When you’re not a fan of the consumerism and commercialization of Black Friday, what are you supposed to do while everyone else is going crazy? Wait for its newer and more innovative cousin, Small Business Saturday!
Writing about the cool small businesses we come across is one of our favorite things to do on this blog. That’s why, for five years running (!), we’ve been putting together an annual post featuring all kinds of travel and outdoor gear made by small companies.
These are products that are unique and high-quality, from companies that are often owned by a family or a group of friends. They maintain responsible business practices like ethical sourcing, sustainable processing, and recycling, not to mention giving back to their communities, environmental initiatives, and other causes.
Since we’ve been in Southeast Asia for the past year, we haven’t had the chance to try out any of these items ourselves. But we love what we’re seeing, and you’d better believe they’re on our wishlist!
Pika Products – Denver, Colorado
Using packing cubes has been a game-changer in the way we pack when we travel. I can’t believe there was a time when getting something out of my bag meant having to pull out all my clothes, only to pile them on the floor while searching for the one thing I actually needed.
Packing cubes are a really simple accessory, too: a cube of fabric, usually with some mesh for ventilation, and a zipper. How do you improve on that? By remedying the only hang-up I have with packing cubes – their organizational potential comes at the cost of space. Cubes don’t pack as tightly as loose clothing, which means you can’t fit as much in your bag when you use them.
Enter Pika Products and their compressible cubes. The Kickstarter-funded line of packing cubes was created by two Colorado women fed up with disorganized backpacks and packing cubes that just didn’t seem to do everything they needed.
So, they came up with a cube design that uses compression straps, a mainstay of the stuff sacks commonly used by hikers. Once everything is packed away in the cube, you just pull the strap to tighten it down and remove the air pockets. Now it’ll take up less space, and more will fit in your bag!
But packing down small isn’t the only thing these cubes do – they’re also a backpack. Yes, I am also blown away by this revelation. Each cube has a set of D-rings sewn into the back, which you can thread a couple of backpack straps (sold separately) through to create a pack. It might not be the most comfortable backpack, but you have to marvel at the versatility.
Pika’s cubes aren’t cheap, with each one costing as much as a set of three from some of the more popular manufacturers, but just one or two would make a great addition to anyone’s travel kit.
Noso Patches – Jackson, Wyoming
Whether you call it beat up or well-loved, or perhaps knackered if you’re a Brit, everyone’s gear wears out over time. Many of us head to the store as soon as our pack gets a broken zipper or our coat has a small tear. But dumping perfectly functional gear is incredibly wasteful, especially when you have the option to repair it.
Those of us who are less concerned about style usually reach for the duct tape – it fixes everything, right? If shiny grey patches on your Patagonia puffy is too much to bear, maybe some clear Gear Tape could get the job done. But what if you’re an outdoor lover who cares about the environment and wants to show some style?
That’s how Noso Patches founder Kelli Jones felt, and she went to work finding a solution. After trying hundreds of different glue formulas and market testing a dozen or so quirky designs, she launched her patches on Indiegogo, and now they’re available in stores all along the West Coast and throughout the Rockies.
Noso Patches takes those unsightly rips and tears and turns them into beautiful scars to be flaunted. Their nylon patches come in a variety of designs from the really on-the-nose Band-Aid patch to a ‘90s throwback Fresh Prince of Bel Air design to my personal favorite, one repping Montucky Cold Snacks (because who doesn’t love a Montana-made PBR?).
Unlike duct tape, Noso’s patches are made to last. The glue and fabric are nearly indestructible and have no trouble standing up to multiple wash cycles. Sound unrealistic? It’s because the patch glue is heat activated – you need to put them in the dryer for fifteen minutes or blast them with a hairdryer to make them stick.
Each patch costs about the same as a roll of duct tape, so it’s not the most budget-friendly repair option. But if you consider how much you’d spend upgrading gear at the first sign of wear, repairing it with these patches is a bargain.
Bramble Outdoor – San Francisco, California
Everyone needs a good travel towel, because you never know when you’re going to end up at a hostel that doesn’t provide them. Plus, it can serve a ton of other purposes. It’s a picnic blanket, a makeshift yoga mat, a cleaner alternative to the ragged towels found in cheap hotels, or a moderately effective blanket on chilly nights. Unlike your fluffy bath towels at home, travel towels pack down small and weigh next to nothing. My backpack is stuffed to its limit, but I still always keep one with me on the road.
If you’re going carry a travel towel, why not get something colorful that expresses who you are as a traveler? I’m a big fan of the towels in Bramble Outdoor’s Topo Collection, which have topographic maps of places like the Grand Canyon printed on them.
The towels are made from 88% recycled plastic, so the microfiber cloth dries with just an hour or so in direct sunlight. They’re also sand-resistant, which, if you’ve ever tried to clean off your beach blanket after a picnic, you know how useful that is. The sand-resistant feature is also a big plus when you’re using it for seaside asanas.
Bramble’s website is filled with inspiring stories about America’s national parks and wilderness areas. Why? Their motto is that if you know a place, you’ll be more likely to protect it. A percentage of every purchase also goes back to environmental non-profits with the mission of securing these lands for future generations.
Duckworth – Bozeman, Montana
I absolutely love wool products for their warmth and their anti-microbial/anti-stench properties (who wants to wash their base layer between every use?). Having a high-quality wool base layer is a must for hikers, skiers, and anyone who wants to enjoy the outdoors. Along with down, wool is one of the few cases where synthetic materials simply haven’t caught up to the quality of Mother Nature.
