New guys on the backpack block: Mile High Mountaineering

This interview was originally supposed to appear on Spadout.com’s Gear Talk before it stopped publishing Jan. 31. I still wanted to share it here, since Mile High Mountaineering is one of the few outdoor gear companies to call Denver home, and I’m excited to see their stuff, which will be available at retailers on March 14 — two weeks from today. The original article is here.

Right out of college, Jeff Popp and his friend Jordan Vecchiarelli were sure they could make a better backpack. By age 24, they had a company name, Mile High Mountaineering, a booth at Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2010, and prototypes for three pack designs on display. They’ve chosen to set up shop in Denver, resisting the gravity of the outdoor industry hotbed of Boulder. In March 2011, their packs will be in stores, and they’re hoping the market will prove that the outdoor industry is ready for a new player. I asked MHM president Jeff Popp a few questions about starting a pack company.

Brendan Leonard: Where do you get inspiration for designing packs?
Popp: Our source of inspiration for designing packs is simple: People. Actual user ideas and feedback drive everything about our packs. We actually listen to what people want in a pack and make packs for people who love being outside but want something new and different from a pack.

BL: What’s your favorite design feature or concept in pack design, MHM or otherwise?
Popp: My favorite design feature in a pack is functional simplicity. Just because something is simple doesn’t have to mean it’s featureless or dull. Our packs have more features than just about anything on the market, but they’re implemented in a way that looks clean, very user-friendly and practical. An example is our Deployable Hydration Holster: Most side pockets on packs are difficult to put a Nalgene in when a pack is fully loaded and even harder to reach. We fixed both these problems without cluttering up the appearance of our packs with a bulky water-bottle pocket. Our deployable Hydration Holster is hidden in a pocket near the hipbelt that can easily be unzipped, pulled out and clipped to the hipbelt while on the move with the pack on.

BL: There are plenty of outdoor pack companies out there. What’s different about MHM gear?

Popp: It’s been the same players for the past 30 years. They all essentially make the same dull, earth-toned “open sacks,” and it’s time for a new pack company to stir things up. As a company, we’re different because we’re here to redefine the backpack with a passion and youthful vibe that we think is currently absent in the pack market. Ultimately, we’re not the corporate guys sitting in an office analyzing trend forecasts and we never will be. We’re the guys who truly love being outside on the trail and talking to people directly about what they want in a backpack – this is what inspires us. Once you discover all the features they have, it even further separates them from the rest of the crowd. We are approaching the outdoor industry as a new brand that intends to grow with a newer and younger generation of outdoor enthusiasts.

BL: What’s the process of developing a new backpack; can you briefly take us through the steps?
Popp: It is a TON of work to get products like these developed and out to the market. With our process, it takes about 2 years to go from an idea to the market. We start by nailing down what purpose our packs are going to serve and in what size range. From there, we brainstorm and talk to a lot of people, on and off the trail, about possible features that would be useful.

Once we have a general direction, we start the initial concepts. This is done by submitting feedback and initial drawings back and forth between our developers and myself until we’re all on the same page and confident. Before we dive fully into making prototypes, the developers make shape models. These are actual 3-D stitched models with seams and zippers but are not considered prototypes because they do not have a hipbelt or shoulder straps yet. We use these to gauge what will work off of paper in a real 3-D model. Once we’re happy with the dimensions, volumes and style lines, the developers start making prototypes.

A lot happens in the prototyping process, but this is where we explore with what materials we are going to use, in what places and what coloring schemes we’re going for. Most importantly, our prototypes are fully-functional packs so we can start testing the heck out of them. Once the products are developed, we place an order with our factory and it takes roughly 4 months for the factory to make the order, get it on a boat over the ocean and into our warehouse.

BL: Tell us about what your product testing has involved.
Popp: We pour everything we have into our packs and test them for well over a year before they’re seen in stores. We do a ton of testing ourselves but have many knowledgeable outdoor enthusiasts test our prototypes. Our packs have been tested all over the world on trips to the Rocky Mountains, San Juans, the Tetons, the jungle in the Philippines, the glaciers of Alaska, the plains of Africa, Argentina, Columbia and through the Everest region of the Himalayas in Nepal.

Our testers range from people who enjoy the outdoors recreationally to professional guides. Our most notable tester is Pemba Sherpa. He’s a veteran Himalayan trekking guide with over 20 years experience. He has guided and completed nearly 50 treks through the Everest region of Nepal, not to mention countless other treks and summits all over the world. We usually like to have sit-down talks with the testers after they complete a trip where we discuss every aspect of the pack. The feedback we’ve received over the past year and a half on our packs has been overwhelmingly positive and helped us make some even better design changes.

-Brendan

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