Design: All the World's a Workshop

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
News from the Field, February 1997

Design: All the World's a Workshop

Forever in search of the perfect backpack, peripatetic tinkerer Patrick Smith says he's found the answer deep in the woods
By Michael McRae

The backcountry is filled with loners, but if you're crashing around the Colorado wilderness this spring and see a middle-aged man mumbling to himself and acting like someone in the thrall of discognitive pique, fret not. You've just sighted Patrick Smith, one of the world's foremost designers of backpacks, founder of pack manufacturer Mountainsmith Inc., and all-around sane guy. He's not mumbling to himself--he's logging notes with a tape recorder. He's not aimlessly wandering--he's field testing. This is standard behavior for Smith, behavior that has netted his company millions of dollars and apparently a significant breakthrough in backpack design. After 12 months on his testing back, Smith's radical reworking of the internal-frame pack, called the Revolution Series, should arrive in stores later this month.

The Revolution, Mountainsmith claims, is the first full-size internal-frame pack with a modular design--something of a grail for pack makers--that actually works. Indeed, it's not a traditional backpack at all, but rather an intricate system that combines a series of removable packsacks of various shapes and sizes that strap and snap onto a semirigid harness-cum-internal-frame. This design combines the virtues of internal and external frames, and in theory allows a hiker to carry more weight more comfortably, while providing unmatched versatility.

Smith's not the first dreamer to take a whack at such a design, but so far, he says, nobody has been able to surmount the biggest obstacle: how to keep the weight from sloshing around. He has cleverly solved that problem. At least that's what he's saying. Or rather, what he's intimating, in a whispered someone's-gonna-snatch-my-trade-secret way. So until now we've gotten only glimpses of the Revolution. "There are too many people out there who'd like to make a buck off us," he says.

Such paranoia is a charming hallmark of Mountainsmith, a company that, despite a recent influx of MBAs, retains a certain cranky-old-man-in-the-workshop ethos. For his part, Smith is a throwback to the old school of outdoor-equipment designers, people who realized during a trek or climb that their tools were not up to the task and who tromped back to build better ones. His accidental entrepreneurship bloomed from his fertile days as a backcountry guide. "I built my own gear or modified what was available," he says, "and pretty soon my clients were wanting to buy my equipment." In 1979 he went formal, starting a garage-based operation that whipped up guide packs and ski-touring sleds, which he peddled under the clever construction "Mountainsmith."

Smith's latest offering endured endless backcountry jaunts and torturous refashionings with a staple gun, buckles, webbing, and packcloth. At night, sitting by the campfire, Smith entertained himself with simple pleasures, like changing the angle of the straps to fine-tune the pack's suspension. Ah, wilderness. After over 50 such outings, Smith came down from the mountain, his Revolution complete. Suggested retail price: $489 for a 7,500 cubic-inch pack.

Smith isn't out of the woods yet, however. He's in there with another product: a fanny pack. Not quite as ground-breaking, to be sure, but maybe a bit more fun. "A lot of my outdoor activities are dictated by what pack I'm working on," says Smith, who over the last decade and a half has faithfully spent more than 150 days a year in the field, testing his creations. "I've spent the last 18 months carrying great big packs. Now I'm going to carry some little tiny ones."

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