Please extend a hearty welcome to David Gardener of Gardner Outdoor Lightweight Designs, a new cottage backpacking gear manufacturer that just opened shop this year. Specializing in super ultralight backpack gear (SUL), David has already developed some quite innovative products using modern materials such as titanium and polycryo.
A product design fanatic and jack of all trades, I caught up with David to interview him about his new company, what motivates him, and to describe some of the future products he has in the pipeline. Though still tiny, David is pushing the envelope and I am quite excited to see what he comes up with next!
Tell us a little about yourself and what got you started producing ultralight and super ultralight backpacking gear?
What first got me producing ultralight gear 30 years ago was the lack of commercially available ultralight gear, so I started making gear for myself and devising ultralight camping strategies.
What got me into super-ultralight gear was a couple of back surgeries and a subsequent backpacking trip with my 26 year old son earlier this year. We were planning the trip and he was showing me his gear and talking about alcohol stoves, and I was blown away by all the new fabrics, materials, designs and products that are now available. I started building my own gear again with the new stuff, and found that I was fascinated with building my own alcohol stoves.
Once I got going, I couldn’t stop. I started experimenting and built a couple of hundred different stoves of numerous sizes and configurations. I would build a stove of one type, then build a dozen variations in overall size, jet hole size, jet hole location, proportions of height to width, etc. Then do the same with a different stove type. I made separate components that I could reconfigure in numerous ways and assemble prototypes of nearly infinite variety. Did the same thing with windscreens. And at some point I came up with a totally new design for an alcohol burner that I had not seen anywhere else (the “stove” is really the complete system of beer can pot, burner, windscreen, and base sheet heat reflector). I call it the Ramjet because of the way it looks when the stove is operating at full temperature: with a red hot conical windscreen and blue flames flowing up the sides of the beer can pot, it actually looks like the back end of a jet engine running on full after-burner.
It’s a non-pressurized alcohol burner, but doesn’t fit neatly into the other established categories of alcohol stoves such as top jet, side jet, etc. I guess I would describe it as having up-and-in-flow jets with vertical venturi exhaust. It’s fabricated from recycled materials consisting of two 5.5 oz aluminum cat food cans and an aluminum air freshener bottle.
Are you a backpacker, and if so how often do you get out. What are some of the major trips you have taken, and would you classify yourself as an ultralight backpacker?
I am a serious backpacker. I’ve had some back surgeries and shattered my left knee in 2010 so I haven’t been out nearly as much as I would like the past few years, but I’m coming back now.
I’ve done dozens of week-long trips in the Sierra Nevada, but the best was when I skied the Sierra High Route (all above 11,000 feet) back in 1992. We went as light as was possible given the gear limitations of the times, starting with about 35 lbs. each including food, fuel, skis & poles and some climbing gear. I also did a solo thru-hike in Alaska across the Kenai Peninsula, covering about 65 miles in 6 days. Again as light as possible, but no way to avoid carrying 10 lbs. of rifle & ammo through hungry grizzly bear country.
I’ve been an ultralight backpacker and made some of my own gear starting in the early 1980s. Back then the choices of fabrics and other materials were very limited, but I did the best I could. Made camp booties by gluing a layer of cordura pack cloth to the bottom of a pair of socks, took only a tent fly for shelter (the predecessor of today’s tarp systems), only took food that could be eaten without being cooked, plastic thermos cup instead of a steel Sierra Cup, no jacket.
Now, after my back and knee surgeries, I am a fanatic super-ultralight camper because every extra pound is measured in pain. This led me to develop the products I make and sell, because I wanted them for my own use.
How would you characterize the type of customer you build products for? What do you think their goals or needs are and how do your products help them achieve that?
I build my products for two distinct customer types. The first type are backpackers who don’t want to carry any more weight than absolutely necessary. The second type are people assembling a disaster preparedness/survival kit. The goals and needs are essentially the same: products that are as light and compact as possible, the ability to heat and sterilize water, and shelter from the elements.
Can you tell us a little about your stoves and what sets them apart from other products available today?
My stove and cook kit systems are super-ultralight and excel in options for power, efficiency, and capacity. The alcohol burners and windscreens are optimized for use with super-ultralight aluminum cook pots fabricated from over-size beer cans like the Foster’s 750 ml (25.4 oz) can, the Miller 946 ml (32 oz) can, and my 1.3 liter megapots fabricated from two Foster’s cans. The design of the burners eliminates the need for a separate pot stand, and fits perfectly into the base of the cans.
