Before the pandemic, Ben McMillen spent his time overseeing the 15 photographers who worked for his budding portrait studio and print shop in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania. “We were doing 400 weddings a year, and 2 to 3 commercial projects every week. It was almost a million dollar studio.”
Then the pandemic hit. And it devastated business.
So, Ben circled up with his three adolescent children and wife Kailee, and decided that, logically, the best response to the ground falling out from underneath their first business would be ... to go all-in on their side ‘goof’ business.
That’s how Hilltop Packs, an ultralight, ultra custom backpacking and thru-hiking accessories brand, found footing during a time when everything else seemed to be shifting and collapsing.
But, the Hilltop Packs story really begins seven years prior, when Ben was drawn out to the remote reaches of rural West Virginia on a quest to take pictures that no one else was taking. Wanting to hike deep into public lands, he decided to set himself up for backpacking.
Dissatisfied with the existing options for carrying his heavy load of camera gear, Ben employed his pre-existing knowledge of sewing to prototype, handcraft and product test his own lightweight backpacking gear, ‘just for personal use.’ To his delight, it worked. It worked well.
Then, in 2019, Ben stitched up his very first backpacking food bag, or ‘bear bag’ as it’s known. Ben didn’t want just any bear bag, he wanted a bear bag as unique and comical as himself. “I thought it would be funny to print a picture of a bear on my bear bag that was waving,” smiled Ben, and with access to the print shop at his fingertips, he did just that.
“I thought I would sell a couple of them as a goof,” laughed Ben, who posted a picture of his creation to reddit, Facebook and Instagram. The photo immediately sparked intrigue from friends and followers, and requests to purchase one soon poured in.
At the time, Ben was too busy with his photography business for another full-time job. So, he asked his teenage daughters if they would be interested in making a little extra cash sewing bear bags in the basement. They were in.
The McMillen’s bought four sewing machines and set up a small studio in their family home. They were getting 5 to 10 orders per week through their social media pages, and decided to launch a website for Hilltop Packs.
People loved the bags and wanted more. They wanted to know if they could print their own custom pictures on the robust, lightweight Dyneema bags. Ben, with his background in web and graphic design, quickly revised the Hilltop Packs website to accommodate the requests. Before long, they were printing, sewing and selling custom gear to people all over the country.
“It kind of trickled through 2019 like that,” Ben recalled. “A few orders a week and a surge around the holidays.” His daughters were able to keep up with demand, leaving Ben and Kailee to focus on other things.
And then, the pandemic hit. With his schedule wide open and mouths to feed, Ben made a hard pivot. He went down to the family's basement and got to work.
“I decided to dig into this little company that we started kind of as a goof,” Ben said. He jumped on the machines with his daughters and started making new prototypes. He sent the prototypes off to social influencers and YouTubers, like Dan Becker and Darwin on the Trail, and they ended up featuring Hilltop products in some of their videos.
As the Hilltop Packs name got out, the orders came rushing in.
By June 2020, the Hilltop team was in full stride. “We were growing faster than we could keep up. Too fast,” Ben laughed. They hired some outside hands, and his wife Kailee jumped in to help. Ben found himself behind the sewing machine full-time. With all hands on deck, they quickly outgrew their little basement studio and bought a shop outside of the house.
Before long, Ben brought his tech-based brother, Brandon McMillen, on board. With a background in data processing and IT, Brandon quickly began developing some ingenious systems to streamline their backend operations. These new systems allowed Hilltop Packs to figure out the financial feasibility of different projects quickly and easily, helping the small brand scale efficiently.
Nine months later, Hilltop needed to upgrade their space yet again. In July 2021, they moved into their current, much larger location on Greene Street in Waynesburg, PA. In addition to housing Hilltop Packs, the unique space also accommodates their print, cut and sew facility and their in-house coffee shop and roastery.
“It's kind of creepy how it all came together,” Ben laughed, who says he has the ‘perfect storm of knowledge’ to thank for some of the success of his startup. “I’ve done a lot of weird stuff in my life and I’ve always been self-employed. I feel like everything I’ve done came together at a time when I needed it most.”
Beyond the obvious of being set apart by their custom printing options, Ben says Hilltop Packs is solving real problems that ‘no one else wants to attack’.
Alongside their backpacks, bear bags and stuff sacks, they also make ultralight and highly functional camera bags, expandable fanny packs, and most recently, bear spray holsters that fit all varieties of belts and backpack straps.
These are the types of items that they find people clambering for in gear forums and online discussion threads; they are able to use that intel, in part, to help inform their next prototypes.
“The big part of what I’m always trying to do is be disruptive in whatever industry I’m in,” Ben said. “What can we do differently than everyone else? How can we get people to know about it and why do they need it?”
“We want to stand out,” he continued, “We don’t want to do what everyone else is doing. Obviously some of the product designs are similar, but we’re always trying to think of how we can be a little bit different, a little more beneficial.”
Most of Hilltop’s ultralight backpacking accessories are made out of Dyneema. “It’s super light, very, very strong and we found a way to custom print on it,” Ben said.
But with a shortage of Dyneema right now, and an inconsistent supply even during normal times, Ben and the crew are finding themselves adapting. “Nothing really beats Dyneema,” Ben said, but they have been able to source some new, more affordable fabrics that live up to Hilltop’s stringent standards.
For Ben, the most challenging part of starting up was the financial aspect. “It grew so fast, and we had to scale it so quickly,” he recalled. “We had a business that was dying at the same time as we were trying to grow another one. I pretty much drained my savings to get this thing off the ground. It was exciting, it was terrifying, and it was extremely challenging to balance. But we made it work.”
These days, the company is in a place where they are able to donate a percentage of their proceeds to local trail networks, public lands advocacy initiatives and customer-selected charities.
Ben attributes his ‘not being afraid to fail’ attitude to helping him get through the uncertainty. “Failure is part of all success,” Ben said. “I’ve learned way more from all my failures than I do from my success. I’ve always had that mindset, I’m not afraid to try a bunch of things, but chop off what’s not working.”
Ben is also quick to credit his Hilltop team for their unique skills, their passion for the project and the integral role they all play at the company. In fact, he feels the team they’ve built has been the best part of starting up.
“Everyone is super into building this company from the ground floor and everyone is having a lot of fun watching it grow,” Ben said.
The Hilltop staff is featured front and center on the website, in social campaigns and in product vlogs. “I want people to feel like they already know us before they make a purchase, like they are buying something from a friend,” explained Ben. “We are giving the company a face instead of just a logo.”
It’s a transparent approach that is working well. The brand receives comments, queries and fan mail from existing and soon-to-be customers who call staff by their first name.
“We want to look small, but function big,” explains Ben, “That’s kind of been our mantra from the start. Lots of people try to grow too fast and they forget, there’s this really great time where you get to be a small business and people will support that.”
These days, the photography studio is slowly gaining ground and Ben is back behind the lens part-time. “I’m photographing weddings on the weekends, which I’m very passionate about,” smiled Ben, “and then I dedicate the rest of my time during the week to Hilltop Packs.”
Since winter is his favorite season to hike and backpack, Ben is excited to take to the trails to test out prototypes as he traverses snow-covered hills.
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.