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Im Gespräch: Rand Lindsly von Trail Designs

2. November 2009

Schon auf der Outdoor 2009 in Friedrichshafen kam mir abends die Idee ein paar Interviews mit Herstellen und anderen Bloggern zu führen, um einen besseren Eindruck von den Personen hinter den Unternehmen und den Blogs zu bekommen. Leider verlief sich dieser Gedanke erstmal im Sand und ich habe mich mit anderen Sachen beschäftigt, obwohl ich damals schon ein paar Fragen zusammengefasst hatte. Vor kurzem bot sich durch einen netten Kontakt zu Rand Lindsly von Trail Designs an, endlich mal ein Interview zu führen. Ich werde ab und zu und spontan immer mal wieder ein Interview mit einem Hersteller oder anderen Bloggern führen und dann hier auf der Seite veröffentlichen.
Die Interviews werden je nach Interviewpartner in Englisch oder Deutsch erscheinen.

In den folgenden Zeilen erzählt uns Rand Lindsly etwas über sich und das Unternehmen Trail Designs und beantwortet noch ein paar weitere Fragen.

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How did you come to hiking?

Like many kids in the US, I was first introduced to hiking and backpacking through the Boy Scouts, though my family did do a lot of „car camping“ throughout my childhood.  As I grew up in Texas, with college and early career activities taking more of my attention, I spent less time on the trail.   It wasn’t until I moved to Silicon Valley in California, and trips to Yosemite National Park started to occupy more and more of my free time, that I revived my hiking and backpacking interests.   The spectacular scenery, weather, wildlife, and trail system of Yosemite is pretty addictive.

Do you go hiking on the weekend or rather do you prefer the long trails like the PCT??

Well, with my increasing addiction to Yosemite as mentioned above, I ended up buying a house in, and moving to Yosemite a number of years ago.   Being that I’m physically here and trailheads to the park are right out my front door, it is pretty convenient to just wake up Saturday morning, rub the sleep out of my eyes, and decide on the trail I want to do.  This leads to a higher percentage of day hikes and weekend trips than the longer through hikes.   With that said, I did attack the JMT last year going north to south and made it to the Le Conte Ranger Station before my increasingly mangled feet forced me to bail out over Bishop Pass.   Suspect I will try again in the next year or two.

How did you meet your partners from Trail Design?

My primary career in Mechanical Engineering led me to a job at Sun Microsystems in Silicon Valley.   It was there that I struck up a long standing friendship with Russ Zandbergen, another Mechanical Engineer developing computer enclosures and racks.  When we each independently found our way to Lightweight/Ultralight backpacking, we started to spend more time together discussing and developing designs to help ourselves in our various forays into the Sierras.   At the same time, Russ engaged his brother Lee, a Tooling Engineer, to develop and build machines to automate and streamline the production of the various designs.  Around 2005, it became more obvious that we needed to incorporate and put up a website to see if anybody else might be interested in our ideas.  Also around this time, we met George Andrews at AntiGravityGear.  He has been an endless source of support for us and we often refer to him as the „Fifth Beatle“.

Do you manage your manufacture as a second job or as a main job?

Originally, we all were doing this as a side project.   However, as time passed, Trail Designs became more successful and started taking more time.   Then one of the team moved full time into supporting the business, and the rest of us, while continuing to do our day jobs, are spending more and more time in the evenings and weekends working the business as well as taking our vacations to go to trade shows, flying around to meet vendors, and just build product.     We have also started to employ some family members on a contract basis to help with the production work lately.

What is the philosophy behind your company?

Well, to the extent that there is any kind of conscious philosophy, it would likely be to pursue projects that we find exciting, innovative, and fun, and to do that with people we enjoy hanging out with.   The ultralight backpacking gear „industry“ accomplishes all that for the moment in that it is really just now coming into its own, there is a lot of room for growth and improvement and it involves getting out in the backcountry to test gear and come up with new ideas.   Further, the people we have met and worked with in this business are some of the nicest and most giving folks on the planet.

How did you get the idea to develop the Caldera Cone?

As we were already playing around with alcohol stoves, we recognized the inherently lower BTU content of the fuel and knew there had to be a better way to capture the escaping heat and direct it into the water where we wanted it.   Our Mechanical Engineering training and experience in thermodynamics led us to evaluate the various major components (stove, pot, windscreen) to see what could be done to maximize the thermal transfer.   Somewhere along the line we were working with a Sierra Cup and a straight sided windscreen supporting it on its upper lip and getting very good results.   We realized that this approach wouldn’t work for straight sided pots because the windscreen would be right next to the  pot.  However, it occurred to us at this moment that the idea of an angle sided pot and straight windscreen, if reversed to a straight sided pot and an angled windscreen would give us the wind protection and all-over-heating of the pot we were looking for.   The incredible stability of the cone was really just a bonus!

Do you release new stoves and other things in future or do you even upgrade the existing ones?

