BIDDEFORD, Maine — On the days he managed to escape the New York restaurant kitchen, Mike St. Pierre hiked the Appalachian Mountains lugging a heavy load on his back. He couldn’t travel too deep into the wild before time ran out and he was forced to turn around and follow the blazed path back to the city and the daily grind.
The hours of a chef were wearing him thin. His passion was for the outdoors, especially the mountains.
Perhaps he was fated to stumble across Cuben Fiber, a highly durable material that is 50-70 percent lighter than Kevlar and four times stronger. He found it online and — excited about the possibilities of introducing it to the outdoor world — he did a little research.
Cuben Fiber is a high-performance, ripstop, composite laminate developed in the 1990s by a nuclear weapons physicist and aerospace composite engineer for world-class sailing.
St. Pierre also was interested how Cuben Fiber could help him sail — on land.
“There’s nothing else like this,” said St. Pierre, 32, as he sat in a camp chair in his Hyperlite Mountain Gear headquarters in Biddeford recently. “Every other material for the outdoors is woven, and this isn’t. I saw the benefits of it.”
Other useful characteristics of the fiber: It has low specific gravity (floats in water), high chemical resistance and UV resistance, and is completely waterproof.
He ordered the material from a U.S. company and made himself a tarp, and then a backpack.
“I was backpacking in the Adirondacks when a ranger made me empty out my pack,” St. Pierre said, smiling. “I had to convince her that I had enough in my backpack for three days.”
In St. Pierre’s 18-pound pack of gear, the ranger found all the gear necessary for him to not only survive in the wilderness, but to enjoy it.
“I don’t compromise comfort,” he said. “And as a trained chef, I know how to dehydrate food and make a meal out of it.”
His company, Hyperlite Mountain Gear, became incorporated in January 2010 with the help of St. Pierre’s business-savvy brother Dan. The year before that, St. Pierre, with the help of several avid outdoor enthusiasts (some of whom became HMG employees), put 20,000 miles on the product. The website launched at the end of June 2010.
They operate out of a shop at the North Dam Mill in Biddeford, manufacturing all of their products in-house.
“I like Maine; I live in Maine. Something about ultralight mountain gear went with it,” said St. Pierre, who was raised in Pennsylvania in the Pocono Mountain region but has been coming to Maine for the past 15 years. “There’s something about Maine. The rest of the country thinks that if you live here, you have to be outdoorsy.”
The company is in its infancy, yet the gear has already been rewarded two stamps of approval from Backpacker Magazine for best ultralight pack and shelter in this year’s spring gear guide. And their Echo II shelter received high praise and a seal of approval in Trail Runner magazine’s 2011 gear guide.
“This whole idea is a philosophy to look at every piece of gear in your bag and ask, ‘Can I carry something lighter or more durable?’” St. Pierre said.
HMG packs have yet to exceed the carrying capacity of 40 liters, though they’re built for long-term expeditions such as hiking the 2,181-mile Appalachian Trail or 2,663-mile Pacific Crest Trail. He has already had five thru-hikers on both trails use HMG equipment for the entirety of their treks.
That said, traveling light isn’t for everyone. Hikers do have to sacrifice luxuries and carefully weigh the usefulness of every ounce and cubic inch.
While HMG packs have mesh external pockets and an interior hydration sleeve, they don’t have all the bells and whistles of the typical mountaineering pack. They also don’t have as much padding, but you’re carrying as much as 25 pounds less with an HMG pack and shelter, so you don’t need excessive padding, St. Pierre said .
St. Pierre brought a few people on board to help him turn a philosophy into a working company. Rich Page became his lead designer. Before working at HMG, Page designed outdoor gear for 30 years in North Conway, N.H., and worked as a search and rescue guide on Mount McKinley in Alaska.
To get an idea of how lightweight Cuben Fiber gear can be: Their Echo I Ultralight one-man shelter system (which is BackpackingLight.com recommended) weighs 1.31-1.48 pounds and includes a tarp, a detachable mesh and Cuben Fiber insert for groundwater and insect protection and a detachable beak for heavy storm protection. Because the material is expensive, the Echo I costs $495.
The 2011 Windrider Ultralight Pack, which was selected as the “Best Ultralight Backpack” in Backpacker magazine’s 2011 Gear Guide, weighs just 1.6 pounds and costs $255. This waterproof pack, built for thru-hikers and day hikers alike, includes a roll-top storm closure, a y-strap and side strap compression system, cushioned hip and shoulder straps, waterproof hip pockets, an internal hydration sleeve and hose port and three exterior mesh pockets.
“We haven’t seen anything come back since we’ve been selling products,” St. Pierre said, then paused, remembering one incident when a tarp was shipped back.
A hiker returned the tarp because it had a hole it in — the result of a bear attack in the Smoky Mountains.
“There was a little bit of a pull, but the fibers stopped the bear’s claws,” said St. Pierre. Nevertheless, the tarp was ruined, so HMG sent him a replacement, though they never claimed their gear was bearproof.
Donald Crook III, who earned the trail name “Bama” (for his home state of Alabama) while hiking the AT and PCT, joined the team to test the products in the field. Using all of their gear, he hiked the AT in 92 days last summer. This summer, Bama and his girlfriend (who he met on the AT last year, and then blew by her) are leaving on June 1 to hike the PCT with HMG gear.
Though HMG is primarily focused on shelters and packs, St. Pierre is looking to design anything that would lighten the load of an outdoor athlete. Essentially, he is still building gear for himself. The gear he attempts to design depends on the size and difficulty of the mountains he climbs.
New products in the making include a smaller day pack and an ice-climbing pack that has already been tested in the field.
St. Pierre’s hike mileage per day has doubled since his weekend trips in the Appalachians while living in New York. But then again, the weight on his back has been cut in half. He’s traveling light and looking for taller mountains to climb.
For information, visit www.hyperlitemountaingear.com, their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/pages/Hyperlite-Mountain-Gear/127065977305911?sk=wall or their Youtube channel at www.youtube.com/user/hyperlitemtngear1.