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Cottage Stagnation and Recent Gems
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Miguel Arboleda
(butuki) - MLife

Locale: Kanto Plain, Japan
Re: Cottage Stagnation and Recent Gems on 12/29/2011 23:32:49 MST Print View

Lots of thoughts on the article and all the comments, especially after having been a very active member here since the beginning and involved with UL for more than 14 years. Wanted some time to contemplate before I said anything. In many ways this is a painful discussion, almost as if we are having to look back upon our decade-long obsession and question the legitimacy of spending so much time going bonkers over all those things.

In reading all the comments I felt a great inner conflict between the philosophy that Ryan is advocating (and that he has been deeply reflecting on for quite a few years now, especially in his blog) of keeping life simple and non-wasteful and non-damaging, and the philosophy of being involved with an activity in which gear is a big part of enjoying that activity, thereby spending too much time thinking about gear, and yet the focus of that activity is to get away from the trappings of modernity and its "things". A paradox that is very, very difficult to resolve. How do you love simplicity and frugality and efficiency while at the same time loving gear, too?

I don't agree with Ryan's premise that Cottage Manufacturers are stagnant, but I thought his essay and people's responses were great.

May I suggest a different approach to the problem that seems to be afflicting the entire UL movement, including a great number of UL cottage manufacturers and BPL itself? Perhaps it is the very UL philosophy that is stagnant, and not simply the technicians implementing it?

I think we have reached the same crossroads that manufacturers like The North Face, Sierra Designs, Patagonia, and Marmot encountered when their early designs were no longer the revolutionary game changers they were at the beginning. So, like them, has UL run out of steam?

My guess is that the crux of the problem is the conflict between UL as a way of life and philosophy versus economic and reputation interests. When UL is practiced purely as an approach to backpacking without regard for protecting self-interests other than safety, ability to move, and enjoy your particular activity then it grows innovative simply out practical necessity… you simply use what works and toss aside that which doesn't. It never accumulates. At its very purest your belongings would consist of no more than a single pack (or two at most, when considering winter) with one set of essentials and no more. As some said earlier, you would just grab your pack and head out the door without endless hours calculating weights, materials, design, etc.

What do you do, though, when you also simply love gear for gear's sake? It doesn't fit into the UL philosophy… anything that is extraneous or duplicated immediately makes the philosophy conflictual. Ryan is one of the most guilty in the UL community in this regard… constantly promoting simplifying and discarding what is not necessary, and yet over the years has probably used more different kinds of gear than most of us will ever see (not meant in a disparaging way… I am sure a lot of us here would love to try out all the different gear he's tried if we had the chance). In this article for instance he promotes the MLD Trailstar, but that was definitely not the first time he nominated a certain product as the bees knees. Over the years I recall him saying the MLD Duomid, the Black Diamond One Shot, the BPL Nanotarp, the ID SilShelter, the GG SpinnTarp, and others as "the best". We all have done this, so I'm not trying to paint Ryan as worse than any of the rest of us, but it does call into question our reasons for going UL besides just to lighten up.

One of the things that impressed me immensely about Glen Van Peski (I met him last year and we've been in touch for over 10 years) was that he does almost all his hiking with one pack and one pack alone… his trusty Murmur. That's it. Everything else he deals with as contingents along the way, adapting what he has to the situation and making do. I've tried reaching this way of thinking, but my gear obsession (which I've lately been doing my best to completely rein in) and also my, as Andrew Skurka wrote in an email reply to me, "packed fears", keep me heading to the outdoor stores and loving so much of what I see. Admittedly, like Doug, I don't get out as much as I'd like to. Having been first ambushed by a major earthquake earlier in the year, a completely disrupted life, then getting big healthy problems has made it hard to get out as much as I would have liked. Heading to the outdoor shop in the real world or online is a kind of candy; it relaxes me and allows me the closest I can get to the natural world that I love so much that is possible when getting out there is an infrequent option.

