Hill People Gear: Q&A

Following our review of their Umlindi backpack, editor Jed talked to HPG’s Co-founder and Designer, Evan Hill.

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Hill People Gear are an American outdoor gear company, known for their versatile, ultra-comfortable backpacks, and their chest-mounted Kit Bags. Following our review of their Umlindi backpack, editor Jed talked to HPG’s Co-founder and Designer, Evan Hill.

Jed: The HPG brand extends far beyond the products you sell, across your skills and educational material, your Youtube series and into a community via your forums and Facebook groups. Was that all something you envisioned when you started the company? Is there any part that, if you hadn’t started selling your own gear, you might be doing anyway?

Evan: We always envisioned having a community around our company and our products, but there are a couple of things we didn’t foresee. 

First of all, we didn’t really anticipate the strength of the brand itself. It’s a somewhat unique blend of modern materials and an old west mentality that really resonates with people. In some ways that has a life of its own beyond the products. 

The second thing that we *really* didn’t foresee was the educational piece. For the most part, all we’ve ever done is build the gear we want for the things that we’re doing and we’ve trusted that other people with similar backgrounds and needs would find it useful as well. We also have a hard time thinking of ourselves as seasoned outdoorsmen – there’s usually somebody at the campfire with more experience than us. But then, a couple of years into the popularity of our products, we realized that the experience base that we’ve always taken for granted isn’t actually that common. 

Not everybody grew up with a dad who was a part time hunting guide who had them in the backcountry before they could talk, not everybody spent years in the Boy Scouts, not everybody went on to work for the Forest Service living on the land on a day in and day out basis. At the same time, a whole lot of the available education out there at the time wasn’t that practical. We decided to start filling the gap merely for the common good. It also helps to put our gear choices into better context for people who don’t have that same background. 

We’ve also evolved some as we’ve gotten older and aren’t fighting tooth and claw just to make a living. The company is about making real use gear for backcountry travelers. But our unspoken mission of inspiring people to connect – or reconnect – with the natural world tends to be a higher priority in many ways than making and selling gear.

Jed: Many of your core designs have been reiterated as a ‘V2’ variant. How do you decide what to change? Have there ever been any features you’d hoped to include at launch, but had to wait until V2 of a product’s life?

Evan: I can’t think of a single time we’ve released a product without a feature that we wanted. Most of our gear is pretty well field tested before it ever makes it into the product line. Even so, there are certain little things that we notice over the course of years that stand improvement. 

For example, the dimensional top pocket on the Ute originally wasn’t there because we wanted to be able to collapse the lid into the pack which a bunch of stuff in the lid would interfere with. Over the course of time it became clear that being able to collapse the lid into the pack was more of the 20% case whereas finding it handy to have some top pocket storage was the 80% case for a pack the size of the Ute. With a list of competing requirements in my head, I simply optimized for the wrong requirement originally.

The other way that V2 changes occur is popular demand. That’s always a tough one – many of the V2 changes that came about due to popular demand are indeed popular, but they’re not popular with me. For example, I’m using a V1 Umlindi with V2 framesheet and over the top straps because I really dislike the oversize cinchable wand pockets and have no use for the top or rear pocket of the V2. 

In all fairness, the rear pocket was added so the Umlindi could be used as a Wildland Fire pack. There needed to be an enclosed full height pocket for storing fusees during helicopter transport. Some of the changes we make (like that one) are chess moves in an overall systems approach to our product line, which is always evolving.

Jed: Do you think of your designs as being specifically suited to the Colorado mountains in which they were developed? Does the global range (for example having a stockist in Taiwan) that HPG has come to see surprise you, and how your gear is employed outside of your home terrain?

Evan: As outdoorsmen, we’re generalists. We’re generalists in the activities that we pursue and we’re generalists in the environments that we pursue them in. Within an hour of our headquarters we can be deep into the sandstone canyons of the Colorado Plateau or up at timberline (10,500 – 11,000 feet around here). If you look at the map at the top of our “Experience” page, you’ll see that we’ve collectively been in a lot of different environments. 

