Tag Archives: interview

Interview With UGQ Outdoor Equipment’s Paul McWalters

Readers, I always try to bring forth information about the outdoor industry that most of us just don’t get insight on regularly. Today I have an enormous treat for you. The following is a Q&A session with Paul McWalters, owner of UGQ Outdoor Equipment, maker of lightweight down filled backpacking quilts.

When I asked Paul if he would answer some of my questions centered around the “cottage”  industry, his products, and what it’s like to start your own outdoor gear company, he graciously acquiesced.  In the following lines you will find out about ultralight backpacking technology, cottage manufacturer insight, and a plethora of topics that I’ve just been dying to pick Paul’s brain on.

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UGQ Outdoor Equipment (UGQ)

If you’ve ever been interested in making your own gear (MYOG), running a small backpacking gear company, or what it’s like on the other side of the “order” button when you purchase gear, this Q&A will certainly prove insightful.

Not every day I get to find out what it’s like to start a gear manufacturing company!


 

Q: (me) When did you know you wanted to start your own gear company and how did you decide on what products you would offer?

A: (Paul) I didn’t plan on starting UGQ at first, making my own gear was out of necessity due to lack of funds available for purchasing from the already established companies and the limited number of companies offering the gear I needed. My job at the time had seen some pretty major income reductions resulting in no “play fund” so I would DIY what I needed. Ordered some fabric and down, borrowed a sewing machine, which I proceeded to break in five minutes, and got busy.

Next thing you know friends were asking me to make quilts or tarps for them, so they’d buy double the materials on their dime which gave me extra materials to continue making revised gear for myself. Pretty soon I had email inquiries and decided a small website would get the ball rolling, giving me some extra funds to enjoy some backpacking trips and gear purchases…. Boy, I wasn’t ready for what happened next, 25+ orders my first month, apparently there is a demand for this stuff. It hasn’t slowed down any since and we keep growing month after month, year after year.

Products offered again were a result of what I personally needed at the time and my preference for down gear. I could have gone the synthetic route but after 2 decades backpacking with down I knew what to expect from the products in terms of benefits and risk.

Q: What process did you use in determining the pricing of your products and sourcing the suppliers of your materials?

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UGQ Outdoor Equipment’s 40º Flight Jacket quilt

A: Lets talk about sourcing first as that is the biggest hurdle. Finding a reliable and stable supply chain is quite the process and we still run into supplier delays these days. But working with the same suppliers helps build relationships. They get to know your business and can help out with improved material offerings. By having a stable relationship you can secure better prices and service. We work with some of the biggest material suppliers in the world, knowing the BIG BOYS also using them instills a confidence in our materials and our end products. It not just about the lowest price available, it also about the quality and assurance of that quality that is important in finding suppliers. All our major materials are tested to make sure we are receiving the best we can.

To make a competitive product you need to secure wholesale pricing which mean buying materials in large amounts. Back when I started it wasn’t the easiest thing to do as cash flow was not there. I’d buy in bulk for fabrics but in small lots of 25-50 yards or so and I’d buy down 8-10# at a time. While both of those helped with pricing buying in much larger amounts secures much better pricing. We now have a commitment contract with our down supplier for a certain poundage annually. This provides for a locked in price to avoid market fluctuations. We order fabric direct from the mill in the 1000’s of meter per order which again provides for much better pricing.

All of these savings are passed to our customers, we have a material cost for each of our products and a labor cost that is used to determine pricing.

Q: How many iterations of your current Flight Jacket Top Quilt have you created since the very first “draft”?

A: Not as many as one may think, the Flight Jacket is a great top quilt and will always have a place in our product line. The general construction has not changed much and is pretty much industry standard for a top quilt. We have made many little improvements over time that get integrated into the Flight Jacket without much hoopla. We did have one major revision to the entire construction of the quilt roughly 18 months ago and that is the product we currently ship today.

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UGQ Outdoor Equipment’s Renegade quilt (Available Jan 2015)

The fun part of our business is new product development, for the past 8 months we have been working on a new radically designed TQ. The RENEGADE will be release Jan 1, 2015 for purchase and is a completely different approach to top quilt design and construction. Featuring a more thermally efficient chamber design and a contoured shape overall the RENEGADE is built to provide maximum performance and comfort. No other quilt on the market that we are aware of combines the construction methods employed on the RENEGADE making it the most advanced quilt soon to be available.

Q: What are the greatest design improvements you’ve made to the Flight Jacket Top Quilts since your first draft and how do you believe they benefit the users of your products?