So the question is, what should the UL philosophy reflect beyond backpacking? Ryan has often written about carrying UL over into everyday life, and here I point specifically to the amount of stuff we haul around in our daily lives. Having tried myself to get rid of what I don't need I can say that it is far more difficult to do than any hiking trip is.

What happens though when we begin to live our lives according to this life of simplicity? It means we no longer support cottage manufacturers as much and buy less. Cottage manufacturers are far more sensitive to supply and demand than the big companies are. They can't take the same risks, especially in the bad recession we are in right now. Remember they have to support their families, too. Witness the Brooks Range Rocket tent… major problems began cropping up with the cuban material they used, so the company had to pull the product. Since their reputation depended on that particular product and the material it used, the problem with the material basically ruined their reputation, especially for a product that was as expensive as the Rocket was. What, too, happened to Wanderlust Gear? Dancing Light Gear? Or even the aborted preparations for Colin Ibbotson's new cottage gear company "TrampLite"? A lot of them must have financial and personal reasons for not making it and deciding to discontinue. Lack of innovation is not the only reason these manufacturers disappear.

The funny thing about having gone UL is that when I was a "mainstream" backpacker I owned one bomber pack, one pair of Italian heavy leather boots, one tent, one stove, one sleeping bag, and a few assortment of clothes. It is only after going UL that my closet has overrun with stuff. I began buying obsessively from cottage gear manufacturers, entranced, as everyone else, by this new "magic" gear. But the spell is wearing off and I'm coming to my senses. I miss maintaining my single pair of boots for ten years running, miss the attachment I felt for my 10-year-old Lowe Alpine Contour 60, miss the wide variety of conditions my The Northface Tadpole was able to handle without my ever having had to regret taking it. My gear WAS simple. The only thing that UL opened my eyes to were weight and all the possibilities opened up in trying to bring the weight down. I have felt guilty and frustrated with the "weight" of things in my home. It's decidedly not simple anymore.

Edited by butuki on 12/29/2011 23:52:52 MST.

Diplomatic Mike

Locale: Under a bush in Scotland
Re TrampLite on 12/30/2011 00:06:25 MST Print View

Good post, Miguel.
Re Colins 'TrampLite' business. I've read on other blogs, that he decided setting up a business would take up too much of his time, and he would rather spend that time on long distance treks. That kind of fits well with your post.

Miguel Arboleda
(butuki) - MLife

Locale: Kanto Plain, Japan
Re TrampLite on 12/30/2011 00:47:35 MST Print View

Mike, yes, I had read that, too, about Colin's decision to make a priority of his expeditions rather than his company.

We are beginning to sound like a chapter of Gear Ruse Obsessives Anonymous Naysayers (GROAN): "I believe in simplicity, but want all the versions that make it so!"

Daniel Sandström
Re: Re: Cottage Stagnation and Recent Gems on 12/30/2011 02:42:11 MST Print View

Thank you Miguel for your late, but oh so honest comment. Appreciate it.

The last chapter was a suprise to me and a lightbulb flicked. Even though my girlfriend has hinted it; what you say is true. A couple of years ago I too just owned one setup of everything... I am, like many others it seems, not too interested in one season gear anymore.

edit: to name.

Edited by on 12/30/2011 02:43:48 MST.

Sieto van der Heide

Locale: The Netherlands
Another reply... on 12/30/2011 03:53:14 MST Print View

@ Miguel, that is a long reply to Jordan's letter.

I think there's several things in the letter and the various replies (I must admit I haven't read all of them);
There's the concept of 'Living Simply' (as Patagonia put it on their Tee's) - this could include 'Living Ultra Light'. There's the activity of Ultralight Backpacking. There's loads of gear - both traditional and ultralight. And then there are the people interpreting the concept, doing the activity, owning the gear, and ultimately deciding what they want to do with it all.

My personal response?
I love gear. I love hiking and climbing. I do not like weight. I do not like complications. I do not like clutter. I am trying to live more simple. I am incorporating everyting into my own lifestyle.
You may like my lifestyle, you may not. You may have other ideas! To each his own.

