Have you ever scrutinized a piece of your backpacking gear and said to yourself, “I can make this better?” Aaron Locander, founder of Supai Adventure Gear, had this realization when hauling his inflatable packraft through the Grand Canyon back in 2009.
Aaron and his wife Shannon Flowers, who live, work, and play in Arizona, love being outdoors. In fact, they live for it. “It’s our whole goal in life,” Shannon laughed. Backpacking, canyoneering, rock climbing, rafting, ice climbing, you name it. Throughout all their adventures and hauling the multitude of gear that accompanies them, it boils down to one rule: every ounce counts.
On one escapade exploring the Grand Canyon, Aaron and his buddies needed to cross the Colorado River. To do this, the group used cheap, bulky, and heavy boats made of PVC and vinyl. “They were basically pool toys,” Shannon joked. That’s when Aaron, criticizing the four-pound behemoth of a boat, pronounced, “I can make this better.”
“The next thing I know, all this fabric arrives in the mail and Aaron is in our living room ironing,” Shannon laughed. Through plenty of trial and error, Aaron constructed a raft that was less bulky, more robust, and most importantly, weighted significantly less.
Soon after, Aaron’s friend Rich was so envious of the new watercraft that he eventually bought it from him. Rich put that first prototype to the test, successfully using it to float over 200 miles in the Grand Canyon.
By then, the creation was garnering attention from friends and fellow adventurers in the area. “People would say, ‘Where’d you get that boat? It’s so much lighter than what I’m carrying,” Shannon recalled. “Everyone wanted one.”
Aaron and Shannon obliged, and after tweaking their original design, they started making and selling the boats to friends. Thanks to some gentle prodding by their pals, they very casually began to contemplate starting a business.
In the spring of 2011, the newly married couple was thru-hiking the 800-mile Arizona Trail. Shannon had recently quit her job, and Aaron’s work provided him with three-day weekends, making the business venture a realistic possibility. As the story goes, it was on the trail amongst the trees when the duo officially declared they’d take the plunge and launch the boat building brand.
With a deep love and reverence for the Grand Canyon, Aaron and Shannon came up with the name Supai Adventure Gear. The Supai sandstone layer is the reason the Grand Canyon is red. “We just thought it was really poetic,” Shannon said.
For the first six months of business, they stayed busy on their days off cutting and ironing boat forms on their kitchen table. At the time, it would take 2-3 days to make a single boat. “It took forever,” Shannon reminisced.
Thanks to some networking at Outdoor Retailer, they learned of a higher quality fabric that was more conducive to their products. From there, they designed an entirely new way of building the boats more efficiently and uniformly.
Needing to free up their living room, they moved the operation into the garage, where they continue to work today. The Arizona heat can make the workspace a bit trying and uncomfortable in the summer, so the team tries to build up inventory in the winter months. Currently, they can manufacture as many as ten boats in a single day. And, Shannon added, no irons are involved.
To date, the brand offers two lightweight packrafts: the Matkat Flatwater and the Canyon Flatwater. The Matkat, while it is the heavier of the two, weighs in at just 28 ounces, and is the brand’s most popular product. It’s a bit more robust and can withstand a river, whereas the Canyon Flatwater, about the size of a Nalgene water bottle, is a perfect fit for a high alpine lake.
The company is quick to remind floaters their boats are extremely lightweight and should be handled with care. Shannon has been known to discourage people from buying their boats if they plan on using it in a less than ideal location (think: rocks, rapids, sticks, and succulents). “One of our goals is to be honest about the capabilities of our products,” she said.
What’s a boat without a paddle? Supai Adventure Gear makes those, too. “They’re a whole different beast,” Shannon admitted. Adhering to their lightweight principle, Aaron decided to try his hand at making one out of carbon fiber. Working with the material proved challenging and required ample research. “It took a long time to get there,” she said.
After two years of trials, tribulations, and too many prototypes to count, they came up with a 4-piece design that worked. Weighing in at a mere 14 ounces, their Olo Lightweight Paddle is like nothing else on the market.
As the name Supai Adventure Gear implies, the brand leaves room for future creations that complement their boats. They’re actively prototyping inflation sacks for their boats, and hope to launch them as early as this year.
When the couple isn’t busy building and field testing boats or lest not forget, working their full-time day jobs, they make it a priority to get outside. “We are 100% obsessed with the Grand Canyon. If we don’t do three or four trips a year, it’s a sad and unsuccessful hiking year.” This ambition drives their brand, too. “Our love for the outdoors got us here. Our desire is to make sure people can get outside and explore nature in a different way.”