Lessons learned from a lifetime of building packs for climbers, hotshot firefighters, and Navy SEALs
Some time In 1989, designer Dana Gleason got a phone call. “I didn’t get someone saying, ‘Hello’ or ‘How are you?’” As he tells it, “I got a guy on the other end going ‘How do I keep the paint on?’”
The man on the line was a member of the original SEAL Team Two. He and his cohorts had been buying Gleason’s Dana Design Astralplane backpacking pack, and then spray painting them tactical colors for use in the field. After a characteristic Dana joke (“You’re spray painting my babies?”), he revealed that the water repellent used in the pack made a bad bond for paint. But he had some ideas. “We had about a 45 minute conversation and I started building them a pack that was similar in design, but black, and with a little heavier fabric, and a couple more zippers,” he recounted.
Nearly two decades later Gleason is still in business with the U.S. Special Forces (and the Canadian SOFCOM, and British SAS, and Australian SOC, etc). And more importantly (for us), he’s happily re-entered the recreational outdoor industry too.
Mystery Ranch is Gleason’s most recent foray back into the gear business, and Kletterwerks, his original company, has been revived by his son. Both brands offer updates on designs originally introduced to much fan fare in the 1980s and 90s, and others implement patented characteristics now essentially synonymous with the Dana name—torpedo pockets, the 3-ZIP, modular internal frame system. Things have come full circle, in a sense. But his path has been anything but linear.
Gleason landed in Bozeman, Montana via Chicago in 1975 ("just at the end of the cowboy hippie wars") before bootstrapping two pack-focused businesses with partner Renee Sippel-Baker (a third generation Montanan), selling one (Dana Design to K2 in 1996), retiring, and unretiring. He’s traveled the world over, skied and climbed with a broad smile what would make most pucker, and in the process, both Gleason and his packs have become legendary in certain circles—the man’s personality is as big as the tales he tells.
His maximalist designs are widely considered the most trustworthy long haul backpacking and climbing packs ever made. Today Mystery Ranch reports a return rate of less than 1/10th of a percent, which can mostly be attributed to hotshot firefighters, who are notoriously hard on gear. Even 20 and 30 year old Dana Designs models fetch a hefty price online today, thanks to their indestructible craftsmanship. And of course, it’d be a misstep to not mention Gleason’s cult-like following in Japan and Korea.
On a recent phone conversation, he was candid, warm, and reflective, vacillating between salient observations about the outdoor business and funny stories from his lengthy career. The following is a slightly edited transcript.
You’ve had an expansive career. How does the current phase compare to the rest?
I’m having the time of my life. Every one of these things I’ve done, I’ve done because I wanted to.
From starting to build backpacks in the 70s, to what we’re doing with Mystery Ranch now, none of them ever went the way I thought they would at the beginning. In this particular case, we fired up Mystery Ranch after I left Dana Design, and I was thinking, “Ok, we know how to build up a company, we did it with Dana Design, we’ll just do it again.”
But the market had shifted. What people were getting into was shifting. They weren’t going out for multi-day backpack trips near as much as they had before. Most folk who were getting into backpacking early this century didn’t need a 6,000 cubic inch pack. Ultralight was coming on and people were doing much shorter trips in most cases. Applying the technology to military things and wildland firefighters, and also internalizing the needs of those customers, became a huge deal.
Are you motivated by that problem-solving?
Absolutely. When you’re dealing with a wildland firefighter, you’re dealing with a guy who has a seasonal job. He might get 110 days a year, but in those days he’s doing 16 hour days and carrying a minimum of 28 lbs on his back and he’s doing it the whole time he’s out there. They’re doing the moral equivalent of ditch-digging or logging for that time. They need what we do. We make a huge difference on how beat or how injured they are at the end of the day.
That’s something that matters to me and matters to everyone that works here. We are making a difference to these folks. That’s addictive.
What makes your packs so valued by elite military and firefighting personnel?
I didn’t start out making cool gear, I started out using the gear hard and repairing it. Back in the early 70s, I ended up getting an industrial sewing machine. I started taking in repairs and doing mods for people. Digging into the gear and figuring out how it was made, how it was built, what worked, what didn’t work, why things failed, and why I had to fix stuff. Three years of doing that, and even someone of my limited talents would think, “Hell, I can do better than that.”
“It’s pretty damn good to be a Rancher.”
