We recently caught up with Gabriel (Gabe) Young, founder of Alpin Mountain Co., a super-fresh, outdoor first, urban-ready backpack company on a sunny afternoon in Truckee, California. His shop is situated a good distance away from the nearest stretch of pavement amongst a grove of massive ponderosa pine trees. The mature forest and mountainous terrain outside the place where Alpin Mountain Company gear comes to life is nothing short of spectacular. If you’ve never been, Truckee is the lesser-known city 15 miles north of Lake Tahoe. Located halfway between Sacramento and Reno atop infamous Donner Pass, Truckee brands itself as the “base camp for a big life”. Gabe Young’s adventurous lifestyle certainly contributes to the truthfulness of that motto.
For a company that’s been around for just over a year, every aspect of the business is polished, or at least as polished as Gabe wants it to be. A backcountry explorer at heart, he understands the importance of aesthetic but never sacrifices function for form. More importantly he builds his gear with distinct purpose (more on that later) and for a certain type of person, the type of person that he’d like to hang out with.
If you called him the reluctant hero of this story he’d probably laugh, but it’s completely true that Gabe never set out to start a backpack business, it just sort of happened. Growing up in Livingston, MT he learned his love for the outdoors early on, but it wouldn’t be until years later that he would begin making his own equipment to haul stuff around in. After graduating high school and becoming a ski instructor for a few years (to enable his inner ski-bum), Gabe seized an opportunity to pursue a political science degree overseas at the American University in Cairo, Egypt in 2011. He was mid-way through is his studies when the security situation in Egypt began to decline due to political instability and Gabe and many Americans were shuttled out of the country. Shortly after his departure the Egyptian military staged a coup and regained control of the country. The move would prove to be fortuitous in more ways than one.
Shortly before leaving Cairo, he reconnected pen pal-style with a girl he grew up with in Montana. So when the opportunity to move back to the states presented itself, he used it to relocate to Ventura, CA to be near her and transferred to the University of California, Santa Barbara. It just so happened that she worked for a major producer of backpacks and outdoor gear. We won’t name any names, but the company she worked for is named for a certain region of Chile.
One day Gabe was drinking coffee, looking for a project to work on between semesters when he noticed his friend’s sewing machine sitting idle with some spare material placed conveniently next to it. He loved packing his gear into the backcountry but was never fully satisfied with the backpacks he’d used to do it, so to fill time he drew a simple rucksack and went to work designing it with the extra materials. The finished product turned out to be Gabe’s first pack (he still has it to this day). Energized by the initial success he continued to tinker. Working with different material samples that continued to show up next to the sewing machine, experimenting with putting them together in different ways. He loved the craftsmanship and artistic nature of the work.
Down the street from his house in Ventura was an auto upholstery shop and inside that shop was a leather jacket business. Gabe was looking for work and was eager to learn more about textile sewing so he applied for and got a job. It was this experience that paved the way for Gabe to perfect the art of patterning. In case you’re unfamiliar, patterning is the technique used for sewing two pieces of material together, specifically the part where you account for the overlap, or the “seam-allowance”. According to Gabe, “you have to sew an overlap of ⅜” to ½” to get a good seam, which is easy if you are working with straight lines or rectangular objects. If you were to make something 3-dimensional with curves, a basketball for example, you might imagine the pattern shapes and seams are more variable in their overlap.” This was the point in his progression where he really started to dial his designs.
Contrary to the approach that many backpack makers take, the minimalist urban aesthetic that sets Gabe’s work apart is only applied after a pack has proven strong enough to withstand the rigors of backcountry adventure. Testing and improvement occurs year-round. Before he started crafting his own, Gabe would search for packs with a lot of features. Those features were cool and useful, but often times he found that when he got to wearing them around they were just not that comfortable. He prefers function and comfort to all else. So one thing you’ll notice right away when you put on an Alpin pack is that it’s built to position the weight of the contents more on your shoulders rather than on your back to support mobility. Some of his designs are even tapered towards the bottom of the bag where additional lumbar support is built as more content (weight) is added.
- Gabe's first rolltop pack
Gabe was fond of his packs and of course he made them to wear, so he’d wear them around Truckee. With ever increasing frequency people started telling him, “You made this? You should totally sell these.” And here we find our reluctant hero at the inevitable crossroads; will he do it? Bet he won't, but he has to, right? Otherwise the story doesn’t work out… Eventually Gabe conceded and decided to give the people what they wanted. He converted his design portfolio website into the Alpin brand website for the fledgling business and began producing his gear for others. Alpin Mountain Company was born.
Fast forward a year and Alpin gear has taken hold within the marketplace, especially on the local scene in Truckee and Tahoe. Despite the early success, Gabe isn’t trying to conquer the world with Alpin, “I just want to make the best gear for the kinds of things that I like to do”, he says. “A lot of people want me to build bags for what they want, but I’m not going to pretend to build a pack for something that I am not myself an expert or even a participant in. It’s human nature to be our own worst critic so I only want to make the things that I’m passionate about and will stand up to my own critique.” The authenticity that oozes from Gabe and his brand make it nearly impossible to resist the urge to be a part of it. It's magnetic.
While his backpacking company continues its path of steady growth, Gabe continues to work in the ski industry at the local resorts around Tahoe/ Truckee in the winter months. During the summer you can find him chasing all the outdoor adventures he can find. In the spaces between he’s filling Alpin orders. Gabe has found such synergy in his life that even his adventures are part of the business. With Alpin’s latest pack, the Shasta Pack, poised for release this Fall, he needs to thoroughly test it to ensure its worthy of his brand. From what we can tell he’s been satisfied with the results thus far. “If you’re going up Shasta, this thing is going to be bomber, you’re going to love it.” I was lucky enough to try a prototype on during our visit. Other than the waist strap making me more self-aware of my love handles, it was ultra-light, super sturdy and in general pleasing to the senses. As for Gabe’s ultimate goal with the higher end bags Alpin offers, “I want to make the best “ski-mountaineering” backpack you can get.”. Attention: Ski-Mountaineering enthusiasts – We have found your bag maker.
When asked what’s on the horizon, Gabe says he might try his hand at Alpin’s first avalanche deployment bag. An avalanche deployment bag is a specialty pack that has an airbag in it and a cord that you can pull to deploy it in an emergency. The deployed airbag changes the user's weight to surface area ratio which significantly reduces the likelihood that they’ll get buried in the snow. It’s something that Gabe personally has a lot of interest in, but the cost of components may push potential offerings beyond his desired price point. Or perhaps an innovation will allow Alpin to disrupt the marketplace and take over.
Time will tell what’s in store for Gabe’s up and coming brand. One thing you can be sure of is Alpin products will continue to improve within the exceptionally functional-minimalist backpack space and that each step forward will be carefully thought out by the ship’s captain. For now, he’s just enjoying the ride, making gear for himself, his friends, and other folks out there that dig the same lifestyle. “I think people are proud to own and use gear from their region, it makes everything more intimate. Consumer culture has been made so impersonal, I think that certain people appreciate more intimacy with that sort of transaction of money for goods.” We couldn’t agree more, but also sort of hope Alpin never stops getting better (which will mean bigger). And therein lies the beauty of this story. Gabe Young never set out to start a backpack company.
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