Borah Gear is a name that just a couple of years ago was unknown even amongst those of us who scour the reaches of the interwebs for interesting and lightweight gear. Since then Borah has built up a good rep in the ultralight hiking community. John West, the proprietor of Borah Gear, has propelled the company forward on that success and now offers an interesting and diverse product lineup. John was kind enough to sit for an interview, and presto – here it is, our first manufacturer interview of the year!
Hey John. Please tell us a little about yourself. When did you begin hiking, and how much time do you currently spend outdoors?
Thank you for the interview! So a little about me…I live in the nice small town of Moscow, Idaho. Been here for about 6 years now, and I’m loving every minute of it. Being originally from Pittsburgh, it is a nice change of pace! I am a part-time math teacher, and along with running Borah Gear, it makes for a busy (but fun!) schedule.
I’ve been hiking since I was 7-8 years old, when my father would take me out on fishing trips. These trips slowly turned longer and longer until we eventually started doing overnighters. I craved being in the outdoors, and often found myself just looking at maps thinking of places to go. As I got into my teens, we started doing multi-day trips. I started doing solo trips and hiking became more than just a hobby, it was a passion.
As for how much I time I spend in the outdoors, not enough! During backpacking season, I try to get out for at least 25-30 nights. I wish I could go more, but family and business doesn’t allow for much more than that these days 🙂 During the offseason, I get out and do a short day hike once a week, and during the winter I usually romp up Moscow Mountain on snowshoes a couple times a month.
What are some of your favorite places to hike these days?
My favorite place to go will always be the Sawtooths in Southern Idaho. They are a special place to me, as it was the first place I ever backpacked here in Idaho. They are a beautiful mountain range, and the fishing and peak bagging opportunities are endless. I am very fortunate to have such mountains within a half day drive of me. The Wallowa Mountains in Northeastern Oregon are also a terrific range.
What’s a typical baseweight look like for you?
Over the years it has reduced significantly, and right now I usually have about a 7.5lb base weight. This varies based on how fast I want/need to be hiking, so it can be plus or minus a pound or so. I’m pretty content with that weight right now, and for me it is the perfect combination of luxuries and lightness.
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?
Well the main thing we are known for is the bivys. They were our first ever product, and started with me sewing them on a TV tray in the living room. The design for these came about when I was in the market for a bivy, and looked at my friend’s to see what features I wanted when I went to buy one. After looking at it though, I thought, “man, I bet I could make one of these”, and having sewn some things in the past, decided to make it a project. After showing it to some friends who then wanted one, I started selling them on BPL. One thing turned into another, and we recently just sold out 1,000th bivy. With the bivys, the main thing I wanted to do was offer them at a price point that all hikers could afford.
Tarps came after, and while I made them for awhile, I eventually turned them over to our seamster Jack [Elliott]. I actually met Jack through selling bivys, and it has worked out wonderfully having him make all the tarps and shelters.
Down garments are the most recent addition to the lineup, which I’ll talk about [in the next question].
Down garments have recently shown up in your product line which seems to be a rarity among manufacturers who make shelters and backpacks. How are you able to handle such a diverse product line?
I wanted to make the lightest possible down garments on the market, and as far as I know, the pants and vests have succeeded in doing exactly that. After playing around with different production methods, we have found a way to make the lightest garments, using the highest quality of materials, while still being cheaper than most places out there.
To be honest, starting into down garments was an uphill battle requiring a bunch of design work and making a ton of patterns, but after a couple months of prototyping the down pants were finally finished. Once we had a good technique for sewing the down pants, It opened the door to all other sorts of down garments like the recently released vests and the soon to come jacket. Besides the fact that there seems to be little down clusters always floating around the office, it is a lot of fun making those items!
Where are you currently manufacturing your products?
We have an office space in downtown Moscow, where we make most of the products. It is pretty small, at only 600 square feet, but for now it works. The small office makes us be more organized 🙂
Do you have any thoughts on offshoring
I’m not a fan of it. I think some businesses get too caught up with profit margins, and are willing to do anything just to squeak in a few extra percent profits. I’ve always felt that the slightly lower cost of production isn’t worth the substantial drop in wages for the seamstresses. If it means that I make 10% less by having local employees sew our products, so be it. I like being able to see the finished product before it is sent out. Our prices can stay competitive (and lower for that matter) without having to do anything offshore.
So, do you consider yourself a “cottage manufacturer”, or do you prefer another term perhaps?
I think “cottage manufacturer” is probably even a little too large for us haha! With only 4 employees, we are quite small. Our sales numbers have skyrocketed in the past 6 months, so I hope that trend continues. So perhaps at this stage we are a “microcottage manufacturer” 🙂
Haha… ok. As a Microcottage then, what can you say to folks out there who haven’t taken that step away from the mainstream? What should they expect with Borah Gear in terms of customer service, and product quality?
Take a chance and step away from the mainstream! You get a more personal “touch” when buying from the cottage manufacturers, and it supports a small business. When people buy from Borah Gear, they get great customer service and quality for a price that is less than most of the mainstream guys.
Do you have any plans to expand your current product offerings, or any new products on the horizon that you can talk about?
As I talked about earlier, there are quite a few new down products that we hope to get up early in 2014. Besides those, I’ve been messing around with some shelter ideas in my head recently, so keep an eye out for a new shelter in 2014. I’ve also got some other garment ideas that are close to the prototyping stage.
Which product or products has been the most popular to date?
The ultralight bivys for sure (side zip to be specific). Even though recently in terms of sales the down pants and vests have been our hot seller.
Did you stop production on the Stealth [backpack]? If so, any plans to resume making backpacks?
The Stealth is still looking to be a ways out, but we plan on bringing it back by the summer 🙂 The new design will be slightly altered, but it will be about the same weight and specs as the old model.
Just curious, what’s the craziest shape you can make with the Borahgami? Crane, owl, fortune teller?
Haha, you’ll have to ask Jack about that one. Some of the shapes I’ve seen him make with that thing are crazy. A modified lean-to with side walls is a pretty neat setup.
Just for fun, what are some of your favorite pieces of gear made by other manufacturers?
I’ve always been a fan of ULA packs. Even though for the last 300+ trail miles I’ve used a homemade Stealth, ULA will always hold a special place in the packs department for me. My Outdoor Research Helium was also one of my favorite pieces of gear for a long time.
What are your “big three” items for a typical backpacking trip?
My big three consists of a pack we sold for some time (the Stealth), a DIY 20 degree down sleeping bag, and one of our 8×10 flat tarps.
Do you have any thoughts on the progression of ultralight backpacking, or backpacking in any of its “lightweight” flavors?
I think ultralight backpacking has really taken off these past few years. I see more mainstream companies starting to market towards our crowd, and I’m seeing more people on the trail with UL gear. People that used to be traditional backpackers are starting to lean “lightweight” because of all the mainstream offerings that aren’t quite UL, but lighter than the gear they are used to.
Looking toward the future, what’s your vision for yourself and your company?
I would like us to get to the stage where I could keep 5-6 employees sewing full time. I would like to keep it small, so I can still oversee everything and make sure everything is up to par!
Complete this sentence: “I hope that Borah Gear products will…”
I hope that Borah Gear products will allow you to enjoy and explore the outdoors!
Thanks again for taking the time to chat, John. Is there anything else you’d like to add, or any sage advice to bestow upon those reading this interview?
I just want to thank all of our customers and the awesome ultralight backpacking community for making this all possible!
Thanks to John for his patience to answer our questions. Please take a look at the Borah Gear website for complete details on all of their products. You can also drop John an email at firstname.lastname@example.org 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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