- Sep 21, 2018 at 6:42 pm #3556763
There’s a nice thread about Dan’s X-Mid, sold through Massdrop. (I have no relationship with Massdrop, it’s simply part of the story). Here’s the backstory on how it came to be.Sep 21, 2018 at 6:53 pm #3556766
Dan Durston had a nearly perfect shelter in most ways. But, for Durston, It wasn’t quite perfect enough.
So he decided to design his own.
In 2014 he was using a shelter that he felt was “brilliant in so many ways that its imperfections stood out more than ever,” he said. “Every time I pitched that thing I was thinking, “How can this be better?” Those thoughts naturally led to design ideas, which I’ve had for many years.”
Durston said his shelter, dubbed the X-Mid, is the result of thinking about various design questions while hiking long trails, especially the issue of a perceived lack of headroom in mid-style shelters.
“For the last five years I’ve wanted to solve the lack of headroom problem in mid-style tents without introducing all the complexity that most trekking pole supported tents have,” said Durston. “All this basic design work happens in my head while walking long trails. Regular life is too busy. On the PCT in 2014, everyone else was listening to podcasts while I was hiking along wondering for hours each day if there was a smart way to add hoops or struts to a mid.”
In what Durston calls a “moment of epiphany” while bushwhacking through willows all day while hiking the Great Divide Trail in the Canadian Rockies in 2017, he conceived the layout for the X-Mid. “I finally allowed myself to consider solutions that were simpler than what I’d been considering for so long,” he explained.
Durston then began fleshing out the details of his idea throughout the many hours of the long hike.
“I had the design pretty much finished when I walked off the trail, but I was hesitant to put it to paper because it seemed too good to be true,” he said. “If it worked as well as I thought it would, someone would have done this before.”
Only no one had. So a month later he sketched out his ideas in PowerPoint. “I don’t know how to use CAD (software),” he said. He liked his creation so much he “knew” he needed to have one, so he sewed one up for himself.
Durston readily admits he’s never really designed anything before, at least not professionally.
“I’ve known end products that I wanted to have, such as a cuben fiber rain jacket, and then worked backwards from there to come up with a design, but that was always a very crude process. It was mostly just trial and error with cheap materials.”
But, he hastens to add, he believes that other aspects of design are more important than being able to using a computer program.
“A good design starts with an intimate understanding of the product and what is possible,” he said, “and then working from there to identify the concepts and features that will enable that. With the X-Mid, I knew I wanted to cut the complexity from trekking pole based shelters while preserving space. I thought that was possible, so I spent a lot of time figuring out the concepts to make it happen.”
Durston said he’s always been an analytical person, and that lightweight backpacking “exacerbates this tendency because it provides criteria by which backpacking can be viewed as an analytical problem.”
Besides weight, Durston includes simplicity and function in his criteria by which he analyzes gear. It bothers him if gear is sub-optimal in any of those criteria, and tents, he said, bother him the most. He feels that a number of shelter aspects seem to be arbitrarily chosen, and finds it annoying to have a product with flaws that aren’t due to some well-reasoned compromise, but rather the result of poor design.
“Tents bother me the most because they are such complex products and thus more likely to have weaknesses,” he said. “A sleeping quilt has a pretty simple objective. You can refine the specifics of the materials and dimensions, but nearly all of them work fairly well. Conversely, tents are subjected to such a diverse range of conditions — humid versus dry, good staking soil versus bedrock — and a long list of compromises including weight versus space, simplicity versus features. It’s really difficult for a designer to navigate all that and end up with a product that is excellent.”
That’s not to say that Durston thinks compromises aren’t an inherent part of any design project, but he believes he kept them to a minimum with the X-Mid.
“One thing I was worried about is that small issues might creep up as a result of more fundamental design decisions, and thus couldn’t easily be fixed. For example, maybe as a result of the basic layout the tent would be hard to get into, or awkward to close the doors, or the fly wouldn’t cover the inner when the doors were open. So I expected these types of downsides and was willing to make some compromises in these lesser but still important attributes in order to achieve the larger vision.”
Such worries proved unwarranted though. When he received the first prototype from Massdrop he was “thrilled,” he said. “Everything was a delight to use.”
He does feel that the vestibule space and material and feature choices led to minor compromises. The vestibule space is very generous, he said, which adds a bit of weight compared to a narrower fly, but felt there was no way around it.
“If I made the fly narrower then it wouldn’t pitch as robustly with only four stakes, it would need guylines and more stakes so it wouldn’t save weight at all,” he said. “A hexagon shape could also trim the vestibule area but this would be counter to the fundamental goal of pitching simplicity and also wouldn’t save weight because it would add seams and stakes. So it would give away space and add complexity for no gain. So large vestibules it is.”
Durston said that there were also a lot of smaller features that he considered adding to his design, like single or double sliders on the zippers and such but that, collectively, they added more weight than he was willing to add.
“To keep the tent light I pushed most of these features to a possible ‘alpine’ version that might never get built, but would be beefier and more fully featured,” he said. “In terms of materials, I really want to make a sub-16 ounce cuben/DCF version because I think tents in this weight class are almost universally quite poorly designed. They can be so much better. So the choice to start with a silicone/PU poly version is definitely a compromise that trades weight for a much more affordable product.”
Durston’s ideas might have ended as a one-off, solely a shelter he built for himself and posted about on BackpackingLight. But a serendipitous, as he calls it, conversation with Danny Milks, then a Collaboration Products Manager with Massdrop, expanded the plan significantly.
“They had previously asked me to review the Fizan poles they were offering last year. Soon we were talking about poles and Danny Milks mentioned they were looking for interesting new product ideas. I was excited about the X-Mid, so I told him I had a tent idea and explained why it was great.”
