Founder Aaron Locander’s company is manufacturing ultralight packrafts and paddles for a growing market of backcountry enthusiasts.
With an extensive background in outdoor adventuring and a penchant for crafting his own gear, Locander walked into the niche whitewater packraft industry with a full head of steam. While on the lookout for better ways to access certain hiking trails throughout the Grand Canyon, he decided to conduct a little experiment: Could he cross the Colorado River using a lightweight raft built for pools?
“I’ve always kind of made my own gear to some extent, and I’ve been active outdoors my whole life,” says Locander. “So, with our packrafts, we basically started with pool toys. The boats are cheap, and they’re like a polyvinyl material. One day, we pulled the trigger and took one of those out and crossed the river with them.”
The concept worked, but a problem remained. “Those boats are fragile and weigh a lot,” Locander continues. “That particular boat was about three pounds, and it is still a pool toy. If it even looks at a cactus, it’ll get a hole in it — and the Grand Canyon is filled with cactus.”
With the basic premise in tow, and a dearth of packraft options readily available on the market, Locander got to work. After roughly three days of ironing to make his boat and an additional test run on the river, his idea was a confirmed success. But it took another two years and a friend desperate for a boat of their own to push Locander and his wife, Shannon, to actually invest in a boat-making business.
“We finally decided to invest $1,000 into making 10 boats.” Locander continues. “And if we broke even on those boats, we would have called that a success. Otherwise, no harm no foul. Once we made the 10 boats, we kept going, and it just went on from there.”
Since 2011, as Supai Adventure Gear, the Locanders have manufactured ultralight packrafts perfect for traversing the waters in the heart of the Grand Canyon. Weighing in at about one-and-a-half pounds per flatwater boat and three-and-a-half ounces per carbon fiber paddle, Supai Adventure Gear packrafts are about as lean as it gets — perfect for carrying while on a daytrip in the canyon.
Each raft is made by hand, and each paddle is cut using a 3D printer from the Locander’s home — which doubles as manufacturing space. On average, the Locanders produce 40 to 50 boats per run, and each run is roughly a weekend’s worth of work. Supai partners with another business to get its boat and accessory materials from an international supplier. The couple currently offers accessories such as repair kits, replacement parts, and inflation sacks as well.
With a product built around shedding as much weight as possible without sacrificing durability, and after more than a decade of business, the company has reached an interesting impasse in regard to product improvements.
“For us, it’s a bit of a catch-22,” says Locander. “We’re always going to try redesigns to improve products, but the boats are probably about as good as they’re going to get because for our customers, it’s all about weight. If you add new features, you add weight, and you scare off your core customer. That’s our conundrum there.”
And though additional gear and accessories are always a possibility, at this point in time, Locander has seemingly maxed out what he can offer without straying away from his core audience.
“In terms of other products, we make everything ourselves,” he says. “We have some accessories for our boats, but to expand outside of that, I would have to make something someone else hasn’t thought of yet or improve upon something that already exists, and I haven’t found that idea yet. We’re not really interested in outsourcing our manufacturing to a place like China in order to compete with bigger companies. We’re small and homegrown.”
Challenges: For the Locanders, time is the most precious of resources. With full-time jobs and a hard ceiling on how efficiently their packrafts can be made, there always seems to be a push-and-pull relationship with what they can accomplish during any given stretch of time.
“Our biggest problem is time,” says Locander. “The boats are labor-intensive, but the volume isn’t large enough to hire an employee. So, the problem really becomes trying to fit the boat-making in during our spare time and on weekends. We often get into the conundrum of, ‘Do I work all the time? Or do I get to go out every once in a while?'”
Opportunities: When considering what it would take to dramatically change the company’s sales trajectory, the Locanders are content with their side hustle. Their biggest hope for the future is sustained organic growth through word-of-mouth advertising with the right niche audience.
“We’ve been doing this for about 12 years, and I’d say the last six to seven have been quite stable,” says Locander. “It would be exciting to get more volume — by all means. But that would require some new product categories. And that would mean we’d be competing in a more crowded market. To really expand, we’d have to find something that’s being underserved in the market right now. If we find a need, we’re not afraid to tinker. But we’re pretty happy with where we’re at, doing what we’re doing.”
Needs: With the current manufacturing ceiling, the only way the business could truly ascend to a new level would be for sales to increase enough for the Locanders to transition into full-time boat makers.
“We’re too small to be full-time to quit our day jobs, but we’re too big to just shelve the whole company,” Locander says. “We’re in that tricky balancing mode. It takes some time to manufacture this stuff, but it’s not a full-time gig. If we had the demand to do this full-time, it would be preferable. But the reality is that we’re a niche product in a niche market.”