding features that will sell, rather than what will work, the gear is designed by actual users. Now, if you don’t hike like I do, then a piece of gear designed for the way I hike may not work for you. But over the years, enough people have evidently found that the gear works for them also.
Will the evolution of new products benefit more from advancements in materials or advancements in design?
When you get to a certain point, technique and knowledge means more to lightening your load then materials or design. Look at Grandma Moses, or John Muir. Sure, you can redesign the inflatable pad to shave some ounces, but when you have the skills to be comfortable without a pad, you’re really saving weight!
What would you say to the folks out there who aren’t familiar with the smaller independent manufacturers 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?
Our goal is to make the best gear and have the happiest customers. We focus on making gear folks want and trying to help them have a joyful backcountry experience. We focus on quality and service because that is who we are and want to be. I don’t really think size necessarily has to have anything to do with quality or customer service, big companies can do these things as well as small ones if they just pay attention. That said Gossamer Gear has 2 full time employees so when you email or call you will be talking with someone who is fully invested in the company and the movement toward lighter, more comfortable, more practical gear.
What does the future hold for lightweight and ultralight backpacking?
As one of the first cottage manufacturers in the current upswing, we’ve seen huge changes already. It seems like we have to be approaching some asymptote of low weight, and maybe more of the push will be to spread the benefits to more people. There are some initiatives to rebrand “ultralight hiking” as “comfort backpacking”, with the comfort coming from carrying less weight. Teaching the skills necessary to carry less weight to more people is a more worthy goal perhaps than trying to shave off the last few grams from a pack or shelter
Just for fun, what’s one of your favorite pieces of gear made by another manufacturer?
I’m a big fan of the Caldera stove system, using a Heineken can and using esbit tabs
What is your vision for yourself and your company going into the future?
To continue to have happy customers, to continue making great gear, to innovate, and to get outside myself as much as I can wrangle.
Complete this sentence: “I hope that Gossamer Gear products will …”
…make your outdoor experience easier and joyful.
Thanks again guys for talking with us and sharing your thoughts on these topics! Is there anything else you’d like to add, or any sage advice to bestow upon those reading this interview?
I always come back to the phrase “Hike your own hike” It’s not a contest so do it your own way and have fun while you’re at it.
If you’re interested in checking out some of the products that Gossamer Gear offers, drop by their website www.gossamergear.com
. You’ll also find their blog
there as well as some resources on how to go lighter
, and backpacking tips
. If you’re into Twitter you can follow Glen as @glenvp or the company as @gossamergear, and if that still isn’t enough for you then like them on Facebook
. We hope you enjoyed the interview, no go forth into the social ether! Hike It. Like It.