I met Chris at the Pacific Crest Trail Kick-off Party at Lake Morena in 2010 before my thru-hike. I had begged him unsuccessfully for a free pack for my adventure. He didn’t need the exposure; during my hike north it’s fair to say that most hikers were already sporting his creations. He’s an amenable chap, during our meeting he checked to see that my Circuit was adjusted correctly and we talked shop for a while. It was obvious from our brief meeting that this was a man not just focused on the business side, but a man with a keen interest in the outdoors and his customers as well.
The man himself doing what we all love.
My Circuit pack lasted the entire trip, was comfortable from day one and it was one piece of kit that I really could rely on and forget about, it did its job with no grumbles. When I finished, I sent it back for some minor repairs (my fault, not theirs), which ULA did obligingly and I still use it now. In fact, I’d be pretty confident that it would last another thru-hike of the PCT.
ULA have figured out how to make lightweight packs that are actually durable which is one of their main selling points, they are also incredibly comfortable. I didn’t have the luxury of a test hike with my pack; I set out on a 2,650 mile route, fully loaded with a pack that I had never worn before. Ideally I would have tried it on first, and then worn it in over the course of a week’s test hike somewhere. I couldn’t do this because pack purchase was one area I dithered about with until the last moment. From day one it was comfortable and I never suffered with any chafing or rubbing anywhere. Both my ULA packs (I also have an OHM 2) are still the most comfortable I have ever owned and I still say that with exercising a little care and attention to a ULA pack, it would be capable of lasting 5,000 miles, perhaps even further.
Light hiking equipment seems to have been labelled over the last few years into varying grades of weight. There is light, super light, ultra-light and hyper-light. Whilst there are lighter packs on the market, Chris openly admits that although his packs are not the lightest, it is not all about the weight. That said, ULA falls into the Ultra-Light bracket. For this level of durability and comfort, a little sacrifice has to be made in the weight department. Remember also that these packs have the ability to carry a far greater base weight, making them perfect for long distance hiking where re-supply is a few days apart.
My favourite ULA pack is the OHM 2 which I used on the Appalachian Trail last year. It tips the scales at an impressive 29oz / 822 g. If you pay another £62.50 / $100 all of ULA’s packs are now available in Cuben Fiber except the Epic model. This can save you another 4oz / 113 g depending on the model, putting the OHM 2 for example, down towards the 25oz / 700 g area which is one very light pack.
To cut to the chase, if you’re thinking of walking the Pacific Crest Trail, the Appalachian Trail, the Continental Divide or any long distance route, ULA packs are unrivalled in what they offer.
So, let’s talk to the man and see what makes him tick.
Me: Your acquisition of ULA reminded me of Victor Kiam and the Remington brand – ‘I liked it so much I bought the company.’ You’re wife initially got you a Catalyst pack as a Christmas present but at the time you heard that Brian Frankle, who set up ULA originally, was thinking of selling the company. You liked it so much that you did buy it.
This is quite a bold step. Why did you decide to do it?
Chris: I was living on the east coast at the time and been looking for several years for a business in the outdoor industry that was located out west. When I received the pack, I was , frankly, amazed at the quality, I had expected something that looked like it had been sewn in a garage, instead I was looking at the most professionally sewn thing I could imagine. After talking to Brian, I realized he didn’t enjoy the customer service or marketing end of the business, which I consider to be my strong points. I figured if we could keep the same, skilled people sewing, we could have a good thing, so we made the leap.
Me: Brian also stayed on for a while to show you the ropes. Did you have any knowledge of manufacturing outdoor equipment at that point or was it just a case of a steep learning curve?
Finishing the 156 mile North Downs Way in 4.1/2 days last year with the help of my OHM 2
Chris: I knew nothing, I was terrified to say the least, and after 2 months I thought this might be the biggest mistake I ever made. Lucky for me Rodney came on the scene and took over the sewing end, which freed me to handle the business, and it suddenly became a lot of fun. But even then, there was a very steep learning curve, I’m sure I gave really bad advice to some of the first people I talked to.
Me: Having quadrupled sales since you took over; you have moved into bigger premises and are on the verge of moving again. You’re one of a growing number of American cottage industry manufacturers doing well. Apart from addressing some problems initially with long deliveries, what have been the reasons for a four-fold increase in business?
Chris: People really like being able to call a company and be directly connected to someone who knows what they are talking about, and I think that has a lot to do with our success. But more than that, it’s producing a very high quality product that’s actually sewn in the US, and total credit for that goes to our crew, they are simply amazing.
Me: The packs that Brian had been designing and producing had a loyal following. Did you make any changes initially to the designs and if so, where you nervous about tinkering with a product that was already working?
