We’re kicking off February with our first interview of the year. It’s my pleasure to have the chance to talk with HyunSang Lee, founder and director of zerogram, a new gear manufacturer based in Korea. I’m always interested to learn what’s going on outside of the US, especially in the cottage gear scene. Although it’s a fairly young start up, HyunSang has jumped in with both feet. Already zerogram offers an array of lightweight goods ranging from titanium cookware to down sleeping bags, to a full line of shelters – an impressive effort to be sure! Check it out…
Hello HyunSang. Thank you for talking with us today. Please tell us a little about yourself. When did you begin hiking, and how much time do you currently spend outdoors?
I am currently in charge of both design and manufacturing of zerogram products as a general director of the company. I began hiking 28 years ago, when I was a freshman. From that time I’ve been a real lover of outdoor activities. I currently enjoy hiking or rock climbing at least once a week.
What are some of your favorite locations to hike in Korea?
70% of Korea’s land is covered with mountain area. So there are many mountains in our country. Mountains of JiRi, sorAk, and HanRa are the most representative and favorite national parks. Particularly Mt JiRi is proud of its height of 6,283 ft, and the ridge starting from the mountain is close to almost 56 miles while connecting many other mountains of which the heights are above 3,000 ft.
Have you done much backpacking abroad?
I have overseas backpacking experiences twice. The first one is Blue Mountains in Australia, I was deeply impressed by its grandeur and beauty. The second one is John Muir Trail thru- hike in California. During year of 2011 summertime, for 15 days, I accomplished by myself walking through 220 mile thru-hike, from Yosemite to Mt Whitney.
I have plans to hike ‘Tour de Mont Blanc’ this coming February.
As you probably know, the JMT is a very popular trail with hikers here as well. It sounds like you had an enjoyable hike. Was your JMT experience a positive one then?
Actually, I have respected John Muir before the JMT thru-hiking. I was inspired about lightweight backpacking by thru-hiking the JMT. I try to reflect the philosophy of the naturalist John Muir in zerogram’s product development.
What’s a typical baseweight for you?
Normally I take a 12lb backpack including a shelter, stove, and cookware. However, I take a little heavier backpack about 15lb weighed, adding a tent in the winter season.
So, what inspired you to start zerogram?
I had dreamed of outdoor business since sometime after I began to mountaineering
but it was obscure until I was strongly inspired to start zerogram while I was hiking through John Muir Thru-hike in California, and I resolved to manufacture both minimal and eco-friendly outdoor gear then.
As founder and Director how are you involved in design and manufacturing aspects?
As we are at the beginning stage of business, I am involved in nearly every aspects of the company, such as design, manufacturing, market survey, and coordination with collaborating companies.
How do your designs set you apart from other gear manufacturers?
We design gear not by cost or price of fabric and other material but by weight. The most important consideration of our design concept is to manufacture the lightest gear in the extent of not destroying functions of it.
Which of your products have been the most popular so far?
it’s a silicon coated 20D fabric minimalist tarp. 86″ x 102″ sized and 10 oz weighed tarp is the most popular item of Korean backpackers who like lightweight backpacking.
Where are you currently manufacturing your products?
Since Korea has currently world best needlework techniques, a great part of our products are manufactured in Korea. However, for Titanium cookware, we have an overseas production base.
What’s your perception of the “cottage industry” in the US?
It is true that mass production of outdoor products hold considerably positive aspects in magnifying the base of outdoor activities of people and related industry. However, craftsmanship and specialism of cottage industry has influenced on the whole outdoor industry for a long time and still shares an important position with mass production in the same industry. We are inspired a lot from the U.S cottage industry possessing clear understanding of nature and people, right business philosophy, and enthusiasm.
Do you consider zerogram as a cottage industry in Korea?
Yes, zerogram is currently a cottage industry. With everlasting craftsmanship of cottage industry, we will combine both types of cottage industry and mass production, according to the characteristics of each product we make because production mechanisms of cottage industry is not enough for that of Titanium cookware or outdoor wear for example.
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 zerogram in terms of customer service, and product quality?
zerogram’s philosophy established when the company started and will be not changed. Our philosophy is well represented by these phrases “for nature and people, and for lightness and ease.” Both customer service and product quality of our company will surely become one of the world best and customers are sure to give endless credibility to us in the very near future.
So, what is your perspective on the future of lightweight backpacking?
We forecast the future of lightweight backpacking is optimistic because it is natural that people like carrying a light backpack better than carrying a heavy one.
That makes a lot of sense! Just for fun, what are some of your favorite pieces of gear made by other manufacturers?
I like to use Jetboil Sol Titanium. It’s the best choice for me to enjoy lightweight backpacking.
Do you have any new products, developments, or new accessories that you can share with us?
We are developing a very light single wall tent called the Papillon II. We plan to start production of this item from this coming February.
Looking toward the future, what’s your vision for yourself and your company
We hope that American lightweight backpackers use zerogram products soon. Particularly we hope that our products will become the most favorite ones by the hikers walking through JMT and PCT.
Complete this sentence: “I hope that zerogram products will …”
I hope that zerogram products will get the brand name value which is the most
impressed by the hikers, mountaineers, and backpackers who act over the world in a few years.
HyunSang, thanks again for making time to talk to us. Is there anything else you’d like to add, or any sage advice to bestow upon those reading this interview?
What I’d like to say is “light freight gives you heavy inspiration, while You are in a mountain.”
Getting outside in lightweight style is obviously a logic that’s shared wherever people are hiking, regardless of what languages we may speak. Please feel free to take a look at the ZeroGram website: http://www.zerogram.co.kr/ which contains all of their products. They are also on Facebook so if you like to follow along like we do, you can stay up to date there. Hope you enjoyed the interview, and keep an eye our for our Hands On with the zerogram Papillon II tent coming soon! 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