(see end of article for links to hacks and usage tips)
It’s all about solving design problems. That’s where this story begins…but then the solution went on a walkabout.
The Honey Badger story begins in the early days of SlingFin when lead designer Martin Zemitis needed an environmentally friendly way to ship his tents to Nepal.
The problem: a tent used on Everest is generally shipped to Katmandu then sent on a trek of its own that often includes transport by yak and significant abrasion by rock and ice before arriving at Base Camp. Martin wanted something tough, light, and ‘sustainable’ to act as a shopping container. His solution was the Transfer Case, containers built from a scavenged durable material. His chosen construction technique used climbing rope or webbing and twist ties. The Transfer Case would be easy to construct in the office and repair in the field. After arriving the twist ties can be cut and the cases rolled up, tied with the webbing, and hauled out for reuse. The Cases had all the key features: tough, light, reusable.
But I don’t have a yak
Outdoor gear innovation usually occurs at the intersection of a pain point and materials design. The first gear revolution in the 60’s used aluminum allows aircraft parts and arrow shafts, for example, combined with other ‘space age’ materials to revolutionize backpacks and tents. Recently Cuben fiber from sailing was used to redefine ultralight backpacking.
Here we had a solved pain point and used an interesting material…very light and extremely tough with a construction technique that was adaptable across a wide variety of containers. Martin’s sense was that there was potential here. Time to nose about and figure out: what does it want to be!?
He started playing with the case material. After a variety of different sorts of prototypes, various field tests, some sketching and a lot of musing we thought we had a bead on where this might go. Martin filed a patent which was accepted. We started iterating on pack design.
A suddenly a whole new thing
Any piece of back country gear is optimized around some set of trade-offs: weight vs durability, weight vs livability, waterproofness vs breathability…that sort of thing. As pack design moved from external to internal frames we gained stability during a scramble, some aspects of comfort, weight…and lost some things. One thing remained consistent. Both approaches used a backbone of sorts. Structural integrity was provided by the frame be it it a back panel and aluminum stays (or, earlier, the full external frame) and then a sack and a harness were attached.
The Honey Badger takes a radically different approach. If your old pack is a lizard with a backbone, then Honey Badger is a bug. The structural integrity is provided by an exoskeleton. This allows SlingFin to work with the trade-offs in a whole new way.
Some of the main trade-offs for backpacks are
- support and stability
- carrying capacity
All of these could now be reconceptualized. Support, carrying capacity, and durability were all handled by a single exoskeleton rather than a combination of cordura, aluminum, webbing, etc. That new construction was a much lighter replacement for anything close to as tough and durable. (This fit well with our company objective of creating the toughest gear for the weight in any category we entered!) Furthermore, the pack could be smaller (and hence lighter) since capacity could be extended drilling holes and adding straps or literally bolting attachment points to the exoskeleton. Waterproofness was handled by a simple extremely light weight dry bag.
Design is never done. Ideas kept occurring to use. But It was time to try and bring a product to market.
Honey Badger V1
We chose the toughest shell material we could reasonably work with and produced a Propex Honey Badger Pack. We enlisted friends to help us shoot a video. We started prepping for a Kickstarter campaign.
We had lots of fun trying to kill the pack in some dramatic fashion.
We even managed to pop two of the twist ties on the airplane drop and shred the padded shoulder straps by dragging the pack ‘wrong side down’ behind a truck. We, also, noted that the construction allows the harness to be easily removed so we could have avoided killing the straps if the pack was being drug up a rock wall, and that carrying a couple of twist ties would let you put the pack back in shape after you kick it out of the plane or off the ledge.
We also discovered some hard truths about our marketing reach. Apparently great word of mouth about SlingFin among mountain guides doesn’t translate into the ability to inform a broader public. Folks had trouble getting past the novel look and construction. And, oh, there might have been some delusional thinking in setting our goal.
Yet, we continued to make discoveries that confirmed our belief in the project.
As an example, a few weeks before launch SlingFinian Devo figured out an easy way to convert the pack into a bike pannier. This has since been improved; you no longer have to remove the harness.
The campaign ended without funding…but our resolve to make the Honey Badger available was only strengthened.
Honey Badger V2
Part of the mountaineer pedigree is persistence. (Think: take four breaths and step and again and again. Repeat until summit.)
We continued to experiment with materials, fabrication, and features.We decided that vacuum forming was necessary to get a better working lid and side panels. This launched 6 months of research to get the optimum material formula and thickness for the vacuum formed parts. One thing we learned: vacuum forming is best done with specialized equipment. No need for you to try this at home, too. We’ve suffered on your behalf.
We also found the tools to trim twist ties without leaving rough spiky ends. We figured out how to optimize the ‘glow in the dark’ visibility feature and continued to learn about how to use the pack with bikes. We discovered you could not only extend the pack functionally but skin it up stylistically.
The accumulation of improvements, small and large, lead us to the point where we were ready for V2.
Thanks to Kickstarter and persistence, there are now dozens of packs in the hands of folks like you. Interesting things are happening with the pack that we never anticipated. Unlike most packs, the Honey Badger is a platform for your talents and experimentation.
This is an adventure in product development, possible only because of your participation.
The story continues.