Saturday, May 25, 2013

2013 Trail Days

Last week my wife and I made our annual 5-hour pilgrimage to Trail Day in Damascus Virginia.  Reflecting on nearly 10 years worth of experience making this pilgrimage, I always find it funny that one of two weather conditions are guaranteed (1) hot and humid, or (2) rainy and muggy.  This year, prompted by the fact that my wife got a new bike, we brought our bicycles as we had decided we’d deal with the conditions regardless.  We envisioned riding up and down the Virginia Creeper Trail, being able to navigate the town a little easier and otherwise having a far more mobile experience than we did in past years.  Oddly enough, the weather was rainy and relatively comfortable and I quickly learned that as a gearhead I really couldn’t stay away from the vendor tables long enough to deal with my bike which quickly found itself propped up against trashcans and fence posts.

The crowds this year were fewer than I had seen in the past, something I’d call a trend unfortunately.  Virginia-based Mountain Laurel Designs was a no-show which is very unfortunate for one of the very few hiking events let alone right in their backyard.  Ron Bell, owner of MLD, simply said he had too much work and would rather spend time responding more quickly to orders than gaining a few more.  I guess it’s a good problem to have, but I would hope he could have sparred a few hours as his team responded to orders.  I say this reflecting on Ron Moak, owner of Six Moon Designs, who annually makes the drive from Oregon.  I guess he sees the benefit of a few orders and mingling with the hiking community which I respect immensely. 
SMD continues to offer top notch gear and current prices are really enticing.  For anyone looking for a light two-person tent, check out their Lunar Duo which is 30% off this Memorial Day and is a steal at $142 versus $203.  If I didn’t already have one, I’d buy another in a second.  Ron was also driving his new smaller RV/Van in which he built out the interior himself.  I must say, I was jealous and impressed.  Earlier in the morning I got a kick out of listening to Ron talk with Gen Shimizu, owner of Yama Mountain Gear, another Virginia-based company with good stuff, but designs just aren’t that unique or big enough for someone my size for me to really pay them a lot of attention even though I would politely say his stuff is top-notch.  During the conversation Ron was telling Gen how to get out of the sewing business and start mass marketing his stuff.  Gen, whom I’ve met in the past and wanted to sell kits initially and not sew anything, likely wanted nothing more than to figure out how to sustain a business without being involved in the day-to-day sewing operations which I'm guessing is a road Ron has traveled several times.   

Mike St. Pierre from HyperLite Mountain Gear also made the drive from Maine.  For anyone who follows HMG, they pretty much jumped into the lightweight scene without all the drawbacks of a small company trying to market small items and going through the pains of growing the business.  Mike had investors which is a very different business model than other cottage businesses and is extremely evident based on his amount of very solid and widespread marketing.  You’ll see HMG nearly everywhere, and if you miss everywhere, you won’t miss their motorhome.  If my perspective means anything, it is all a bit overwhelming.  I’ve made a handful of purchases from HMG, returned most, and fondled quite a bit of HMG gear.  HMG is nice stuff, but I just can’t figure out where it fits in my gear closet.  ZPacks and Gossamer Gear are lighter; Gossamer Gear, Six Moon Designs and Mountain Laurel desires offer slightly heavier products which are more bulletproof and I find them to be more comfortable to carry.
For the first time in many years, Joe Valesko, owner of ZPacks, was at Trail Days with another staff member.  He had a very small booth swallowed up by HMG’s area.  Joe seemed very out of place because his gear is so far on one end of the spectrum that no one else really compares.  I got a kick out of all the novices passing by and trying to have conversations with him.  Overhearing him respond to questions like “what is cuben fiber” from people who looked like they had shares in Patagonia I’m guessing got on his nerves about the 10th time they were asked.  Still, Joe was very personable and he had the posture of “not only do I make my gear, but I live the backpacking lifestyle”.  There was a lot of experience standing under his little tent and I appreciated it.  In talking with him, I could tell Joe is swamped with business and the drive to Virginia was likely a burden to him.  I asked him about a couple custom modifications, and while he said he would do them, he told me that he’s getting very behind continuing to do custom work and would like to focus on both a new tent and new pack design he had been contemplating.  That’s intriguing considering how many times he’s put forth something on the market that no one else had done previously.
I had a good conversation with Judy Gross, owner of Lightheart Gear.  Her business is steadily growing and she opened up another business doing custom sewing, both her passion and her background.  She told me she’d love to unload “the tent business” and focus on sewing custom projects in small volumes.  Course, she’d still want to make her tents.

Each of these lightweight manufacturers are top-notch and I wouldn’t hesitate from buying from any of them.

