Chris Millard, founder of the ultralight gear company LiteAF, hasn’t always had a base pack weight of eight pounds. As many backpackers start out, he schlepped around your standard heavy pack overflowing with unnecessary gear. It was after he and his wife Lorraine planned to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail that they became devoted fans of ultralight everything.
While some of their ultralight gear was purchased, in the winter of 2017, Chris began playing around with making his own stuff using Dyneema® fabric, well known for its strong, lightweight properties.
With a sewing machine that he picked up on clearance stationed at the kitchen table of his New Jersey home, he set out to make his first stuff sack. Next came simple dry bags and food storage bags, and eventually Chris began experimenting with more technical pieces, like backpacks.
Chris, who led a career in the construction industry admitted, “I’ve always been a maker, but never a sewer.”
But, after pouring over plenty of YouTube videos for guidance, he quickly became a self-taught seamstress.
Through all of Chris’ trial and error, the Millards acquired quite a surplus of ultralight backpacking gear. So, they decided to create a small store on the online marketplace Etsy and sell their extra inventory of stuff sacks, zipper pouches, and dry bags.
It started out as a bit of a gag, but they named their Etsy store LiteAF. The meaning, Chris laughed, depends on your interpretation, “or your sense of humor!” Lorraine noted the feather in the logo, so the brand could be deciphered as light as a feather “if you wanted it to.” Nevertheless, the brand name caught on so fast, the couple stuck with it.
After the gear in their Etsy shop sold out immediately, the couple realized there was huge demand for Dyneema. “That’s when we said, if the demand is this high, let’s go through with it,” Chris said. So, in June 2018, the couple built a website and a bit of inventory and made LiteAF an official brand.
Their humble sewing machine was replaced by several high-end commercial pieces of equipment and the kitchen table operation was moved to the Millard’s garage. “Everything is handmade in our 160-square-foot shop,” Chris said. They lamented how they’ve already outgrown the shop, but Lorraine added, “it beats the kitchen counter.”
Later that summer, both Chris and Lorraine quit their day jobs and went full time with LiteAF. The couple, along with their 18-year-old son Cristian, makes up the entire crew. “We’re three people running this company. We do everything from answering the phone to sewing to taping and shipping!”
While speaking to Chris, it’s easy to tell he loves Dyneema fabric. And who wouldn’t? Not only is it 15 times stronger than steel, it’s the lightest and most waterproof material out there. From the fabric to the webbing to the ropes, “if it’s made with Dyneema, that’s what we’re using,” he said.
While he finds it extremely easy to work with, Dyneema is almost impossible to get a hold of. There are only two companies that hold the rights to sell it and that can be challenging for cottage brands like LiteAF. “You have to solely rely on them keeping their stock of colors and thicknesses in order for us to keep our own inventory,” Chris said.
Also challenging the brand is simply keeping up with demand. “It’s a good problem to have,” Lorraine confessed, “but there are not enough hours in the day.” She mentions the volume of positive feedback they’ve received from the hiking community. “Our customers appreciate custom, handmade gear. We do it right and do it quickly.”
Chris is well aware that he’s not the first ultralight gear maker on the market. “I never wanted to directly copy someone else’s product,” he said. Instead, LiteAF remains unique because its creations are his own version of an existing product. “Obviously, a stuff sack is a stuff sack,” he joked. Still, he was inspired to create different gear, something more appealing to his audience.
Based on his own experiences, he questions what really works (or doesn’t work) when it comes to the design and functionality of a piece of gear. “What didn’t work for me is where our thinking begins,” he said.
That’s what led him to create their flagship product, the flat bottom bear bag kit. Made of Dyneema of course, the roll top bag also comes with a rock sack, Dyneema cord, a small carabiner, and PCT stick all to help with the often tricky art of properly hanging the bag. “It’s just a little different from anyone else and it’s completely useful,” Chris said.
As the wall of rejected prototype backpacks hanging in their home illustrate, Chris is an innovator who continues to develop and evolve his product designs today. When asked how many variations of backpacks he created before achieving a successful design, Chris joked, “I don’t even want to say that I’m there yet!”
Eventually, he came up with The Curve. His original design was influenced by two long-distance hikers, “The Graduate” and “T-Rex”, who reached out to Chris as they were in the middle of their “Calendar Year Triple Crown” attempt in 2018.
“It’s weird how most backpacks are square,” he noted. “Your shoulders aren’t square and your back’s not square.” In response, he created a backpack that naturally and comfortably flows with the curve of your back. This design was worn by the two thru-hikers for the remaining half of their successful Triple Crown.
Not only are the packs ultralight and comfortable, but LiteAF customizes each bag to order, too. Modifications include choosing pack material, style of hip belts, size of shoulder straps, extra pockets, and added loops and shock chords.
“The customization and the functionality is what set us apart from the rest,” Chris said. Additionally, he said the ability to get color into Dyneema is just now taking off. “I think it’s going to push the boundaries for customization and bring hikers the ability to have a one-of-a-kind pack.”