We might be backpacking, hiking, climbing, backcountry skiing, mountain biking, snowshoeing, canyoneering, hunting, canoeing, or overlanding. The gear we build is multi-purpose and dependable, so it is no surprise whatsoever that a wide range of people across a wide range of environments find it useful. 

If there is a blind spot in our gear, it is that we mostly stick with arid environments. We’ve spent a LOT of time in the temperate rain forests of the PNW in the past, but choose not to do so now. Our gear is quite popular in that locale and works just fine there – but if we were forced to live there, our gear would probably have some optimizations in the direction of constant rain.

Jed: How did it feel seeing chest packs (bearing a notable resemblance to HPG’s Kit Bags) become a feature of streetwear fashion in 2017? How does that compare to seeing other companies in the outdoor equipment sphere produce their own chest packs?

Evan: So, the streetwear thing was a direct copy of the Recon Kit Bag. We know which fashion designer did it first and we have a picture of him wearing one of our Recon Kit Bags on social media before he knocked it off in leather and metal… and then made a less expensive one in nylon. Then other designers copied him and the rest was history. That whole thing was just amusing – we were never selling into that market and we were never going to get that market so it didn’t make any difference. We did have at least one musician figure out that ours was “the real thing” and started wearing it to shows and in his videos. 

As far as companies like Osprey making their own chest rigs… on the one hand, there is really nothing new under the sun. Most ideas aren’t wholly original. If somebody comes up with a significantly different take on the Kit Bag that they think is better (like TAD did), more power to them and let the marketplace decide which is better. On the other hand, when you have a company that was originally started by enthusiasts that is now pretty much just a large corporate entity and the directive comes down “people have been talking about that thing a lot, make something like that”, the result is somewhat predictable. 

Make no mistake, there are companies that do a LOT of very derivative work. I was at a trade show recently where I saw several HPG design elements and barely modified copies being sold by a single company. I pretty much have to be walking through a trade show because I don’t look at other companies’ product lines elsewise. The funny thing was that there were certain things that I did for structural reasons that had been copied so that it looked the same, but the copy wasn’t faithful enough to maintain the structural integrity. So you had a design “feature” that looked the same, but was absolutely useless because it hadn’t been executed properly. They might as well have saved the extra construction cost and weight and not done it at all. 

At the end of the day, we’re just going to build good, well engineered products that solve problems for us, and let other companies do whatever it is that they’re going to do. Consumers do figure out the difference over time – both in product quality and business ethics. 

Jed: You’ve never held off on sharing your own points of view, political or philosophical, through the company mouthpiece. Are you concerned that, in being outspoken on polarising issues, you might reduce your potential customer base?

Evan: One of the great things about being a small family owned company is that we aren’t beholden to investors, we’re only beholden to our own consciences. Having business success isn’t the first (or second or even third) priority for either Scot or I. We strive to live with integrity and run our business with integrity. Business majors and retail specialists have shuddered at some of our business practices and we’re definitely leaving money on the table in our choice not to pursue standard pricing and marketing practices. We’re fine with that.

The choice to use our visibility in our little corner of the world to speak out on matters that are important to us is a natural one. Our responsibility as human beings is more important to us than the amount of money we’re making. Sometimes we’ll have a conversation beforehand knowing that our stance might be a very big problem in the marketplace. Once or twice that I recall, we’ve decided that there was very little chance of getting our point across so it just wasn’t worth it. 

Has speaking out cost us some customers and even customer segments? Without a doubt. On the other hand, the customers that we earn when we take principled stands on difficult issues are customers for life. In fact, many of them have become the kind of friends that we can rely on in matters of life and death. We’ll take that over a larger customer base every single time.

Photo provided by Adam Teeter

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