Firefighters Asked for Special Backpacks. Mystery Ranch Delivered.
Mystery Ranch leans into the specific needs of wildland firefighters
Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.
In 2005, Mystery Ranch received a box of worn-out backpacks from a group of United States Forest Service (USFS) wildland firefighters in Southern California, otherwise known as “hotshots.” The box came with a challenge. “Here’s what we are currently using in the field. Can you do better?”
Hotshot crews are the first line of defense against wildfires threatening lives and property. In the fire 2022 season, more than 750,00 acres of forest burned. Working dawn till long after dark, hotshots rely on a critical set of equipment, including their backpacks.
With proven experience building backpacks for enthusiast and military markets, Mystery Ranch’s team set to work and designed prototypes, then sent them out to fire crews for real-world field testing.
“There weren’t a lot of good options for hauling gear,” recalled Marcus Cornwell, fire management officer in New Mexico.“I have scars on my hips from the old packs, and that’s how bad they were.”
Before Mystery Ranch’s involvement in the wildland fire market, firefighters used military style backpacks that lacked durability and had very limited ability to customize for their specific gear hauling needs.
The Bozeman, Montana, company launched its first wildland fire-specific backpack, The Hotshot, in 2007 (retail prices start at $319). Since then, the line has expanded to include seven packs specifically designed for hand crews, fire engine crews, helicopter teams, and medical personnel, plus women-specific models. By 2010,115 hotshot crew members were equipped with Mystery Ranch packs.
Luke Mayfield is the brand’s fire program manager. His prior experience included 18 seasons working with the United States Forest Service, and twelve of those years were spent with hotshot crews.
Since the Hotshot’s launch, sales have grown at least 20 percent year over year. That growth increased to 30 percent in 2021-2022. The Hotshot and Engine models sell over 6,000 units, respectively each year. “It’s safe to say that we have 80 percent of the hotshot market,” Mayfield said.
“Mystery Ranch listened to our feedback, then gave us gear that was designed for people specifically in our line of work,” said Ben Strahan, a hotshot superintendent in region five, which covers national forest land in the North Cascades, the Sierra Nevada, and more. “They’re paying attention to what this niche consumer wants.”
Mayfield’s emotional and professional commitment to his former hotshot colleagues burns as hot as a wildfire. “I firmly believe that we provide and build the best load-bearing packs in the world for wildland firefighters,” he said. “I want to do everything I can to see all firefighters have the best gear possible to keep them as comfortable as possible in uncomfortable situations.”
“Everybody on the hotshot crew is asked to carry extra weight like a hose or medical equipment,” said Jeremiah Jacks, hotshot squad leader in the Pacific Northwest. “The Hotshot has a beefed up suspension system to handle heavy loads up to 50 to 60 pounds, plus so many different buckles and attachment points so we can attach any type of gear.
Season by season, Mayfield keeps in touch with a network of current and former hotshot crew members, prodding them for their insights and suggestions to fine-tune pack designs. One complaint he heard frequently was frustration with the positioning of the fire shelter pouch, which the USFS requires all wildland firefighters to carry. The 5-pound fire shelters, constructed of fiberglass and aluminum, serve as a “last resort ” method to escape a life-threatening fire situation.
Typically, fire shelters are stored in a pouch at the bottom of the pack for easy access. Firefighters complained of bruised and chafed legs from the pouches bouncing around as they worked a fire line.
So Mystery Ranch changed the design and moved the pouch away from the body. “The new design is now completely off your butt housed in a rugged, secure box,” said Jacks. “This was a much-needed change, and they took time to give us the fix we needed.”
Product design isn’t the only way Mystery Ranch supports hotshot crews. Strahan points out that loyalty for Mystery Ranch packs is fueled by more than just good gear. “They’re helping and supporting the [wildland firefighter] community, and that speaks volumes about who they are. They’re not just selling stuff; they are also an active member of the community.”The company’s Backbone Scholarship Program has awarded more than $12,000 for professional development, and ten percent of proceeds from selling special edition packs fund the scholarships. The company is also heavily involved in wildland fire policy issues. Mystery Ranch supports Mayfield’s work as vice president of the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, a nonprofit advocacy group focused on improving working conditions for wildland firefighters.
“My number one priority is doing everything I can to provide packs that keep hotshots as comfortable as possible in uncomfortable situations,” says Mayfield.