However, the more I learn about the wool industry, the more concerned I’ve become that my beloved base layers and socks come with baggage. I have an idealized picture of what wool production looks like, with happy ranchers shearing flocks of fluffy sheep who graze in open pastures. But the reality is that wool is a mass-produced commodity just like almost anything else we buy, and corners are often cut.
I do believe that premium companies like Darn Tough and Minus33 (who we featured in the very first edition of our small business gear guide) are using ethically-sourced wool. But their supply chains are complicated, with material coming from all over the world.
Fortunately, with Duckworth, located in my former home of Bozeman, MT, I feel more confident in the ethics of their sourcing (and the happiness of their sheep!). They’re the only company that uses 100% American-soured wool, and it mostly comes from sheep raised on a ranch in nearby Dillon.
Duckworth makes all the standard wool products – socks, hats, scarves, hoodies, and summer hiking shirts. But their gear doesn’t come cheap, so the first thing I would get is their base layer set. Nothing beats high-quality wool for a base layer, and that’s one place where it’s worth it to spend a little more.
Skida – Burlington, Vermont
Along with a quality base layer, everyone needs a good neck warmer. I’m always surprised by how much of a difference a little bit of cloth between your chest and chin makes. You could get a great neck warmer from dozens of companies, though – why is this one special?
For one, Skida’s neck warmers come in some amazingly colorful designs that are sure to make a statement on the hill. But more importantly, the company sets itself apart with awesome business practices.
Headquartered in Burlington, VT, all of their gear is sewn by women working from home in the state’s Northeast Kingdom, a region formerly known for its garment manufacturing and expert seamstresses. Like many rural areas dotted with small towns, the Northeast Kingdom’s communities are facing a declining population and, with that, fewer job prospects. Having the chance to work from home instead of commuting or uprooting your family for a job in the city can be a gamechanger.
Additionally, for every online order made with the promo code Skida [+1], the company donates one of their hats to chemotherapy patients at cancer centers around the county. I’m usually not in favor of the buy one, give one model (looking at you, TOMS Shoes), since these products are often not what recipients need or want. But this initiative, which was based on feedback from the husband of a chemo patient, avoids many of the pitfalls of similar programs.
Redew8 – Eskilstuna, Sweden
Many people are trying to reduce their carbon footprint these days – we definitely are! – by eating a plant-based diet, taking public transportation, or buying more natural, unprocessed products. But even the clothes we wear can be detrimental to the environment, especially when it comes to something like jeans.
Jeans are among the most resource-intensive items of clothing, requiring 1,500 liters of water to produce one pair, not to mention the nasty chemicals that go into dying them. A quality pair of jeans is a staple of any wardrobe, though, so it’s important to find a brand that’s doing their part to be sustainable.
As the only foreign company on this list, Redew8 had to do something special to catch our attention. And they did, by making incredibly durable jeans from a cotton/polyester blend or from 100% wood fibers, both of which last longer than pure cotton. Every step of their supply chain is also focused on stability, whether it’s by using less water on the farms or minimizing the amount of waste fabric left after trimming and sewing.
The company ups their eco-friendly credentials even further by giving back a whopping 25% of their profits to environmental organizations. Many corporations donate a token 1%, some graciously give 10%, but I’ve never heard of a company parting with 25% of their profits.
Ravean – Draper, Utah
Battery-powered jackets and gloves have been around forever, and they should theoretically make being out in the cold much more pleasant. But something always seems to go wrong in the execution: they’re too heavy, too expensive, or just feel too “techy” to be a normal coat. They’ve been relegated to niche markets, like motorcycle riders who are less price-sensitive and don’t care much about weight.
But Ravean seems to have found the sweet spot with their Down X Heated Jacket. Priced around $200, the 750-fill down jacket doesn’t cost any more than its non-heated competitors, but it comes with a 10,000-milliamp-hour battery pack and three heating panels. It should keep you warm for up to four hours at 0°F or up to seven hours at 35°F. The pack charges in an hour and a half, too, so you could theoretically get it back up and running while having lunch in the lodge.
The coat weighs a little over a pound, which isn’t super light, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a jacket this warm that weighs less. You can even charge your phone or GoPro through a port on the jacket, although that will reduce its max heating time.
I usually don’t get that cold in my down puffy as long as I’m moving, but I could definitely see the usefulness of a battery-powered jacket on the lift or sitting on the patio outside the lodge.
Wandrd – Orem, Utah
I can’t have nice things. I don’t know if I’m careless, a klutz, or just unlucky, but unless my electronics have a big rubber case around them, they’ll be broken within a year. Which is unfortunate, because Otterbox doesn’t make a DSLR camera case. Even if they did, I imagine it’d be incredibly bulky and wouldn’t fit in my already overloaded backpack.
Fortunately, Wandrd seems to have solved the DSLR photographer’s conundrum with their VEER packable backpack, which packs down to just a bit larger than a one-liter bottle. The reason it’s so effective at protecting gear is surprisingly simple: they added an inflatable back panel and some inflatable cubes (sold separately) to surround the camera and lenses with a protective bubble of air. How had no one thought of this before?
The inflatable cubes that will envelop your gear do not come cheap, unfortunately, at $50 each. To cut the cost, pare down your photography kit and bring just one or two lenses on each outing. Even without the cubes, though, the back panel is a big step up in protection from your average packable backpack.
Camera protection aside, the VEER is also a lot more comfortable than most similar backpacks, which usually have no internal frame and just hang from your shoulders like a limp sack. Plus, its exterior is fairly water-resistant, and the anti-theft closure will deter would-be pickpockets.
On Small Business Saturday 2019 – as well as throughout the holiday season and, really, anytime – consider supporting small businesses like these when you can!