Gen Shimizu is a long distance backpacking, cross-country unicycle riding, human rights advocating, awesome lightweight-shelter building type of regular guy. He’s also known as the motive force propelling YAMA Mountain Gear forward and I finally had a chance to speak with him. We touch on everything from raising awareness of human trafficking to the intricacies of Cuben Fiber shelter design. Can we really cover all this in 20 questions?!?
Hi Gen. Please tell us a little about yourself. When did you begin hiking, and how much time do you currently spend outdoors?
My first hikes were from my parents’ backs before I could walk. Growing up, we’d go hiking most weekends. I started backpacking on the Appalachian Trail (AT) in high school, eventually thru-hiking it after college. I try to get out for a multi-month trip every few years now. In between, I head out on shorter trips as often as I can. This year, I’ve taken to what I call ‘commuter camping’. I’ll head for the mountains after work, hike in a few miles to set up camp, then wake up early and refreshed for the coming work day.
What are some of your favorite places to hike these days?
My favorite local destinations include Dolly Sods in West Virginia and the Mt. Rogers area in Southwest Virginia. I’m looking forward to exploring more of the Pacific Northwest in the coming years.
What’s a typical baseweight look like for you?
My baseweight varies quite a bit. For a thru-hike probably about 10 lbs. For a fast and light summer trip, maybe 6 lbs. On snowshoeing trips, maybe 15 lbs or more. That said, on trips with friends, it’s not uncommon for my baseweight to be ten pounds and my packweight to be 50+ with treats!
Wow, that’s a lot of goodies! Let me know when you want to go for a hike 🙂 Ok, moving on… so, you’re the captain of the ship over at YAMA Mountain Gear, correcto?
Yes, at this time I perform all operations at YAMA. As the business grows, I’m looking to pass on some of my responsibilities to forward thinkers and craftspeople with a passion for the outdoors so that I can commit my focus to product development and, most importantly, field testing!
Will you describe some of the products that you’re manufacturing right now? How did your designs come about, and what problems do they solve?
I currently offer two families of shelters, the Cirriform and the Terraform. Both are a-frame styled shelters utilizing a vertical trekking pole at the front and rear. Variations are offered within each line, including double and single wall, and one and two person sizes.
The personal experience gained from my long-distance trips influences YAMA shelter design the most. Your shelter’s foremost job is to protect you from the elements. It must be able to perform reliably over time, through the diciest situations, and it should pitch quickly in less than ideal conditions and locations. I try to design shelters that excel in their function and do so in an elegant way.
Where are you currently manufacturing your products?
All of YAMA’s manufacturing and operations happen in my workshop in the Woolen Mills district of Charlottesville, Virginia. I’m located in the old Linen Building and love showing people around. Give me a holler if you’re in the area!
Do you have any thoughts on offshoring
Offshoring is not in consideration at this time.
You’re one of a growing group of manufacturers working with lightweight Cuben Fiber material. Is it even practical to consider outsourced labor when working with such a specialized material?
I plan to keep cuben shelter production in-house. Outsourcing cuben product production is not a practical consideration for me, partly due to some of the unique constructions methods I employ.
So, do you consider yourself a “cottage manufacturer”, or do you prefer another term perhaps?
I simply consider myself to be a gear designer and maker. I don’t think about the terminology too much.
As a smaller, independent manufacturer, what can you say to folks out there who haven’t taken that step away from the mainstream? What should they expect with YAMA Mountain Gear in terms of customer service, and product quality?
I believe you’ll see an attention to detail and an aesthetic that’s on a higher level. I’m able to keep close tabs on quality, employ specialized construction techniques and develop a closer personal relationship with those using my gear. With thoughtful planning and streamlined production, I’m able to maintain short lead times without impacting consistency and quality. As YAMA grows and evolves, you can expect these values strengthen.
Do you have any plans to expand your current product offerings, or any new products on the horizon that you can talk about?
I have several products in various phases of development and testing. Expect a side entry shelter as the next major addition. You can also expect to see modular versions of the Cirriform and Terraform consisting of the tarp, tub-floor, and netting as individual pieces.
