The phrase I heard repeated over and over during my time with Mystery Ranch this summer was, “We are here to make a difference in someone’s life.” And that is exactly what the company does, day in and day out. Whether it be a member of the special forces, a wildland firefighter, or a mountain guide, Mystery Ranch packs help those whose lives depend on their gear.
Founder Dana Gleason is no stranger to pack design–in fact, you can consider him a bit of a cult figure in the pack world. Gleason and Renee Sippel-Baker founded Dana Design back in 1985, which went on to become an iconic brand amongst mountaineers. After being bought out by K2 in 2000, Gleason grew understandably disheartened at the growing distance between the company and the customer, so decided to take early retirement.
As he was tied up in a non-compete clause for 5 years, Gleason decided to travel and ski the world. It wasn’t until one day, almost exactly 5 years later, that his daughter asked him to make a hip pack to hold her frisbees, when the strong urge to return to what he does best hit him. Mystery Ranch was born–a place where he could again make a difference to the lives of customers that impress him. “I am happy to come to work every day,” Gleason told us, “as once again I get to create gear that makes a difference to those that wear or use it.”
When most backpack companies were being forced to China in order to remain competitive, Mystery Ranch instead sought out a more discerning customer. Approached by the U.S. military, the team chose to switch to a direct sales model and focus on serving the military and wildland fire teams–these were areas where the company’s pack designs could make a big difference and fully “Made in the USA” products were extremely important.
The design ethos behind Mystery Ranch packs remains much the same as it did at Dana Design–you should not need to be trained on the operation. Instead, intuitive functionality is built into the design of the packs themselves. They are as lightweight as possible without compromising the utility, quality, and comfort of carry. You will find no marketing fluff here–Mystery Ranch is very much a product driven company and proud of it.
With 110 people in Bozeman, a further 300 across the U.S., and since 2012, a fully owned and operated facility in the Philippines, Mystery Ranch retains complete control of their pack builds–from design to purchasing to manufacturing to sales. The result is a less than 0.10% return rate. Pretty amazing for any type of outdoor company.
Those packs that do come back for repair are all fixed by hand in the Bozeman facility. Jeff “Hot Patch” Lefebvre handles every repair himself, learning the stories behind the mishaps and feeding the information back to the development team.
Mainly sold direct up until now, Mystery Ranch is prepping to return to retail. Starting Spring ‘16, outdoor and hunting packs will be sold through select speciality retailers across North America. The new line of roughly 25 outdoor packs covers four categories: Expedition, Trail, Alpine, and the more lifestyle focused Everyday Carry series. The full line ranges in price from $39 for a tote to $485 for the T-100 monster hauler.
After spending a couple days at Mystery Ranch headquarters, we headed out into the Beartooth Mountains in south central Montana to test some of the packs. Our objective was to climb Whitetail Peak via Whitetail Couloir, a plan that was quickly thwarted by overly warm temps, endless rain, and gale force winds. Regardless, you can’t go wrong with backpacking and hiking for a few days exploring the Montana backcountry with good friends.
I carried the women’s Mystic–part of the Trail series. I stuffed every inch of the available 65L full with climbing gear (including mountaineering boots!), sleeping bag, tent, sleeping pad, clothes, food, and group cooking gear. Never once did I end up with sore points–not even on my hips or collarbones. The pack easily adjusts to fit different torso lengths and the padded hip belt wraps fully around the front of your hips, leaving you blissfully muffin-top free.
So where does the Mystery Ranch name come from you ask? Depending on who you talk to within the company, you will get a different answer–everything from Led Zeppelin references to the Boxcar Children mystery series of books. While the name may remain a mystery to all but Gleason, thankfully the cult design will soon be revealed to us all once again.
Some of the other gear you might want on a backpacking/climbing trip in the Beartooths.