By BRETT FRENCH
The Billings Gazette
BOZEMAN (AP) - At a time when backpacking gear companies are counting ounces to cater to a lightweight trend, Bozeman's Dana Gleason is building the Humvee of packs - stout, durable and expensive.
''Ultralight is such an easy concept to grasp,'' Gleason conceded. But for many backpackers, ultralight packs can't carry a ''real world'' load, he added.
''Our packs are for people who truly use the gear and don't just read the magazines and dream about it,'' Gleason said. ''And it will last 15 to 17 years. The material has a lifetime guarantee.''
Mystery Ranch is Gleason's latest backpacking company - the fourth gear company he's launched in Bozeman with partner Rene Sippel-Baker.
Gleason provides the creative and marketing side of the business while Sippel-Baker deals with the business side.
''He and I have an interesting working relationship,'' Sippel-Baker said. ''He couldn't do my job and would be foolish to try.''
The partnership started in 1976 with the Kletter Werks line. They then built gear for photographers under Mojo Systems, which later became Quest Systems. From there they started Dana Designs, a backpacking company that was purchased by K2.
After K2 bought out Gleason and Sippel-Baker, Gleason started an Internet-based business until the ''noncompete'' clause with K2 expired. It wasn't until the late 1990s that Gleason came up with the idea of another gear company after creating a hip sack for his daughter, Alice.
''I wanted something simple,'' Gleason said. ''Over the course of a weekend, I turned out a hip sack that became a precursor to the stuff we're building now.''
Gleason is a chatty, bear of a man with an infectious enthusiasm. He is the consummate salesman, knowing his business inside and out.
So when he makes a comment about his newest backpack frame - the NICE system - saying, ''There's nothing that carries better. This is the best I've ever built,'' it's easy to wonder if he's just blustering again. But then he slams the frame on the ground, his reading glasses falling off his forehead from the force, and admits to some past mistakes.
''In 2000, we tried to build a very complex pack system for specialty dealers,'' he said.
The system, called The Works, relied on different-sized frames for different body styles. The bag was attached to the frame with seven buckles. Different bags for different uses could be attached to the frame.
''The reality is it was too complicated,'' Gleason said. ''We had stuff that worked great when it was used properly,'' but most people weren't bothering to make the necessary adjustments.
''It was a huge set of lessons for us,'' he said. ''We got off track. When you're dealing with new ways of doing things, sometimes you should just think about it a bit longer.''
So in 2002-03, Mystery Ranch switched over to a design that allowed its Outamatic harness to be adjusted up and down to fit the pack's frame to different-sized torsos. The main component is the patented Lumbar Wrap waist belt with hard plastic wings that spread the load across the hips and back, without constricting the hiker's movement. The packs ride fairly high, with the Lumbar Wrap fitting into the small of the hiker's back. The design keeps the majority of the load off the hiker's shoulders.
To adjust the packs, a plastic sheet slides in between Velcro to quickly release the harness for adjustments. Pull the sheet out and the harness locks into place. In a matter of one or two minutes, the pack is tweaked to fit the hiker. The newer packs are ''dirt simple'' to adjust, Gleason said.
Different pack designs feature different frames, harnessing and materials and cater to different needs - from expedition packs to day packs.
Gleason said Mystery Ranch's frames are built to carry 130 pounds, but for practical purposes they make a 45- to 50-pound load feel fairly insignificant and a 60- to 70-pound load manageable.
The G-7000 costs $519 with the smaller G-6000 and G-5000 costing $497 and $449, respectively.
''Two or three years ago, we were being told people don't do this kind of hiking,'' Gleason said, ''and the most a pack could be sold for was $200.''
Now, Gleason is proving critics wrong, finding a niche market for his packs and catering to the military's special forces, such as the Navy SEALS. Although a wider audience may be interested in purchasing Gleason's gear, the price of the packs does scare some buyers off.
''As far as durability and quality, they're great,'' said Kevin McGowan, the Rocky Mountain outfitting manager for the National Outdoor Leadership School in Lander, Wyo. NOLS instructors tested Mystery Ranch's big G-7000 pack, loading them down with 70 to 75 pounds of gear.
''They accommodate the load very well,'' McGowan said. But he added that the cost of the packs put them out of reach for the school. ''We couldn't even afford them at wholesale prices,'' he said.
Dennis Lewon, a senior editor at Backpacker magazine, called Mystery Ranch packs nice with excellent details, but added they are ''kind of pricey.'' In its March gear issue, the magazine reviewed the Futura Prime, a 4,200 cubic inch pack priced at $329. The reviewer called the Futura Prime ''pricey, not gimmicky.''
The reason Mystery Ranch packs cost more, Gleason said, is because he builds them with top-end materials, and he builds them in Bozeman, not overseas. In 2004, Mystery Ranch dropped its overseas manufacturers. And rather than mess with dealers, the new packs are only being sold at the Montana shop.
''We found that we're better off controlling production here and selling direct to the people using it,'' Gleason said.
The March issue of Men's Journal magazine recognized Mystery Ranch for its U.S.-made gear in its ''American Classics'' article, calling the packs ''a boutique alternative to the big guys.''
Right now, Mystery Ranch employs about a dozen people. But to keep up with the military's demand for his durable gear, Gleason said the company could increase to 20 employees by the end of the year.
The military's special forces became interested in the Mystery Ranch's heavy-duty designs and, last year, the company built a new frame system driven by military needs. The NICE (Nylinear Individual Carrying Equipment) frame is composed of three horizontal and three vertical pieces of carbon fiberglass that Gleason calls ''basically indestructible.''
''We hurled them 40 feet with a 50-pound load and they just bounced,'' he said. ''Basically, there is no load limit on these things. Anything you can get on your back, they can carry.''
Working with the military to design the heavy-duty gear has been enjoyable, he said.
''We do very well with the special operations folks because they actually use the gear and it matters a great deal to them,'' he said. ''These people are fully invested in what they do, as much as the most hardcore climbers or skiers.''
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