Some of the best brands out there for outdoor gear are ones of which most people have never heard.
These are the cottage companies, small businesses and start-ups with low-to-zero overhead who started out making their own gear in garages or basements (or possibly still do) because what they wanted wasn’t already on the market.
Most of these companies are ultralight-minded; the gear that the big brands were selling simply didn’t cut it for them, so they set out to do it better. Their costs are low (small teams, no massive inventories) and their quality is high because ultralight is their aim and everything is hand-stitched in-house right here in America (though of course, there are cottage industries all over the world).
Unlike the big brands, many of these guys will customize your order, and you may even be speaking to the founder himself when you call in.
Most cottage companies were founded out of basements or garages, their founders driven to fine-tune a product that wasn’t up to snuff on his or her adventures. Pictured here is a scene from Enlightened Equipment founder Tim Marshall’s early basement setup.
Today, America is overly dependent on foreign workers and resources, but we have what it takes right here to design and fabricate the best products on the planet. Sure, it may cost a little more and take longer to make. But you get what you pay for, and isn’t it more meaningful to support your fellow outdoor enthusiasts while also getting gear made especially for you?
Before you go for that name brand, consider one of the little guys; you might be surprised just how much better the product’s quality is, despite the unknown brand. Here’s a look at best 7 backpacking brands, a handful of cottage companies to get behind.
1. ENLIGHTENED EQUIPMENT
Founder Tim Marshall says he “makes blankets. Very thought-out and highly specialized blankets.” Tim started sewing quilts alone in his basement in 2007, and today he employs over 50 people to produce quilts, apparel and accessories in his 50,000-square-foot building in Winona, Minnesota.
For a relatively small cottage company, Enlightened Equipment has a spiffy website with loads of informative videos, a support hub, helpful blog articles and more. This is not always the case with cottage companies; while inexplicably charming, many of these companies’ websites are clumsy and hearken back to the early dotcom days. Customizing an order is a cinch, and you can get good overstock deals in the Warehouse section of their website.
What sets them apart: Ultralight, customizable, accessible website
2. GOSSAMER GEAR
Gossamer Gear got its start in 1998 out of Carlsbad, California as GVP Gear, named after consulting civil engineer, Glen Van Peski. Like many cottage company founders, Glen’s reason for kicking off the project was to make his own backpacking gear lighter. He had read Ray Jardine’s “Beyond Backpacking” book about lightweight backpacking, and after getting involved with his son’s Boy Scouts troop, Glen set out to create a prototype of his first lightweight backpack.
Bearing the slogan “take less. do more,” Gossamer Gear is committed to using fewer materials, making less waste and keeping things simple, striving to hit the target of using 100% recycled materials in its products. They sell everything from packs to shelters to trekking poles – and most every other thing you’d need on an ultralight backpacking excursion.
Based in: Austin, Texas
Specialty: Backpacks and shelters
Best-known product: Mariposa 60 Backpack, $285
What sets them apart: Ultralight, focused on reducing and reusing materials
3. MOUNTAIN LAUREL DESIGNS
Founder Ron Bell had 40 years of lightweight backpacking experience before starting Mountain Laurel Designs (MLD) in 2002. An Explorer Scout in the 1970s, Ron was young when he got a taste for minimalism, using only a military poncho and a mesh net hammock as a shelter on his outings. Ron said of his time as a Rescue Climber for Yosemite National Park, “After you sleep inside a haul bag on a big wall, you realize how little you need to reach your goals.”
“After you sleep inside a haul bag on a big wall, you realize how little you need to reach your goals.” –Ron Bell
MLD got its start selling silnylon tarps on eBay before making the move to its current website. The company got a little more sophisticated when, in 2003, it shifted to using lighter fabrics in its tarps and gear like those used in sailing spinnakers.
Over the next few years, MLD broadened its catalog to include ponchos and packs, and eventually shelters and other ultralight gear. All of MLD’s products are handmade in the USA and ship worldwide, and many items are highly customizable.
