Moving purposefully in nature as it moves within us.
I didn’t need a new backpack, I expect I already have more than enough, but I knew someone who did. For the last few years I’ve been hiking behind a friend whose backpack was more duct-tape than backpack. It was deservedly time to replace their seasoned travelling companion (the backpack not I). The question is, with so many manufacturers out there —big ＆ small— which one to choose?
This is my journey back to the foothills of Yatsugatake to visit KS Ultralight Gear and ask Laurent Barikosky to custom make a new pack for my friend.
What makes a good backpack?
The answer to this question has changed throughout my life. As a young adventurer, it was my brother’s hand-me-down Cobmaster external frame backpack. As a teenager; the lasted futuristic 80’s Karrimor design. In my twenties as I headed out for days hiking the Italian Alps around Chamonix & Monterosa. Two pairs of socks on daily washing rotation, as I walked from rifugio to rifugio carrying a Karrimor Ridge 30. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was pretty ultralight. It must’ve been ten or more years later, now living in Japan, when I truly discovered the ultralight hiking scene. I got a kick out of carrying only the essentials, to be light, fast and free as you moved through wild places. And it seems like I wasn’t the only one.
KS Ultralight Gear is a small independent manufacturer of uniquely designed, functional, and customisable ultralight backpacks. Scrolling through the selection of packs on a website which looks like it was made in the 90’s (in an unassumingly good way) I could instantly tell Laurent knew his stuff. With a choice of materials and some surprising design details I’d never seen before. The type of details which make you say out loud “of course, why didn’t I think of that?”. Right there and then my mind was made up, I had to visit Laurent to learn more about his ultralight gear and his outdoor lifestyle.
Picking up my friend, we drove east towards Yatsugatake, breaking up the journey by stopping in Matsumoto for the night. Since my story with Naoki Ishikawa I’ve made an effort to travel more slowly. Taking backroads, the older roads, often ancient highways; finding them more interesting to explore. We drove the Hirayu Kaido through the Northern Alps, then along the Nippon Alps Salad Road into Matsumoto boasting spectacular views of the mountains we had just traversed. Our destination for the night was hostel Tabi-Shiro, chosen for its wonderful sauna and how wonderful it was. I think we shall return to Matsumoto for another story, but now we were on our way to Hara-mura in Nagano Prefecture where a French backpack maker was waiting.
A path that can be traced is not the eternal path, the Tao
– Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
Laurent met us in the garden with nothing but fields and views surrounding his newly built home and workshop. He hasn’t always been a backpack maker, following a path through art school, organic farming, yoga, Zazen meditation and eastern philosophy. A path that inevitably led him into the outdoors. Shortly after moving to Japan he found himself struggling up Ena-san (Mount Ena 2,191m) in the Kiso Mountains bordering Gifu & Nagano prefectures. “Maybe because I lacked training, I felt the weight of the equipment, maybe that was the start of my vocation —my calling?”
Ultralight was calling him further down the path and he followed. Finding information and a few items from websites such as Backpacking Light or Randonner-léger. Repairing worn gear on an old sewing machine led to making a few simple items. One stitch linked to another and before long he was making more complex backpacks, which were durable and light. “Since my needs were simple and I wanted equipment that was practical and easy to use… it wasn’t that complicated, actually!”
Left to right: KS Daypack, Alpisack & ΩMEGA Framed Pack.
Backpacks and backpack parts seemed to come from every corner of the room. We were now in his workshop talking Design. Draws opened to reveal various backpacks parts Laurent had prepared previously, others full of readymade components. Several different types of foam rolled or cut to size filled shelves and lightweight handmade frames stood stacked against the wall. I was kindly instructed not to take photographs of his one-of-a-kind frame bending jig. We laughed as he said “that’s top-secret!”.
Ultralight became Laurent’s focus and specialty, but he explains that lightness is nothing without durability and functionality. The combination of these three customisable elements, plus each customer’s personal —hiking— preference creates the design, not the other way around. Not preoccupied with superficial style or fashion, but with how one wants to move purposefully through nature so that the pack —the design— disappears “leaving you free to experience an uninterrupted biological and mental movement, from organic to spiritual.”
