John Campbell swears he’s not a “retro-grouch.” He wouldn’t give up his modern ski boots or climbing shoes. But when it comes to backpacks, he wonders about the bells, whistles and all the extra pockets.
“It’s almost ridiculous for the average user,” he said.
John’s company Alpine Luddites is a throwback to the simpler days of outdoor recreation. His vintage backpacks are faithful reproductions of classics, such as the original Chouinard Equipment Creag Dubh rucksack and the Karrimor Chamonix and Alpiniste models.
John doesn’t just talk wistfully about the days when style was a byproduct of form and function – he wants to bring those days back. He focuses on using high-quality material and construction for his hand-made Alpine Luddites packs.
Living in Colorado where UV light wreaks havoc on gear, he decided to use durable fabrics designed to withstand the sun at high altitudes. John does not believe in “throw-away gear.” He wants to create gear that will last.
“If you have an extra pound in your bag for durability, I’m fine with that,” he said. But his clean designs and dedication to high-end fabrics actually result in fairly lightweight packs.
Custom fit backpacks
It’s not solely the construction and the vintage look that make Alpine Luddites packs stand out. It’s the fit, John said. Each pack John makes is custom fit.
The fit of a pack is most important, John said. It’s like getting a custom-bike fit. You don’t realize how comfortable it can be until your gear is tailored to you.
“You can’t fake fit,” he said.
It’s not just about the waist, but whether a person’s shoulders are narrow or wide. It’s not rocket science, but it’s about taking the time to get it right.
John recently opened a shop for Alpine Luddites in Ouray, Colorado. All of the company’s models of packs are built onsite. The patterns, which create a variety of sized packs, including one for a bike, are drawn by hand. Every shoulder strap is sewn by hand. There are more steps in creating his so-called simple designs than in most modern bags.
“And I sweat all the details,” John said.
As Alpine Luddite grows, John plans to keep it small enough to continue manufacturing in the U.S. It’s important to him to pay a living wage, control quality and also remain flexible – another throwback to a different era.
A life and career in the outdoors
John made his first piece of outdoor gear when he was in high school. At 16 years old he took a National Outdoor Leadership School ski mountaineering course in Alaska. Before he left he used his mother’s Singer sewing machine to make a 55-liter alpine climbing pack. Eventually he sewed his own technical pants. This was an era before soft shells were readily available at the store, he said.
John went onto climb all over the world and found that even as more gear flooded the market, he still couldn’t find the products he wanted. Day packs were too small and the next step up was a huge bag with an internal frame. There had to be something simpler. But there wasn’t.
John got deep into the world of outdoor gear when he landed a job with Dana Gleason, owner of Mystery Ranch, and renowned for his backpacks. John also worked for Cloudveil for several years and now he’s a part-owner and distributor for Crux, a high-end climbing gear company based in the United Kingdom.
Throughout his career he always thought about what he wanted – simple gear that will last forever. About a year and a half ago he acted on that vision by starting Alpine Luddites.
John has a daily reminder of the values on which it all started. That sewing machine of his mother’s, the one he used to create his first custom pieces of gear, sits in the shop.