Based in: Roanoke, Virginia
Specialty: Backpacks and shelters
Best known-product: Prophet 48L Backpack, $245-$325
What sets them apart: Ultralight, customizable
This apparel brand is as exclusive as it gets in the cottage industry (and I mean that in a positive way, like before that word became tarnished). Named thus by founder Fritz Howard to poke fun at other outdoor brands’ inclination to name themselves after, say, a notorious mountain peak or mysterious destination, Melanzana sounds exotic but actually just means “eggplant” in Italian.
In fact, at its inception in 1994, the brand was literally called Eggplant, though it changed to its current iteration in 1997 due to a trademark conflict.
The brand’s fun-loving nature and adherence to its values of community and quality are no doubt the reason its products are in such high demand. To this day, the company operates out of one building in Leadville, Colorado, where everything is made from all U.S.-sourced components, namely Polartec from Tennessee.
Though they do have a website, the only way to buy products is to visit their storefront in Leadville by appointment only. If you do finally land an appointment, be patient: All their clothing is handmade by roughly 35 sewers, you only get two items per order, and they can only work so fast!
Based in: Leadville, Colorado
Best-known product: Micro Grid Hoodie V2 (the Melly), $78
What sets them apart: Entirely USA-made, affordable despite exclusivity
True to cottage-company form, Nunatak was founded in a basement – in Seattle, no less (Seattle being a motherlode of outdoorsy companies). Owner Tom Halpin started the company in the winter of 1999 to gift the world with high-quality, handmade backcountry insulation products such as quilts, down jackets and other products that can be stuffed with goose down.
The company has moved around a bit, having started in West Seattle, then moved to Moab, Utah and has since relocated to Leadville, Colorado.
Nunatak uses only ethically sourced, Responsible Down Standard (RDS)-certified goose down. The company has a wide selection of products (even a down-filled dog bivy), most of which are highly customizable and built from scratch.
You can even work with the team to make totally custom items, though they reserve the right to cancel your order if they deem it unfeasible.
Based in: Leadville, Colorado (formerly Moab, Utah)
Specialty: Quilts and down jackets
Best-known product: Arc UL Down Quilt ($395-$450)
What sets them apart: Customer service, true cottage-company vibe, custom orders
6. OUTDOOR HERBIVORE
Founder Kim Safdy started Outdoor Herbivore in 2010 because she felt the market was lacking wholesome backpacking foods. These sorts of foods tend to be highly processed, and to keep prices down, the ingredients are often imported from places like China (where quality control is not always a top priority). Kim wanted to create meals from local and sustainably sourced ingredients; her company is one of the few that uses over 80% organic ingredients, with 85% grown and prepared in the USA.
“My favorite thing? Most of the meals are free from seed oils and fillers like dextrose and other icky things.”
Kim’s food may not be for everyone, as it is vegetarian or vegan, but if you’re more conscious about the quality of the ingredients rather than the type of diet, these meals are worth a try. If you need your fix of animal proteins, you can always supplement your meals with jerky, powdered eggs or things like tuna packets.
Many of the meals are gluten-free, and all come in eco-friendlier stand-up paper packaging with plastic lining. My favorite thing? Most of the meals are free from seed oils and fillers like dextrose and other icky things.
Based in: Sacramento, California
Specialty: Dehydrated and freeze-dried backpacking food
What sets them apart: Mostly organic, USA-grown and prepared ingredients, no fillers
The story of Zpacks is a classic one. An avid adventurer realizes the market is not meeting his equipment needs, so he decides to make his own. This is founder Joe Valesko’s story: In 2004, in preparation for his thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail, Joe couldn’t find satisfactory gear.
Everything was too bulky, too heavy, too overly designed for such a long-distance hike. So, Joe set out designing and crafting his own gear in his apartment. He then took that gear on his AT thru-hike and tweaked it in the field.
Joe’s designs quickly became the envy of other thru-hikers on the trail, prompting him to create more gear at night and on weekends and then sell it online. Thus Zpacks was born, allowing Joe to shape his vision of balancing weight and function in his gear. Today, the company is comprised of adventurers designing and stitching product all out of its Florida facility.