In 2009 my stove of choice was an MSR Pocket Rocket. I still have it and occasionally, when I’ve run out of alcohol, still use it. I’ve nothing bad to say about it except I hate gas canisters (I can never judge how much gas is left and subsequently always end up taking 2), which made the set up too heavy. I had made the decision to hike the Pacific Crest Trail and needed to lighten my load so started looking for a lighter stove that ran on alcohol. I also wanted to obtain the equipment from a company producing what seemed like a great stove and who was maybe open to sponsorship.
Trail Designs started life in 2005 and has been a cottage industry success story. Its main product, the Caldera Cone cooking system has blitzed the competition and in a few short years is now the setup of choice for many hikers.
What many budding outdoor gear equipment hopefuls lack in respect of designing and marketing is an awareness of mechanical engineering. Not just designing an item of equipment according to what might work, but being aware of thermo dynamics, air flow, materials, optimum dimensions and more importantly, understanding them and adapting them. The Caldera Cone, amongst other products by TD is the net result of this knowledge and is still, after several years, the best alcohol stove on the market which incidentally, is also capable of running on Esbit tablets and wood.
I shot Rand an email telling him my intentions to thru-hike the PCT and he kindly offered to supply me with a titanium Caldera Cone to suit my MSR Titan Kettle. 2 thru-hikes and 4,840 miles later, it still works perfectly and as far as I can tell, there is no reason why it wouldn’t last forever.
So, who is the man behind the Caldera?
Rand taking lunch and by the look of things, thoroughly enjoying it
Rand, thanks for agreeing to take part in this. For those of us not aware of who you are and what you do, please give us a few words as an introduction.
Keith, thanks for asking me to participate! So, by way of introduction, the bulk of my formative years were spent in Texas where ultimately I attended Texas A&M as a Nuclear Engineering major. Being a bright eyed and clever child, I realized early on that while Nuc.E. might have been very interesting, it didn’t hold a lot of promise for my future, and I switched to Mechanical Engineering…mostly because of it’s broad usefulness and because most of my credits would transfer. After graduation and a few jobs designing gear for the oil field industry, I moved to California. There I worked at Lawerence Livermore Labs, then the computer industry for Sun Microsystems and ultimately Oracle (see how useful a BSME can be!). It was here that I followed my first passion…..skydiving…..which I did for 20ish years and was lucky enough to participate in a number of world record jumps. It was also here that I ran into Russ Zandbergen at Sun and along with his brother Lee, we started Trail Designs.
It’s fair to say that those involved in creating and manufacturing products for the outdoor industry do it because they have an interest in getting out into our wild spaces.
When did the lure of all that forest and mountain you have over there in the States first grab you and why?
Well, as noted above, my primary hobby/outdoor activity here in the States was skydiving. But alas, it is a young person’s sport…..and in the mid to late 90s, as I found that I was achieving the goals I had set out for myself (along with accumulating physical injuries due to snappy parachute openings) my mind started to wander toward “what’s next”. Having enjoyed camping as a child, and finding myself not far from one of the best National Parks in the Union, I started spending time in Yosemite. Following a brief dalliance with rock climbing, I went more into hiking and backpacking. As to why . . . well . . . I suppose my penchant for survival type activities and the existential perspectives they evoke probably drove me this direction more than anything. Whether it’s being aware of your altitude to make sure you open your parachute in time or its being aware of your environment and making sure you avoid lightning strikes and have plenty of water, it’s all a survival game, just a question of risk management.
You, and Trail Designs biggest success story, and I would imagine your best seller is the Caldera Cone. Try as I have over the years to come up with a new and original gear design system, you have done it. All us hikers aspire to invent a credible idea for a new piece of equipment. It is difficult to move away from the accepted methods of design and construction and not to just tweak what is out there at the moment. The Cone managed this incredibly successfully.
How did the idea come to you and did you think it could be a ‘Yeah, maybe this could work,’ or ‘Shit, we might be on to something here, this is really exciting’?!
