A Matter of Ounces

At the Hyperlite Mountain Gear factory in Biddeford, company founder Mike St. Pierre shows us around the production floor, talks trails and tent design, and then suggests a camping trip in Mount Katahdin’s backyard.

He recalls it as the turning point, “the pivotal moment.” Nine years ago, Mike St. Pierre, then cooking at restaurants in New York, ventured out for a multipeak trek through the Adirondacks. His gear that day was largely pieces he’d designed and sewn on a sewing machine in his apartment—all of it made from the same kind of ultra light weight fabric that he’d learned was being used for high-tech sails on America’s Cup racing boats.

Near the beginning of the hike, Mike met a forest ranger who had a bulky daypack on her back “that was about three times the size of mine.” In a safety check, she asked about his hiking plans.

“There’s no way you have enough equipment,” the ranger told him. Concerned that she might not let him continue, he emptied his pack—including a tarp shelter, sleeping bag and mattress, small propane camp stove, dehydrated meals in packs, rain shell, insulated jacket, pocket knife, headlamp, tent stakes, a water bladder, and water treatment drops. “She was dumbfounded,” he says, when she realized that he had all the essentials. “And in the lightest form possible—only about ten pounds of base gear, plus consumables.”

The ranger stepped aside to let him pass, and at that moment Mike knew he was on to something. Within a year and with the help of his older brother, Dan St. Pierre, a Wharton School grad who was working on Wall Street, he’d left the restaurant world, kicked off thousands of hours of field testing by himself and other avid mountain climbers and backpackers, and founded Hyperlite Mountain Gear.

The brothers raised money from friends and family to start the business, and today Biddeford-based Hyperlite is operating at full throttle. Their lineup of gear for serious backcountry hikers includes a two-person tent that weighs only 18.85 ounces and a waterproof jacket that weighs 5.16 or 6.2 ounces, depending on the size. Customers from around the country and Canada, Europe, and Asia buy directly from Hyperlite, placing orders online. And this private company is now made up of more than 70 employees, and growing. They announced in early 2018 that they had raised $1.1 million in venture capital, with help from CEI Ventures in Portland, the Maine Venture Fund, and the Telluride Venture Fund in Colorado.

Hyperlite’s minimalist tents are sewn by hand on sewing machines in a circa-1880s textile factory building, part of the massive Pepperell Mill Campus along the boulders and rushing water of the Saco River. All of the Hyperlite products are made in this Biddeford headquarters, where the St. Pierre brothers and their team design, test, manufacture, market, and provide customer service for an array of ultra ligh tweight tents, backpacks, jackets, and other trail gear.

Basing the company in Maine was purposeful. Mike had hiked extensively in Western states and had lived and worked in New York, Colorado, and Texas, but Maine was his first choice for situating the company because of the wealth of outdoor adventures that are available. And he’d gotten to know the state after his first experiences when he was a kid summering in the Kennebunks with his parents. “Maine is the most rugged, grittiest state in New England,” Mike says. “I’d rather see a Maine address on our business card.”

By locating in a city with a history of textile manufacturing, the brothers also hoped to take advantage of existing factory talent in the state—to hire people who had ample experience with production sewing. Originally from Quebec, Francine Provencal learned to sew from her grandmother and worked for decades making men’s suits and other garments for different manufacturers before joining the company. At Hyperlite, her skills and speed set the company benchmark. She’s helped to refine all of the prototypes, and she often trains new employees, including many who have never used a sewing machine before.

John Schaffer has worked in manufacturing for more than 45 years and now directs factory operations. He says his work at Hyperlite is the “crowning jewel of my career.” He adds, “These guys are pretty special, particularly in how they have such a diverse work force, and the company doesn’t rely on the typical management hierarchy.”

For example, Schaffer says, one of the first things that Mike and Dan asked him to do was to familiarize himself with the people-centric management philosophies of Brazilian CEO Ricardo Semler, author of The Seven Day Weekend. A core idea is to foster a flatter corporate culture, with a focus on meeting goals and encouraging individuals and teams to come up with the best ideas, processes, and schedules to get there. To help with decision making and understanding, Schaffer says, the brothers even share reports with employees about corporate costs and finances.

The young company uses an innovative, varied approach to find and train employees. Schaffer explains that new hires are often found through a temporary employment service. Some are recent immigrants from South America, Africa, and the Middle East who get training through “new Mainers” programs and complete commercial sewing classes at the Dana Warp Mill in Westbrook. Others are drawn to work at the company after seeing the gear and by word of mouth among hikers on the Appalachian Trail. That’s how Anna Smith of Biddeford came to work here and learn to sew. After college, she was backpacking in Vermont when she met a couple of Hyperlite employees who told her of the opportunity.

