Gardner Outdoor Lightweight Designs (GOLD) – An Interview with David Gardener

Davis Gardner of Gardner Outdoor Lightweight Designs

Davis Gardner of Gardner Outdoor Lightweight Designs

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.

The Ramjet MX and Ramjet UL

The Ramjet MX and Ramjet UL

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.

Fanatic Solo Ti with 750 ml/25.4 oz cook pot and 8 oz fuel bottle

Fanatic Solo Ti with 750 ml/25.4 oz cook pot and 8 oz fuel bottle

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.

Fanatic Solo To Stove Kit - Packed

Fanatic Solo To Stove Kit – Packed

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.

Polycryo Tarp-Tent with Ends

Polycryo Tarp-Tent with Ends

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.

Premium Cook Kit

Our premium cook kits include all the components of all our Fanatic and Trekker series cook kits and can be configured in numerous different combinations.

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!

David Gardner on the Sierra High Route

David Gardner on the Sierra High Route

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!

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21 Responses to Gardner Outdoor Lightweight Designs (GOLD) – An Interview with David Gardener

  1. John B. Abela November 23, 2012 at 1:55 am #

    I have been hearing a LOT about David over the last month or so!

    Being pretty much a 99% of the time esbit hiker none of this stoves appeal to me, but I gotta say every time I see that polycro shelter I shudder and tremble inside. I do not know if its because I am not willing to trust a shelter made of polycro, or that somebody out there has actually made a potentially viable shelter out of polyolefin – and that just seems freaking awesome!! As one of the few people in the world that have over 500+ miles of hiking with a 0.34 cuben fiber shelter (mine is 80.24 grams / 2.83 ounces) I have come to learn that this light of material presents some very serious risks. In many ways it seems like polycro might even be pushing those risks even further. Would love to hear your thoughts on this one Philip (and David if you ever read this.)

    • Earlylite November 23, 2012 at 9:00 am #

      What ‘risks’ do you mean John?

    • David Gardner November 25, 2012 at 12:49 am #

      Hey John, thanks for the comments.

      Please note that my stove system is made to work with Esbits too. The alcohol burner is replaced with an Esbit burner, and stakes are put through holes in the side of the windscreen to support the pot at the optimal height over the burner. My Esbit system will boil 500 ml of 70* water in less than 7 minutes using 1 fuel tablet. The stainless version weighs 54 grams (45 if you skip the base sheet), and the titanium version weighs 44 grams (36 if you skip the base sheet). For comparison, the stock Esbit brand stove weighs 88 grams and takes 8 minutes to boil 500 ml. These times are under lab conditions, and in the real world my system is far less susceptible to wind.

      Regarding the tarps, I think that all ultralight and super-ultralight equipment involves some trade offs of durability vs. weight. I have not tested my tarps under winter storm conditions yet, so I don’t know the limits of their durability. But I have used them in winds of 15-25 mph with no failures. All that being said, my intuition is that polycryo of the thicknesses currently available may be best suited to 3-season use. If I can find a source of material approximately twice as thick I intend to make a pyramid tarp and test it for ski camping, and see how it does under snow loads.

      Not quite sure exactly what kind of risks you are thinking of, but I assume it is something like a tarp tearing in the wind and not being useable. I include a yard of ripstop nylon sail repair tape with each tarp, hopefully to catch tears while they are small. But assuming a worst-case scenario of complete tarp failure, my solution is that I use sleeping bags with Gore-tex or other DWR shells instead of quilts, and carry a mylar “space blanket” bivvy (53 grams) in my “10 Essentials” emergency kit (which I always pack regardless of whether I am using a tent, tarp or nothing) so I have a dry survival cocoon even without a tarp.

  2. Michael November 23, 2012 at 12:25 pm #

    Interesting to see David doesn’t bother to “hem” the edges on his tarp. That would be one “risk” as many have claimed polycryo tears. It will puncture easier than cuben, but that isn’t an issue to me. I figure if a branch falls on my tarp, I’m in enough trouble as it is. I have not had mine in serious storms yet, but would not have a problem in at least 40 mph winds.