A: Our major redesign 18 months ago was a pretty big change. Up until then we had pretty much the same quilt as everyone else. They all had a few issues with down shifting and movement from chamber to chamber. The construction was known as open baffle meaning the ends of each chamber were open to the ends of the neighboring chamber. Marketed as letting you move down where you need it sure sounded good but I never have moved down from one chamber to another in a quilt or sleeping bag in over 20 years on the trails.

So we first redesigned the construction of the chamber to close them off, isolate them, keeping the right amount of down in each chamber. Then we narrowed the chambers from the industry standard of 5-8” to 4” maximum field chamber size. Both of these changes resulted in a much tighter and consistent down density which in the end keeps the user warmer.

We also switched to a 15d fabric at roughly the same time, a true garment-class fabric intended for down filled gear. After reviewing literally hundreds of samples we went with the 15 denier for its weight to performance ratio. It weighs .92oz per SY (square yard), independently tested to 850+ fill power down and has a DWR, durable water repellant, finish. At the time it was the best fabric available for our quilts. Just recently we have added a 10 denier .66 oz per SY fabric for the inner shells of our quilt. This provides for even more weight saving [versus] the 15 denier. We’ve opted to continue using the 15d for our outer shells for durability and it’s excellent DWR finish [which helps] keep both you and your down dry.

The inclusion of DWR treated downs has also been a major change. We were one of the first US based companies to start offering products filled with DWR treated downs. Our current offering that is standard in all our quilt is called HyperDRY and is about as close to water proof as it gets. Independent lab testing shows it outperforms virtually every synthetic fiber available today in terms of water repellency. This finish is applied at the nano level and designed to last for the life of the product. It also has been verified safe for the consumer and the environment which is of great importance to us and our customers.

Q: What advice would you give to DIY hikers who are looking to create the lightest and most individually tailored gear for their packs?

A: Understanding there are limits and understanding those limits is the key to making a durable and lightweight piece of gear whether it’s a quilt, tarp, or backpack. For example we now have access to 5d fabric. “D” stands for denier, the diameter of the thread used to weave the fabric. A 5d fabric is extremely light, .54oz SY, but can it survive the harsh environment of our packs as well as a 15d fabric? So when making one’s own personal gear the choice of hyper-light will result in the loss of some durability and only you can make that decision.

On a weekender or even a weeklong trip a piece of gear failing may be frustrating but will not trash the trip. On a thru hike it could certainly be a huge problem if you tear a tarp or lose half the down out of a quilt due to a poor fabric selection. So, weigh your choices carefully and choose wisely.

Q: Does UGQ ever plan to create synthetic fill quilts?

A: With the advances in DWR down and the more affordable duck downs on the market we do not see UGQ venturing into the synthetic fiber market in the near future. When, and I say when, there is a man-made fiber that equals all the properties of high fill-power downs we will certainly be the first in line. It will happen but it is hard to beat the quality of down that Mother Nature has provided us with.

Q: What has been the biggest challenge of operating a small business in the outdoor gear retail world?

A: Balancing work and personal life will always be a challenge for me. I take my commitment to [my] customers seriously; they have made a contract with us. They have provided funds and we have agreed to provide them (our customers) with a quality piece of gear made to their specifications. Sometimes I let this driving commitment occupy my life 24/7 and we all need proper balance in our lives. I’m committed to finding better balance as we grow, having staff takes some of the pressure off and I need to RELAX!!!! We are only human and we need family, friends and time off just like everyone else. Being a small business owner, burnout is always just around the corner, so care must be taken to take care of oneself as well as the customers.

Q: What advice would you offer to someone interested in starting their own backpacking gear company?

A: Be sure it is done from the heart in the pursuit of your dreams. Be sure to set reasonable expectations of yourself and be sure your commitment to others are reachable. We hate to say “no” to any request but if we can’t provide the requested service we will shoot straight and get it out front.

Be sure to be adding something of value that is missing in the market. For us it was the high quality and attention to customer service, we saw both lacking from most vendors at the time when UGQ was started. Funny, it seems to have turned around as customers are now expecting the same level of quality and service that we deliver from all vendors.

Q: Have you found help, advice, and acceptance from other cottage manufacturers or has it been more tense and competitive in this rather niche market?

A: We’ve had the chance to meet many of the other vendors and I think for the most part everyone is pretty respectful of others. I’ve had many a conversation with some of them regarding work and life, pitfalls to avoid, things that do work and things that don’t. The Jacks at Jacks Are Better have lent their 12+ years of wisdom in business to us and I am grateful to them for their sharing of this knowledge.

