Company Profile: Mandatory Gear
BY STEPHEN REGENOLD
The kernel of the thought occurred to Dan Williams at 35,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean. “I was on a jet plane coming home from Borneo,” Williams said, “and I thought ‘How come there can’t be better gear for my sport?’”
Williams had just competed in the Eco-Challenge, a week-long race through the jungle where competitors carry all necessary gear on their backs, including a tent, sleeping bag, rainwear, and survival items. But despite purchasing some of the lightest backpacking equipment available, Williams was dismayed at the time lost during competition because of the cumulative weight of his pack.
“For racing, which is what I was getting into, backpacking gear was not the right fit,” he said.
So Williams, then a 34-year-old computer network manager from Minneapolis, decided to go it on his own, establishing a new company, Mandatory Gear, and diving into a multi-year journey of product design and development that’d eventually take him around the globe.
“It quickly evolved into something much more than a hobby,” he said.
In 2002, Rebecca Lundberg, now company president, came on board, lending her eye for design and a background as a seamstress to help bring Williams’ product concepts to life. Five years after Williams’ original epiphany on the plane, Mandatory Gear had a line of eight highly-specialized products, ranging from small waterproof gear bags to athletic tights made for the outdoors.
The company’s flagship product, a tent shelter called the Puppy Pile, was soon being used by the best adventure racers on the planet.
“Mandatory Gear’s tent is a bare-bones design, the lightest functional tent I’ve seen,” said Mike Kloser, a professional athlete from Vail, Colo., who races with Team Nike. Last summer, Kloser’s four-person team won the Primal Quest adventure race, the 417-mile Super Bowl of the sport, with a Mandatory Gear tent in tow. “The tent is so light you forget it’s in the pack,” Kloser said.
Indeed, the Puppy Pile is touted as the lightest freestanding, four-person tent ever made, registering on the scale at a mere 1 pound 9 ounces, including its poles. Made of a single ply of silicone-impregnated nylon, the $499 tent has a simple and straightforward design: A pair of crisscrossed carbon-fiber poles thread through rooftop fabric loops to provide structure.
Its tight dimensions—88×60 inches with a 33-inch-high ceiling—will fit four grown humans, though not without some requisite spooning and cuddling, thus the tent’s oddball name. Ventilation and breathability are not attributes of this tent either, as its single
ply of thin waterproof fabric can create a cramped and clammy inner space.
But for the adventure races and extreme endurance events for which the tent was designed, comfort is easily sacrificed for lighter weight.
“The Mandatory Gear tent is one of those products you look at and say ‘I couldn’t have done any better designing it myself,’” said Robyn Benincasa, a top female adventure racer from Cardiff-by-the-Sea, Calif.
Despite the high-profile endorsement, Mandatory Gear has not yet enabled Williams or Lundberg to quit their day jobs. (Williams is a network manager; Lundberg teaches the 5th grade.) They have no other employees. Much of the equipment production is outsourced.
The niche the company fulfills—high-performance, featherweight products for endurance racing—is a tiny niche indeed, with only a few thousand people in the entire country competing in events of a caliber to require equipment of this special engineering.
Williams and Lundberg, who live together in Champlin, run the company out of their home, with Lundberg still stitching some products by hand. The pair also organizes several adventure races in Minnesota each year, including the upcoming Wild Adventure Race Spring Sprint on May 12 in Red Wing.
MandatoryGear.com sells the company’s original products as well as climbing helmets, sports watches, backpacks, sleeping bags and socks made by major manufacturers. Financially, the company breaks even, Williams said.
But money was never really what Mandatory Gear was about. Product testing and development—in the guise of a half-dozen adventure races each year—lets Lundberg and Williams pursue their passion while slowly building a business. Scotland, New Zealand, Malaysia, Utah, British Colombia, Colorado, Quebec, and Ontario are among the locales the Mandatory Gear team has competed in over the last few years.
After each race Williams said he has new ideas for gear. “My latest thing is a hydration pack made of mesh that you slip over a PFD [lifejacket] while kayaking,” Williams said. “It’ll let you drink while paddling, keeping your hands free, keeping you always on the move.”
THE MANDATORY GEAR PRODUCT LINE
-Bivy Sack ($99, 4.5 ounces)—Waterproof sleeping bag shell made of silicon-impregnated nylon.
-Bivy Sack Too ($119, 5.5 ounces)—Same as regular Bivy Sack, but with a waterproof/breathable top.
-Puppy Pile ($499, 25.1 ounces)—Touted as the lightest-weight freestanding, four-person tent on the market.
-Puppy Pile Too ($549, 30.1 ounces)— Same design as original Puppy Pile, but with added screen door.
-Compression Sack ($25, 1 ounce)—Svelte sleeping bag stuff sack made of silicon-impregnated nylon.
-Extreme Zippered Dry Bag ($39, 5.5 ounces)—Waterproof bag capable of housing a full backpack while canoeing or crossing a creek. Not intended to be fully submersed for extended periods.
-Zippered Dry Bag ($18, 0.8 – 1.8 ounces, depending on size)—Zip-top waterproof bags, available in three sizes. Not intended to be fully submersed.
-Windstopper Fleece Jacket ($139, 11 ounces)—Thermal jacket that’s water-resistant, wind-proof, yet breathable.
-Cool Tights ($55, 6 ounces)—Lightweight tights for hiking, biking, climbing, and paddling; 70 percent nylon, 30 percent Lycra.
-Windstopper Tights ($89, 16 ounces)—Wind-proof athletics tights made for cold-weather workouts.