And then we pay a lot of attention to how people actually use the gear. There’s a lot of equipment out there that works wonderfully when it’s properly used and works pretty crappy when it’s not properly used. Frankly speaking, that’s the fault of the people who did the design work. You have to realize that how you get the most out of your gear is not uppermost in people’s mind. They’re just out there using and hoping to have a good time. A huge amount of what’s gone into Mystery Ranch is building gear to work the way people actually use it everyday, instead of trying to get them to learn all the ins-and-outs of the right way to do things.
Now, bringing backpacking and more recreational packs into focus for the brand, do you approach designing differently?
Well bringing the stuff down-making it [a bit] lighter. We’ve done a real turn building our mission-based stuff for people who have to use it, and it has to work. Now, getting back to the avocational side where we want to use it—this is our lives, this is what we do, this is not our job—brings back a whole different set of requirements and gives you a certain essential lightness of spirit in designing. And it's cool to get back to that.
But the durability is kept no matter what. It’s just part of the rules of the game we play by. That's why all the seams are taped, that's why in doing the stitching everything is done with integral backtacking. The simpler and smaller things actually have more difficulty built-in per square inch than the larger things. Elegance isn’t easy in many cases. [Other brands] make up for flaws by adding nine more features. We’re trying to build for reason, not anything else. We solve problems, even with the everyday carry packs.
With Kletterwerks, were you surprised that your classic designs had a resurgence? Now every brand wants to make a similar, sparse rucksack-type backpack.
I was deeply shocked. The reason Kletterwerks happened as a modern line is because we were working with folk in Japan and Korea selling our Mystery Ranch stuff. They came over for a sales meeting in 2010. And I’m a designer, I’ve got an ego, so I’ve got an example of almost everything I have built through the decades sitting up on shelves. So, when we got to Kletterwerks and showed them the early packs, there was this weird teeth-sucking sound. “Oh Dana-san! We must have this!”
"Retirement isn’t a topic that comes up all that often anymore."
Those basic early designs were very clean and I absolutely wanted to bring it back to life, which we did.
And that's why we started doing Kletterwerks again. And we started doing it in the States as well. We did it in part to appeal to men's speciality shops like Pilgrim in New York. They’re wonderful people and they’re after putting out real stuff. We click. It's good.
How much does Bozeman and that community influence the company?
Bozeman has had a huge influence on us over the last 40 years, because we have a great place with long winters, lots of good mountains, lots of rivers, and it’s an intellectually curious town. Culturally, it has some stuff going on that most cow towns don’t.
Since I’ve been here, it’s only 41 years now, there’s long been a substantial group of tech-heads. We were out raiding the aerospace industry, automotive industry, and shoe business for materials ever since the late 70s. There’s always been a bit of a tech edge.
Bozeman made kayaking, skiing, biking, backpacking, and climbing such an everyday, you can do it in the afternoon or morning thing. It’s just a part of life here.
Will you retire ever again?
I did it once, and quite frankly, it made skiing powder all over the world seem boring. I’m going to keep my hand in it until I can’t. I’m having the time of my life. We have very interesting problems, we have great people tackling them. It’s awfully easy to come into work in the morning.
It’s also worth noting that my partner [Renee Sippel-Baker] and I have sold a business in the past—Dana Design. The American corporate way of life plucked the wings off it and basically rendered it without value. No need to do that again.
Acquisitions seems to be happening more and more frequently in the outdoor industry. How have you watched that trend develop since the 70s?
Back in the 70s I had no clue about it. In the 90s, we sold Dana Design in large part because as we grew it from a no-dollar business to $10 million a year—we were thinking that maybe we were getting out of our depth. Once we were exposed to how corporate America ran things, we realized we weren’t getting out of our depth, things were going along just fine. We’d just sort of had a crisis of confidence. Well also, the urge to take some money off the table, get a retirement fund and all that.
Strangely enough, the retirement fund vanished when we founded Mystery Ranch, but retirement isn’t a topic that comes up all that often anymore.
Is this sustained interest in working a result of what happened to Dana Design?
To some degree it was a result of watching what we went through with Dana Design. My business partner left two years after we sold, I left after four. She was the smart one.
You know, there’s more to life than simply chasing after return on investment. We’ve talked with people and they kind of focus immediately on, “Well, ok, so you do all these things for different people. You should immediately focus on what the most profitable thing is and do that.” That’s a very limiting attitude.
We like being able to add value to people who are doing a number of different things. We’re once again selling outdoor gear and selling into the hunting world. It’s great to be back and be solving those problems. It’s what I grew up in. We have a saying here, “It’s pretty damn good to be a Rancher.”