A familiar theme emerged when we talked to eight of the people at the reins of the premier family-owned-and-run outdoor gear companies in America. "It all began as a hobby," says Hal Stephens, speaking of his father’s interest in scuba diving, the ignition for a business that early on sold a single diving flashlight – and over 35 years became now a multi-million dollar tactical lighting company the younger Stephens now runs. "It wasn't overnight, of course. there were quite a few hard knocks on the way."
In fact, each of these companies, from a bootmaker whose wares last for decades, to a paddle-crafter working in high-tech carbon fiber, in some part spun out of a free-time pursuit. These families aren’t making widgets to fill some blank space in the product universe; they’re making the gear they’d want to use go to out and explore the world in the open air on Saturday and Sunday. We talked to each of these leaders about their company’s heritage, and one product which evinces it best.
Dana Gleason III: Kletterwerks
As the son of a legendary backpack designer Dana Gleason II, "Dana III" watched his father develop a highly successful technical backpack company – Dana Design – then sell it to K2 in 1998 and retire as a ski bum, unsuccessfully (within a few months, Dana II was making backpacks again, under the name Mystery Ranch.) Shortly afterwards, he roped Dana III into the family business, designing specialized military packs built to comfortably carry heavy, odd shaped gear. Their most recent project, Kletterwerks, also involves backpacks, exploring vintage designs and building stripped-down minimalist packs for both trail and city. The Gleasons aren't looking to get away from backpacks any time soon. "I guess we could sell the brands and go off to a beach and drink mai tais, but we'd probably just end up making packs there. We do this for fun," says Dana III.