Industry: Consumer & Lifestyle
Products: Backpacks and bikepacks
Founder and owner John Campbell's long career in backpack manufacturing led him to make specialized custom packs for ice climbers, mountaineers, and bicyclists.
From his tiny shop in Ouray, Campbell makes alpine backpacks and bikepacks built to last -- and to fit. The word is definitely out: He has an eight- to 12-week waiting list for his packs year-round.
Campbell has a long history in the outdoor industry, working with industry legends like Dana Gleason, who founded backpack manufacturer Dana Design and now owns Mystery Ranch. He also worked as a rep in the outdoor industry, a sales manager, and an outdoor guide. "I did all that for a career and I was dissatisfied," Campbell says. "The outdoor industry is not a very sustainable or clean business. It really bothered me."
He continues, "A handful of companies are making well-designed products, but every time I went to Asia, I was overwhelmed by the pollution and working conditions. I'm not knocking companies that have gone to Asia."
Campbell says that he'd interviewed for jobs some companies like that, but "wanted to do something different with Alpine Luddites." He took inspiration for the company's name from the Luddites in the U.K., who stood up for high wages and high-quality products at the onset of the Industrial Revolution. "People associate them with anti-technology," he explains. "I'm not anti-technology at all. It's just more of a mindset of what we're after."
He takes inspiration from classic alpine backpacks. "I was inspired by the climbers of the '60s and '70s," says Campbell. "I have some of those old packs in my shop, they're 40 years old and they're still functional. The whole history of mountaineering is incredible." He adds, "I just like the simplicity of the gear. A lot stuff today is over-thought out and built in a way that can't be fixed."
Campbell builds everything to order. "Most packs are custom," he says. "Pretty much no two are ever the same. Whether it's fit details or fitting shorter shoulder straps or custom hip belts, that's what people come to me for."
He's quick to admit that he's not reinventing the wheel, "but you won't get the fit, the features you want, and you probably won't get the quality of sewing." He uses durable, lightweight fabrics like Dyneema so the packs will last multiple seasons.
Living in Ouray is also advantageous for Campbell, not just because he's an avid alpine climber and mountain biker. "Professional guides are always coming up with ideas and talking about stuff," he says. "In that sense, it's a great place to have my business."
Despite having a brick-and-mortar location in Ouray, Campbell says most of his business is on the Internet. "I have customers all over the world 90 percent of my business is not local even in Colorado. I can still do this and keep growing and not having to depend on walk in traffic," he explains. "The best marketing tool I have is Instagram. Fully 35 percent to 40 percent of my orders come off Instagram from people who've never gone on my website."
While most sales are direct, Campbell has some retailers. "If people from 2,000 miles away want my stuff, I'm happy to say yes on some things. I have some from New York City to Colorado and one distributor in Japan. The Japanese really love the classic packs."
Bikepacking is another interest for Campbell. "I think for a lot of people it's more approachable than backpacking," he notes. "A lot of people are familiar with bikes and bike touring and bikepacking really is going a little wider and a little more flexible," he says. "When you're riding in the mountains there's all this time when you're pushing the bike. Having traditional panniers doesn't really work for that. They stick out too far and it's hard to get close to your bike, especially on singletrack."
Alpine Luddites' bikepacking bags help keep everything close the bike's narrow profile and they have to be able to hold up to thousand of miles of abuse. "I get asked to build bags by riders that are fairly experienced. I'm never anyone's first bikepack," Campbell quips. "I have some different thinking on some things. My experiences are probably different than other manufacturers. So I try to make my gear as light as possible."
While he doesn't have a distributor for the bikepacks yet, Campbell builds about as many bikepacking bags as backpacks. "Dollar-wise, I build more climbing packs. Bikepacks just cost less," he states. The bike bags start at $60 while backpacks start at $225.
While Campbell can fill bigger orders and could use other sewers to do it, he plans on staying small. "I've got kids," he says. "This provides me with a decent income. I'm not going to get rich doing this, but it provides me a great lifestyle."
He continues, "The reality is, a lot of my customers become friends. We'll ride or go climbing together when they're here. It's a great way to do business. Having a one-on-one relationship with customers is the best way to sell and build specialty products."
Challenges: "My biggest problem is saying no to people that want to carry my stuff. I don't want to be caught up in the wholesale approach," says Campbell. "That will always be secondary to the custom work."
Being a one-man shop is another challenge, but Campbell sees a solution in automation. To this end, he recently invested in computerized sewing machines to up his productivity.
Opportunities: "I would like to do a race. Do some mountain bike races as an event for Alpine Luddites and really just to be of service to my customers," Campbell contemplates.
Needs: Space. "At some point, I need a bigger facility," says Campbell. "I don't think I can find it in Ouray."