The trip report is all done!!! I hope the other folks that attended this year will fill in the gaps or correct any mistakes I might have made. I know the point of the Post Trip Report forum is not for commercial purposes, but I hope some of the manufacturers also jump in to add their particular insight.
My brother-in-law (Ron) & I made the 8.5 hr drive down to Damascus, VA (a.k.a. the friendliest town on the AT) last weekend to attend the 2012 Trail Days Festival. If you haven't heard of it before, it's a celebration for current thru-hikers, previous thru-hikers, section hikers, vendors, and local folks. The AT goes right through town, and they always hold the festival the weekend after Mothers' Day, which is close to the main bubble of thru-hikers.
The cottage industry and food vendors are in town, while the traditional gear vendors (who do gear repair) and campers are located at the edge of town.
Since the town of Damascus put in some baseball fields, the campers have been pushed and dispersed back into the woods and across the creek. This works OK since it always rains in those VA hills during Trail Days. The increasing number for hammock hangers have no problems with it. It does get us closer to the flora (nettles & poison ivy) and fauna (slugs, snakes, and drunken young thru-hikers).
Over the years loose groups of merrymakers have formed ranks and created temporary communes for the weekend. "Billville" and "Riff Raff" are two of the larger ones. Trail Days is much more commercial and rowdy than the PCT Zero Day, just as the AT is different from the PCT.
Vendors doing gear repair included: Mountain Hardware, Snowpeak, Katadyn, Nomad, Inc, Gregory Mountain Products, Osprey, MSR, Vasque, Etowah (one of the real lightweight supporters), Backpacker Magazine, Princeton Tec, Birkenstock, Big Agnes, Granite Gear, Garmont, FITS Socks, Eagles Nest Outfitters, Inc. (hospitality), Fort Bastian, Recreation, Inc. (hospitality). It's great that these folks come out in the rain and heat to provide free repairs and other assistance for the thru-hikers.
However, the main part of Trail Days are the cottage industry manufacturers that are located closer to town. Maybe the answer to Ryan Jordan's question about innovation can be answered with an understanding of the existing and emerging gear manufacturers. Folks like Ron Bell are still innovating (maybe at a slower rate than before due to refining manufacturing techniques/details of last year's models and scaling up production to reap the benefits of previous year's design efforts), but others are coming into the market with their energy and enthusiam to build on what others have started. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but even better for us consumers is the expansion of the manufacturing base. There were a few brand new cottage manufacturers this year, and some companies that have made it through the first lean years.
Ron Bell and his Mountain Laurel Design booth welcomed us to the best part of Trail Days. He even gave out some nice little gear give-aways to people that got the code phrase from BPL or his Facebook page. This festival is in Ron's backyard since he is from the Roanoke, VA area. Besides having a very nice chat with Ron about the UL industry, it was great to see his top-of-the-line shelters and packs again. Ron really does exhibit the essence of UL ethics and personal outreach. He had his Solo Mid and two of his ever popular Trailstar shelters (they easily survived the 1.5" thunderstorm the night before, while Ron was working to keep his booth in one piece). He also had some of his awesome packs for people to see the details in person.
Another perennial favorite is Brian Vargo and his Ti gear. He has expanded his product line and recently relocated his retail store in Lewisburg, PA to get some more space and closer access to the rails-to-trails bike path. It was great to talk with Brian about his Trail Days history, the evolution of his company, and the UL industry. We also commiserated about the long, but pretty drive to SW VA from PA. I have been surprised that his Hexagon Backpacking Wood Stove hasn't gotten more attention since it can handle a large amount of wood and packs VERY small.
Brian has a new product...the 1 liter, 4.7 oz. Ti BOT (Bottle Pot). It's meant to serve as both a leak-proof bottle for drinking and pot for cooking. It has a temperature resistant silicone gasket and 3.9" diameter to easily fit into the side pocket of your backpack.
