Fix it or make something new? Dan Madden shared a story with us of how a summer of repairing backpacks inspired a design philosophy of simplicity and durability.
Since we just finished our “official” 40th year in business, we’ve decided to release a limited edition of our first pack – the Original Rucksak.
HOW DID YOU BECOME INTERESTED IN HIKING AND CAMPING?
My mom was originally from east Tennessee – in the mountains there. That’s pretty much where I grew up – in a nice little town about 40 minutes south of the Smoky Mountains.
We had a great Scout troop and we had a great Scout leader who wasn’t so much into merit badges as he was into ‘just go do something’. We’d go winter camping – and remember this is the early 60’s – when the most technical piece of gear was probably a flannel sleeping bag. But, we did it anyway. Once we hiked the Appalachian Trail through the Smokies; 72 miles in 6 days, when I was 14 years old. And that’s what got me started.
I went to the University of Tennessee, which was only 45 minutes from my house, and we had a small contingent called the Canoe and Hiking Club. It was 1967 and we thought it was pretty radical to go rock climbing. Really, it was almost kind of funny – there were a dozen of us on a campus of 30,000 walking around in hiking boots and down jackets.
HOW DID YOU LEARN TO SEW?
My grandmother. She made her living as a seamstress making wedding dresses. She had this old Singer sewing machine that she had retrofitted with a motor. It used to be the treadle kind of thing and then she upgraded. I was always interested in just making stuff, no matter what it was. You know when you can’t get gear you start making your own gear. I think the first thing I ever made was a tent.
SO WHAT LED YOU TO MAKING BACKPACKS?
Well, one season when I was running NC Outward Bound School, the waist belts were falling off (this other brand) of packs from overuse and someone said, “Does anybody here know how to sew?” And I happened to know because my mom and my grandma taught me and I made this and I made that – I had made a little daypack. So, it was like “Here, can you fix these packs?”
It just so happened that NCOBS had this old industrial sewing machine sitting down in one of the platform tents. They would use it to repair the canvas tents that people slept in at basecamp.
And I was like “Sure I can fix ‘em if the sewing machine will work. You know, if it’ll go through the fabric and all that stuff.” And then Dan Meyer (NCOBS Director) said, “Well, can we do better?” What do you mean? “What about if we made our own packs?”
THAT’S A PRETTY CHALLENGING QUESTION. WHAT WAS THE DESIGN PROCESS?
So I gathered some fabric and I said to the instructors “What do you want?” Obviously, it couldn’t fall apart. You can’t afford for something to break on a three-week trip to Alaska! And it had to be comfortable, but it had to be no frills: no zippers; nothing that could break. We wanted to eliminate the repairs. So we essentially designed the Basic Rucksack and that’s where it started.
DID YOU MAKE ALL THE PACKS YOURSELF?
I made the first order. It was like 80 packs and I quit my day job. For about two months that’s all I did was sew those packs. Then I went back over to the school and started working for the summer
It was 1972 and we had a little shop set up at Outward Bound. It had a spare equipment room that we set up with a little cutting table and sewing machine and that was pretty much it. We moved to Boulder after that.
Today, each Madden Equipment backpack is still sewn from start to finish by one master sewer in Colorado. Our packs are simple, functional, durable and built to last a lifetime.
Many thanks to Dan Madden for spending some time with us and our buddy Brandon Lampley to further document the history of outdoor gear in the USA.