Chris: Good question. I realized right away what an iconic figure Brian was in the community, and there were lots of people very concerned that he had sold out when he sold the company to us. Because of that, we really changed nothing at all for the first year, then, and mostly based on customer feedback, we started making small changes here and there. I think people were quick to realize that the changes we made were making the packs better in terms of function and durability, so there was very little grumbling. Even though we have made many changes to all the packs over the years, Brian’s’ designs are timeless, and we haven’t changed the basic concept at all.
The ULA Circuit, kept me company on the PCT in 2010
Me: I’ll ask a question that I asked Rand Lindsly from Trail Designs in a recent post because I think it’s also relevant to you too.
We love the smaller gear companies, the service is more personal, it’s usually the owner that picks up the phone or answers emails and the overall feel is that they are more in touch with their customers and what’s going on. If we have a special manufacturing requirement we know it can always be considered and very often delivered.
ULA is growing quickly by the sounds of things. Do you have an idea of how big you want it to get?
When it reaches a level where the potential for growth is so big that it starts to lose that personal service and becomes another large, soulless organisation where we just take what appears in the shops, do you think you will run with it or put the brakes on to keep it at a level we all appreciate?
Chris: Damn, another good question. It’s already bigger than I thought we’d get, and if anything, we are able to offer even more personalized service than before, but it’s something I think about a lot. I’ll be 64 this year and maybe will want to do this another 4-5 years, so I think through that time frame we’ll be able to keep things pretty much as they are, although we hopefully will continue to grow. Our new space should allow us to at least double where we are from here, if not more, so that’s not something we’ll need to worry about. We have begun to re-organize things in the shop with this in mind, we have someone taking over a lot of Rodney’s duties, and he’ll be taking over some of mine so we should be able to offer the same level of customer service we always have. If we ever get so big we don’t have a real person who knows what they are talking about answer the phone, we’ll be too big.
Me: You held off from using Cuben Fiber for a while but now you are offering most of your packs in this material. Why the change?
Chris: The change was really due to the Cuben hybrid fabric, it’s not as light as the original Cubens, but it’s super tough and durable, plus we can get it in colours. The early Cuben packs generally had a really bad reputation in terms of durability, and we didn’t want to enter that niche until we found a fabric that would survive a thru hike in decent shape, and the hybrids, so far, have done that
Me: You diversified into offering a ULA sleeping last year. Can we expect any other new products (tents etc) in the future?
Chris: No, we are going to stick to our knitting, we got into the sleeping bag thing as a favour to a company we did some business with, but from now on we’ll stick to what we know. If you look at the more successful backpack companies, Osprey, Gregory, Mystery Ranch and Granite Gear to name a few, they don’t get too far away from the core business. Backpacks are really hard to make, each pack has over 100 parts, and it’s best to just concentrate on that.
Me: I heard a few times from hiker sources that their only beef with ULA packs were that they were only available in green. In the last year or so we have seen introductions of different coloured materials, was this on the cards anyway or was it addressing the feedback?
Chris:We had a lot of requests for colours and also for some of the camo patterns, and we started doing special order coloured packs one year in the fall when things slow down a bit. It was really successful, but also not practical during the busy season. Colours are a logistical nightmare, it would take me more space than we have here to explain, but trust me, it’s a lot of extra work and a whole lot of extra space. That being said, a pretty high percentage of our packs sold are colours other than ULA green, so it’s been worthwhile.
Me: Pack design has remained pretty much static for a long time.How do you see technology and design progressing in the coming years? For example, solar charging by way of a small panel is common place now. If the weight decreases as it appears to be, would you consider utilising this on a pack?
Chris:As with anything new, stronger, lighter and more durable materials will be created and we’ll figure a way to use the ones that work. The big place for weight savings is going to be in the padding and suspension, the actual fabric accounts for less than 30% of the total weight in most of our packs, so the real gains will be elsewhere. I really think some sort of air suspension will be big in the future, it really works, but there are a lot of bugs to fix first to make it 100% reliable.
Me: Have you hiked any of the BIG 3 trails (PCT, AT and CDT) and if not, are they, or any others, on the wish list?
Chris:I have not hiked any of the big 3 and I can’t see doing it while I’m still actively involved with the company. I was able to get away for a 10 day hike in the Swiss and Italian Alps last fall and I’m hoping to do the Wind River High Route this year, that one’s pretty much in my back yard, 10 days is a much more realistic amount of time for me to be gone.
You can order direct from ULA if you live in the States as well as various stockists. They do ship to the UK although you can buy them direct over here through UltraLight Outdoor Gear.
My thanks to Chris for taking part.