Honestly, the cone idea really came from our background and training in Mechanical Engineering. Each of us having done our time as a design engineer, it trained our brains to look at mechanical problems from the perspective of first principles…..not tweaks of other things out there. The combination of geometry, existing equipment (pots), thermodynamic effects, fluid flow and structural considerations drove us to this design. There was no real magic involved….and not so much of an “ah-ha” moment. When the cone idea came along . . .yea . . .it was good . . . it was on the same sheet of paper as a number of other design ideas. It was working all the designs, figuring out closures, figuring out manufacturing processes, figuring out pack ability, figuring out marketing, when you go through all that, then the cone starts to “take shape” and presents itself as a better design than several others. So, after a while of working out the nuances, it slowly evolved into a “Yea, we got something here” idea, but it took work. Not only to evolve the design, but the hardest part was getting the backpacking community to evolve. Because it was so new, it really wasn’t accepted at first. It took quite a while to convince folks that we were onto something.
Trail Designs Aluminium Cone and Keg set up. (Yes, that is Half Dome in the background)
The Caldera has branched out since the first model was introduced. We now have many sizes to fit most hikers chosen cook set and pan variations. Also, you introduced the Sidewinder, a more compact version where the cone fits into the pot saving us pack space. Can you give us all an insight into what may be coming out in the future? Any tweaks to the design and indeed, any exciting new products completely away from the Caldera? Will we see a TD tent or sleeping bag ever?
Well, we’re always working on stuff. We’ve had a “simmer ring” in the works for a while now, in addition to an ultra light saw for the wood burners in the crowd, and a number of other ideas. However, the issue isn’t coming up with cool ideas and validating their potential. The real issue is “productization”. Taking that cool idea, figuring out where to get the material to build it, figuring out how to build it in volume, field testing, perfecting the design, developing product literature, developing packaging, getting “glamor” shots produced, developing web pages etc. THAT’s the issue. To do all that while trying to keep the production line running on all the stuff that we’ve done to this point is the trick! So, sleeping bags and tents . . . no . . . that’s a long ways off. We need to first perfect product development for things that we can bend, weld and screw together before we tackle things that require sewing machines! 🙂
We often complain that we never get enough time in the hills. A dream for a lot of us is to do a thru-hike, say the PCT or the AT but time away from work is difficult, especially in the States where I know vacation time is more difficult to come by. Some of us start businesses in the hope of having more time to get out there.
Was this one of the hopes when you started Trail Designs and more importantly, has it come to fruition?
Early on, I think the need to test designs and see how things worked in the field really did get us out there more…..and during those early starry eyed days I suspect we did envision that this would be a vehicle for getting into the back country more often. But, when the popularity of the cone grew, and the demands of running the business kicked in, these notions were replaced with more pressing concerns. In the end, we’re mostly happy to see that our designs and ideas are well received, and that we’re helping other folks on their adventures. We still get out there a bit, but it is done in spite of the company . . . not because of it!
To have conceived the idea of TD in the first place and invented the Caldera, we could argue that you’re a bit of gear geek (aren’t we all?) If you could sing the praises of 3 items of equipment that you use yourself and take with you on a trip, what would they be and why?
Absolutely! Let’s get into it. First, the Pacer Hiking Pole. The grip on this pole is so far superior to anything else out there . . . there is no comparison. Getting your hand into the right orientation is so much better for your wrist and general posture, at this point I can’t hike with anything else. “Normal” poles actually physically hurt me at this juncture. The Pacer pole grip is to traditional poles as the Caldera Cone is to just a windscreen.
Second, the LuxuryLight Pack. On this one, I realize there is a preference thing,but I really dislike “internal frame” or frameless packs. I don’t like straps touching my shoulder. I don’t like packs touching my back. I want everything screwed to my hips and supported there. The LuxuryLite solves all my problems. Not only is it light enough for me, but the design of having different waterproof “tubes” is actually a superior design element in my view. No need for stuff sacks. Everything is compartmentalized. Very, very clean. One note, the pack I have is an earlier model of the one he sells now, and I’m not 100% sure what the differences are, but I love the one I have. Again, I know this is a personal preference, but I can’t hike with anything else.