Together the alcohol burner, windscreen & base sheet, and cook pots are designed to form an integrated and optimized system in which each component works synergistically with the others to maximize power and efficiency. You can use my alcohol burners with any pot, and you can use them without a windscreen, but the best performance will be with the complete system. Integrated systems are the future of ultralight backpacking cook kits, where such a high premium is placed on weight and efficiency. An integrated system will always weigh less. It will also use less fuel, reducing the weight of fuel to be carried.
As best as I have been able to determine, my Ramjet MX is the most powerful non-pressurized alcohol burner in the world, and weighs only 29 grams. I have consistently achieved sub-4 minute boil times for a liter of 70* F water, which is on par with stoves using petrol-based fuels such as white gas, kerosene, and propane/butane canisters. The Ramjet MX uses 60 ml of fuel to boil a liter of water, comparable to Evernew’s new titanium alcohol stove. Great for over-nighters and car camping.
The Ramjet UL weighs only 19 grams and will boil a liter of water in under 5 minutes using 40 ml of fuel.
A couple of caveats. The Ramjet MX and UL burn so hot that they will melt an aluminum beer can pot if it is not filled with water. In fact, the windscreen for the Ramjet MX must be fabricated from stainless steel or titanium because no aluminum alloy can take the heat. Also, the Ramjet MX and Ramjet UL are optimized to be used with my 1.3 liter megapots. They produce so much heat so quickly that the tallest can is necessary to absorb it all; efficiency drops off drastically with the smaller cans.
The Ramjet ECO is for those who value efficiency above all else, and is excellent with any size can pot. It weighs 29 grams and will boil 500 ml of water in 3.5 minutes using 18 ml of fuel, and a liter in 7 minutes using 35 ml of fuel.
All of my alcohol burners are easy to fill, require no priming or separate pot stand, reach full operating temperature very quickly, and are fabricated from recycled materials.
In addition, all GOLD Gear stove systems are adapted to burn Esbit solid fuel tabs and even wood. So if a person is truly a super-ultralight fanatic they can choose a wood-burning set up for freezer-bag cooking, which weighs only 3.25 oz for the solo size (that’s for a 750 ml cook pot, pot lid, windscreen, base sheet, 2 titanium stakes, and a Reflectix cozy). For one extra gram, they can add my Esbit burner.
I’ve been pretty wowed by your polycryo tarps. Could you tell us more about them?
My tarps are the lightest in the world for their footprints. I use polycryo for the membrane, carbon fiber tubes for the poles, 300 lb. Kevlar bow cord for the lines, ripstop nylon sail repair tape for the gussets, and titanium stakes. The Solo tarp weighs only 12 oz for a 6′ x 9′ footprint, the Dual weighs only 18 oz for a 8′ x 9′ footprint, and the Tres tarp weighs only 26.5 oz for a 9′ x 11′ footprint.
A dedicated SUL fanatic can leave the poles at home, suspend the tarp from a ridge line cord, and shave another 5 oz from the listed weights!
What has been your most popular product so far and what kind of feedback have you been getting about it.
My most popular product so far has been the Premium Ti cook kit, because it offers so many options for a complete, self-contained cooking system: pots to cook for one, two or three people; different stoves for different preferences of speed vs. economy; ultralight (with plastic caddies which double as bowl and cup) or super-ultralight (for freezer bag cooking); configurations for alcohol burner, Esbit burner, or wood fuel.
As you grow your business, do you think you will be primarily focused on making stoves or do you anticipate offering a broader range of products.
I will definitely be offering a broader range of SUL products. I already offer tarps and what I call the “Bug Bag”, a 5 oz bivvy sack made entirely of noseeum netting, to keep a person mosquito and tick-free when using a tarp, and especially if they’re also using a quilt instead of a sleeping bag.
As a new cottage manufacturer, what have your biggest challenges been getting your company off the ground.
Marketing has been the biggest challenge, getting the word out. It’s not nearly as fun and interesting as inventing and fabricating, and I don’t have any training or experience at it. Also, transitioning from a hobby to setting up a business and web site. Hopefully my next challenge will be gearing up production to match demand!
What kind of innovations can we expect from your company in the next year?
A polycryo poncho/ground sheet that weighs only 4 oz. Adapters which attach two tarp poles together into a single 5 oz. trekking pole. Perhaps even a polycryo backpack. Atomic-powered hiking boots. (JK on that last one of course.)
Is GOLD your primary source of income or do you have a day job? Do you foresee a time when GOLD is all you do?
I just started GOLD this summer, so it is not (yet) my primary source of income. For my day job I am a bankruptcy and construction law attorney. In my daydreams GOLD is all that I do, but it will take awhile to get to that point.
Thanks David. We wish you the best of luck with Gardner Outdoor Lightweight Designs!