    You can see what others and myself have done at http://www.backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/forums/thread_display.html?forum_thread_id=59450

    I assume his weights include all lines & stakes as it is much heavier than my 6×9.

    • David Gardner November 25, 2012 at 1:08 am #

      Hi Michael. Your tarp as shown on BPL was one of my inspirations.

      Actually, I guess it doesn’t show in the pictures, but my tarps are “hemmed” at the ends with the double-sided tape that comes with the kits, although not along the side edges. I did it that way because the greatest stresses seemed to me to be at the ends, where the tie-outs are pulling in two directions on the material. But even though I haven’t had any failures along the side edges yet, it probably makes sense to “hem” them anyway. For sure it is stronger.

      My weights include poles (because I don’t hike with trekking poles), all cords, and 10 stakes (two aluminum Nanos at the ends of the ridge cords, 8 titanium shepherd’s hooks for the sides). I am experimenting with reducing the size of the tape gussets to shave a few more grams off, but I like how the bigger gussets spread out the stresses on the polycryo and and reduce the “risk” of tears. How much does your 6 x 9 weigh?

      • Michael November 25, 2012 at 3:52 pm #

        Mine weighs 6.1 oz, fully hemmed and taped and with a variety of attached guys that aren’t too long. I know I could reduce it some but I haven’t gotten to use it much yet. The 3M 2120 transparent duct tape is relatively heavy so I try to minimize that, cutting the roll in half so it’s 15/16″ wide.

        I suspect your tape is pretty heavy as well. It looks like you use significantly more than I do. My typical corner piece is 8″ long which gets folded over top and bottom side of material, becoming 4″ effectively, and then I use a piece on the top perpendicular to that to spread the force.

        • David Gardner November 25, 2012 at 4:19 pm #

          I see you use trekking poles for your tarp. Since I don’t use them I include two carbon fiber poles, which is 4 oz of the stated weights. Does your 6.1 oz include stakes?

          I have used more tape than you did, especially on the pictured “Tres” tarp which has a full-length piece along the ridge line to join 2 sheets of polycryo. Based on your experience I will try reducing the length of my tape pieces at the corners and sides, especially after I hem the side edges. You could probably reduce your weight by using ripstop nylon sail repair tape, which is very light compared to duct tape and especially Gorilla tape. Check out http://www.sailmakerssupply.com. They also make some very sexy Kevlar sail repair tape, but it is wicked expensive.

          I forgot to mention before that I also use a small loop of shock cord at each of the tie-outs. It’s heavier than the Kevlar cords, but it keeps the tarp pitched taut and also permits some “give” in windy conditions to reduce stress on the membrane and reduce the risk of tears.

          • Michael November 26, 2012 at 11:17 pm #

            No stakes in my 6.1 since they are so variable. I highly agree about the shock cord, too.

            Thanks for the tape tip. Do you know if their shipping is reasonable for just a single roll?

            • David Gardner November 26, 2012 at 11:56 pm #

              A 25′ roll of the ripstop nylon tape costs $7.47. Shipping via USPS priority mail to my zip code is $6.95.

              Shipping cost for 2 rolls is the same.

              Shipping cost for 3 rolls is $9.50.

        • David Gardner December 15, 2012 at 9:05 pm #

          Hey Michael,

          Just made a 7′ x 9′ solo tarp from a single sheet of polycryo. Fully “hemmed” with the included doube-sided tape, ripstop nylon sail repair tape for the side tie-outs, Kevlar sail repair tape for the ridge line tie-outs, and 300 lb.-rated Kevlar cord for the ridge line. I also used nylon washers to reinforce the tie-out holes.

          Weight = 5.4 oz.

          10 shock cords for the tie-outs and 40′ of the 300 lb. Kevlar cord adds 1.1 oz.

