When Luke Nalley started making his own compression sacks, stuff sacks, and ditty bags out of Dyneema Composite Fabric, he didn’t necessarily plan to turn it into his full-time job.
“I kept telling my wife, ‘I’m just gonna see what happens,’” he said.
But within a few short months the Ultralitesacks founder quit his full-time day job, and committed himself to building a brand.
The story of how Luke launched Ultralitesacks from a tiny 240-square-foot seaside home in Oregon occupied by himself, his wife and their two Boston terriers begins with a trip to Alaska.
The backpacking bug hit Luke back in 2014. His father, who had always wanted to go to Alaska, had recently passed away. In his honor, Luke and his brother planned the epic Alaskan adventure that his Dad was never able to take.
“I was doing all the research, looking online, learning what to buy,” Luke said. With the nearest REI hours away, Luke purchased his first backpack and sleeping bag from a hardware store of all places, and somehow convinced himself that he needed a 12-piece cookset.
Full of excitement, he took that hardware store pack and nearly 40 pounds of (possibly excessive) gear to Alaska. It was a trip he’ll never forget, and in the natural progression of backpacking, it got him critically thinking about his gear choices.
After a few years of traveling, Luke and his wife, Jessica, landed in the charming, seaside town of Brookings, Oregon. Still full of inspiration from his Alaskan adventure and now exploring and recreating in the Pacific Northwest, Luke started to toy around with making his own gear.
He bought a second-hand Singer sewing machine from Goodwill, a couple yards of Dyneema Composite Fabric (DCF), and taught himself to sew. “I’ve never been crafty, I’ve never even used a sewing machine before!” he said.
He carved out a small workspace in his tiny home and crafted his first wallet. “It looks like garbage,” he laughed, “but I still have it and it still works!”
Soon, he was making his own compression sacks, stuff sacks, and ditty bags. When he was done with his personal projects, he’d salvage any and all leftover fabric and make extras. Much to his surprise, within 24 hours of posting these extras on eBay, he sold out.
He continued to buy more fabric from his earnings, and continued to make quick sales. After following this approach for about six months, Luke went full-time with Ultralitesacks.
Being a small cottage brand on a budget is challenging when your signature fabric is DCF, Luke said. With only three outlets in the country that supply the material, simply keeping an inventory of the various weights and colors can be a daily task.
“That was a big hurdle,” he said. “They were constantly selling out of the weight and color, and I was unable to get more.”
The fabric, dubbed as strong as steel, is anything but ‘normal’ to work with. Luke explains the construction process really depends on the product you’re making.
“You can’t just sew Cuben fiber,” he said, referring to fabric by its former name. DCF also requires bonding and taping. “I’ve done every single option to figure out what works best. I send it out to my people to see which ones break first. That’s what keeps it fun. It’s a challenge, but I want mine as tough and durable as possible for the situation that they were made for.”
The toughness of Ultralitesacks’ products comes from the double weight DCF Luke opts to use. He laughed, “I beat mine up like crazy and they still won’t die!”
Recently, the brand outgrew its tiny house roots, and Luke moved shop to a 15’ by 15’ office space. Since the brand’s infancy, he’s upgraded to some high-powered industrial sewing machines, set up a somewhat larger work space, and tacked up whiteboards to keep tabs on orders. “It’s nothing fancy, but it does have an ocean view,” he said.
As the saying goes, behind every successful man is a strong woman. According to Luke, Ultralitesacks is no exception. “Officially, it’s all me, but my wife definitely helps me out big time.”
Ultralitesacks serve the needs of UL backpackers and thru-hikers, but actually caters to weekend warriors. “The market is focused on thru-hikers, and that’s where the products are driven from,” but he adds, “my products are driven to the weekend warrior.”
For example, you probably wouldn’t catch a thru-hiker packing out a modest size DCF beer cooler. But, it’d be well worth the space and weight for a backpacker on a single overnight escapade.
Dreaming up such innovations keeps the brand fun and fresh for Luke, as does sending them to all corners of the country. “It’s cool sending them out and thinking about where they’re going to go — to think, this is going to play a role in somebody’s crazy adventure,” he said.