Ultralight is not a fad, says MikeSt. Pierre, Founder/CEO Hyperlite Mountain Gear, maker of ultralight packs and shelters. A passionate adventurer, St. Pierre started sewing packs and shelters from Dyneema Cuben Fiber out of his New York City apartment in 2008. Today, he employs 25 people, who build gear by hand out in a 180-year old repurposed textile mill in rural Maine, and business is booming.
HMG is a pretty niche-oriented company. The average multi-day backpacker probably carries 30- to 40 pounds of gear. Do you aim to teach that consumer to “see the light” and chip away at that poundage, or do you want to focus on the much smaller market segment that already drinks the ultralight Kool-Aid?
We don’t really think of it as “drinking the ultralight Kool-Aid.” That makes the whole movement sound cultish. Carrying less, lighter gear just makes more sense because you can be a heck of a lot more comfortable and safer deep in the backcountry. To quote our ambassador, KT Miller: “There’s nothing worse than going on a hike and thinking about when you get to take off your pack the whole time. To go light is to live more simply, to live with less, and as a result, be able to experience more.”
So, yes we absolutely want to educate people on the benefits of going lighter. And this doesn’t mean just selling them lighter packs or shelters. We strive to educate people on how to systemically lighten their loads. If you just go buy a big pack, you will ultimately fill it up. People base what they bring on their fears (or the fears imparted on them by inexperienced sales people or traditionally-minded backpackers). Understanding what you need is the secret to knowing what you don’t.
When you come across people on the trail carrying massive packs, do you try to engage them in a conversation about lightening up?
I’m not handing out business cards or anything, but these conversations do come up. More often than not, it starts with somebody asking me if I’m just out for the day. When I tell them, no, I’m out here for a week, their eyeballs light up and their jaws drop and the conversation goes from there.
What’s your sales strategy? Do you just sell direct to consumers or are you in specialty retail stores also?
About 80 percent of our sales are DTC, but we are continuing to establish ourselves in specialty retail shops around the world where people truly understand the philosophy behind going light. We’re currently in about 70 specialty shops around the world, and each one of them has come to us asking to stock our gear.
You recently underwent a big “rebranding process.” For well-established brands, that’s a risky move. But you’re a relatively young brand (6 years), so was it less of a gamble for you?
Yes, it was a huge project that was a year in the making. We did extensive research with two branding agencies to really hone in on who we were as a company, to refine our messaging and to focus our efforts on what was really important to our customers. We completely rebranded the company logo and messaging, and we launched an updated website. And true, we don’t feel it was a huge gamble in any way. We have grown significantly and really quickly over the past six years. And we have really matured as a company in that time.
You build all your gear in your Maine shop out of 95 percent US-sourced materials, and I’ve read that you’ve really helped revitalize the struggling town of Biddeford. Your gear is unapologetically expensive. Have you ever considered moving production overseas to reduce costs, or are you content in knowing that with your prices you will always be out of reach of the average, mainstream consumer?
We are after any outdoor adventurer who wants to travel more safely, comfortably, quickly and with less weight in the backcountry. I don’t think we’re out of reach to the average consumer. Buy one of our packs or shelters and take care of it, and you won’t have to buy another one for years. We make bombproof, foolproof gear, and we guarantee its high quality and longevity. People will pay for something that will last and that will ultimately make their experience or lives significantly better in the backcountry. You don’t want to worry about our gear when you’re in the backcountry; you want to focus on your adventure.
I couldn’t agree more with that philosophy, but with all due respect, do you think you could convince the average consumer—say, the one who shops the sales at REI and goes on a couple of buddy trips each year—that $675 for a 2-person tent (Echo II) is not expensive?
Experienced customers are not balking at these prices. In the long run, when you start to experience the benefits of minimalist kits, your joy skyrockets. We do consider ourselves a premium brand and we want to stay that way. People are coming around to these prices. We have many customers in their 70s and 80s who that thought that their backpacking days were over, because they couldn’t carry 40 to 50-pound base weights. We’ve helped them get back on the trail.
In regards to outsourcing: We would not have gotten to where we are without domestic manufacturing, and we have no plans to move overseas.
We make our products using the most advanced materials technology available. These materials are much different than any other traditional woven fabric used in our industry. There is just no way we could have sent off designs and raw materials to Asia and have ended up with a product that worked. In-house manufacturing gives us much more control over our quality, which is critical. Plus, by producing domestically we can be more responsive to our customers’ needs, and we can eliminate third-party manufacturing mark-ups, which would be significant due to the high cost of the materials.
Finally, we feel it’s critical that our gear is designed and built in a place that’s relevant to its end use—Maine. I am very really proud that my brother (co-founder Dan St. Pierre) and I we can provide a few dozen manufacturing jobs in an old mill town that nearly died following America’s manufacturing exodus to Asia decades ago. The people in this state have a hard work ethic and true grit. And our employees exemplify that; they are dedicated craftspeople who care about what they do. We’ have had offers to relocate our operation to Colorado, and I love that state, but we’re staying put.
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