Mike St. Pierre is not your typical business owner. He still regularly tests the products he designs and builds, and he does so while deep in the backcountry. “I need to make sure our packs and shelters are designed and made exactly right for the most burly, badass backcountry trips imaginable,” he says. An adventurer at heart, St. Pierre discovered backpacking at 18. It didn’t take long for the obsession to set in. While working a very stressful job as a New York City chef, he started pushing further and faster into the backcountry on his days off. That inspired him to also start looking for lighter, more minimalist gear that would enable him to achieve his goals. He found next to nothing, and so used little kids’ packs for his overnight trips at first. Then he designed and tested his own gear.
“And then I found Dyneema® Composite Fabrics (formerly Cuben Fiber),” he explains. “It was exactly what I was looking for—an ultralight, super strong, waterproof fabric. This material and its woven counterparts are so cutting edge it’s mind blowing.” So he gathered his family’s sewing machines, taught himself to sew and built his first packs, tarps and stuff sacks.
“Then I went into the Adirondacks or White Mountain in New Hampshire to test them out,” he explains. “One day a ranger stopped me. She didn’t believe I had enough equipment to accomplish my objective. She literally made me empty my pack right there on the trail to prove I had everything I needed. She was dumbfounded because her pack was three times the size of mine with the same gear in it. That’s when I realized I was onto something. I quit my job, went back to Maine and started organizing the creation of this company.” Since its inception, Hyperlite Mountain Gear has doubled in size year after year, and now employs nearly 30 people.
As St. Pierre has honed his business acumen, he’s also dialed in his backcountry skills. He recently returned from the second leg of a 200-mile section hike below the rim of the Grand Canyon, one of the most difficult thru hikes in America and the most challenging trip of his life. Both St. Pierre and Clay Wadman say their success resulted from Wadman’s technical rock climbing abilities and St. Pierre’s thru hiking skills.
“Experienced thru hikers have walking dialed,” St. Pierre explains. “They know exactly what they need to be efficient and conserve energy because they walk all day long, often for extreme periods of time. I took the thru hiker approach in very carefully planning this trip. I made sure to have exactly what I needed and nothing more. I dialed in my knowledge of the terrain, weather, water sources and resupply points by doing extensive research. Refine and lighten your systems, and you’ll more likely succeed, whether you’re a thru hiker or a climber, packrafter, skier, or passionate backcountry adventurer of any kind.” In this Q&A St. Pierre discusses a bit more about what makes him tick.
What gets you up in the morning?
The passion to continually improve, problem solve and to watch those efforts result in the growth of a company or of my skills in the backcountry; if I had everything all figured out I’d probably get bored. As well, I like coming in and seeing our staff every day. Really, no matter where I am—at home or on a trip—it’s the excitement of starting the day’s adventure that gets me up.
How do you achieve your optimal self?
After crushing the first five miles I get into the groove and things start feeling really good. Then I just Zen out and keep on trucking.
Can you describe one of your Zen moments in the backcountry?
Seven days into my March 2016 section hike below the rim of the Grand Canyon, Clay and I were descending a canyon to reach the confluence of the Colorado River. We stopped at a big waterfall, and Clay decided to take the rest of the afternoon to hang out by himself. Right at the point I left him and I started hiking the last two miles to get to the confluence myself, I realized, for the first time, where I was. I stood hundreds of feet off the canyon floor looking at the River, awesome and majestic below. I listened to really cool tunes, and just remembered feeling really jazzed about how far out and how deep in the canyon we were and how happy I was about that. We had made it to our first cache, we were safe, we both felt great and were really doing it. The first seven days had been so hard that I couldn’t focus on anything except getting through the day. But everything lined up at that moment.
What do you need to achieve your optimal self?
As little as possible.
What motivates you to focus?
The objective at hand and my safety or the safety of the group I’m with.
What issues are you passionate about and why?
All three of my careers have revolved around one of three passions—music, food and the outdoors. From touring the world with major rock & roll bands to working at three Michelin 3-star restaurants to founding and running Hyperlite Mountain Gear, I feel I’ve done fairly well. My endless curiosity and desire to learn drive me to push the limits and continually improve. I’m psyched!
I’m also driven to support others who want to reach their highest potential, especially people who seek safer, more comfortable, more efficient and more awesome experiences in the outdoors. As the owner of an ultralight gear company and outspoken proponent of lightweight philosophies, I’m uniquely positioned to help educate and provide gear for these passionate, goal-oriented, aspiring ultralight adventurers. I seek to educate people through blog articles I write, events I attend or while I’m actually out in the backcountry. I built and strongly support our badass ambassador team of 30+ people, as well as various active staff members. As we speak, one of our tent makers, Tyson “Tenderfoot” Perkins, is living his dream of thru hiking the Appalachian Trail. I gave him five months off and am hiring him back when he’s done. Most of the people I choose to hang out with on a regular basis share and spread these same lightweight values.
Finally, I’m passionate about designing foolproof, bombproof gear that’s exactly what people need and nothing more. I use cutting-edge fabrics and technologies, and our gear is ultralight, ultra durable, highly water resistant and long lasting. I know where gear ends up that doesn’t meet the needs of our customers and ambassadors, and that’s in a corner somewhere gathering dust.
What sports do you primarily partake in?
Thru hiking, backpacking, packrafting, ice climbing.
What’s your favorite piece of Hyperlite Mountain Gear equipment and why?
My Large Stuff Sack Pillow makes for a good night's sleep, which helps me recover after hard days on the trail.