Light Years Ahead
When Hyperlite Mountain Gear’s founder Mike St. Pierre couldn’t find the outdoor equipment he wanted, he created it himself
By Joshua Bodwell
Photographed by Irvin Serrano
Mike St. Pierre is restless. He pulls a buzzing iPhone from his hip pocket and rapidly scans the screen. St. Pierre looks up, gazes across the 3,000-square-foot Biddeford headquarters of Hyperlite Mountain Gear. He’s processing something — his intent stare seems to look right through the broad cutting and assembly tables, past the heavy-duty sewing machines and racks of outdoor gear components. Then, as quickly as St. Pierre first read the message, the thirty-four-year-old taps out a brief reply, hits send, and re-pockets the smartphone.
And suddenly he’s back, ready to talk about evolving his once-cottage industry of designing and manufacturing durable ultralight outdoor gear into one of the industry’s most-watched small businesses. He talks about long-distance hikers and backpackers raving over Hyperlite’s gear. He notes climbers, pack-rafters, kayakers, and even cyclists are adopting the gear for their own outdoor adventures. He mentions two years of accolades from publications such as Backpacker, Climbing, GQ, Outside, and Wired. He is excited to have just been awarded one of only four coveted fellowships to the Telluride Venture Accelerator.
But as much as St. Pierre enjoys the opportunity to tell Hyperlite’s story, there is also something about his kinetic personality and need for forward motion that feels at odds with slowing down to sit and talk — one of the great tensions propelling Hyperlite’s success is the fact it was founded by an avid outdoorsman who prefers the woods to the office.
St. Pierre’s path to founding Hyperlite has been as winding as the wooded mountain paths he adores traversing. A native of Pennsylvania, he spent summers at a family home in Kennebunkport, solidifying his love of the outdoors. At twenty-one, he settled in Maine to work aboard fishing boats out of Cape Porpoise and Portland. Then a passion for music pulled St. Pierre first to Florida for a degree in sound recording, and on to Los Angeles where he worked as a system engineer for touring musical acts such as the Eagles.
“After about four years, I got sick of living on tour buses,” recalls St. Pierre. So he returned to the place he felt most at home: Maine.
Ever curious and restless, St. Pierre began cooking at a small Kennebunkport bistro. He poured himself into the culinary arts and was soon the sous chef at a Portland restaurant. Before he realized it, St. Pierre had worked stints in Michel Richard’s Citronelle in Washington, D.C., and in Thomas Keller’s legendary Per Se (currently one of only six restaurants in all New York City with three Michelin stars).
By the time St. Pierre became the executive chef of the Brooklyn farm-to-table eatery Prime Meats, he was feeling the claustrophobia of kitchen life. He began building his work schedule around weekend hiking excursions to the Adirondacks and Catskills. “I became really conscious of my gear around this time and began researching ultralight options,” he remembers.
In the chat rooms and forums for hiking enthusiasts and through-hiking aficionados, St. Pierre discovered silnylon — a thin, woven nylon impregnated with silicon. At the time, it was the lightest material regularly being used for tents and packs. But St. Pierre found silnylon too slippery and too easy to tear. Durability, he knew, was a constant concern when it came to gear.
Then St. Pierre discovered the material that would become the foundation of all things Hyperlite: Cuben Fiber, a high-performance, ultralight, non-woven fabric. Just a couple of people were dabbling with using the material for hiking gear. Cuben Fiber was mostly being used for sails on high-performance racing yachts. “I figured that if a sail made of this material could make it around the world, it would probably be good for a ground tent,” says St. Pierre with a laugh. “After a lot of research, I felt like I could do better than what was on the market.”
He ordered nine yards of Cuben Fiber, took the door off the bedroom closet in his tiny Brooklyn apartment, and built a makeshift workbench. “I collected every sewing machine in my family and taught myself how to sew,” he remembers. He also studied up on non-sewing binding techniques using tapes and adhesives. St. Pierre soon created the simple tarp-like tent and pack that would serve as prototypes for the future of Hyperlite Mountain Gear.
Testing his homemade gear in the field on forty- to sixty-mile weekend hikes, St. Pierre was often stopped by curious hikers or frowning park rangers concerned he couldn’t possibly have enough equipment in his small pack. “That’s when I realized I was on to something,” says St. Pierre with a grin.
While reaching the level of executive chef at a much-feted eatery like Prime Meats was a huge accomplishment — and in fact might be the career goal of many chefs — St. Pierre was restless. “I love cooking, but I was also after a certain kind of lifestyle,” he recalls. “A different lifestyle.” St. Pierre remembers the first weekend he was able to take a Saturday night off and escape the high pressure of a busy kitchen. He walked around the city, looked in restaurant windows, had a casual meal himself, and thought, “Hey, I like this.”
In the summer of 2008, St. Pierre bid adieu to the culinary life and decamped his cramped Brooklyn apartment for Maine. He set up the nascent Hyperlite in his family’s summer home: The living room became the office, while the basement was used for production. St. Pierre pushed himself to learn every angle of his new industry. At one point, he considered having his designs manufactured by others out of state.
“And then I realized there was no way I could ever outsource this,” says St. Pierre. “It is too unique. I had to keep things at the standard I had set, and I wanted to make my products in Maine.”
St. Pierre soon moved Hyperlite’s headquarters into Biddeford’s North Dam Mill. Once the epicenter of textile production in the Northeast, the old mill town — and its bootstrapping attitude — was a perfect fit for the young entrepreneur. Hyperlite quickly filled 1,500 square feet with manufacturing equipment manned by three employees. Four months later, another employee was brought on. When big orders rolled in, the staff swelled, and St. Pierre implemented a high-efficiency production style developed by Toyota to handle the company’s rapid growth.
Hyperlite’s headquarters remain a beautiful balance of production center and laboratory. St. Pierre’s designs have evolved into a series of shelter systems (these are not your parents’ “tents”), packs (ultralight, no frills backpacks that are surprisingly comfortable), stuff sacks, and other myriad ultralight accessories. Weight is king in all things Hyperlite. The company’s recent “ECHO II Ultralight Shelter System” consists of three modular components: a Cuben Fiber tarp, a detachable mesh tent insert, and a detachable vestibule for severe weather protection. The entire setup weighs just 29.5 ounces — that’s less than two pounds.
Eight months after first settling in Biddeford, St. Pierre doubled Hyperlite’s headquarters to a new 3,000-square-feet space in the North Dam Mill. The company’s sales are two-thirds direct to consumer and one-third wholesale, with fifty retailers worldwide carrying the gear. 2012 saw Hyperlite’s earnings increase 180 percent over the previous year; 2013 is already on track for the same increase.
True to the roots from which Hyperlite grew, St. Pierre still takes out his own gear every weekend for “field tests.” This past autumn, he and Hyperlite cutter Josh Mansir pack-rafted sixty miles of the East Branch of the Penobscot River over the course of a long weekend. Another weekend, St. Pierre and Erin O’Toole, Hyperlite’s head stitcher, chartered a floatplane into Rainbow Lake (just south of Mount Katahdin) and then pack-rafted, hiked, and bushwhacked their way south across six lakes.
If necessity is the mother of invention, then it is St. Pierre’s passion for these far-flung expeditions that fuels Hyperlite Mountain Gear’s growth and evolution. And if the fullest value of our interactions with nature is measured by our closeness to it and the lightness with which we tread upon it, then St. Pierre is a rare combination, both a futurist and a Thoreau-like throwback.
Joshua Bodwell is the executive director of the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance. Bodwell’s fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Ambit, Poets & Writers, Threepenny Review, and Slice magazine.