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Two Types of Gear Heads: Designers and Tailors

There are two types of gear heads in this world: “designers ” who make gear based on their own aesthetic principles (which may be divorced from what people really want) and “tailors” who can take a base product and customize it to make it do what they want after they’ve purchased it.

Self-customized HMG Porter Expedition Mountaineering Backpack
Self-customized HMG Porter Expedition Mountaineering Backpack

I realized this evening that I’m definitely a tailor. Give me a backpack that’s a big sack with shoulder pads and a hip belt,  and I can turn it into a finely tuned, season-specific, mile-eating time machine.

For example, I just got a new mountaineering pack for testing from Hyperlite Mountain Gear. This pre-production model is missing several features that I like to have on a winter pack. No worries though, because this pack is tricked out with a lot of daisy chains and three tiers of compression straps making it easy to tailor. It took me a few hours, but I added an ice axe holder, an external crampon pocket, insulated water bottle holders, and hip and shoulder strap pockets to make it do exactly what I want, and without having to sew a stitch.

I love backpacks like this because they can be customized depending on what you need for a particular trip or snowsport.

The Tailors Toolbox

If you’re into customizing backpacks or other backpacking gear, it helps to assemble a large supply of components that you can mix and match for different purposes. I have a few drawers of stuff that I’ve accumulated over the years by harvesting components from old gear or that I’ve bought for other projects.

Here’s a sampling of my tailor’s toolbox.

  • salvaged dyneema and cuben fabric
  • mesh stuff sacks
  • line locs
  • old gear packaging
  • Velcro tape
  • all kinds of webbing
  • spare external pockets
  • center release buckles
  • strap adjusters
  • cord locks
  • shock cord
  • shoe goo
  • seam sealer
  • seam tape
  • leki replacement tips
  • trekking pole baskets
  • a variety backpack stays
  • windscreens and turkey basting pans
  • side release buckles
  • minibiners
  • disembodied floating lids
  • snap hooks
  • crossovers
  • cable ties
  • all kinds of cordage

You name it. I’ve got everything I need to customize many different types of backpacking gear, including sharp scissors, and to add all of the features the manufacturer left out.

What kind of gear head are you: a designer or a tailor?

Disclaimer: Hyperlite Mountain Gear has provided SectionHiker.com with a complementary Porter Expedition backpack for testing and review.

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  1. Not to criticize anyone personally, but I think that real tailoring starts when sewing machine or glue or sciccors or similar are involved. Or maybe it could be called "re-designing" or "re-engineering" but attaching some add-on stuff, even improvised, is not tailoring in my opinion. Tailoring should involve making changes to the product itself

    That said, I'm the kinda guy who comes up with at least half a dozen improvement ideas on any backpack but rarely bothers to rip them apart to make them better. But now that the buckles in my Pinnacle are starting to fail I might do something for it…

  2. Well, I sort'a refute your theory. I do both.

    I have taken cheap backpacks(from wally world or the like) and stripped them down, rezippered, recorded, restrapped, added pouches, removed pouches, etc. for my daughters as they grew. There are NO good backpacks for kids in the 7-11 year old range.

    I have designed, built, and used (still using, actually) several tarps and tents. Two person pup tents to more complicated dome like affairs. Most are failures…as you say. They often don't fit with the worlds expectations. (One of the things I dislike about many tents and tarps is the fact that the entrance is on the wrong end necessitating a turn around under them. Entrance ways are not fully covered, and side doors are big and present other problems…leaking, bugs, and longish zippers.)

    One item I would add is PolyFoam packing sheets (not styrofoam,) in 1/4-1/2" thicknesses (like closed cell foam, but much lighter.) Good for stiffening…

  3. Refute away. Pick a different word. Clarify the idea. I'd like to hear how you think about the fact that so many people "Modify" their packs, tents, stoves, whatever because manufacturers don't make things the way they want them.

  4. I've "tailored" nearly every piece of equipment purchased. Not because they came out of the box with a fault. I just have specific (maybe peculiar) ideas on fit and function. Honestly, even if an item were perfect, I'd still tinker with it.

    Great blog, btw.