James Marco
(jamesdmarco) - MLife

Locale: Finger Lakes
Cottage Stagnation and Recent Gems on 12/30/2011 05:03:23 MST Print View

I think everyone here has been to a large degree "jaded."

Taking a one well known persons statements and analyzing them in detail results to a lot of “out of context” interpretations, beyond what the author was trying to say. Being overly sensitive to a mention of some part of a person’s gear not being 100% does never imply it is not satisfactory. Nuff said about the interpersonal stuff.

I think that Ryan is mostly correct. The raw fact is, backpacking in general is an ancient necessity we all practice in terms of a modern “sport.” Ultralight backpacking is fairly new as a sport, but, our forefathers often would go into the wilderness armed with only a knife. Indeed, some aboriginal tribes still like to practice this ritual. So, it is unfortunate that we think of UL, SUL or even XUL backpacking in terms of modern society. Perhaps it is because we are used to thinking in those terms. Modern society means manufactured goods. We want, and need, specialized equipment for our treks. We need specialists in many fields to produce the variety of goods we want. They, in turn, need materials modern society produces. Cast off cans, super high strength synthetic resin bonded carbon fiber poles are just two examples showing the wide variety of materials we want.

In any sport, the equipment needed for that sport gets refined, and results in better performance, but, more specificity, a narrowing of focus for that gear. Should we go back to old-style bundling of gear into our sleeping bags to carry it? (Not a good idea, but, this is taken directly from a picture of some cave-men carrying packs I saw at the Smithsonian when I was a kid. Hell, it may be the next new wave…)

UL(including anything less than 10lb base weights) is not really about cottage or mainstream manufacturers. It is 99% knowing what it is we need to do with the equipment. A steel striker is worthless without a flint. A screwdriver is worthless without a screw to turn. Technique is where we all shine. Because we know how to make do with less by making less do MORE. Adding a screw driver to a striker means only to grind it down on a rock so we have a dual purpose tool…striker and screwdriver. “Pack Less, Be More” is catchy but it should be Pack Less, DO More.

Technique is very unpopular with anyone trying to make money from this sport. As much as we talk about it, the sport has been refined for as long as the first person decided to improve his tool and carry it, rather than simply using a found rock or stick. There is little we can try that has not been tried before. The touted NeoAir is only an air mattress with a reflective skin inside. But it is far heavier, infinitely heavier, than no pad. Using scraped together piles of forest duff works for me (an example only, don’t take my words out of context.) But, it took more modern materials to allow the invention of an air mattress.

Typically, technology cycles between the thoughtful and the materialistic, inventive and the incorporative. As a sport, we have some good stuff out there, too much, too many manufacturers wanting a piece of the pie, so to speak. Afraid to innovate because what they are selling works OK and they are afraid they might loose even 1/4 point of market share.

To get much more out of any gear we have to turn to a more systems approach. Using a pad as a pack frame, for example. The Backcountry Boiler is a nice piece of kit. But, what else can it do? It boils water. It therefore sanitizes water. Can it be improved? Sure. But, it serves no other purpose, as is. As part of a system approach to backpacking it fails. The ONLY thing it does is boil water. A systems approach dictates some changes. You cannot take the lid off and cook a stew in it, nor wash it (or can you? Maybe I missed that part.) You cannot eat out of it. It is fairly bulky, taking valuable space in the pack. You cannot fry a trout in it. Nor cook foraged greens. Nor provide structure to the pack, etc.

A system approach is simply knowledge, and something we try to disseminate freely. The Backcountry Boiler example clearly shows several lacks of the current design and suggests several improvements, immediately. A taller slightly slimmer design helps pack ability and pack support. A screw on lid, a grate on top to support a pot or pan, a second cover to be used as a fry pan, etc. Focusing on a single item is great. But, focusing on the entire pack system provides a series of improvements making it an excellent pack system, taking it out of the realm of ordinary gear (even if it does weigh a LOT less than the Kelly Kettle…this is, after all, only modern materials.)

