Robert Kelly, a.k.a. QiWiz UL Gear, has been making a few interesting products for weight-conscious backpackers for over a year now. QiWiz manufactures ultralight titanium wood stoves and trowels, as well as ultralight buck saws. We first caught up with Robert about a year ago when his trowels were having good success through the online forums, and in fact, we purchased one for ourselves. In case you don’t know what Poop Soup is yet, you’ll definitely want to find out; all the cool kids are doing it. We had a chance to talk with Robert to see how things are going lately. Have a look!
Hello Robert. 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?
As a boy I did some backpacking in the Boy Scouts and then got back into it in the mid-90’s when my own sons were in Scouts. When they aged out and got involved in education and work, I started to do some solo backpacking, but then found an active local club that I joined (Northeast Ohio Backpacking Club) that has been a real blessing. Now I try to get out about once a month for a weekend trip, with 1 or 2 longer trips a year. Last year I had three weeks on the AT and 10 days in the Wind River Range, so I got in a lot of great backpacking. Over the last three years I have been on trail for about 100 days and 1000 miles.
What are some of your favorite places to hike?
Northeast Ohio, unfortunately, does not have much backpacking. Most of my local trips are in western Pennsylvania, which has quite a few nice trails. My favorites are the Black Forest Trail and the Laurel Highlands Trail. I also get into West Virginia and even New York, Michigan, and Virginia occasionally. But when I am able to get out west, I really enjoy the scenery and experience even more. I am a big fan of the Sierras, the Cascades, and the Olympic Peninsula, and would like to spend some more time in these areas. I am planning to hike the JMT some September in the next 2-3 years.
What’s a typical baseweight for you, or do you bother keeping track?
My base weight is generally 8-12 pounds year round. I have gone as low as 6 pounds to challenge myself and sometimes exceed 12 pounds if I have to carry extras like a bear canister or Microspikes.
Please tell us a little about the products that you’re making right now.
I have made two sizes of titanium cathole trowels, the smaller “Original” and the larger (and more popular) “Big Dig”, for more than a year now. If you use something to dig catholes with other than a stick or your shoe (which, while lightweight, do not do a good job, no matter what people claim), I can guarantee you will like them.
I designed the “Little Buck” saw in my head on the AT last spring as a saw I would use myself. Once I actually made one, I realized that it was a pretty unique piece of gear and started making them for others in June of 2011. The Little Buck 2G is a 15-inch buck saw with a high quality blade that weighs less than 4 ounces and quickly comes apart into a small bundle that is easily carried in your pack. I never used to carry a saw because of the weight, but now I often do, especially in the winter in my local eastern woodlands.
The FireFly is a titanium wood burning stove that is similar to a stove I made a few years ago from the first batch to titanium I ever had. It’s just been available since the end of February, 2012. It’s quite light at about 2.5 ounces, which is very nice, but there are also some unique options available, particularly the FlexPort, which is a side-fueling port that can be open or closed as you prefer. Coming soon will be a multi-fuel option that allows for a simple Esbit stove or alcohol burner to be used with a windscreen that shelters the stove flame and concentrates it around the bottom of your pot. I particularly think an Esbit option makes a lot of sense as a backup to a wood burner
Where are you manufacturing your products?
The basement of my home is my “factory floor”. Fortunately, there is enough room that I can spread out and have work areas for the different steps of the production processes, without having to clean everything up and put it away, which saves significant time. It’s pretty messy, but functional. My wife humors me.
I think I already know the answer to this, but which of your products got you started down this path?
Along with some other odds and ends, I made my first titanium cathole trowel, and had people who took a look at it on trail tell me they would love to buy one from me if I would ever make more. Eventually I made a small batch of trowels with the rest of the titanium I had on hand and they all sold in about a day on backpackinglight.com. I never expected to be making gear, but the trowels were definitely the starting point.
Would you say the term “cottage manufacturer” is appropriate for your company, or do you prefer something else perhaps?
The term probably applies, but I’m just getting used to it. I think “hobbyist manufacturer” is closer to the truth of what I am doing. I enjoy inventing things. I enjoy making stuff with my hands. I enjoy knowing that people like and use my stuff. I enjoy having extra funds for trips, gear, and miscellaneous other expenses. I’ve sent trowels to more than a dozen countries. Its fun to think about having my stuff all over the world. In the last two weeks, I’ve sent a saw to Japan, a stove to Germany, and the first trowel ever to Turkey. How cool is that? [very cool indeed!]
Do I dare ask… what is ‘poop soup’?
I have gotten LNT training, and one of my instructors, Charlie Thorpe, explained the “poop soup” technique as a way to enhance decomposition of feces and TP. I thought it was a great idea, have used it ever since, and pass it along to those who buy my trowels as part of my “Advanced Cathole User’s Manual”. Here’s the “recipe”:
Poop Soup: Animals will often dig up catholes to get at partially digested buried food particles in feces. This tends to mix soil with feces (a good thing), but changes animal behavior (a bad thing), and possibly worst of all can leave unsightly and unsanitary dug-up toilet paper “flowers” in the area (another bad thing). One solution is to pack out toilet paper (TP) or use leaves or other natural materials as TP, but animals will still be attracted to the cathole as a food source.
