A desk-bound CPA by day, and a father of five by night, Jim Toel couldn’t carve out eight weeks to hike the entire Arizona Trail in one shot. Instead of letting that stand in his way, he decided to improvise by piecing together a series of 90 out-and-back day hikes along the AZT, beginning in August 2016.
Throughout his section hikes, Jim longed for a lightweight day pack that would satisfy all of his unique needs. He wanted something that could carry plenty of water in the side pockets and lots of layers for the ever changing climate. He wanted easy access to items without having to stop and take off his pack. After all, time was of the essence if he was going to make it home for dinner.
With lots of opportunity to dream on the trail, Jim and his hiking buddy, Tom Ross, came up with the idea to start designing and making their own lightweight, outdoor gear. Their shared vision for functional and innovative equipment, Packback Designs (PBD Ultralight) was born in 2018.
“In the beginning, Packback literally took over my dining room table,” laughed Jim, who would stay up until 2 am sewing prototypes before having to go into the accounting office in the morning. “My wife was like, number one, can I have my dining room table back? And number two, will you stop killing yourself making pouches in the middle of the night?”
Jim and Tom took her advice and rented a shop in Scottsdale, Arizona. They bought a few sewing machines and hired a couple of seamstresses. They made prototypes that had big water bottle pockets with external stash spots along them, attached daisy chains anywhere they liked and made everything easy to access.
Their first born, the Trailpack 27, was purpose built for 20-mile day hikes; it was a collaboration of their minds. “Tom's biggest contribution is that anytime you want to hike, he's there, and anytime you ask his opinion about products, he's got thoughts,” Jim said.
With their custom-built ultralight daypacks riding securely on their backs, Jim and Tom continued their AZT section-hiking — now also on a mission to put their prototypes through the wringer. As it would turn out, their packs got plenty of testing and refining during the 3 years, 9 months and 28 days that it took to complete the 1,600 miles of north and southbound travel on the Arizona Trail.
In 2019, when things were just how they wanted them to be with their flagship pack, they launched an online Etsy store. In addition to small runs of the Trailpack 27, they also sold ultralight accessory bags and pouches.
Orders, insights and ideas came pouring in, and Packback used the beta to expand and solve many hikers' needs, like detachable carbon frames and zippered food bags. A year later, PBD created their first ultralight, pared-down packs, including the SOOLITE34.
The PBD line continues to grow. Alongside their Trailpacks and Soolite bags, they offer a variety of pouches, fanny packs, stuff stacks, dry bags, padded hip belts, and smart ultralight, outdoor accessories. In the spirit of innovation, PBD has recently released an adjustable, aluminum pack frame and are integrating Ultra 200 fabric in all their pack offerings.
Packback Designs has created a loyal following and fan base through their Etsy site and webstore. They’ve collected a ton of data and feedback over the years through their comments section and reviews, which has been one of Jim’s favorite things about starting up.
“Sometimes you kind of wince when you’re reading the reviews, wondering if it’s going to be a good one” says Jim, “then you read it, you realize, wow, they actually think it's cool. It gives me inspiration.” Jim loves fielding questions, and creatively solving people's diverse gear desires.
“One lady emailed me about an old Kelty frame that she had from the 80s, but her canvas backpack was trashed,” said Jim, who has a soft spot for vintage hiking packs. “She wanted to know if we could make a pack that fit on that frame, which is something I had been thinking about for years. It made me wonder how many old Kelty frames are sitting in people's garages, waiting to be revived.”
For Jim, the idea of merging old hiking technology with the new is something that gets his gears going. “If you want to repurpose your Kelty frame, and put a DCF back on it, even though it might not logically make sense, I say go for it!”
Finding customers and making people happy has not been a problem for Packback. “It's really the economics of making an American made cottage product that is the challenge,” says Jim, “I want to have the luxury to produce small, unique items to help out hikers that have unique needs, but at the same token, it’s got to fit within the financials.”
With 25 years of accounting experience, Jim and PBD have been able to navigate the inevitable economic hurdles that many new ventures face. “You just have to have a sharp pencil and then be watching it all the time,” he laughed.
Future plans for PBD are focused on refining their existing line, delving deeper into their new, external aluminum pack frame, innovating with new fabrics and increasing production ever so slightly to keep up with customer demand.
And, once tax season is behind him — because, yes, he’s still a CPA by day — Jim plans to get outside with Tom and do some more hiking.
“You get on a trail that somebody else has created, and you don't have to think about it,” Jim explains about the state-of-being that long-distance hiking puts him in. “Your job is to just lose yourself in it, and just hike. Just go in motion and deal with the ups and downs.”
So it is on the trail, so it is in life.
Ali Becker is a freelance adventure writer and narrative storyteller who shares compelling conversations about personal transformations, overcoming limitations, wellness education and adventurous situations. You can follow her rambling adventures on social at @thisisalibecker or at her blog thisisalibecker.com.