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MLD are one of the most influential companies in the ultralight gear world and the man at the reigns is Ron Bell. It gets pretty busy over at MLD, so I’m very glad to report that Ron has kindly taken the time to answer some questions for Bear Bones … enjoy.

1/ Do you ride?

All the time!  I have ridden about 5,000 miles in the last year. I ride Road, MTb, CX and Tri bikes. I am excited that my Tri racing season is now over- I did 5 off-road Tri’s + 8 Sprint to 70.3’s and one Full IronMan race this year.  The leaves are at peak color in SW Virginia now and I can finally switch to more Mtb! I am also  getting excited about the new Gravel Bikes for racing and backcountry touring – Anyone have a good suggestion for me?

2/ How did MLD come into being? Did you start by simply making stuff for yourself or was it more planned out than that?

I guess if you go all the way back I started sewing my own boy scout gear for tarp camping in the 70’s and then some climbing gear in the 80/90’s.   I started MLD in 2002 sewing silnylon tarps and lightweight packs in my basement. Eventually the hobby business got out of control and by 2006 it was my full time job and I moved from my basement to a full shop and added craftsmen and super high quality equipment.

3/ I know you believe that adopting an ultralight approach should enhance the outdoor experience but do you think there’s a tipping point where the pursuit of ever decreasing weights, starts to have a negative effect?

I don’t really get too deep into definitions of gear weight categories or bike or backpacking trip types.  What I do strongly believe in is setting goals for each trip to maximize your success and FUN. If your goal is self exploration through minimalism then there is no bottom to the weight goal because it is not about the weight – it’s about the simplicity.  A 3-day summer trip its different from a thru-hike is different from a  remote speed hike or bike tour. So, the idea of SUL-light, XUL -light, stupid-light, crazy-light, etc. do not mean much to me personally.  There is one clear gear truth for all trips:  Carrying less overall weight for any given function, comfort or performance goal is always better.

Ron … sporting number 3.

4/ Was the design for the Trailstar a ‘happy accident’?

It does look deceptively simple, but the TrailStar resulted from a long and tortuous development – maybe like a elephant pregnancy. I have maybe 80 sketches and drawings plus 30 prototypes. It took about two years to get it perfect. I guess it looks so simple but no one had made one before in just this way. In the end we ended up with a whole new type of backpacking tarp that eliminated many of the weak areas of most flat or shaped tarps at the same overall weight to living space.  It is so strong in high winds that some users get excited when “super storms” are predicted in their area and they rush out to camp overnight to see if the high winds can destroy it. Even in wind gusts over 60mph no destruction yet!

5/ What new skills (if any) did you have to learn when you first started working with Cuben?

Cuben is both simple and complicated. MLD is the oldest company to offer cuben products that were built, designed and sold by any one company. We have more experience crafting cuben backpacking products than any other three companies combined. Most all the techniques and construction process you see in any other backpacking companies we pioneered.  In the early days cuben products were only sewn and then user seam sealed. This was not optimum and if not done perfectly it could tear and weaken. We spent a lot of time and money in those early years educating backpackers about the strengths of well built cuben gear. Quickly we moved to sewing and bonding and then only bonding – We were the first to do that. Designing with it is not hard after you learn a few secrets about it’s stretch, stretch recovery, lack of stretch recovery and variable stretch on the bias, etc. Bonding technique seems easy after you have developed those techniques over many years.
How to bond, how wide to bond, what adhesive to use, what to burnish with, how hard to burnish, how long to burnish, how much heat to generate while burnishing, how much of a curve can you bond, etc, etc, etc.  Construction at a super high level of craftsmanship takes a lot of trial and error plus a Lot of Practice. It’s a very expensive material. Mistakes, waste, practice and training are part of the process.  I like to think that if someone is going to pay $300-$800 for a cuben shelter they might want to get one from a company that has built thousands of them in-house, by hand and by very well trained craftsmen who have all the details and processes nailed down real hard.  Our latest improvement is in using s special weight cuben bonded reinforcement material to lower weight, increase strength and it look super cool and stealthy. Our color matched cuben reinforcements and cuben over-taping along all bias seams prevent deformation stretching and greatly
extends service life.

6/ Is there anyone in the outdoor community you admire? 

I admire any athlete/outdoorsman/woman who believes in their heart they can do it! They trim down their kit, do the research, practice their skills and then just get out there and see what they can accomplish.  Anyone who pushes their limits impress and motivate me in setting and achieving my own goals. We only design gear for those people.

7/ Tents … is there ever a time for them?

Tents vs Tarps vs Bivys Vs Godzilla. I don’t see much of a difference. All are shelters.  If a piece of gear answers your goal for that trip then it’s right.   There are so many types that the definition between them are blurred for me. Overall I like the concept that a shelter is part of  the overall backcountry system, that is can be modular, multi function and you can pick and choose add ons or combinations for the specific trip. Some trips I take the SoloMid fly only and others I add a bivy for warmth the or the InnerNet for bugs. We will now develop a new shelter and name it Godzilla.

8/ Do you get to spent as much time in the mountains and on the trails as you’d like?

Hell NO!  I get fewer overnight trips that I would like. Running a small business and school age kids limit my overnight trips but almost everyday after or before work I trail run, speed or WW kayak, SUP, hike or Mtb/road  times every week. I am lucky to live next to the Appalachian Trail and the Blue Ridge Parkway and there are lots of good rivers and trails here in Western Virginia. I try to kick life stress in the balls on a daily basis. Anything and Anytime Outdoors is Good.

9/ What’s the most influential ‘ultralight product’ of the last 5 years?

Hummm- I will go ahead and say that it is the TrailStar or the smaller LittleStar. pair it with a SuperLight or Bug Bivy and it has opened up the idea of tarp camping for a much larger range of areas and seasons. Before the TS, few in the UK  or areas around the world with similar harsh weather used tarps. There is a freedom to lightweight  TrailStar camping that lets you connect to nature and great views while remaining totally protected- It does not isolate you like a traditional tent. As a second I  would note the rise of the LightWeight Backpacking Personal Mini Websites, Blogs and Youtube channels and all manor of those variations that help spread the backcountry LW idea of Less is More.

10/ What’s your personal shelter / tarp of choice?

Depends on the trip. Here in my area where it is in the heavily forested Souther Appalachian Mountains I favor the Cricket Tarp and a SuperLight bivy when solo for much of the year.  When it will not rain overnight, I often do not set up the tarp. When we get snow then I switch to a Solo or DuoMid. If I have others sleeping with me then the TrailStar or SuperMid.

11/ Do you like the term ‘cottage manufacturer’ or do you think it detracts from the skill and craftsmanship that goes into the majority of products?

Cottage Craft is a very romantic idea – so I am OK with that idea!   But I would really limit that description to a one person or family working from home and we are a bit more developed as a company.  On the other hand it is also about each expertly trained and accomplished craftsperson building one product at a time in close group shop and that is how we still do it. Even though many of the other “cottage” companies that started when we did have moved to assembly lines, outsourcing and overseas production and using cheaper materials we remain proud to do it all ourselves. That will always be the best way to innovate quickly, insure highest quality and provide the best customer service. We have no desire to send work overseas or to use less than the absolute best materials. 

The Trailstar in it’s natural enviroment.

Visit MLD 


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