Whether you think ultralight backpacking sounds like hell or vacation, it provides a special dilemma for design minds. Ultralight gear has to be minimal, ergonomic, versatile and very very light. To get a higher-level industry take on the lightweight challenge I spoke with Mike Pfotenhauer, founder, owner and and chief designer of Osprey Packs. Osprey is over four decades old and renowned for innovative, ergonomic and, yes, lightweight pack design. Still independently owned and operated, they're a leading name in multiple fields of backpacking. When I caught up with Mike he had just gotten back from Southern California—a region he's required as a Northerner to speak poorly of—where he'd had a nice time hiking around Big Sur. (Don't tell him I told you.)
You guys have been doing pack design for a very long time. What sparks new ideas now?
For us a new design is often a compilation of older ideas that finally make sense. We build many iterations when developing a new product. Often it requires a minimum of 15 or 20 different versions before we can finalize a new product. All of this experimentation is never wasted. Our prototype archives are loaded with innovative concepts that are just waiting for the right opportunity. We have a lot of ideas stored. In fact, I just told everybody we have to dig out today! We have so many prototypes we're tripping over them! It's insane, we're drowning, we could get lost in them!
Do you still have a hand in the design process?
I'm definitely still involved in the design process. We have a design office in Mill Valley, and up until two years ago I did almost all of it. Now I have two design assistants and a production manager, and the design team in Vietnam, who turn the designs into prototypes and so on. We get a lot of input from distributors and vendors too. We travel to Vietnam where we have 35 people in the development office. With web conferencing we keep the product on a 24-hour development path. They build samples and ship them here or we go over them online, and go over them again and again and again... until the curtain. It's been worked to death by then. So that's three designers—two less than half my age, which is interesting. Young minds to keep me thinking young.
You guys just put out a new Exos. What's your take on going ultralight from a design perspective?
I really appreciate limitations. With any lightweight gear you have that rule—you want to keep it simple. It's also nice from a sustainability angle. Less process, less material. I do gravitate towards lightweight, towards minimalism. I like the challenge to strip things away. We're pretty known for that—gear that's lighter but durable. Not too light, though. We have an extensive warranty program and we don't want stuff coming back. Or getting thrown away!
How do you determine desired weight and work towards it?
Comfort, efficiency and load transfer are the concerns at the top of our list. Once we've accomplished those we do what we can to strip weight where it won't be detrimental. Because we develop our prototypes entirely in-house we know the product intimately and every gram that's not pulling its weight is discarded. With the Exos we knew that a highly tensioned back panel would be far lighter and more comfortable and ventilated than one with plastic or foam. We stripped dense foams out of the hipbelt and shoulder straps and created more ventilation by using layers of 3D mesh.