In closing, I think the next big breakthroughs in pack gear will be a widespread systems approach to more and more gear. The up side to vendors will be they will sell more because their gear will be integrated and perform better as an integrated system and weigh less for equivalent performance. At least until the legendary unobtainium is invented. Then we can go through the whole cycle all over again. Like I said, we are all a bit jaded.

Hiking Malto
(gg-man) - F
Great Conversation on 12/30/2011 08:40:09 MST Print View

Nice post Miguel.... I also needed a couple of days to digest this and frankly other conversations regarding our UL world. I am also conflicted by the seemingly divergent directions that Ryan took in his essay. But to me it all is starting to makes sense.
1) I think UL, especially on this site is almost 100% gear focused. But in my mind gear is a means to an end, not the end. For me UL gear has been an enabler to acomplish high mile trips in a minumum of time. But now marginal improvements in gear will change little in the pursuit of my goals. So, for me, the current stage of stagnation, if there is one, is not a problem. There are much bigger improvements that I can make in nutrition and fitness, areas that get minimal attention on this site.
2) I also think that there is a hoarding mentality that we see in the UL community and I am as guilty as anyone. But it came to an end after my thru hike. I have a very optimized setup and little need for multiple kits. But I still have way too much "stuff" and will work to UL my total gear, not just what I carry.

Finally I suspect that I'm not alone in this thinking which could be why there has been some tension in the forums over the last few weeks. But this thread has, for the most part, been one of the most civilized and productive in a long while.

A Recovering Gear Addict

Edited by gg-man on 12/30/2011 08:43:21 MST.

dan mchale
(wildlife) - MLife

Locale: Cascadia
coating on 12/30/2011 10:32:29 MST Print View

I realized last night that maybe I should address the innovation in fabric coating on the new Dyneema X Dyneema Grid fabrics. It is not a cottage product but the cottage has taken to it. The cottage may like the coating as much as the fabric. This coating is a new generation of coating that even glides across sewing tables more easily. It remains to be seen how this coating holds up long term but it is not business as usual and should not be compared to what is wearing out on Ryans packs - whatever brand they may be.

I would like to note also that the actual dyneema or spectra grid that is woven into the new generation and older of spectra grid fabrics can be said to represent kind of a quality mark for the fabric that goes beyond the grid itself. I have over the years tested many of these fabrics for the tear strength of the underlying nylon fabric first by removing the grid in one direction or the other. I was always pleased to see that even the underlying fabric was of high quality. Fabrics can vary tremendously - some even tearing like paper - so I have always tested. But that reminds me, I have also heard of fake grids in which the grid was made of only a polyester yarn. I have never seen this though.

Edited by wildlife on 12/31/2011 01:54:44 MST.

Kyle Meyer

Locale: Portland, OR
Cottages can't compete with major companies making the same products? Really? on 12/30/2011 11:30:37 MST Print View

I wrote about this a little bit on my blog but essentially, I think this is an obvious point Ryan is making and that he said it all wrong. Major manufacturers are now finally making reasonably ultralight gear—that much is obvious. Now that they are, the cottage manufacturers better step up their game or die in the face of companies with real R&D budgets and access to industrial designers and processes.

This could have a rallying cry to tell the cottage manufacturers to get real and save the cult of small business that has existed around the ultralight backpacking community, but instead he derides and insults them.

But then perhaps stirring the pot was the whole point, but let's not attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.

Dave -
(FamilyGuy) - F

Locale: Up there
Re: Cottages can't compete with major companies making the same products? Really? on 12/30/2011 11:41:30 MST Print View

What you are seeing now is that major manufacturers are pushing toward truly ultra-light while still providing durable products. This is pushing the cottage makers to produce gear that is slightly heavier but far more durable than in the past (remember spinnaker?).