  5. Thanks Craig. I was toying with the word "Tinker" too – maybe that is more appropriate.

    I change a lot of my gear too with little MYOG projects. For example, I just replaced the rubber anti-balling plates on those crampons above with ones made from a plastic milk bottle and twist ties – saved another 2 oz and $25. Hah!

  6. Well, you sort'a asked for it.

    Tinker, taylor, well, it doesn't matter what the name is. I know about what I want and manufacturors don't supply it.

    My big complaint with all gear manufacturors (though Joe at ZPacks comes closest) is the lack of a single base design. A simple pack with two side pouches, for example. Add a couple more side pouches. Add a front pouch. Add a pad holder next to your back. Add a hip belt. Add padding to the hip belt. Add a hip belt with pouches. Add a shoulder pouch or two. Frame options, from full internal frames, to semi frames to no frames. With todays world of electronic design, robotic cuting tools, and robotic assembly, these shold be trivial add ons and available within a week. Just as a "for instance"…you could go on with options.

    Material costs: Nobody is thinking "Make it cheaper" anymore. Everone is thinking, "Maximize my profit." Fooling around with stuff often leads to cheaper ways manufacture.

  7. Jim – I *completely* agree. A modular approach like this would be really good. I hear you on price. There are very few manufacturers are keeping customer costs way low. There is a huge market for this, obviously.

  8. The 70's and 80's was the golden era of MYOG, with kits from Holobar, Frostline, and Altra. REI sold fabric by the yard and patterns for outdoor wear in their stores. Not only could you tailor the fit but you could add features too. I personally made down and Gore-Tex jackets, and I had friends that tackled down bags and tents too. However, I would never do a project like that today because of (1) You would pay as much for the raw materials as you would to buy an equivalent finished product (2) to do a high quality job you need specialized industrial equipment: heavy duty sewing machine, seam taper, fabric welder, snap setter etc.

    For a good example, look no further than those dry bags in your previous post. No way could you acquire the raw materials for less than $12, nor could you effectively apply the seam tape. And that's a very simple product.

    These days I limit myself to minor modifications to products I buy, and I only make something from scratch if it's absolutely unavailable anywhere.

  9. Please be aware that if you change the design of a product that the warranty of that product will be voided.

  10. Yet another reason to shop at REI. They'll take anything back even if you did a scissorectomy! LOL.

  11. Most of my rigging has been to come up with a workable backpack for my grandson. The packs I could come up with were too big and slid off him. Some 'biners, a bandana, and Velcro on the oversize pack, and he had a rig complete with waist belt and chest strap. I just bought an REI Flash 18 and will try that on him for our next hike.

  12. I am a Designer all the way. Having made tarps, tarptents, a dbl wall tent, coats, rain gear, quilts, sleeping bags and many backpacks. My gear may not the lightest iterations out there but they were designed with purpose involved.

    Once I got my base wight down to what I am comfortable with (11lb-13lb) I began engineering my gear for more specific needs.

    ie; Backpack –

    Able to fit a garcia canister horizontally, suspension capable of handling 35#, very high abrasion resistance (dyneema x-grid), light weight (24oz). This added up to a perfect pack for my 2011 14 day JMT thru-hike (end of Jul in the snow) with one resupply (MTR).


  13. I started out modifying 'textile' gear and after some years at the sewing machine graduated (or gravitated) to making gear from scratch. My first real piece of homemade gear was a backpack made from ancient stuff sacks and combining models from Glen Van Peski and Ray Jardine.

  14. I'm somewhere in the middle as well.

    I've made bivies out of tyvec, spun yarn and knit my own hat, made my own stove and pot stand, shoes etc. I also love my granate gear pack for all the stuff I can tie to it, though it's markedly improved by adding gossamer gear hip belt pockets. and removing the cap.

    I feel like what I end up doing is more influenced by how much time I have and how expensive/close to what I want the existing options are.

  15. I like to have a pack that can do several different things. Hyperlite Mountain Gear provides just that. A lightweight pack that can be a day pack, winter pack, long distance hauler( I walked the A/T with a Hyperlite Mountain Gear Windrider) or a weekend pack. It all starts with a well thought out design that allows for easy changes.

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