          2 carbon-fiber poles adds 3.3 oz.

          8 titanium stakes and 2 Nano stakes adds 2.5 oz.

          Total weight of complete system = 12.3 oz

          Gonna pitch it in the rain tomorrow and take some pictures.

          Thanks for the inspiration and ideas.

          David

          • Michael December 16, 2012 at 12:37 pm #

            Sounds nice, David! I’m curious why you use different tapes for the tieouts? I had done that as well with my original design but went to just the weaker one with my second that was made from polycryo as the extra strength really wasn’t needed. I assume the Kevlar tape is stronger and heavier, but I would not expect the ridgeline tieouts to take significantly more force than the corners.

            • David Gardner December 16, 2012 at 2:26 pm #

              I used the Kevlar tape for two reasons. First, I had a roll that I wanted to try out and see how it would perform. For the two places where I used it, the difference between the Kevlar tape and the ripstop nylon tape is only a couple of grams. Second, my experience is that the ridge line tie-outs take significantly more force than the corners and sides. I have measured the ridge line force at approximately 20 lbs., and the corner force at 10 lbs. So, even though I’ve had no problems with the ripstop nylon tape at the ridge line, I figured stronger was probably better. And it just looks cool because it’s mostly transparent and you can see the Kevlar threads embedded in it.

              That being said, my tarp has a ridge line cord of 300 lb. Kevlar cord between the two nylon washer reinforcements at the ridge line tie-outs, which takes most of the force anyway. Plus, it appears that the Kevlar tape’s adhesion is not as good. So I will use ripstop nylon tape for the ridge line tie-outs on production models.

              I have posted some pictures to my web site and Facebook page.

  3. Grandpa November 26, 2012 at 10:59 pm #

    How does the polycryo hold up in cold weather for tarp use? The reason I ask is I use a polycryo ground cover for my Tarpten and one time my grandson and I were camped on top of a saddle in below freezing temps with 50-60 MPH winds and a section of my ground cloth broke off when we were trying to pitch the tent. It seemed to have gotten brittle in those conditions. Other than that incident, I’ve been pretty impressed with the material.

    • Michael November 26, 2012 at 11:19 pm #

      My guess is you got a bad one, seeing as it is used to insulate windows from drafts during winter. It would be pretty pointless to become brittle in the cold for that application.

    • David Gardner November 27, 2012 at 12:03 am #

      The source I get my polycryo from has two types of the material. One is rated for indoor use, the other is rated for outdoor use. Perhaps you got the “indoor” variety, which I presume is less tolerant of very cold temperatures. If you got the “outdoor” type I would be totally surprised it failed unless it was a bad batch, since it is specifically designed for outdoor exposure to very low temperatures.

  4. Grandpa November 26, 2012 at 11:02 pm #

    That was supposed to be “Tarptent”. I guess I either went ultralight on the spelling or a piece of the name broke off and blew away along with the portion of polycryo ground cover.

  5. Grandpa November 27, 2012 at 12:43 am #

    Thank you for the info. I’ve often wondered about using polycryo for a tarp but after that piece failed, I thought it wouldn’t be strong enough. Now I know differently. Your products intrigue me.

  6. Hoboken Chalupa December 1, 2012 at 12:13 pm #

    Being completely honest, I’m not an UL hiker, or even an SUL hiker but in glancing over these products I was excited to see some fantastic design features and ingenuity regarding the use of new lightweight materials. Grats Dave! … And thanks Phil for opening the dialogue.

    I’m definitely interested in seeing the website to find out if you’re retailing a poncho or pack cover as well; or tarp/poncho idea similar to ExPed.

    (By the way Phil , I plan on commenting on your “Walking Meditation” post. I couldn’t agree more with you and that post certainly deserves some more feedback.)

    ~ Chris

    • Earlylite December 1, 2012 at 12:25 pm #

      Thanks Chris – seems we are kindred spirits. I was also inspired and excited by David’s out of the box approach.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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