While it may seem like a quantum leap to go from perusing the internet for an ultralight backpack to deciding to make his own, for art school student and founder of Alien Outdoor Gear, Brandon York, it was an obvious decision.
Drawn to the idea of lightening his kit after a couple of uncomfortable backpacking trips with friends, Brandon careened down the rabbit hole of ultralight gear forums, YouTube reviews, and cottage industry gear sites.
“What I found was that I wanted an amalgamation of a bunch of different packs that I was seeing,” explained Brandon, “and I knew that I could do that by ordering a custom backpack from someone; but that can get very costly and I didn’t have a lot of money at the time. Plus, making my own pack seemed very natural to me with my background in art and design.”
Brandon spun off deeper into the internet abyss, spending hours eyebrows deep in MYOG (make your own gear) subreddits, watching YouTube gear makers, and finding out more about fabrics.
“I watched a four-part YouTube series where this guy made his own backpack about five times before I decided to get any materials or buy a sewing machine,” Brandon said. “I was trying to pick up every little detail and after watching it multiple times, I was like, this seems like something I could do.”
While his only real sewing experience was a pillowcase project in home economics — and having his mom help him hem some pants — his confidence in his artistic abilities carried him through.
“I’m an art student. I have an art degree. I grew up with an art background, so art has always been a part of my life,” Brandon said. “I do graphic design and web design for my career now, so I felt like those skills could translate.”
He located some materials, picked up a secondhand home sewing machine, and launched into making his very first item, an ultralight stuff sack. “I figured a stuff sack is essentially just a small backpack,” laughed Brandon. “Ultralight backpacks are just a tube with straps on it.”
Completing that project, Brandon transitioned straight from stuff sack to backpack. But building the bag proved to be much more time intensive than the stuff sack. “I would spend hours on the make your own gear subreddit every night and watched countless YouTube videos,” said Brandon, who took instruction and inspiration from a master upholstery artist, and then translated his meticulous moves to pack making.
While making his own pack wasn’t nearly as cost effective as he initially thought, it was incredibly rewarding. “It was really awesome to be able to hold this finished pack in my hands knowing that I made it and then take it out on adventures,” he said.
It was winter in Wisconsin when Brandon finished handcrafting his first bag, and he wanted to test its durability without having to go out in the frigid conditions. “I loaded the backpack with a bunch of weights, grabbed it by the shoulder straps and shook it up and down repeatedly. I really tried to break it,” Brandon said.
Pleased with how well his bag held together, he decided his pack design was worthy. So, he made a second pack, this time with better materials and updated features.
“I knew that if I was going to sell these packs to other people, I was going to need to buy an industrial sewing machine to increase the quality of production,” explained Brandon. “I was living in a one bedroom apartment with my girlfriend at the time, and we had a dining room table that we never really used because we always ate at the coffee table. So I asked my girlfriend if she would mind if we got rid of the dining table so I could put a sewing machine there.”
His partner obliged, giving Brandon a spot to set up his newly purchased industrial sewing machine. He sat down and got to work. He took all the features he had wanted in his initial dream backpack — like a bottom pocket and running vest style straps — and paired them with an overall simpler design than what he was seeing offered by other brands.
“One thing I wanted to focus on was making it comfortable,” Brandon said. “I found that a lot of backpacks have these thin little straps that don’t have a lot of padding, so I decided to bulk mine up, almost overbuild them, so they are super comfortable.”
Compliments from friends who loved his new ultralight pack turned into requests for him to make them one as well. To get the capital he needed to launch his new cottage brand, Alien Outdoor Gear, Bradon took on another outside job as a server, “and every cent from those paychecks went into buying materials,” he said.
In late 2020, he started posting photos of his latest creations on Reddit’s ULGearTrade. The forums soon became the main sales channel for Alien Outdoor Gear, and by summer 2021 orders were ramping up quickly.
By that fall, Brandon’s burgeoning backpack business was bringing in enough income for him to leave his serving job, and instead put that time back into building bags.
Figuring out how to balance his daily web design work with his pack making has been one of Brandon's biggest challenges along the way.
“I don’t have a very good internal clock,” laughed Brandon. “In the beginning, I would do one step and think that it took 10 minutes, but in actuality it took 30 or 40 minutes.”
“Realizing the actual amount of time it takes to do something was the biggest thing to learn, so that I could plan better,” Brandon said.
The artistic and analytical brain that blesses Brandon’s life makes him incredibly meticulous about every single detail; but at times, creates a perfectionist nature that has him seeing every little thing he wishes he’d done differently.
“I don’t want people to have to worry if their backpack is going to fall apart. I want them to be confident in their gear and just get to focus on what they are doing on the trail,” he said.
These days, Brandon is plugging away in his home studio, crafting beautiful, durable backpacks made from forward-thinking, recycled fabrics like ECOPAK.
“My backpacks are slightly heavier than most UL packs out there, but it's a tradeoff that I think is worth it for extra durability and comfort,” said Brandon, who’s willing to repair and replace any aspect of Alien packs should the need ever arise, “I want my bags to last a very long time.”
The artist in him sees each pack as an opportunity to make someone a unique, one-of-a-kind piece. “To me, the way a backpack looks is almost as important as its function,” Brandon said.
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.