There is no higher dignity in the backpacking world than using products that you yourself have made on the long trails. Backpackers by trade are a resourceful bunch—and they need to be, moving between resupply points with unexpected gear failures through some of the last great lengths of wilderness. Teach a man to fish, right?
That’s exactly where Brandon McIntyre of Superior Wilderness Designs comes from. Raised in a costume shop, McIntyre was never a stranger to sewing machines, so when he started backpacking in his youth, he put the two together early on and hasn’t looked back since. The Romeo, Michigan based 26-year-old started selling ultra-lightweight packs just last year, but don’t let his tenure fool you—he’s come a long way from altering Halloween costumes.
We were very excited to find out what 2017 has in store for SWD when we caught up with McIntyre to count ounces and talk design.
“We’re definitely an ultra-lightweight company. I tend to come at it from that world.”
McIntyre is producing some sharp looking ultra-lightweight bags under the SWD label. They’re simple, rugged, and come in around 28oz fully featured. McIntyre’s focus is on cutting the overall weight of SWD products wherever he can find excess. I asked him about the priorities in his design approach. He says, “Really, first and foremost, the weight.” He admits that the construction has to be flawless, but we agreed that’s a given for any outdoor product. McIntyre says, “weight is always the driving factor—it has to be as light as possible.” He elaborates, “any time I even think about making a change the first thing I do is go to a scale and weigh it. If I’m unsure about making a change in the designs and it weighs 8 grams more, I’ll be a lot more hesitant to make the change.”
Outside of the weight, McIntyre really prioritizes ease of use and fit. As a thru hiker, McIntyre has put over 1,400 miles of testing in on his bags. As a matter of fact, he made pretty much all the gear they used on their 2016 attempt of the PCT. Talk about a business trip. SWD shut down last summer as McIntyre and business partner/girlfriend Ashley Thick hiked the California section of the PCT, evaluating their designs and ultimately developing the current iteration of their flagship pack, The Long Haul 50. “I feel that we really offer a legitimate product, I wouldn’t sell them if I wasn’t confident in them. And that was a big part of why we went out and attempted a thru hike—that I really wanted to do—get out there and use the packs.”
“Any time I even think about making a change the first thing I do is go to a scale and weigh it. If I’m unsure about making a change in the designs and it weighs 8 grams more, I’ll be a lot more hesitant to make the change.”
The Long Haul is SWD’s thru hiking pack. It comes fully featured with a full suspension, hip belt with pockets, and the huge mesh net front pocket for additional items. SWD offers multiple add-ons for additional charges, but the bag is ready to go as is. McIntyre’s key insights from his thru hiking experience have been to keep the bag simple.
“We saw a lot of people on the trails having issues with some of the more complex [suspension] systems that are out there with [stays] braking, or punching through certain parts of the fabric. I like the simplicity of what we’ve got going on. It’s just a foam back panel that’s sewn into the pack and then there are two tubes that the aluminum stays slide into and the stays are contoured to fit up and around your back.”
Each set of stays is cut to fit your torso size and has a little bit of flex to them, so you can fine tune your suspension to your back and bend the stays as you see fit.
It’s always been an aspiration of McIntyre’s to work for himself. As a teenager, he worked for his uncle who runs a small business out of his garage, so McIntyre actually had a pretty good template when he decided to open his own garage gear company.
“I’d kind of done all of the other work,” he says, “through just my own interest in backpacking and being a gear junkie. All of the really ‘hard’ work was done—I already had that base of knowledge. It just kind of made sense to you know, why not sell them?” And in the digital age, the possibilities are endless. McIntyre says, “we’re still in the very early stages, but it’s one of the really cool things about the internet. The way things are—you can do so much with so little.”
“All of the really ‘hard’ work was done—I already had that base of knowledge. It just kind of made sense to you know, why not sell them?”
While McIntyre is in charge of production, Thick runs the digital end of the business. I actually came across SWD via their Instagram account, which has gained momentum thanks to her digital strategy and photography skills. As the #backpackingSWD clan grows, so too does their business. If you’re ordering a pack or engaging with SWD through their social, you’ll likely get ahold of Thick.
At the end of the day it’s about the product. McIntyre clearly has the experience to give his style and opinion on backpacking some credence. “I just wanted to offer a product that I had always wanted throughout my years of backpacking. And that’s probably true of most of us smaller cottage type manufacturers. We see something that we want, and then we try and fill that niche and create a product that doesn’t necessarily exist and offer more options.”
What I really love about SWD is that they’re genuinely invested in getting people outside. They want you to go hiking. McIntyre loves backpacks and sees his business as an opportunity to encourage you to explore. He says:
“I think they’re a legit product and I’m always happy when I send them out. It’s kind of fun getting to make them the whole time, it’s like I get to know the backpack a little bit. Knowing that it’s going to go get beat up on a trail somewhere is a good feeling and knowing that you’re providing something that’s going to get people to go outside and just hang out in the woods for a while—that feels really good too…providing something like that and giving people that little push to go.”
As backpackers gear up for their thru-hike attempts this season and complete their final equipment checks, business will continue to grow. SWD hasn’t sponsored a hiker yet, but you’ll definitely be seeing more and more of their products on the trails, “This year we’ll be around for the summer and fully operational the whole time. I’m excited to get an actual hiking season in,” says McIntyre. He’s pretty blown away by their success so far, “It seems like it’s working at this point. We seem to be steadily growing and I’m proud of the backpacks—people are interested and willing to buy them. It’s kind of crazy that this is working because it all happened so fast.”
As for sponsoring a hiker, McIntyre says they’re working on it. “We’ll definitely do that at some point. We get a lot of requests for that—we’re just not in a position to give out a bunch of packs at this point.”
Keep an eye out for some new products from McIntyre and SWD this year. A stripped down, frameless 50-liter pack is on the drawing board, as are smaller add-on accessories like shoulder pouches. Until then, check out their current lineup–we’re pretty fond of the Lunch Box–and snag some free trail wisdom from McIntyre and Thick via the SWD blog.