There was a campsite about a half-mile off the road that Dandee Packs co-founder Dan Dodman really wanted to camp at. He parked the car with his wife, and then proceeded to haul gear to the campsite. It was technically car camping, but the campsite took six trips to reach.
For those of you who think this sounds like a terrible combination of backpacking and car camping, you would be correct.
“I’d been car camping my entire life,” says Dan, “Sitting around the fire that night, we were talking about how great it would be if we had only had to make one trip. Just a backpack’s worth each.”
Dan had never been exposed to backpacking before, so the idea genuinely had never occurred to him. At that point, though, it clicked.
He spent the rest of the summer researching and buying backpacking gear, and then that fall took off on his first extended backpacking trip along the Long Trail / Appalachian Trail.
He found himself hooked.
Dan lives in Boston, working as a full-time user experience designer. Most of his hiking and backpacking is in the Vermont and New Hampshire region.
Dan made his first piece of backpacking gear in January 2020. It was a simple hammock — no net or gather-end … a basic yet versatile design. He then proceeded to build more than a dozen hammocks over the next few months.
“The company stemmed from wanting a lighter, simpler piece of gear,” Dan says. “It really snowballed from there. After I mastered the hammock, I had my mind made up that a pack was next.”
Dan started making his own packs and refining the process. He then began selling his older packs to fund materials for new ones.
“I set out to make the pack that I always wanted,” says Dan, “but soon people were reaching out for me to build the pack that they had always wanted.”
And thus, Dandee Packs was born.
Before starting his company, Dan had no background in business, sewing, or the ultralight gear creation world. The learning curve was steep, and involved figuring out the ins-and-outs of inventory, lead times, design, construction, and customer expectations.
Beyond that, there’s the very real emotional impact of feeling anxious when you put something out into the world, hoping that a passion-driven creation is well-received.
The feedback has been positive though, and Dan’s anxieties might be able to be put (at least partially) to rest. While Dan doesn’t like to feel that he’s bragging about his packs, he says he’s heard them described as “simple, yet refined.”
Dan aims to make an effective, simple, lightweight piece of gear, and hopes that with his current designs, he’s at least getting close to those markers. Most Dandee Packs are custom-made, frameless bags, but as he gets more comfortable with the process, he’s started offering complementary gear like fanny packs, wallets, and smaller organizational bags.
Dan’s packs fit the bill for ultralight, cottage packs, which is what he was going for. He not only works to customize each pack, but to customize the process as well. If a customer wants more input on the design, they can have it. If they want to leave it up to Dan and stay more hands off? They can have it that way too.
“I try to keep things easy to understand and use, and customization is a big part of it,” he says. “I think people like the option to either tweak every last thing, or leave it largely in my hands.”
Dandee Packs are made in the same building Dan lives in, but he’s migrated from his kitchen table down to a spare room in the basement, working to have the space feel separate from his living area. He works on one pack at a time, giving it as much attention to detail as it needs.
“This is especially important with custom items,” he explains. “I can't tell you how many times I missed some small detail in the beginning because I was trying to do too many things at once.”
Before he starts each pack, Dan reads over the order notes, which he has written down in a special notebook. This helps him get a sense of the pack as a whole. He measures and cuts the fabric by hand, then panels start coming together, becoming the final pack. He avoids autopilot by changing the order in which he works on the panels each week, something that seems somewhat unique in the world of gear construction.
Like many small companies focusing primarily on custom orders, one of the biggest challenges is keeping all of the pack and accessory materials stocked without going into the hole too much on inventory. Highly customizable packs means Dan needs to keep a wide variety of webbing, X-Pac, and other fabric options available.
“On a day-to-day basis, hearing from people who are enjoying their packs is without a doubt the most rewarding and exciting thing for me,” says Dan. “Overall, it’s very easy to get up each day and do what you love.”
Maggie Slepian is a full-time freelance writer based in Bozeman, Montana. She is the co-founder of BackpackingRoutes.com, and spends as much time outdoors as possible. You can follow her here, or find clips and contact info at Maggieslepian.com