- Associated Press - Thursday, June 5, 2014

HENDERSONVILLE, N.C. (AP) - Last year, Hendersonville resident Matt Kirk beat a 23-year-old record for “self-supported” hikes along the Appalachian Trail, hiking from Maine to Georgia in 58 days, nine hours and 38 minutes. He did it wearing an ultra-light pack he designed and built himself.

The homemade pack worked so well, Kirk decided to share the materials and instructions on his blog so other “fast-packers” - minimalists who shun heavy gear in exchange for traveling freedom - could adapt it to their uses. In March, Kirk went one step further, offering his “Sub-60 Fast Pack” for sale online.

With help from an Asheville seamstress and fellow entrepreneur who makes her own lightweight tents and rain gear, Kirk manufactured 59 of his Sub-60 Fast Packs in a kit that can be customized to hikers of any size, including children.

With no marketing or advertising, all but 16 of Kirk’s packs were quickly spoken for. Although he’s given away a few packs to friends, Kirk has shipped the majority of his inaugural production run to hikers across the U.S. as well as in Germany, Australia and Canada.

“Overall, the feedback has been very favorable,” he said, adding that not every customer was focused on “fast-packing or breaking speed records. But they were all conscientious hikers who are minimalists with their gear.”

A backpacker from Charlotte ordered the Sub-60 for his 3-year-old, while a mountain biker bought one to use while wheeling trails. Kirk, who works days as a trails and outreach associate at Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy, has gotten proficient at using Google translator to email customers in foreign lands.

“One of the best things about this process is getting to meet people and learn about other places in the world that people like to recreate in,” he said.

Kirk knew he had to go ultra-light if he was to break the unassisted record of 60.5 days set by Ward “Chip” Leonard in 1990, when the AT was 45 miles shorter in length. So he designed much of his own featherweight gear, including a down-filled sleeping quilt, an aluminum stove-bottle and the Sub-60 prototype pack.

Weighing in around 10 ounces, the vest-like pack featured mesh hip belts with zippered pockets for storing energy bars or other easily accessed food, shoulder straps with pockets for two water bottles and a “bandoleer” designed to hold plastic film canisters filled with small necessities.

Although it’s capable of holding 1550 cubic inches of stuff, Kirk recommends hikers don’t load up the Sub-60 with more than 20 pounds of gear. Those limitations make the Sub-60 “kind of a graduate-level piece of gear because you don’t jump into it cold turkey,” he said. “You need to have your food and gear dialed in below that maximum load.”

The kit’s components can be assembled in less than one-and-a-half hours, using what Kirk describes as “fancy twist ties” to customize the pack to any hiker’s frame. He compared the assembly process to a tailor taking in pants so they ride well.

“The mesh material is beneficial in a lot of ways, but it just so happens that you have all these holes that you can pass a tie through,” he said. “That creates limitless possibilities for adjusting these components to fit anyone, at home or in the field.”

Kirk teamed up with Judy Gross, owner of Asheville’s Excelsior Sewing Co. and LightHeart Gear, because he wanted to “keep it local and help support, in a very small way, the local economy.” He also sought out local materials, finding about 80 percent of the components in the southern mountains.

Although Kirk admits he’ll probably only break even on the venture, profits were not his main motivation. Rather, he said his impetus was encouraging people to customize their own gear, to experience the outdoors with no frills and in the process hopefully develop a deeper appreciation for the natural world.

“One of my main inspirations is protecting wild places,” he said. “That really starts by getting out on the trails, falling in love with the surrounding landscapes and promoting that for people other than myself to enjoy.”


To find out more about Kirk’s ultra-light pack, visit https://sub60.wikispaces.com/pack


Information from: Times-News, https://www.blueridgenow.com

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