A steady wall of snow pounds my windshield as I drive to an appointment at the warehouse district of Denver. Any form of outdoor activity has been thrown out the window for the day--playing with snow at this time of year is about as appealing to me as driving in it. So I pick the lesser of the two evils. "Six more weeks you say? How is it that you are right more often than a weatherman with every form of technology at his disposal?" Comes the mumble out of my mouth. That damn groundhog and his eerily spot-on predictions.
I'm at Kifaru International for a tour of sorts. After meeting one of their ranks, Aron Snyder, at a little death march he puts together for offseason training, I'm invited to stop by and have a look at their operations. Aron's a fella that plays the part of knowing what the hell he's talking about when it comes to the needs of the backcountry.
Picture G.I. Joe taken from the big screen, bow in hand, a plug of Copenhagen horseshoed in his lower lip and the ability to motivate a group of guys to throw fifty pound packs on their back and march up a hill just for the" fun of it".
If he's this dedicated to helping others achieve their training goals, I'd be curious to see what his motivation does for the Kifaru lineup.
I step through the front door and all seems normal. A display room with a bunch of packs hanging from the wall and some well placed taxidermy.
From the back room a bald headed, linebacker looking gorilla walks towards me. A smile comes across my face as I am reaffirmed yet again the direction our sport is headed. I'm pumped to be a part of this revolution. From weekend hobbyists to fully committed mountain athletes and guys like this are spearheading the charge.
The ceremonial handshakes are given and we get right to it.
"Come on back, I want you to see something." Aron says.
We head to a back room, where it became apparently obvious that this is where ideas are hashed out and put to paper. A printer the size of a Volkswagen sits poised and ready to vomit out paper according to its masters wishes. And this case, it's master is Erik Bender, one of Kifaru's product designers.
"What do you think of this?" Erik points to a new concept the team has been working on. "Would you use it in the field?"
Alright then, I'm guessing these guys aren't afraid to ask for an outsider's opinion. I turn the prototype over in my hands and slowly start to see the many ways this could make my life easier when I'm away from the comforts of home.
"We've been working on it since this morning. I want to test it out on an upcoming trip." Aron explains.
My mind reels. Spitting out a prototype in four hours time is nothing to take too lightly. If creations evolve through generational turnover, this business model is sure to keep Kifaru ahead of the game.
"How did you get this designed and created in four hours?" Comes what I deemed as logical question.
"That's the next stop in the tour." Aron says as he motions me out of the room and into the bowels of the building.
I should have known something was amiss when I walked into the tiny showroom. That was just a fraction of what the building held.
The heart of Kifaru is here, where hands are creating the products that the rest of us depend on to haul our life supporting gear into the backcountry.
People glide between monster sewing machines and grommet presses. You can feel the room pulse with the pride of its operators.
"Nothing that goes into our gear is from anywhere but right here in the USA. Not the material, not the zippers, not a single stitch comes from foreign soil." Aron explains. I can tell this point is important to him, Aron coming from a military background and all.
American pride runs strong through the pipe works of this place, apparently down to the last stitch.
"We are able to remain nimble because of this room right here." Aron continues. “We can concept an idea in the morning and have it created by the afternoon. Test it, refine it, then produce it. All right here."
"I remember that pack you were wearing on our training hike. Do you know why you were struggling and falling behind?"
As one to always let my ego get in the way, I respond, "Because I was carrying more weight than everyone else?"
"Unlikely. Because the pack you were carrying can't hold weight for shit." He says with a straight face.
I could tell he wasn't bad mouthing the brand of pack that I was using, just making an honest assessment of the situation.
"And your guy's packs have a way of defying gravity huh? They work on a different law of physics?" I couldn't help myself.
"Just try this." Comes his patient response.
He hefts a nearby pack on my back. I go through my procedure of buckling it down and bounced around a bit.
"Not bad. Super stable." Comes my response.
"That's 60 pounds." He smiles.
A dumbfounded look comes over my face. Newton might have missed this one. I've lifted small babies that felt heavier than this.
"The right fit and a well thought out suspension system can go a long way." Aron states.
We push on through the factory with Aron pointing out some of the highlights to their designs. All very hunter specific type of stuff. A sleeping bag that zips in the front to allow for glassing while still in the bag, a lightweight backcountry teepee, a wood burning stove that collapses small enough to allow for a small leprechaun to fit it in his back pocket. You know, stuff like that.
I've never seen anything like this in the market before. My gut tells me that once this stuff gets in front of the public's eye, the sky is the limit for Kifaru.
"So where are these ideas coming from?" I ask.
"Heard of Mountainsmith?" Aron's eyebrow went up as he asks a question he already knows the answer to.
"Indeed I have." Comes my response.
"Patrick Smith founded, owned and was the lead designer back in the day. Today, he owns Kifaru. The guy knows what's what in the game and has hired the best to help support and advance the company." Aron explains.
That's like Bill Gates going out and starting another software company, it's bound to have at least a little success.
After digging a little deeper, it sure appears that Smith is the real deal. His background alone speaks wonders, but that's not what impresses me the most. After decades working in the industry, his enthusiasm for perfection hasn't appeared to wane. He spends over 200 days a year camping out and testing his designs to this day. How many of us have that level of dedication to our work?
"Impressive." Is the only keenly witted response that comes to mind.
Drinking the Kool-Aid
I liked what I saw in Kifaru. An all American company with experience and dedication all the way from the helm to the employees manning the machines. All the elements of a successful company were certainly there, but the proof is in the pudding as they say.
"Next time we're out training and you're handing me my ass on the mountain, I'll throw one of those 60 pound gravity defying packs and see what it can do." I say to Aron as I walk to the door.
"Oh the pack will do fine, it's whether those chicken legs of yours will carry you up the hill. That is the question you should be asking yourself." Comes the response.
Like the weather man, technology will only take you so far. And like that damn ground rat said, I still have six more weeks until spring. That should be plenty of time to get these chicken legs in backcountry shape.
After doing a little online research about the creator/owner of Kifaru, Patrick Smith, I knew I had to find a way in there to talk to this guy. He was kind enough to grant me a meeting, which I recorded because my memory is shot to hell, so remembering what he said would be out of the question and I can't read my own handwriting, so there was strike two. Recording the conversation proved to be the way to go.
What I ascertained from the meeting is that this guy was a certified badass, no question about it.
So next up, some deep down insight on the hunting industry from one of its pioneers. Will it be Hunting the Rat's first podcast? Or another poorly spelled post? We'll just have to see.