Making poop soup: After digging your cathole and putting waste and TP / materials into the hole, use a sturdy stick (not your trowel) to mix all of this with some loose soil, then a cup of water or more to the hole and mix again. TP, soil, and feces should be not be recognizable as such once thoroughly mixed in this “soup”.
When finished making the soup, the cathole should be topped off with the rest of the original dirt and disguised with native materials. The thorough mixing of all of the cathole contents with soil and water will make animal digging less likely, speed decomposition, and will completely avoid the “TP flower” problem.
Hmm… ok, sorta gross but none the less important. Changing topics… how did you learn to work with titanium, or metal in general
Totally by trial and error. I was fortunate that the initial titanium I got was a good thickness to work with. I made plenty of mistakes and mess-ups along the way. But experience is a great teacher, and I now have ways of working with the titanium that give me consistent results. Everything I make is still made by hand one trowel, stove, or saw at a time. As you heat titanium to help create bends for a trowel, it anodizes on the surface, which creates some beautiful rainbow patterns. The same happens with the FireFly stoves after a number of burns. There is an artistic quality to what I do, which adds to my enjoyment. I own a lot more tools now than I used to. My newest tool is a contractor-grade hand riveter I needed to put stainless steel rivets in the hinge of my FireFly FlexPort.
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?
My personal experiences with small or not-so-small independent manufacturers have almost all been positive. Examples of some of my own cottage industry purchases over the years that some readers will recognize are a Nomad tent, a Packa, Dirty Girl gaiters, Squall II tent, GVP pack, Hennessy Hammock, Gatewood Cape, JRB quilt, BPL cocoon hoody, Caldera Cone, and Hexamid shelter. Sometimes I’ve had a little bit of a wait, but it’s usually been worth it. I certainly have a lot more understanding of others who make gear on a small scale than I ever used to. Customer service is usually great.
In my own case, I try really hard to ship orders out the next day that the post office is open, which means I have to either make things ahead of orders (which I try to do if I can) or stay up late till the work is done. If I’m out of town or going to be out of town I let people know when I’ll be back and when I’ll ship. I respond by email to every order to say thanks and let the person know when I’ll mail their stuff. I generally answer questions that come my way the same day. I’ve got a 2-week July vacation to visit my sons in California and a 2-week trek in Switzerland coming up this September (the Haute Route from Chamonix to Zermatt) and I’ll let people know that before they order, probably through a warning on my website.
Just for fun, what’s one of your favorite pieces of gear made by another manufacturer?
There are many pieces of gear I love that I don’t make. The most recent addition to my regular kit is a Hexamid cuben shelter from Joe at Zpacks. Love it. It has replaced my previous favorite shelter, a Gatewood Cape (with NetTent in bug season). I have gotten the combo groundsheet-poncho for it, which I have been using as raingear on short trips when I don’t expect high winds or needing to bushwack.
Can you tell us what your personal “big three” items are for a typical 3-season, short hike?
Gossamer Gear Murmur (or occasionally Gorilla if more than two nights), Jacks R Better Sierra Sniveller quilt (or Shenandoah in summer), and a ZPacks Hexamid.
So, are there any new products on the horizon that you can tell us about?
I’ve been waiting for 3 months now for 24” blades to be available from my supplier to make a larger saw. There must be some kind of production problem for the blades, which come from Sweden to me through a Canadian supplier. This larger saw will still be very light, appealing primarily to folks that do trail maintenance and might want a larger saw than the Little Buck to help clear blow downs. When the blades finally are available, there will be a “Big Buck” saw (or maybe a “MegaBuck” saw) to complment the existing Little Buck.
As I’ve already mentioned, there will soon be a multifuel option for the FireFly stove. This will consist of a windscreen support and windscreen that will probably come in two sizes for tall or squat pots. You will be able to get an Esbit stove and/or a simple alcohol burner that work with it.
What is your vision for yourself and your company going into the future?
Well, I’ve been making gear now for more than a year, and the success I’ve experienced has already eclipsed what I ever thought it would be or could be. My vision is that gear making and QiWiz UL Gear will continue to be a fun, productive “hobby”.
Complete this sentence: “I hope that QiWiz products will …”
continue to be recognized as a source for really light, really cool gear items that you just can’t get anywhere else. You know you want them …
Thanks for taking the time with us, Robert. Is there anything else you’d like to add, or any sage advice to bestow upon those reading this interview?
Wow, looking for wisdom in all the wrong places. My motto is “Keep it light”, which has more than one meaning (aka: don’t take yourself too seriously; have fun with what you do). Another new favorite tongue-in-cheek saying relating to the quest to go ever lighter is: “Suffering builds character. The less I carry, the more of a character I become . . .”
Dear Reader, Did you enjoy the interview? Did you hate it? Whatever the case may be, please feel free to leave a comment. While you ponder that thought, surf over to Robert’s website, www.QiWiz.net, to checkout his gear and some videos of it in action. You’ll find a contact page there as well so you can let Robert know what you think. His YouTube channel is QiWizdoc and you can find his AT trail journal and photos over at www.trailjournals.com/qiwiz. Go forth ye lightweight minions! Hike It. Like It.
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. Follow on Strava