Taoism also influences me, especially the fact of accompanying the movement rather than going against it.
I was surprised to hear that the majority of Laurent’s packs are shipped off to customers in America. Most of whom are thru-hikers walking for several days to several months at a time. Using Laurent’s backpack for the entirety of trails such as the Continental Divide Trail (CDT), the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), the Appalachian Trail (AT) or all three! On long hikes such as these, it’s of utmost importance that the pack be as light, comfortable, functional and durable as possible. Laurent demonstrates how the repetitive action of picking up and putting on a backpack using the same technique causes stress-points and squash-zones in the shoulder strap.
Now showing us several different pieces of material in varying degrees of distress. Great care is taken in choosing fabrics with the best abrasion resistance to weight ratio, going beyond manufacturer’s specifications and performing extensive tests of his own. Only when a fabric meets his strict standards will it then be used for his customers.
It was time for lunch, a delicious homemade feast of local vegetable soup, brown rice and apple compote with almonds for dessert. We drank water collected from a mountain stream, then coffee by the wood stove and discussed more about our lifestyle choices. Like making a backpack, Laurent has designed a lifestyle to suit his simple needs. Each uncomplicated element piecing together to create a greater whole. Fresh air, clean water, nutritious vegetables, plenty of movement outdoors in the sun and work that is purposeful.
Catching himself about to say “I don’t like the city”, he rephrases the sentence in a more positive manner “I prefer the countryside”.
Here he is able to focus on his craft, a process that is not hurried, nor is there a need for it to be. Moving forward with each customised order piece by piece until finished. Equal intention is placed on working, cooking, eating, family and being outdoors. Walking or cycling for at least one hour a day, often stopping to meditate or practice yoga along the way. Weekends too are spent outdoors taking longer adventures with family and friends usually in the surrounding mountains. Any particular peak or personal best isn’t necessarily the goal, the time immersed in nature is.
During my walks in the mountains, I’m looking for the beauty of the places, the poetry, the exaltation more than personal performance.
Laurent’s customised lifestyle is in service to his needs. As too with each backpack he makes — being in service to each customer’s needs. A more standardised mass produced method of production might be more lucrative, but at what loss? The satisfaction for both Laurent and his customers derives from the customisation, the specific needs of each individual, complimented by Laurent’s positive lifestyle choices. I dare say any other method would lead him away from this rewarding path.
Purchasing a new backpack doesn’t need to be an anonymous exchange between strangers, it can be a conversation between two friends. Perhaps we shouldn’t consider KS Ultralight Gear as a brand, more of a bespoke backpack service. Where Laurent —the craftsman— will listen and help you literally craft your outdoor aspirations.
My friend, being more of a day hiker, selected the light 20mm webbing with buckle, not the ultralight 13mm option with hook fastener. Along with a mesh not fabric front pocket, drawstring closure not zip, external padding-come-sitting mat, one pole loop and one shoulder strap pouch and so on and so on. Finally it was time to choose the fabric and colour. After some deliberation, opting for the 100% recycled polyester ECOPAK™ in Ocean Blue.
Recycled fabric options are important to Laurent who does his best to reduce waste by using the off cuts to make other small components. “It’s the advantages of being small”. However we agreed “the most ecological measure is to not buy new gear as long as we have old equipment that still functions. If they are in poor condition, they can usually be repaired. Only after that, is it time to buy new gear and clothing”.
To limit the impact on the environment of our hikes, it’s best to live near nature and move as little as possible by motor.
With our order complete and our bellies full, it was time to point the car back across the Alps. It was then when Laurent offered me a backpack of my choice, no charge. “I want to show my gratitude and give you something in return for writing this article” I was truly taken aback by this kind gesture, but politely refused. That’s not to say I didn’t want one of his remarkable packs; perhaps the R-35 with its rugged yet flexible daisy chain design or the beautiful Tao Pack appealing to my minimalistic tendencies. At that moment I knew the answer to the question “What makes a good backpack?”
“The one I already had.”
Before leaving I asked Laurent what success meant to him? “Make your aspirations and dispositions coincide with the needs of society, confirmed by gratitude and the harmony produced.”
And so it goes…
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