When I started we were the small fish in the pond, folks were pretty welcoming but in the end we are all in business in similar markets and as you grow you start to represent more of a threat. We’ve bumped heads with some other vendors recently on issues. I always try to resolve them with both respect and honesty as I believe that is the best approach. Sometimes there will be no resolution but at least you remained respectful and can sleep at night on a clean conscience.

Q: What piece(s) of gear is on the Christmas list for the man who makes his own gear?

A: Oh Boy!!! I recently have gotten into moto camping and the new bike is in need of some pannier boxes to haul the gear. I have big dreams of cruising the world on my bike at some point in life but I need to work on this whole relaxing thing a bit more. Apart from that I’m pretty content with belongings, in my youth it was must have have have… now with the wisdom of age it comes down to how you use what you have and not what you have. Friends are also more important than any material item, memories are created with friends and family hold them tight cause in the end those memories are all you will have left in life.

Q: Where do you think the biggest growth is in the outdoor gear industry? What growth trends would you expect to see in the next ten years across the industry?

A: I think we will see more sustainable materials and supply chains, you are already seeing it from major companies. TNF and our down supplier launched a Responsible Down Standard that is being adopted by many outdoor manufacturers. It’s a program that tracks the down used in down filled products from hatchling to the end consumer product. There will be a number on the down filled gear and a website where you can track the down. All certified by a third party to the ethical treatment of the animals. That’s pretty cool thinking and I think we will see more of that in the future.

Advancements in down are still coming, there are lots of new products coming to market, thermal downs, biotech downs, blended downs and more. These will only make gear lighter and warmer. We see test reports on our HyperDRY 850+ well above 900FP on a regular basis and this is a direct result of the HyperDRY treatment. Maybe someday we will see a standard fill power in the 1000+ range, it wasn’t long ago that 650+ was considered King of the Hill….

Regardless of what the future brings I’m sure I’ll be carrying that pack for many years to come into the mountains, reconnecting with nature, old friends, and my inner being….


I know Paul personally and own products directly from UGQ. This is not only a company I would recommend without reservation to any reader, its also a company and a product which I often recommend by word of mouth. I make the recommendations (and write this article) without any kind of compensation from Paul or UGQ. I make recommendations because I value the service and product.

Why? Because Paul (and UGQ) are friendly, cooperative, helpful, and insightful. They create top of the line lightweight products with cutting edge technology and Paul is always happy to make a piece of gear exactly to my specifications.

I hope you’ve gained some insight into what it’s like to create a lightweight backpacking gear manufacturing company. I hope that Paul will continue to let me pick his brain about the industry as I am always hungry to learn as I’m sure you readers are as well.

Please, drop us a line in the comments if you have any questions for Paul. If you’ve got burning questions you’d like answered by insightful industry leaders leave us a comment or send me an email and I’ll get that question answered!

Find UGQ Outdoor Equipment on Facebook or their website.

Thanks, Paul and UGQ Outdoor Equipment!

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Outdoor Job Search Ideas (Be Your Own Search Engine)

With a few days off from work as a full time ski instructor here in beautiful Park City, Utah I’ve been working to stay productive. This includes 6+ hour days of Google searching for summer jobs.

As I’ve been working over job applications it occurred to me that many of you probably are missing out on one of the most valuable and fine tuned job finding solutions.

I’m going to tell you how to maximize your changes of landing your dream outdoor job!

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Be Your Own Outdoor Job Search Engine.

While my previous article Four Best Places to Search for an Outdoor Job is still applicable and useful the advice therein has been regurgitated so many times in “outdoor” blogs that it’s not as helpful as I’d like to be for my readers. I want you to land the perfect outdoor job interview you’ve been dreaming of.

I still believe that the NOLS Alumni job posting bulletin (which is still accessible to non-alums) is probably the single most helpful (and least known) avenue of job acquisition in the outdoor education and adventure education industry. It attracts job postings from a huge number of potential employers in a single list delivered to your inbox each week. It also attracts highly qualified candidates and creates huge competition for employment.

The NOLS listserve and all other job posting sites (www.coolworks.com for example) are missing out on a huge number of potential employment opportunities and if you’re using them exclusively you’re killing your professional career.

Actually manually going out and finding businesses in need of guides, educators, and camp staff is a lot more work but often well worth your time investment.

Not every employer posts their openings to other sites and even among many employers some don’t list job openings at all.

That’s right, you may have to actually ask like I did. I landed an interview for a backpacking guide position simply by contacting the business which I was interested in working for. They didn’t even have any open job listings but, as I had guessed, it turned out they were in fact hiring.

I sent them a cover letter, email, resume, and supporting documents in a very professional email inquiring about seasonal guiding work. Later that same day I got an email back, they were impressed with my efforts to find employment and what’s more, they thought my credentials were very impressive. They wanted an interview!