Durston thought Milks wasn’t sure about the idea at first, so he kept explaining why he felt it was a great shelter and felt he eventually he won Milks over.
“Soon he was emailing me in the middle of the night obsessing over the details and asking why no one had thought of this,” said Durston.
For Milks, skepticism was a necessary part of the collaboration.
“I was not skeptical, but playing the skeptic,” said Milks. “I sought out Dan for testing earlier Massdrop products, based on his previous adventures, his blog and his contributions on BPL over many years. By the time he and I started to discuss his tent design, I already held tremendous belief in Dan as a designer. Yet he still wowed me with his thoroughness in research and thoughtfulness in design details.
“However, I wanted this Massdrop collaboration to be something really special, so that our UL community would understand that Massdrop was serious about building products with the best price-to-performance ratio,” continued Milks. “Simply put, I wanted Dan’s tent to become the best sub-$400 fully-protective shelter on the market. So, I had to keep asking the question: are we sure we’re making something truly special here, something that isn’t merely incrementally better than what exists already?”
The collaboration was fortuitous for everyone who has ordered the tent on Massdrop.
“I didn’t seriously consider bringing it to market any other way,” said Durston. If it wasn’t for Massdrop I would have just sewn up one copy for myself, shown it off on BPL and left it at that.
“The nice thing with Massdrop is that they actually build products already, so they have expertise in areas that I don’t,” Durston continued. “Once (Danny and I) had a basic design refined to something we were both excited about, other folks at Massdrop came on board and contributed with expertise in materials sourcing, production, artwork, etc. The materials sourcing and production would have been really intimidating on my own, or, more realistically, it wouldn’t have happened at all. So working with Massdrop has let me do the part I’m excited about — tent design — while everything else is handled by them.”
Milks, who has since left Massdrop, agrees.
“(Massdrop handles) nearly everything but the design. They generally take care of the material sourcing, manufacturing, logistics, fulfillment, customer service, plus the marketing and sales. It is very different from crowd-sourcing campaigns on Kickstarter and IndieGoGo. A partnership with Massdrop allows the designer to focus on the design and community discussion.”
Durston said he’s also fairly risk averse, at least when it comes to business. He feels he already has a great job and he didn’t want the stress of starting a new business.
“By working with Massdrop my financial and time commitment is low compared to something like Kickstarter. I’m not accepting people’s money, ordering materials and trying to build a product to meet a deadline. Those steps are happening, but Massdrop is taking care of it.
“Everything with regards to Massdrop and prototyping has gone incredibly smoothly,” he continued. “The main challenge was the conceptual one. It took me years of thinking to figure out how to achieve the vision I had. But once that was solved everything went very quickly due to the resources at Massdrop. It was really nice to be able to say, ‘I want a fabric with these specs,’ and then a materials expert from Massdrop would source that rather than me trying to talk to fabric mills all over the world.”
So what’s next for Durston? Any more gear designs?
“I’m only interested in making gear that is substantially better than what’s out there, so I have no desire to make a product just to compete in a popular segment. But I do have some ideas for a pack that I think are pretty cool. …if things are working out with the tents and I have some free time then I’d like to bring a mid-sized pack to market,” he said.
“What I’m more excited about is the butanol alcohol stove I’m casually developing,” he continued. “Butanol contains about twice as much energy as normal alcohol (methanol) but it needs a lot of oxygen so it’s hard to burn cleanly. I’ve got a few ideas to solve this that I’m really excited about. If successful, it would cut the fuel needs in half for backpacking. Gear geeks might not be that excited because fuel isn’t included in base weight, but this could chop up to a pound off your pack for a one-week hike.”
[Gear designers interested in working with Massdrop can find more information here: https://www.massdrop.com/collaborators]Sep 21, 2018 at 7:15 pm #3556769
Jerry AdamsBPL Member
@retiredjerryLocale: Oregon and Washington
nice story thanks for posting
x mid – https://www.massdrop.com/buy/massdrop-x-dan-durston-x-mid-1p-tentSep 23, 2018 at 8:43 pm #3557017
Kristin TennessenBPL Member
@ktennessLocale: Bay Area
Doug, this is soooooo interesting and very well written. Thank you! I would love to see more products developed like this. I like having the trust that someone badass with millions of hours in the wilderness designed it.Sep 25, 2018 at 5:15 pm #3557268
Thanks Kristin, thanks Jerry. Glad you enjoyed the article, I had a lot of fun writing it. Also appreciate the time Dan and Danny took in answering my questions.Sep 28, 2018 at 12:18 am #3557600
I will be expecting a follow up article when the process is done (product made, shipped and into the hands of end
complainersusers).Sep 28, 2018 at 5:53 pm #3557671
Thanks for a great write up!Sep 28, 2018 at 6:26 pm #3557674
Jo P.BPL Member
@sedimentaryLocale: Denver, CO
Wonderfully informative story, thanks so much. I’m working on some ideas of my own but have kinda despaired of producing them as I doubt I’d enjoy the sourcing and manufacturing end very much. The massdrop route is interesting. It may be a conceit to think I could come up with something useful, but of course, if Dan had thought that of his design we’d never have the benefit of getting to enjoy it…Aug 14, 2019 at 12:30 am #3605988
Tom KBPL Member
Thanks, Doug. I had already read this and forgot to reply to you, but I read it again, just for the hell og it. Nice work!
TomAug 23, 2019 at 4:34 am #3607254
Rex SandersBPL Member
@rexLocale: Central California Coast
Good story, good reporting.
Looks like Massdrop/Drop uses Dan’s products in splash images on some pages:
— RexAug 23, 2019 at 1:49 pm #3607276
Gary DunckelBPL Member
That’s a great summary of what Dan and Danny could do in collaboration. Massdrop is quite the resource, and a very interesting operation.
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