Hyperlite Mountain Gear:
Unfortunately, I didn't get to talk with Mike much this year, but did get to meet Bama, who is on the HMG team and thru-hiked with one of Mike's earlier tarps in 20120. I was either doing something else or his booth was busy with folks looking at his high-end tarps, shelters and backpacks. There was alot of cuben ($$$$) laying around his HMG booth. He was showing off his cuben tarp and bug netting systems.
Jacks R Better:
These two guys have been making quality quilt/hammock equipment for several years, and have established themselvs as one of the leaders of quality gear. I love my No Snivller quilt and use it on most of my 3-season trips.
As usual, Tom Hennessey had lots of people lining up to see his hammocks and accessories. He seems to do some pretty brisk business during Trail Days with his discounted hammocks. It looks like Tom is also carrying Mike's Windrider Ultralight backpack.
This is a company I first saw last year (yeah, I didn't actually complete that 2011 trip report). The young (compared to me) couple are really nice and are obviously proud of their products and new company...be sure to check out their website! Last year they had some very nice, reasonably priced down quilts. They have since expanded their offering to a whole family of quilts, underquilts, tarps, and were partnering with other folks this year.
I did not talk with these folks much, but they have a wide range of fabrics for their hammocks, and offer an "Overcover" to provide additional warmth and wind protection. Not sure if it is really meant to be a substitute for a tarp, but they have links to other tarp/hammock manufacturers.
The Ultimate Hang:
Derek Hansen has a pretty comprehensive book about hammock gear options and the fundamentals of hanging (I have not actually read it). It looks like he has tried lots of different options, and has recently started a blog from his home stomping grounds in the southwest. He is only selling his book and sharing information, no gear that I could tell.
Dutch manufacturers various clips, caribiners, hooks, and whoopie slings for hammocks. Dutch and a small group of other cottage manufacturers (including Hammock Gear) have created the Outdoor Trail Gear, which is a co-op to present their products. I really can't do justice to their group, which includes more than just hammock gear, so please check out their websites and the six companies making up the co-op...another nice example of working to make innovation and individual talent available to people.
If I feel like taking a pre-packaged meal for an overnighter, Inertia Foods is my #1 choice. They have a great selection that are much tastier than some of the others...MOOSILAUKE GOULASH is my favorite. They also sell their meals under the Coleman name that are available in many retail stores.
Many of you have heard of Judy Gross at Lightheart Gear. She's a hiker and dressmaker. Her tents have a the distinctive wedge shape, with some nice advantages. She has gone uptown with cuben version of some of here tents (>$475).
Yama Mountain Gear:
I thought that this was another new manufacturer until I realized it used to be called Alpinlite Gear. Gen Shimizu had a very interesting booth with the guy pulling out a steroids-pumped unicycle to demo every once in a while. When you check out his webpage, you find this..."YAMA is closed for the season while I prepare to ride the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route by unicycle!". I have not read about his trip, but it's on my list. He has a nice range of cat-cut cuben and silnylon tarps, poncho-tarp, bug nests, and some accessories. There are a few unique details in his construction, so have a look.
Sam Belew is another "local" from Bristol, VA, and is using the familiar play on words for his company name. He is targetting the lower cost, but functional shelters for beginners and scouts, where the need for added durability is a real plus. He uses PU-coated polyester for his 3-person and 5-person floorless models, which sell for $99 and $119, respectively. Not sure if he is referring to cub or eagle scouts when he does the maximum occupation calculation ;) . Eliminating the floor helps keep the cost and weight down, and rounds out the shelter market nicely.
Suzanne Turell and Connie Yang have been representing Nemo at Trail Days for ~4 years. I have to say that they are probably two of the most fit women/people I have ever seen. Not a bit of fat...just lean, lithe surfers/climbers from NH (I didn't know that people surfed up there). After reading their bios on the Nemo website, I realized that they also have high tech brains behind their outdoor passions. Although Nemo made headlines with their airbeams that replace Al or graphite poles, they have a much larger portfolio of products that don't use the airbeams than I had realized. Check out the comparion chart at the link below.
They also make sleeping pads, pillows, accessories, and a new shower bladder. The company has a real sustainable message (beyond their predominant shelter color), and up-cycle remnants into other products (e.g., wallets, totes, backpacks).