We all benefit from this.

eric chan
(bearbreeder) - F
Re: Cottages can't compete with major companies making the same products? Really? on 12/30/2011 12:25:38 MST Print View

amen ...

the true ULers who are truly "elite" are people like ueli steck and his ilk who are pushing the BOTH the physical and technical limit of what can be done ... they may not be "UL", but their gear sure is for what one does with it ...

they also mostly use "mainstream" UL gear these days ...

remember that for these people ... 12 saved oz isnt just a bit of weight or BPL bragging rights, it literally is several days of melted snow and thus life ...

even the great skurka used much golite gear on is great trek ...

the positive thing about having the uelis of the world be media sensations, is that everybody wants to use their gear ... and mainstream gear becomes even lighter as a result ...

Edited by bearbreeder on 12/30/2011 12:26:27 MST.

dan mchale
(wildlife) - MLife

Locale: Cascadia
solution on 12/30/2011 12:39:57 MST Print View

There are always solutions. We actually have an opportunity here to be more of a collective and advocate the purchase of more homegrown stuff.

Edited by wildlife on 12/31/2011 01:56:48 MST.

Larry De La Briandais
(Hitech) - F

Locale: SF Bay Area
Re: solution on 12/30/2011 13:03:36 MST Print View

"I think if we are going to take our country back we are going to have to start making things here."

It seems that far to many people in a position to make decisions are only interested in making one thing, money. Whatever makes the most the fastest...

By the time it all falls apart "they" will be set.

dan mchale
(wildlife) - MLife

Locale: Cascadia
hide on 12/30/2011 14:08:37 MST Print View

Sorry for editing Larry. It's like pulling the rug out! I don't want to go overboard - will just stay in the boat. Talking about taking the country back seems so 'country' and quaint! But yeah, the 'they' you speak of are pretty set, but there must be a good size line trying to get into that boat!

Edited by wildlife on 12/30/2011 15:17:21 MST.

Dave -
(FamilyGuy) - F

Locale: Up there
Re: hide on 12/30/2011 14:38:31 MST Print View

I always try to buy homegrown if I can....

Edited by FamilyGuy on 01/02/2012 18:44:42 MST.

Larry De La Briandais
(Hitech) - F

Locale: SF Bay Area
Chicken... ;^) on 12/30/2011 15:34:15 MST Print View

Just kidding. But I do think it is an appropriate topic. I do believe that there are many here who prefer to purchase from a "cottage" manufacturer at least partly because they are making something here.

But, I've always thought that a manufacture that posts a lot on the internet looses more than they gain. They are just too big of a target for those that complain about everything. This forum may be an exception. And I know the president of another company (not hiking related) that felt he received more benefit than harm from his forum, but he never did convince me. You open yourself up when you become part of the online community. I have a lot of respect for those that do.

dan mchale
(wildlife) - MLife

Locale: Cascadia
Where no person has gone before on 12/30/2011 15:55:23 MST Print View

Yeah Larry, I hear you, thanks for shairing about the friend you know. I don't think people that are for real have much to worry about. We have a very strange world coming up on us and so far I think it has been a big benefit to be part of an older more real generation. In my next life I won't have that advantage.

I actually know of a person from the old daze that has a rather large company now and I would never know from what I see on the net that he is even there. It's interesting.

Edited by wildlife on 12/30/2011 16:34:45 MST.

Dave -
(FamilyGuy) - F

Locale: Up there
Re: Where no person has gone before on 12/30/2011 15:59:33 MST Print View


Edited by FamilyGuy on 12/31/2011 10:15:23 MST.

dan mchale
(wildlife) - MLife

Locale: Cascadia
packs on 12/30/2011 16:12:02 MST Print View

Larry, I'm becoming less and less the opening up kind, but that company I'm talking about is called........... ........

Edited by wildlife on 12/31/2011 02:00:22 MST.

Dave -
(FamilyGuy) - F

Locale: Up there
Re: India on 12/30/2011 16:13:18 MST Print View

"Dan McHale has been outsourced"

That's pretty funny, actually.

Edited by FamilyGuy on 01/02/2012 18:45:26 MST.