A new company called Bedrock Sandals is marketing lightweight sandals (essentially glorified flip-flops).  Initially I walked by them as I’ve seen this attempt before, but BS actually took the effort a step further.  First, they initiated their business on Kickstarter, then invested in a 6mm flexible Vibram soles, soles which are much thinner and likely more functional than I’ve seen before.  There is also a lifetime warranty on them from defects and they’ll give you 50% off another order if you wear them out.  The result is a very lightweight and highly functional sandal.  While I don’t bring camp shoes, I have been known to bring water shoes to cross water hazards and truth be told…they could be upgraded.  About the only thing that irritated me was the price - $54.  That just seems too steep for me.  Shipping is an additional $5.25.  So if you’re doing the math, that’s $60 for literally the most thin and featureless sandals you can purchase…and don’t forget $2.95 in taxes bringing your purchase to $61.95!  Course…I do own a lot of titanium and cuben…
The push of hammocking manufacturers over the last 3 years and their increasing footprint was definitely toned down this year which I suspect was singularly because their businesses are becoming far more successful.  Jacks R Better, Hennessey Hammocks and Eagles Nest Outfitters were the only staples as the rest stayed home.  DutchWareGear went from sharing a small tarp area with Ultimate Hammock Book author Derek Hansen to having his own larger area which not only showcased his growing business but also drew attention to his newly designed website.
Some of the outdoor magazines I read offered free samples for a product called Ready Fuel who had a booth at Trail Days.  I received a free sample, but hadn’t used it.  I picked up another sample and ultimately purchased some of the product after talking with the owners.  Essentially Ready Fuel is a gel-like substance originally developed for the U.S. military to use with MRE's.  It is clear they really don’t know what to do with it as they were trying hard to sell the fuel with a haphazardly made aluminum stand singularly made to fit a canteen cup which is largely irrelevant to the backpacker community.  Nonetheless, the product is compelling.  It is lightweight, easy to measure, packs small, burns into nothingness, won’t evaporate-freeze-or-melt, byproducts are carbon dioxide, water and sand, it is non-combustible, non-explosive, travel friendly, water-soluble, burns up to 10,000 feet, smokeless and odorless, and is fairly inexpensive.  Once sample packet can boil 4 cups of water (1 gallon) in 20 minutes.  While the sample packets (which are also sold) must be ripped to open, they do sell a larger volume bladder with a screw-on top which is the version I purchased.  The sample versions are 1.25 oz and burn for a remarkable 20 minutes.  It has a guaranteed 30-year shelf life and as soon as I get a chance you can assume I’ll be testing the product.  For some good deals, go to and use code “UTILITY125” to get the product nearly 50% off.  Go to and enter the code “readyfuel” for 30% off your purchase.

My wife and I had plans at a resort about 3 hours north to celebrate our anniversary, so we left shortly before 1pm.  While checking my phone a couple hours later, I learned of a tragic accident that happened during the annual Trail Days Hiker Parade where successful past and present Appalachian Trail hikers walk down the main street as crowds clap and throw water balloons or use squirt guns.  It is all meant in good fun and an event everyone looks forward too.  Unfortunately, an elderly hiker who attended the event decided to get behind the wheel of his Cadillac during the parade and suffered a medical event causing him to lose control and plow through the crowds of hikers.  Initial reports were that 50-60 people were injured and up to 6 had to be airlifted out.  Only later was it learned that the driver died and the injuries sustained by hikers were far less in number and severity than initially reported.  Hopefully those who were impacted were able to finish their once-in-a-lifetime journey.  Prayers for all involved.

I must admit, overall I wasfairly disappointed with Trail Days this year, and if I’m being honest, the event has lost a bit of its luster than in years past.  This year was very ho-hum in that I felt like I had seen it all before and more of it.  With the real exception of ZPacks, only because Joe hadn’t been there recently, Ready Fuel, and Bedrock Sandals, there wasn’t a ton of reasons for me to go and I may think twice next year unless the lightweight industry comes up with some new innovation which has otherwise been stagnant for the last several years.

My apologies for lack of quality pictures this year.  My iPhone pretended to take pictures only to learn that there was an issue with the zoom which negated quite a few otherwise good opportunities to better tell the story of Trail Days.


David said...

Great post, but you forgot to mention an up and coming hammock manufacturer which myself and a lot of hangers have latched onto: Wilderness Logics.

Derek Hansen said...

Thanks for that report. I wish I could have been there this year (I had plans but life got interrupted). It was great to see the photos, hear about events, and get updates about friends.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the gear show update - a favorite part of trail days for me. The rare opportunity to talk directly with Ron, Ron, Tom and others & walk thru the subtle but awesome features of their gear right before your eyes. It doesn't get any better than that! Reminds me what I've been missing out on by staying home the last couple years!

FedEx GE2ME '07