Your avenue of approach on this email is critical! Keep it straightforward and make it clear you are inquiring about open positions. If you haven’t, go read up on how to interview for an outdoor job.

To get started, determine where you want to work. Then decide on a job type. Maybe you want a camp job in North Carolina. Search “North Carolina Summer Camp” and start clicking through the results.

Don’t be too specific with your searches. Try to be broad and use keywords, here’s a list of suggestions to get you started:

  • Outdoor Education
  • Adventure Education
  • Summer Camp
  • Trip Leader
  • Guide
  • Counselor
  • Naturalist
  • Interpreter
  • Jobs
  • Employment
  • Seasonal
  • Backpacking
  • Rafting
  • Climbing

Use regional keywords to hone in your location search. Try the name of a state like “Arizona Guide Employment” or the name of a region like “Appalachian Summer Camp”. If you are interested in a specific area of guiding you could try park or trail names such as “Pacific Crest Trail Guide” or “Denali Trip Leader”.

Try gaining some insight into the outdoor job market by reading up on these helpful outdoor job articles by me:

Entering The Outdoor Education Industry

Outdoor Job Trends and Opportunities

Most sites have their “Employment” link in the “About Us” or “Contact” section. Some sites are more straightforward but look hard and you’ll usually find the employment section.

Do yourself a favor, get off of Coolworks (their new format sucks anyways) and Backdoor Jobs. Everyone uses these methods of job searching and while they can be effective, they’re limiting you.

Don’t hold yourself back! Go after the job you really want. It’s out there. Go get it, friends!

Email me for any additional help you might need, I’d be happy to offer advice.

Become a Backpacking Guide in 12 Months or Less

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A group of backpackers skirts a high lake in the Wind River Mountains, WY.

Before we get started with this month-by-month regimen, let’s review a few helpful hints:

First and foremost, if you want to be in charge of a group in the backcountry, you better have the hard skills to back you up.

Hard skills are starting a fire, pitching a tarp, packing a backpack, etc.

Don’t forget, employers will want to see that you have good soft skills too.

Soft skills are communication, leadership, conflict resolution, facilitation, etc. These skills are much more difficult to develop outside of interpersonal interaction, so be mindful of how you’re interacting and communicating with people (co-workers especially) over the next few months.

This article will focus on hard skills development.

The best and fastest possible way to develop hard skills is to hit the trail with a friend who has more experience than you. Second best is hitting the trail with anyone at all. Third best is being out there on your own.

Always document when and where you went so you can provide your employer a documented representation of your experience.

Months 1-2:

Get at least two weekend backpacking trips done. Get one trip of 3+ nights, four nights would be best. Begin searching for a Wilderness First Responder course. Enroll yourself immediately. Now get back on the trail and hike and backpack more!

Use some of these common outdoor job search engines to get an idea of what kind of jobs are out there.

If you’re truly passionate about landing a job then you’re going to have to roll your sleeves up and become your own job search engine. It’s highly effective and you should get started early.

Months 3-4:

Hopefully you’ve found or (preferably) completed your WFR course by now. Every employer is going to expect trip leaders to be certified WFRs (pronounced woofers).

Look at NOLS WMI (Mountain West) or SOLO (East Coast)  for WFR course offerings.

Plan a few more overnights.

Purchase a Whisperlite stove. Use the stove to cook every meal you can.

Don’t forget, your new Whisperlite will need a Fuel Bottle. You’ll want to pick up a service kit while you’re shopping.

The new Whisperlite International provides the ability to burn many different fuels, it may be a better option for some of you!

Become a Whisperlite wizard, 90% of backpacking programs you lead will be using the Whisperlite. You better know how to use it and cook on it. The reason this stove is so popular is because it’s durable, highly proven, easily field maintainable, and highly versatile for institutional backpacking.

Plus, if you use the stove properly and take care of it, they last virtually forever. Cascade Designs‘ customer service is among the best in the industry. They take care of their customers.

Months 5-6:

Get out hiking overnights on the weekends as much as possible.

Plan two trips of 4+ nights.

Start refining your techniques and gear. Get rid of unnecessary junk you’ve been carrying. It’s not necessary to go ultralight but take a professional attitude toward what you’re packing and why you’re packing it.

See my backpacking gear lists if you need suggestions or send me an email and I’d be glad to help you refine your gear and techniques.

Keep in mind that your (or mine) backpacking gear for a solo trip will be different from your gear in an institutional setting. Be prepared to make compromises when your employer tells you to carry the four-pound med kit.

Figure out how to cope with backpacking in the rain. If you’re wet and soggy and grumpy, chances are your participants will be too. You better be ready to mentally deal with the adversities you’ll encounter out there so that you can put them aside and help your clients.

