Calling Yama Mountain Gear’s digs in Charlottesville, Virginia a factory might be an overstatement, but not for long. Founded by gear guru and long distance hiker Gen Shimizu, Yama Mountain Gear is poised for rapid expansion into the burgeoning lightweight backpacking and fast packing market with a remarkable product pipeline full of innovative new ideas and product designs.
Half Japanese and half Pennsylvania Dutch, Shimizu is an expert product designer noted for his elegant and functional ultralight shelter designs, but no stranger to hard work. He’s built Yama Mountain Gear from the ground up, living frugally, and sinking his profits back into the business.
Based in Charlottesville, Virginia, Gen has a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Virginia. Like many other ultralight backpacking entrepreneurs, he started out by borrowing his grandmother’s sewing machine and teaching himself how to sew. Then he experimented with cuben fiber, inventing numerous construction techniques for building the ultralight aerodynamic shelters which he manufactures (in addition to silnylon tents and tarp shelters) today.
I met Gen, pronounced with a hard ‘G’ like ‘good’, on the Appalachian Trail a few months ago and stayed with him for a night when I resupplied and headed north through Shenandoah National Forest. Although we’d prearranged my visit and he was holding a resupply box for me, he insisted on meeting me at a shelter the night before I arrived outside of Waynesboro.
He arrived just as a terrible thunderstorm started, dropping three inches of rain and forcing us deep into the back of the three-sided shelter to escape the heavy mist that was blowing onto its front porch. We both ate a cold diner that night: me finishing the odds and ends of my food bag before a resupply, while he ate a macrobiotic-looking no-cook meal in preparation for a section hike to finish off the PCT this summer.
After we hiked out to Gen’s car, he drove me to nearby Charlottesville, Virgina where Yama Mountain Gear is located. His workshop, which doubles as his apartment at the moment, is located in an old factory which has been converted into artist lofts and entrepreneurial businesses. Gen’s workshop is located next to a popular bar and burger joint which made it very convenient for me to catch up on brews and protein after hiking 150 miles of the Appalachian Trail.
While I was visiting, Gen showed me some of his latest product designs, including the new Swiftline tent, a two person tarp tent with two doors which can be opened up on all four sides for excellent ventilation in hot or humid weather. At just 35 ounces, it’s a sweet looking silnylon shelter.
Gen is all business when it comes to talking about his company’s growth hurdles and expansion plans, but there’s a part of him that still longs for outdoor adventure. To his credit, he’s structured Yama Mountain Gear’s business so that he can periodically return to the long distance trails he loves to recharge and reconnect with other hikers. This summer, Gen, whose trail name is Magnet, (short for Critter Magnet) is off the finish his final section of the PCT, a hike he had to leave early in 2006 for health reasons. You can read about his PCT adventure here.
We wish him luck and happy hiking, from one section hiker to another!
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