“In reviewing, in the past 12 months, what has come out of (what used to be) the most exciting part of the ultralight backpacking niche – the cottage industry – all I can do is yawn.”
– Ryan Jordan, Backpackinglight.com (BPL)
This time last year I returned from a backpacking trip. Having been gone for a couple of weeks I was surprised to see an article on BPL titled, “Stagnation of the Cottage Industry and Recent Gems,” penned by Ryan Jordan, the owner of BPL. I was not surprised by the negative response from the readers and the cottage manufacturers of lightweight backpacking gear.
As I did last year, I just got home from a couple of trips, having been gone for a couple weeks again. In my email Inbox was a note from Ryan Jordan to the paid members of BPL outlining what the BPL brain trust is going to do this year to improve the website. This conversation has been going on for a couple of years, as BPL is in decline. Maybe BPL is no longer relevant. It seems that BPL lacks the innovation that Jordan accused the backpacking cottage industry of lacking. In his stagnation article Ryan said,
“It seems, sadly, that for all the “neatness” that cottage manufacturers are superficially producing, they are no longer fueling the excitement that makes using – and studying – ultralight gear fun and interesting.”
To me, all of this sounds like a spoiled child throwing a temper tantrum because he is bored with his toys. He demands new toys.
I like Backpackinglight.com. More specifically, I enjoy discussing gear, all things backpacking, and other subjects with other BPL members in the forums. I enjoy a few of the articles, mostly by Roger Caffin, a scientist, who brings the scientific method to gear analysis. I thought about posting this article on BPL, but decided to place it here instead. Many people have left BPL, so they won’t read it if it is posted on BPL. Also if I post it on BPL, they basically own it. Theirs to delete, edit, or disappear should BPL fold.
BPL is a website for lightweight backpacking affectionados. This is a curious phenomenon. Seems that many people who frequent BPL, think lightweight backpacking is a movement or even a philosophy created by Ray Jardine, who wrote a couple of books about backpacking in the 1990’s. Here is a surprise for many of them — backpacking is just walking. Backpacking is not about gear, it is just walking. Gear only keeps you warm, dry and safe. Many people were lightweight in the 60’s and 70’s. Maybe earlier. Since I started backpacking in the 60’s I can’t speak to what folks did before that. In the 70’s we had light backpacks (even frameless rucksacks), tarp shelters, goose down sleeping bags and clothing, light stoves fueled by alcohol, canister fuels, and solid fuel cubes. Pick any gear item in your pack, and there was a light version available in the 70’s.
In the late 70’s and the 80’s, huge heavy packs appeared on the market. All sorts of heavy luxury and safety items appeared too. Eager backpackers flocked to stores like REI, Eddie Bauer, and Campmor to load up on these heavy offerings. And some of us just kept our light gear or repaced it with newer, lighter versions when offered. In spite of all the heavy gear these “traditional” backpackers carried, the lightweight backpackers kept on hiking. No fanfare, no evangelical mutterings; we just kept walking. Lightweight backpacking did not die; consumerism replaced it for many people.
After the published enlightenment of Saint Ray Jardine, many of these “traditional” hikers rushed to find light gear. Oh, it was available, but they wanted something marketed specifically to their new religion. Jardine was so enamored with his revelation; he called it the “Ray Way.” And the New Cottage industry was born. At least that is what the faithful thought. There has always been a cottage industry. Kelty, Gerry and others were the cottage industry in the 60’s. Later McHale Alpine Packs and Stepheson’s Warmlite filled the gap. So what did the New Cottage industry offer? New products made from new materials, based on time proven designs.
Now I don’t want to diminish the current cottage industry’s contribution. Most of my current gear is made by them. The gear is a little lighter than what I had 40 years ago. But lets face it, a pack is a bag with straps and usually some sort of frame; a tent is just a roof with poles, stakes, and guy lines; goose down still keeps us warm; and stoves still work pretty much the same – they burn the same fuels that were available 40 years ago. These new companies have tweaked designs and made excellent use of new fabrics, titanium, carbon fiber and the like. There are some pretty innovative twists on the timeless theme of gear.
So the New Cottage industry really got going around 2002, about the time BPL started. And BPL was there to review the new lightweight movement; and in their mind, to guide it. They did a pretty good job too; known for their unbiased and thorough evaluations. And 10 years later there just isn’t a whole lot that is new. We don’t need new designs; there are plenty of innovative pieces of gear available today. What we are seeing today is a maturing of the cottage industry – just as we have seen every decade that I have backpacked; simple evolution. They are improving quality, refining their products, and growing their business. Good stuff.
Then in 2012, something happened at BPL. They lost their compass. A very controversial pack review came out. First off, it was not a real review; a first impression of the pack, with promises of updates. Almost a year later, the review has not been updated. This was not the in depth expert review that BPL readers were used to and expected. What was not published in the review was that Ryan Jordan had helped design the pack, the pack had several unique features found on another company’s packs (of which Jordan had bought several), and Jordan is now listed as an “ambassador” on the website of the company whose pack he reviewed. Obviously this was not the unbiased comprehensive review that BPL was known for.
BPL has undergone many changes the past 4 years. Seems cash flow is a problem. BPL needs to upgrade their technology and figure out what they want to be when they grow up; or even if they want to grow up and survive. They need innovation — the Internet is changing — and BPL has not changed — the very thing Jordan accused the cottage industry of doing. BPL is now challenged by social networking and blogs. To be honest, I find many blogs more interesting than BPL, especially several in the UK. These UK bloggers just hike a lot in some pretty crappy weather. They are not fanatical about it. They just walk. Maybe that is BPL’s problem — that by packing less, you become more – their mantra is not true. It is time to get rid of the evangelical dogma and just get out and have fun.
I will still continue to visit BPL for the time being. Mostly to interact with the many fine people who participate in the forums. But I don’t know how long BPL will last. I have thrown around the word “innovation” quite a bit, just like Jordan did last year. What is the solution for BPL? That is Jordan’s problem. You see, BPL is a business. They charge for a lot of the content on the website. Unfortunately, Jordan is out of touch with his customers. He publicly admits that he does not read the forums; the forums that could provide him valuable feedback; the type feedback that corporations spend millions of dollars yearly so they can improve their product.
In the end, none of this matters. I will continue backpacking this year, whether or not BPL is around. And if my health holds up, many more years of backpacking are planned. We really don’t need magazines, blogs, books, or BPL to backpack. We didn’t have any of these 40 plus years ago.