By Eric Peterson / CompanyWeek | Jun 13, 2016
Backpacks and outdoor gear
After working as an auto mechanic for about a decade, Martray took some time off to travel in 2008. He rode his bicycle from Denver to Alaska, then tackled Utah's Hayduke Trail in the fall.
"I made some gear for that trip, one item being a sleeping bag," he says. "It worked really well."
But this was no ordinary sleeping bag: His handcrafted quilt-style bag was open on one side with an innovative clip-style attachment that clipped onto his sleeping pad. "This kind of design saves a lot of weight," Martray says. "It's also compressible."
After the trip, he decided to try to make ultralight gear as a career. He spent a year honing his designs before selling Katabatic Gear's first quilt-style sleeping bags, bivys, and hoods in 2010. The company is named for katabatic winds, downslope gusts that pick up steam as they come off mountains.
Nothing is outsourced. "We do everything in-house," says Martray. "Some of our designs are fairly complex, so this way we keep our eye on the manufacturing process from start to finish."
Katabatic's business model is based on exclusively direct online sales. "We're not going to be in stores or even other online retailers," says Martray.
The strategy has fueled steady growth. "Initially it was just me doing everything," says Martray. "It incrementally grew from there."
He credits "word of mouth more than anything" for the company's progress. "There's a very energetic online community of ultralight backpackers," says Martray. "We've all got spreadsheets with all of our gear weighed out."
Success came with a seasonal sales spike. "February through September is the busiest time, with the busiest two months being April and May," says Martray. "Until last summer, we could never stay ahead of it."
Relief came in the form of a move to a larger facility, as the company traded a 1,500-square-foot space in Wheat Ridge for a 6,500-square-foot Lakewood shop in Aug. 2015. "We found a good equilibrium," says Martray.
In Jan. 2015, Katabatic Gear released its first backpack. Like the original sleeping bags, necessity was the mother of invention. "I needed a new backpack," says Martray. "I'd been using the same one since the Hayduke Trail, and old GoLite pack. I couldn't find anything I was happy with, so I started tinkering."
Katabatic's backpacks include Cuben Fiber, a high-end synthetic fabric used in sailboat masts. The tricky balance was "function versus weight," he adds. "We split the difference."
Katabatic introduced its Flex line of traditional quilt-style sleeping bags in late 2015, but the original Palisade 30°F sleeping bag remains Katabatic's top seller.
Challenges: Finding employees can be difficult. "Even folks who have quite a bit of sewing experience aren't familiar with the lightweight synthetic fabrics we use," says Martray. "From a sewing perspective, they're light and delicate. They're also slippery."
Veteran sewers typically need at least six months to get "fully up to speed" making Katabatic's products, he adds, but those with bridal experience often have a shorter learning curve.
Opportunities: "We're exploring potential new products that could bridge the gap between the ultralight market we're in right now and the traditional backpacking market," says Martray. "That's the plan."
Needs: After the move, Martray says, "For right now, we're pretty set," but adds, "Capital's always handy."
He also needs time for all the trips he's planning. "I really try to make it a point to get out," Martray says. On tap for 2016: canyoneering in Utah, backpacking in Colorado's San Juan mountains, and hiking the Wonderland Trail around Mt. Rainier in Washington.