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.
The Flip is the first pack the legendary Dana Gleason II designed, in 1975. His son Dana III wore it during high school in the 1990s "as an act of rebellion," he says, at the more technical military packs his father was producing at the time. As the early 2010s boom in retro camp gear came to life, Dana III, then (and now) a backpack designer, finally had a reason to revisit one of his old favorites. "It was really my dad's first attempt at building a pack from scratch, and it was great, for sure," says Dana III. "But we've learned a lot since then." For the reissue that would revive the Kletterwerks brand, Dana III added more comfortable shoulder padding and a laptop sleeve and improved its construction methods while retaining the original geometry. The result is a sturdy, minimalist pack that feels like its lifespan should easily reach into decades rather than years.