I had the pleasure to talk with Matthew last year at Trail Days when he had shared a booth with Tin Man from Antigravity Gear. Since Tin Man was hiking through the area rather than selling this year, Matthew had his own booth (That's Tin Man with the pack that Matthew is talking with in the photo). BPL had reviewed Matthew's Aquilo pack (3587 in^3 & 34 oz.), but he incorporated a number of tweaks that BPL members had suggested...apparantly we BPL folks are not shy with our opinions.
Matthew was also showing off his new, smaller Kalais pack (2922 in^3 & 26 oz.), which is a scaled-down version of the Aquilo. Will Reitveld reviewed this pack, with some good comments, so you might want to check out this relatively new pack manufacturer to see if it matches your needs.
Cedar Tree is another local guy from near Mt. Rogers & Grayson Highlands. Also another Ph.D. that has turned his hand to manufacturing gear. He has a unique and patented poncho/packcover called "The Packa" that provides improved coverage in wind & rain.
In additiona to gear manufacturers, there were several booths displaying backpacking books and videos. With three kids, I have to sometimes live viacariously through others, but it also allows me to view the same stretch of trail (both literally and metaphorically) through another person's eyes.
The "AT Guide" and "AWOL on the Appalachian Trail":
David Miller is a really nice guy that took time away from his family one year to hike the AT, and then pen the book "AWOL on the Appalachian Trail." I enjoyed reading the book a few years ago, and related to some of his struggles with doing something you love, while being away from your family (hence his trail name). He also has a thru-hiker's guide for the AT.
In the photo above, AWOl is talking with fellow thru-hiker and filmaker, Michael "Lion King" Daniel, who film films about both his AT and PCT thru-hike. Lion King didn't have a booth this year, but I can highly recommend his videos. They are a nice mix of beautiful scenery, humor, and trail hardship. The ending of his PCT hike is another of those life metaphors. http://www.walkingwithfreedom.com/
"The Best Way: El Camino de Santiago":
Bill "Skywalker" Walker is a bonds-trader turned thru-hiker (AT, PCT, & Camino de Santiago) that has authored books about each of his hikes. Skywalker has a great voice in person and in his books. He really is a story-teller as he describes the characters, their (and his) foibles, and relationships along his trails/trials. Although it's not the main point, it is a recurring theme that highlights some of his particular challenges and encounters...Skywalker is 6' 11 & 3/4" tall. All of the books were great reads!
Scott "Squatch" Herriott has made a series of vidoes about the PCT. He is less of a long distance hiker than some of the filmakers, so it took a few section hikes to finish the trail. Nonetheless his movies are entertaining. I got his most recent three "Even More Walking," "Walked," and "Flip Flop Flippin'"
I didn't talk with this fellow, so can't comment much. I did look up his website, and now realize that he markets sleeping bags, tents, etc. that are made in Japan. Maybe Miguel can tell us more about this company.
Bob Peoples and his Kincora Hard Core Trail Crew:
Bob Peoples owns a hiker hostel along the AT near Dennis Cove, TN, and is really one of the true heroes on the trail. A transplanted yankee, Bob has been providing thru-hikers with beds, food, and many fond memories for many, many years. Is has probably given more back to the trail than anyone else I know. He organizes a group of hikers to go out and do some trail maintenance, and instill his own belief that you reap what you sow.
Various Hiking Groups:
There were also some booths from hiking groups or outfitters:
- APPALACHIAN TRAIL CONSERVANCY
- THE OUTFITTERS AT HARPERS FERRY
- TREKS AND TRAILS, INTL.
Although I miss the Backpacker Magazine of 10 years ago (I know some people might say 20 years ago), they have been a great supporter of Trail Days and always have a HUGE gear give away at the festival. Sheri & Randy have been including Trail Days as part of their "Get Out More" tour/promotion, and are a really nice couple that have one of those dream jobs...although it must have some downsides.
Who wasn't there...
Six Moons Designs
Trail Designs (Caldera Cone folks)
Here is a link to my 2010 trip report from Trail Days for comparison.
My 2010 Trail Days Trip Report