It’s in an upstairs room with daylight falling through tall windows that I first see a Hyperlite tent up close—there are several set up on the wooden floors of the historic building, in the offices and in a large room devoted to research and development. All of the tents are white, and I’m struck by the elegant, no-frills design. The fabric looks wispy and thin, almost like wax paper. The material is Dyneema, a composite fabric that’s used in everything that Hyperlite makes, Mike says.

To explain why the fabric and fibers are so essential to the Hyperlite brand, Mike notes that the clothes I’m wearing—jeans and a cotton sweater—are made of knit and woven fabrics that will quickly become heavier if they get wet. Water can move between the fibers and into the fibers themselves. By comparison, the high-tech fabrics used by Hyperlite aren’t woven, and they don’t
absorb water, Mike explains. Super-strong
filaments of fiber are laid out in grid orientations that are compressed and melded
together between layers of polyester film.
The end result is a laminated fabric that can
be just a thousandth of an inch thick. The
 Dyneema material also has UV-resistant,
 ripstop properties thanks to the patented
way it’s made. That’s why he had to have it, 
Mike says: because he knew that using the
composite fabrics could help him do what
wanted to outdoors—to follow the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail, or traverse hundreds of miles of the Grand Canyon where there is no trail.

It just makes so much sense, Mike says. “When your gear is lighter, you can go farther faster, and get into the true backcountry.” Last summer, Mike spent 19 days in August hiking on the 100-Mile Wilderness stretch of the Appalachian Trail, northbound toward Mount Katahdin, with his girlfriend, Helene DiCesare, a registered nurse who lives in Cape Porpoise. Mike says they each carried a base pack of about 10 to 12 pounds of gear. And they’d prepped for months ahead of time, dehydrating fresh vegetables and meats and adding seasonings. They even had a summertime Thanksgiving meal one night, he recalls, of Stovetop Stuffing and dried cranberries, freeze-dried chicken reconstituted in hot water, chicken gravy, and instant mashed potatoes: “That one was the best.” Along the way, the couple swam in a deserted lake and spent a night in a rainstorm so heavy that a gulley of water formed and rushed beneath them. They also followed trail signs for a side-trip overnight at White House Landing, and have wanted to return since. Mike invites us along for their return trip later this week. “We could bring tents and do some hiking near Katahdin,” he suggests, and photographer Peter Frank Edwards and I instantly agree to join.

Wind gusts of 20 to 30 miles per hour are blowing us around with the fallen leaves. Most of the super-tart apples on a gnarled old tree nearby have thumped to the ground. We’re at the edge of Pemadumcook Lake, northwest of Millinocket, where yards and roadsides still show evidence of an early-season dump of wet snow.

To get to White House Landing, Appalachian Trail hikers can take a side trail to an opposite shore and meet a boat to travel the length of the lake. We drove beyond Millinocket and a section of the Golden Road to go deep into the remote woods on unpaved logging roads to reach this old logging camp on a remote lake.

It’s been a raw day of ice-cold winds whipping through. A couple of hours before the autumn sunset, Mike takes on the wind as he pulls gear from his Hyperlite backpack and begins to set up a couple of ultralight tents along the shore of sand and stones.

Out here with the browns, greens, and blues of fall wilderness all around, the tent’s fabric looks glacier-white. There’s no windbreak on the open beach, and Mike has to hold tight to the papery, translucent fabric. If it broke free, he assures us, the just-over-one-pound tent would float atop the water.

Mike uses trekking poles as tent poles. This is a design feature—another way to reduce what a backpacker needs to carry. With Hyperlite, anything unnecessary is left out to reduce weight. Mike notes that, instead of ample pockets that may or may not get used, hikers may opt for different sizes of stuff sacks and “pods,” which are waterproof zippered packing compartments. And there’s the option of having a tent floor on only one-half of the interior space—the sleeping area—leaving the other half as a covered entrance and gear shed.

Mike uses beach rocks to pound in tent stakes and then to add weight to help the stakes hold. Watching him put everything together, I’m amazed that the fabric doesn’t tear as he pulls the sides taut in the whipping wind. Later, after Mike and Helene have created a waterside nest inside the tent, with buoyant inflatable air mattresses and lofty, silky down sleeping bags, they step back to watch the sunset and have a beer. I steal the moment to climb inside and test the gear. I close the Hyperlite tent’s zipper, and it’s the first time all day that I don’t feel the stinging chill of wind. Everything is dry inside, sheltered, and cozy. Out here on this beach that will surely freeze overnight, these Maine-sewn ounces of tent make all the difference.