How did Mark Benson — a skilled construction worker, freelance photographer, and former Executive Chef of a popular restaurant chain — get into making lightweight backpacks for a living?
The Waymark Gear Co. story began when Mark went on a single-night backpacking trip with his brother in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains; something Mark hadn’t done since his early days as a Boy Scout.
Carrying around 50 pounds of borrowed and dated gear for a mere three-mile hike, he remembers telling himself, “I don’t think I ever want to do this again.”
Turns out, Mark did want to go backpacking again, but he just needed to modernize and customize his gear. He stumbled on the ultralight backpacking scene — videos, blogs, forums — and down the rabbit’s hole he tumbled.
“I remember thinking, this guy has a backpack that only weighs 16 ounces, and his whole pack weighs just 10 pounds…what’s going on here?!” Mark laughed.
Before long he was captivated by DIY and make-your-own-gear (MYOG). He dusted off his wife’s unused sewing machine, watched a few more YouTube videos, and away he went.
Mark started with a pair of gaiters, some dry bags and stuff sacks. Then, he took the giant leap to backpacks. “It was a patchwork of random fabric,” he laughed. “I was trying to be creative with it, but it was also me learning for the first time.”
With trepidation, he took that pack out for its first single-night trek — armed with a needle, thread, and lots of duct tape, “just in case I had to make any repairs on the fly,” he laughed.
Much to his delight, Mark’s first frameless prototype survived that inaugural night in the backcountry. “I couldn’t believe a pack could be so comfortable without a padded frame or padded hip belt.”
That trip gave Mark the vote of confidence to try his hand at actually selling backpacks. After another year of studying and scrutinizing basic backpack construction, Mark perfected Waymark Gear Co.’s flagship 40L frameless pack, the THRU.
“At the time, I just thought it’d be a side gig; sell them on Etsy or something. Never would I have imagined I’d quit my career to do this. That would have been crazy!”
Crazy or not, he did eventually leave his job to pursue Waymark Gear Co., setting up shop in the Salt Lake City suburb of West Valley City.
Thanks to his experience in the restaurant business, Mark was very familiar with building a brand from the ground up. “But I didn’t know any of the legal stuff,” he admitted. “I probably worried more than was necessary, because there are so many resources that can help you get started.”
Another piece of advice he adopted from his former careers: surround yourself with successful people. “If you want to get into an industry, find out where those people are; surround yourself with them, study them, and immerse yourself in what you’re trying to do.”
Reaching customers and becoming a relevant brand without a brick-and-mortar shop was challenging at first. Mark’s solution: reach out.
After learning his local barista, Simon, was going to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail, Mark offered to make him a pack for free, provided he used it on his thru-hike.
Mark laughed. “I asked him, hey, do you trust me?”
Spoiler alert: Simon did trust him. And he believed in the brand so much that after completing his thru-hike he became the first employee on Waymark’s payroll.
Mark doesn’t take the brand’s reputation lightly. “People trust us with this decision to quit their jobs, take a break from work or school, and have a life-changing experience for six months – and they choose our product over everyone else. You have to put in the time to gain that kind of reputation.”
Waymark is actively testing and using the 100% recycled ECOPAK fabrics on their packs, and so far they've been impressed with the durability and performance.
“So many makers are moving to Dyneema and trying to cut weight and sacrifice the effectiveness and longevity of the product,” Mark said. “I’ve seen packs that weigh 14 ounces; we’re not gonna be that company. We’re not in that category.”
“Sure you saved eight ounces, but your shoulders hurt and you weren’t able to finish your hike because your bag fell apart. I would rather start adding more weight and making them more effective. It might be eight ounces heavier, but it can carry 30-35 pounds and still feel good.”
“It’s not a gimmick, just a solid piece of equipment.”
For Mark, going ultralight is the means for getting into the mountains. “I just couldn’t imagine not being able to get out there because I had one bad experience. Going ultralight allows you to do far more and have more freedom doing it.”
Me too! I’m guessing Paria in Utah.
I would love to know where that first picture was taken. I’ve never been anywhere that looks like that.