We do have a notion of where we want to go with the product, but we really don’t publicize it very much.   We have found that our strength is to react to customer input quickly rather than stick doggedly to a road map.

How many customer opinions do you get and how many customer opinions are incorporated in your products?

I am answering email from customers every day who provide ideas and suggestions on how to make our products better.   It is a fantastic group of folks that use ultralight gear.   Everybody is willing to jump in and help one another with ideas and suggestions.   As to: How many customer opinions are incorporated in your products„…..I would say quite a few.   While the bulk of the customer input we receive is mostly in the form of problems, issues, or desires from the field, a few come in as specific design suggestions.   The early packability desires pushed us to the UL Compact, the Fissure and the Caddy.  The early closure concerns pushed us to design the dovetail joint.   Early testing also gave feedback that led us to bias the lower venting to one side to make more of a wind break.    In all, we get a ton of user feedback and try to constantly evolve the product to improve the end user experience.

Is environmental impact important for you and what do you do to help minimize it?

Yes, as with all companies involved in the Outdoor Industry, the environment is central to everything we do.   To that end we are constantly seeking ways to re-use (not just recycle) waste.  The bodies of our alcohol stoves are made of reused drink cans…..and alcohol as a fuel is itself renewable.   The Caldera Keg obviously reuses large beer cans as the cooking pot.  All scrap aluminum is recycled and all scrap titanium from Ti-Tri production is reused to build Gram Crackers, make dovetail re-enforcements, and floors for the Ti-Tri.   The titanium floors themselves are provided to minimize scaring the earth with wood fires and we provide drip pans with our solid fuel kits to further help our customers Leave No Trace.

Meanwhile, many manufacturers produce lighter gear. Do you think that this is a trend which ends in some years or will ultralight gear conquer the marketplace?

That is an interesting question.   Surprisingly enough, my answer to that is…No….I do not think that UL gear will conquer the marketplace.    Lighter gear would naturally be preferred by any customer if given an equal choice, but their choice will rarely be equal.   For one, as you get into lighter and more exotic materials (like titanium and carbon fiber for hard goods, and cuben fiber for sewn goods) prices tend to go up.   As prices go up, your customer base starts to compromise on their natural preference for lighter gear and begins to consider heavier, less expensive gear.   Further, there is a lot of ultralight gear on the market that, by the very nature of its ultralight construction, will never be as rugged and sturdy as some of the heavy weight „bomb proof“ gear.   Because of the VERY liberal return policy of some of the larger retail chains, they will never carry this gear because they can’t absorb the returns of these products when introduced into a customer base that isn’t trained in how to take care of this class of gear.    Both of these drive the production, distribution and sales into the cottage industry where the thinner margins can be more easily absorbed.   So, in summary, there will still be a market for inexpensive, heavy gear, and a retail distribution model geared up to support it.

Ultralight is becoming more and more popular in England. Does the UK pass the USA as UL gets more popular?

Well….I think this question is really one of raw numbers.   With the USA having over 300M people, and the UK about 60M……there are basically 5 times as many people in the USA.   Statistics would tend to lean toward the US in terms of total sales given that they enjoy a 5X larger customer base.   As a „percentage of the population“ question, I wonder if the US land mass being something like 35X larger than the UK, would draw more outdoor activities?  It’s an interesting question that I suppose only time will tell.   Now, it is noteworthy that the UK has some spectacular publications like TGO and Trail that speak to the UL community and the cottage gear companies arguably as well or better than the larger US publications.   Also the UK is the second largest consumer of  Trail Designs products (behind the US).  So, again time will tell, but it wouldn’t surprise me!

In which direction will ultralight gear develop?  Even lighter and more stable?

Well….taken to its most philosophical extreme, the lightest weight gear is the gear that is never in your pack.   In other words, if the hiker can fully outfit his campsite with „gear“ found on site that would be the lightest possible.   You will never get to that philosophical extreme because lean-tos and fire rings start to violate other tenets like LNT.   However, we do see some inklings of that with a push toward wood stoves that eliminate carried fuel…..fishing that eliminates carried food…..hammocks that take advantage of existing trees….etc.   Now, I don’t believe that philosophy will drive the UL direction.    Personally, I think that the next evolution will be in the realm of further gear cross pollination and re-use.   There is still quite a bit of „quantized“ gear out there.   I suspect you could cut into your weight even more if you started looking at pack, tent, sleeping, cooking, and clothing systems less as individual systems onto themselves and the complete system as a whole.   Could pack stays be used as cooking or tent gear?   Could the pack body also double as a tarp?   Could bear canisters be used as a pack body?   Not sure where all this goes, but I get the feeling that a look at the system as a whole might take us in some interesting directions.

Thanks for the great interview!!

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8 Kommentare leave one →
  1. 3. November 2009 08:24

    Great interview, really enjoyed the read!

  2. hrxxl permalink*
    6. November 2009 05:51

    thx hendrik
    your new one with ULA is also interesting

  3. RioLeichtsinn permalink
    2. Dezember 2009 22:25

    Thanks Beni!

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