Ultralight hiking packs are seemingly everywhere nowadays, and that would have never been the case if it weren’t for the dedicated thru-hikers dissatisfied with off the shelve offerings. Brandon McIntyre and Ashley Thick were two of those people, and that led to them starting Superior Wilderness Designs.
Everything that comes out of SWD’s Michigan based workshop is hand sewn and designed by Brandon and Ashley. Their small operation lets them be more hands on with their customers, being able to customize any bag to their needs. I ended up playing around with the bag configurations on SWD’s website for hours one day, and Brandon and I eventually got to talking.
Brandon (TPP): On your website you state that SWD makes “the gear we have always longed to have out on the trail”. What finally motivated you to start your own brand? What gaps did you see in the industry?
Brandon (SWD): Well it seems a lot of hikers, especially in the UL world, are very picky about gear. I tend to fall into this category myself, so I started making gear for Ashley and I. It seems like pretty much every hike I go on I think of a different way of doing things or a different feature that I would like to add to my pack. As hiking became a bigger and bigger part of our lives, I started making more and more gear and after a while it just made sense to start selling it.
So far we have really focused on giving people the ability to build and design their own backpack using our website. You can select a base model from our website and then add whatever features you feel you may need. So you could either go with a bare bones little frameless pack without many features on it, or you can get a fully framed pack with many different pocket and fabric variations. We also offer pretty much anything in between those two options.
Brandon (TPP): What was it like to start your own outdoor gear company? Is there any advice you’d give to those looking to do the same?
Brandon (SWD): Its been pretty fun for the most part. Getting to deal with hikers all of the time is a fun way to still feel a part of the community even when we aren’t out hiking. I enjoy helping hikers figure out what kind of pack they might want to go with, and what features they might want.
One of the hardest things for us has been figuring out how to balance life and work. Living in Michigan you pretty much have to travel to do any real hiking, and its been a challenge figuring out how to take time off from the business to get out there and do some backpacking. As we get things more dialed in it’s becoming a bit easier, but we’re still working on making more time for hiking. I don’t really have much advice on how to best go about that one yet though!
Brandon (TPP): Like some other cottage brands, your bags are all built to order. Though at some points you’ve stocked ready-to-ship bags. What are some of the challenges you saw with each approach? Do you foresee stocking bags again in the future?
Brandon (SWD): We will likely try to do this again at some point, we just have to figure out how we want to go about doing it. We aren’t sure at this point if we want to hire some more people and try to make them in house or if we should try to outsource them to another shop. Either way we will likely keep doing the made to order thing as well. I like the idea of having a custom shop and a line of ready made in-stock items.
Brandon (TPP): Because your bags are built to order, you offer a lot of customization options directly on your website. Have any of your standard options originated from customer requests? What’s the most interesting thing a customer has asked for?
Brandon (SWD): Actually a lot of our options have been based off of customer requests. I will often work with a customer to figure out what they want, and what is feasible for us to do. If someone comes to me with a new design I will typically have to tweak it a bit to make it work with our current designs. If we come up with something good we will eventually add it to the website.
Brandon (TPP): SWD also offers a lot of pack fabric options, from X-PAC VX and X series to Dyneema. What’s your favorite to work with and what are some challenges with the materials you work with? If you could design your perfect pack fabric, what would it be?
Brandon (SWD): I really like working with laminate fabrics. Aside from the obvious benefits of them being pretty much 100% waterproof, they are pretty easy to work with as they are fairly stiff, rigid fabrics.
There are some learning curves to working with these fabrics though. One of the things being that they have pretty much zero stretch, which can cause issues in certain high stress points on the pack. I definitely had to learn how to properly reinforce these areas of the pack as sometimes just adding more stitching isn’t quite enough and will result in the fabric tearing eventually.
I often think about what the ultimate fabric would be, but it seems to change daily. Lately I have been toying with the idea of doing something like a laminated version of
REDACTED. This fabric has really good abrasion resistance, so making the fabric fully waterproof would be a game changer. I probably shouldn’t really even mention this one in public! Hahaha.
Brandon (TPP): “Ultralight” or “UL” has become sort of a buzzword in the industry. What other trends are you seeing in the industry and where do you see the backpacking industry going from here?
Brandon (SWD): The outdoor industry is really exciting right now as there seems to be a flood of people getting interested in things like thru-hiking. I hope that the ultralight movement could potentially make more people interested in going backpacking that wouldn’t normally be into it.
Most people aren’t going to like hauling 50lbs around on their back, but if you can get your base weight down to 8lbs and do a weekend trip with only about 15lbs on your back, that is going to be a lot more appealing to most people.
With so many people being more disconnected from the outside world these days, I think most people would benefit from taking time off from their normal lives and disappearing into the woods for a few days. I don’t know if things will necessarily continue to go in this direction, but there seems to be some kind of pull that is bringing more and more people to activities like thru-hiking.
Branon (TPP): What’s next for SWD? Are there any projects you’re working on that you can tell us about?
Brandon (SWD): We really don’t have anything too exciting in the immediate future. We need to work on some processes and see if we could maybe hire a couple of people. It would be great to get our lead time down to maybe 2 weeks or so rather than the typical 8 to 10.
Other than that I’m hoping I can redesign some of our accessories and shoulder pouches to really refine them and make them as good as they can possibly be. I would also like to add some more accessories to the lineup which will hopefully happen this coming winter.