Just for fun, what are some of your favorite pieces of gear made by other manufacturers?
My favorite, new piece of gear right now is a pair of Earthquake sandals made by my friends at Bedrock Sandals. These guys are located across the hall from me and have brought my feet up to speed with my back.
What are your “big three” items for a typical backpacking trip?
I’m always trying out new things, but for a fast and light trip I’ll mostly use gear that I’ve custom made for myself. My go-to items for a typical 3-season trip:
Shelter: YAMA Cirriform
Bag: Western Mountaineering Ultralight
Pack: ULA CDT
Switching gears for a minute, have you ever trained bears or other fauna to ride one of your unicycles??
A backpacker riding a unicycle isn’t enough?? I haven’t trained any critters, but I have raced a butterfly while on the muni. The butterfly won.
Ok, I’ve read your blog and I must ask about this in all seriousness… how and why in the world did you ride a unicycle across the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route?
One of the many things that made my first long-distance hike on the AT so special was the novelty of the experience. I chose to travel the GDMBR by mountain unicycle partly for the mental and physical challenge, but also in an attempt to experience that novelty once again (by not knowing what I was getting myself into). Also, since I was riding to fundraise for Polaris Project (www.polarisproject.org), the unicycle served as a way to draw attention.
Hopefully readers of this interview will check out the above link; can you summarize what the Polaris Project is all about?
Polaris Project is a leading organization dedicated to ending human trafficking and modern-day slavery. Their efforts are primarily focused within the US and they do quite a bit of policy work at the state level, something that I feel sets them apart. In addition to their policy advocacy , they operate the National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline (1-888-373-7888), provide client services to survivors, and provide training to law enforcement.
This statement from your blog struck me: Annual profits from human trafficking exceeded those of Google, Nike, and Starbucks combined. What’s the best way we can pause our blissfully busy lives for a moment and take a stand against this?
One of the biggest problems I have when presented with such an issue is that my attention to it is fleeting. I think about it briefly, then get distracted by life. It’s hard to keep the issue at the forefront of thought, which is crucial for progress. If we’re not able to personally focus on the problem, we can help those who are focused on it by supporting them financially and spreading awareness of their efforts and the issue. Also, let your representatives and local government know that you want to see more attention brought to the issue.
Awesome. Before we wrap it up, can you quickly summarize your “My YAMA Adventure” program?
I absolutely love introducing people to backpacking. I also get very excited anytime someone mentions even the slightest desire to embark on a long-distance hike. “My YAMA Adventure” sprouted from this desire to help get people out for their first “big adventure”. The basic idea is that participants will receive gear for their hike as well as planning mentorship. They are expected to fundraise to benefit the associated trail organization and offset program costs. For example, if we hike the PCT this coming season, most fundraising would benefit the PCTA. Each year we’d focus on a different trail. It’s a way to help people get out, and to give back.
Looking toward the future, what’s your vision for yourself and your company?
YAMA began with conversations I had with fellow hikers while hiking the PCT in 2006. Moving into the future, I envision hikers creating gear for other hikers. I’d like to assemble a group of talented outdoor adventurers who will not only bring their experience to the table, but be able to make a personal connection to the gear they are creating and the individual they are making it for. I think this is key in achieving the highest quality product and forming a business that is truly connected with its customers.
Complete this sentence: “I hope that YAMA products will …”
… simplify and complement people’s outdoor experience.
Thanks again for spending some time with us, Gen. Is there anything else you’d like to add, or any sage advice to bestow upon those reading this interview?
I truly appreciate your interest in what I’m doing and the opportunity to chat. To anyone who’s dreamt of embarking on a long-distance trip, don’t be afraid to break routine and go for it! And remember to Hike Simply!
If you’d like to learn more about YAMA and see some of the gear discussed in this interview, please visit YAMA’s website at www.yamamountaingear.com. You can also find the latest updates on their Facebook page and explore with YAMA on Instagram (@yamamountaingear). If you want to know whats up with unicycling the Great Divide, then check this out. Gen says “Hike Simply”… we agree in all respects. 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.
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