I am inclined to go with the Sidewinder + Gram Cracker esbit stove. Mainly because I think that esbit is way under appreciated in the community. Alcohol is fine, but esbit has all kinds of built in advantages that the UL folks should take another look at. However, I think picking Trail Designs gear is cheating…..so let me instead go with:
Third, Dirty Girl Gaiters. Fantastic gaiters! For normal hiking where you are just trying to keep dirt and rocks out of your shoes, Dirty Girl Gaiters have no competition. Nothing is lighter, period. Further, the design is such that you don’t have to take them off to take off your shoe. As far as I’m concerned, Dirty Girl owns this market space.
That Luxury Light Pack
I’ve noticed that the cottage manufacturing industry for outdoor products is far more prominent in the States than here in the UK. We are more dominated by the big names over here, not necessarily a bad thing but thru-hikers, generally, demand designs that are specific to us and what we do. The States with the likes of yourselves, ULA, Tarptent, Mountain Laurel Designs, and Six Moon Designs to name a few seem to be onto something that we’re not.
What do you think this may be and why do you think the cottage industry is more successful over there?
To be honest, I have no idea. I can say that after the US, the UK is by far and away our biggest market. So the consumer base is there to be sure. Why the cottage industries haven’t popped up in the same number to support them is anybody’s guess. I do know that Pacer Pole and Vaude are innovative UK companies, but I really can’t name many more.
As I have said, your equipment is geared towards ultra-light backpacking. Arguably the majority of people who partake in hiking, particularly for the first few years stick to the well-known brands that can afford better exposure and are more likely to be found in the usual camping and recreation outlets.
All companies were once ‘small’ but some have grown to dare I say soulless corporations whose only desire is the profit report each month. I can phone most of the cottage industry manufacturers over there and the chances are that the guy who started them will answer the phone. You all seem to want to keep that connection with your customers but equally the prospect of TD one day being huge must cross your mind.
All companies are there to make money but do you consciously keep TD as it is? Do you have a limit in mind to how big you want your baby to get before it could cross over into a place where someone else picks up the phone for you and we see TD hit the big stores?
Great question! This is one we do wrestle with from time to time. As we discussed earlier, one of the reasons we kinda got into this, is that it was an area we enjoyed as a hobby. As such, we would like to keep enjoying it. At the size we are now, we are on top of things. As you note, we can talk with folks like you in a more personal way. We fill every order by hand. We personally build ever cone that goes out the door. From the business side, we have no debt, we have plenty of physical assets, plenty of intellectual assets, good community acceptance, talented owners, and a fairly enjoyable work atmosphere. So, you’re right, we could push that. We could leverage our financial position, assets, and good will, start advertising, staff up, tool up, take on more risk, and we might one day. If we feel like we want to challenge ourselves and grow the business, I know that we could and would be successful. We have a great start and a track record to go on. But at the moment, we’re enjoying what we’re doing and are happy to provide solutions to the hikers that truly appreciate it. To move to the next level, would mean moving to a larger distribution model that would necessarily be less personal, less custom, and more automated.
Using the Caldera Cone on my PCT Thru-Hike
Eco friendly designs and practice are becoming more and more popular in current times, and they need to be. Even a hiker out for the weekend has an impact on their environment, most are aware of this and take steps to reduce their impact.
What action has TD taken to be more eco-friendly?
Well, the very nature of alcohol and wood burning stoves implies a renewable carbon neutral fuel source as opposed to fuel harvested from dead dinosaurs. We also continue to build our stoves from re-cycled beverage containers as well as our Keg products. For years we re-used packing material and shipping boxes, but ultimately we received enough requests for new boxes that we had to stop. We avoid plastic and Styrofoam packing material and do continue to look for opportunities to reduce our carbon footprint whenever possible. Always looking for new suggestions so please send them along!
Finally, on a lighter note, do you hold any wishes of leaving the office and undertaking a thru-hike? If you could, which one appeals?
Would love to! If so, the PCT is the one that really interests me (possibly the CDT). Thanks for sending me the questions, sorry it took so long to find time to answer them!
No problem, many thanks for taking part.