This issue of the Gazette's "Sponsor Spotlight" features Kristen Diers, Director of Operations for Katabatic Gear, one of ALDHA-West’s sponsoring gear companies. We asked Kristen a few questions about Katabatic Gear so that we can get to know them better. If you have any additional questions for Kristen, please leave a comment.
Brief Description of company:
Katabatic Gear is a small Colorado-based company designing and manufacturing ultralight gear with a focus on exceeding customer expectations for comfort and function. Our company began shortly after the founder, Aaron Martray, caught the UL backpacking bug. Before that, you might have seen Aaron slogging along the trail with his 80-lb. backpack, complete with a fry pan and camp chair. Like many of us, he used to think he needed to carry a lot more in his pack in order to be safe and happy in the backcountry.
A scenic detour over Hunchback Mtn, San Juan Mountains, CO.
Once he realized all the benefits of carrying lighter/less gear, he became obsessed with reducing pack weight. Sound familiar? He left certain (unused) items behind, replaced his white gas stove with an MYOG Heineken can stove, and trimmed every extra strap and clip he found. He started replacing heavier items with newly available UL products. Though Aaron loved the quality and conservative temperature rating of his Western Mountaineering sleeping bag, it was just too heavy for his newfound ultralight aspirations, so he had to find a replacement. Which ties into the next question:
Did you start as a DIYer? How did you make the leap to starting a gear business?
Aaron wanted a UL quilt style bag with the same comfort and quality of his Western Mountaineering sleeping bag. However, he felt like the quilt style sleeping bags that were available at the time didn’t hit the mark. He had tons of ideas about how to make a quilt style sleeping bag that wasn’t drafty or cold - but would they really work? There was only one way to find out, so Aaron learned how to sew. After countless iterations, Aaron decided that his DIY quilt was super cozy AND super light! He thought other UL backpackers might want a good night’s sleep, too, so decided he’d try to sell this design.
Testing temperature ratings of EARLY prototypes, sleeping out at our base camp of a canyoneering trip.
Once the decision was made, years of testing, adjusting, testing, redesigning, testing, and perfecting ensued. Everything from fabrics to attachment clips; temperature ratings to drawcords were all dialed-in after countless nights in the backcountry of Utah, Colorado, Alaska, Canada . . . He also included several human guinea pigs who gladly offered feedback. After that, it’s just your typical story of a business starting from an apartment, moving to a little shop, hiring a part-time employee, hiring a full-time employee, and so on.
Durability testing of early prototype backpack: dragging them through slot canyons in Utah to see how much they can take.
Over the years, more and more of Aaron’s ideas for UL gear have come to market, so he is still the DIYer, designing and building prototypes. We then put them through the wringer (ourselves, and other folks) in the great outdoors. This might be our favorite part of the job for obvious reasons. But in the end, our main goal is to see happy, comfortable customers on the trail, carrying gear they hardly notice. Because when it works the way you want it to, you don’t have to think about it.
Who do you see as your market? How do you reach these folks?
We think our customers are people who want to make their outdoor endeavors more enjoyable by carrying lightweight, compact gear that exceeds their expectations.
When we started, most of our customers were UL thru-hikers, SUL gram weenies, FKT challengers, and the like. Over the years, all sorts of outdoor enthusiasts who want lightweight or compact gear have started buying from us: cyclists, climbers, runners, skiers, and weekend warriors.
Above Stevens Canyon, Grand Staircase - Escalante National Monument
Not only do our customers vary by favorite activity, but they also run the gamut in age, gender, and location. One of the trends we’ve been excited to see is an uptick in retirees. Retired or not, those of us with aging bodies have realized that we can spend more time on the trail, and have happy joints and muscles when we go with LW/UL gear.
So far, we’ve been graced with the pleasure of a great reputation for quality and comfort, so word of mouth has played a large role in reaching new customers. Also, social media makes it easy for us to keep in touch with the market, as well as learn what is important to potential and existing customers.
Do you see the possibility (opportunity/threat) that the big gear makers try to buy up the cottage gear makers like we see happening in the craft beer space?
We think this depends on just how “mainstream” UL gear becomes. Generally speaking, a lot of UL designs are a little too far outside the box for most backpackers or outdoor enthusiasts to embrace. [A sleeping bag without a back? Won’t I freeze to death? Why doesn’t that backpack have a place for me to hang my Bluetooth speaker?] We feel UL gear can and should appeal to a larger market than it currently does, but it can be a mental shift. When more people realize that UL gear can be even more functional and comfortable than traditional gear, our little cottage companies might start to look good to those bigger manufacturers. Unfortunately, rather than buying up the cottage companies, it is more likely that they’ll just hijack the cottage designs they think they can sell. For now, we’ll just stay focused on getting high-quality UL gear into the hands of folks who love to be outside.
We’re stuck on just about anything IPA. We know sours are a trend, but we haven’t quite figured those out yet. Any tips?
Favorite activity when you’re not hiking?
Mountain biking, road biking, climbing, canyoneering, skiing . . . Any of which are followed wonderfully by a nice IPA.
We also love bikepacking and road bike tours: This is Cottonwood Pass from a super fun, 9-day road bike loop around Southwestern CO.