Decide what gear setup works best for you (I.E. tarp vs tent, poncho vs rain jacket, etc.)

Start to learn what backpacking foods are appropriate and what’s a waste of space in your pack. Find the balance for yourself between carrying a pack full of fresh (and heavy) fruits and vegetables versus eating only snickers and ramen noodles. Everyone has a preference, the only way to find yours is to experiment.

Months 7-10:

Plan one week long trip (7 nights in the field) in this time and make sure you learn how to plan backpacking meals like a professional. No more Mountain House freeze dried meals, they make their money on people who haven’t learned to pack their own meals.

Continue taking as many 1-4 night trips as possible.

Don’t forget to document all of these, where you went, how far you went, how many nights in the field.

Become a purveyor of online forums.

Backpackinglight.com (Paid service.)
Whiteblaze.net (Read, post with caution.)
Hammockforums.net (Hammock camping focused.)

Begin searching online resources for jobs. Winter is the time to apply, so hopefully you started following this outline in the spring (it should now be prime time for job hunting).

Read my list of the four best places to search for an outdoor job because you’re getting down to the wire. It’s time to get serious if you haven’t already followed the link from Months 1-2.

Apply vigorously, apply for every job that appeals, and don’t skip any because you think you’re not prepared. Let the interviewer determine that. Don’t forget you might just land an outdoor job that’s not even posted!

Follow my guide to nailing a phone interview so you don’t miss your chance at that perfect backpacking job!

I’ve landed jobs before that I thought for sure I wouldn’t get. Stay optimistic, but most importantly, just send out a shit load of applications. Someone will want you.

Months 11-12:

Finish refining your techniques and gear.

Ask for help on Whiteblaze.net. Or leave a comment here to get help with your gear setup if you’ve got lingering questions. You could also get in touch directly for help.

Try to get experience using different shelters, if you’ve been backpacking with a solo tent, do a few overnights with a tarp. Employers want to see that you’re comfortable with multiple types of shelter.

Finish your interviews and accept that new job!

Other articles that will help in your job hunt:

Outdoor Job Search Ideas (Be Your Own Search Engine)

Four Best Places to Search for an Outdoor Job

Three Outdoor Living Skills You Must Have

5 Pieces of Backpacking Gear You Can’t Live Without

Outdoor Education Industry: Trends and Opportunities

Seeking Change: Entering the Outdoor Education Industry

How to Phone Interview for an Outdoor Job

Four Best Places to Search For an Outdoor Job

The internet is an amazing tool for job searching! Let me share with you some of the most abundant sources of outdoor education and adventure education job pools on the net. Here are my top four favorite places to look for jobs.

Don’t miss out. Read about the most over looked outdoor job search method that I’ve found successful.

#1. NOLS Listserve

By far my favorite and most used tool. Once a day you’ll get an email containing very recent and pertinent job postings. Employers are seeking NOLS grads, that’s why they post to the NOLS list serve, so you’ve already got a good start. Wilderness trip leader positions are very easy to find here.

If you’re a NOLS alum, be sure to sign up for the NOLS “Job-Announce Digest” through the Alumni section of the NOLS website.

(This is my favorite job hunting resource and has landed me many jobs.)

#2. American Camp Association “Jobs at Camp

This is a great place to start looking if you want to get started in outdoor education. I got my very first outdoor education job through ACA (as a counselor). Every winter, hundreds of summer camps around the US begin searching for staff members.

Expect to find a lot of counselor type jobs here, but you might get lucky and find a good supervisory position or trip leader position.

#3. Cool Works

If you’ve done any searching the net for “outdoor jobs” then you know about Cool Works. This site compiles outdoor jobs in a very broad spectrum. Everything from ranch hand jobs to ski resort work is here.

Luckily they have a good organizational system. You can sort jobs by season, type (camp jobs, guide jobs, etc.), state, or national park.

I personally find that a lot of the jobs listed here have irritating application processes. Nothing irks me more than having to fill out a form on an employers website with all the same information I went through the work of compiling into my resume.

#4. Networking

It can never be said enough, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” The web is great, but networking can’t be overlooked.

Always ask supervisors and coworkers where they’ve worked before. Did they like it? How did they get in? Could they help you get in touch with human resources?

As the season comes to a close, ask those around you where they’re going to be working. Find out if they know of any openings.

Other outdoor professionals can be invaluable assets in helping to find your next job. Plus, they can get you directly in touch with the hiring manager of your next job, virtually guaranteeing you an interview.

What are your tips for job hunting? Leave a comment and let us know.