Western Mountaineering is a California-based company that has been making ultralight down sleeping bags in San Jose for over 35 years. Ask anyone who owns one of these: they are fantastic!

Dave from Paddy Pallin was lucky enough to catch up with Gary from Western Mountaineering to find out what makes a Western Mountaineering sleeping bag so special and how he found himself to be at the company.

Hi Gary, Can you tell us a little about yourself, and Western Mountaineering?

I’ve been here since 1992, and the company has been in San Jose making really nice insulated outdoor products since 1970. We still make all of our sleeping bags here in San Jose and most of our garments are also made here, so about 95% of our product line is produced under the same roof here in San Jose.

What was your journey, how you found yourself at Western Mountaineering and your role?

As I was getting ready to graduate from college one of my climbing partners asked me to take a trip to Africa. My last year of college I had fewer classes and spent most of my time climbing. After more than 180 days on steep rocks throughout the western half of the states in 1991 I had very big forearms but very little money. I started working at WM where my buddy, who I was going to Africa with, was a production manager. This helped me save up for the trip to Africa.

Two things became clear very soon after I started working here.

1.) I was very interested in the materials and design details of the products we manufactured


2.) I was the only person who spoke Spanish and English despite the fact that 95% of our sewing machine operators were Hispanic. Gradually over the years I took on more and more responsibilities and my current title is Managing Director for Western Mountaineering. I order raw materials, design products, produce our catalog and oversee all marketing and sales directives for all WM branded products.

Do you remember your first outdoor experience?

When I was very young my father used to take me with him on trips to northern California where we would camp and spend a couple of weeks steelhead fishing on the Smith River, near the Oregon border. We also used to go out and paddle rivers in an aluminum Grumman canoe, with a black labrador dog riding in the middle between two paddlers.

These were great times and forged a passion for spending time outdoors that remains a big part of my life today.

Where is your favorite skiing and climbing spots?

Many favorite climbing spots but the eastern Sierras and Joshua Tree are two of them. I also like the City of Rocks in Idaho quite a bit and Smith Rocks in Oregon.  For skiing I love going into the backcountry in places like the Sawtooths of Idaho, the Bitterroots in Montana, and places like that have big scenery but no crowds to speak of. Climbing in southern Switzerland and northern Italy is also stellar, but the area is more costly and less convenient to visit so I can’t climb there as often as I would like.

Tell us, where is your dream skiing, travelling & climbing location?

Would love to spend time doing hut trips in the Alps on skis, exploring more climbing areas in France, Spain, and Austria.  Also dream of doing some fishing and exploring from a boat in the fjords of Norway and checking out the many islands around Finland.

Why do you love hiking, skiing, travelling & climbing in the outdoors so much?

I like being in a natural environment because it has the ability to ground me and restore a peace of mind that is harder to find in a city. Going to the mountains replenishes me with a feeling of comfort and balance so effectively that I try and get out to the mountains at least every other weekend and I have been doing this since I was in my teens. Fishing, climbing, kayaking, hiking, skiing, etc., all of these activities continue to draw me away from the city and into the mountains.

What is the current relevance of Western Mountaineering for Australian hikers, skiers & travellers?

Australians are among the most active people in the world with a higher percentage of outdoor enthusiasts per capita than many/most other large nations. People who really get out and use their gear are more likely to appreciate the longevity and crafstmanship of our products, especially the lightweight sleeping bags we make, because they are so compressible when stuffed yet warm and comfortable to sleep in minutes after you pull them out of the stuffsack.

Image: Lachlan Gardiner

How much does the Western Mountaineering ‘brand’ enter your design decisions & how different would your designs be if you were designing for yourself rather than for Western Mountaineering?

There have been a number of products that I would have liked to introduce, things that I felt would break weight records, but in the back of my mind I know that the materials we would have to use were probably less durable than we would trust for commercial production. If I wasn’t producing for a brand it would be fun to crank out some designs that were crazy light like a 200gram zipperless bag with 5 denier fabric. Way too specialized and delicate to make it into our product line, but stuff like that gets me fired up.

How does Western Mountaineering continue to resist the pull towards almost every other generic outdoor brand?

At every trade show we are approached by multiple outsource factories claiming that they can produce for us with both high quality and technical detail. For us it is difficult to even consider giving our products to anyone else to manufacture. We tried it for a little while on some of our garments that were being manufactured in Canada by a subcontractor.

In my opinion there is no difference in the sewing skills in any part of the world, but we feel that all of us who design the products and manage the company would have to move to the source of manufacturing to look after the quality and do things exactly as we want them done.

Sewing the Baffles of a Western Mountaineering

So we think that the quality we are known for could be achieved in a place like China, but only if I moved there along with a team of trained seamstresses and we watched over the manufacturing process to make sure it is done in the way that we want using the materials we have worked with suppliers to develop. Just outsourcing manufacturing and making a trip over to China for a couple of weeks during a production run would, in my opinion, never turn out finished products with the quality we are known for.

So while it is expensive to produce in America (California especially), we have managed to maintain a slow and steady rate of growth as a business even during the years when our economy was struggling.

Also, building products with such high quality has allowed us to increase brand recognition without spending a lot of advertising because many consumers post comments and discuss products in online forums these days. It amounts to a substantial amount of free publicity that helps to keep demand for our products consistently strong, drawing interest from potential new consumers via many different media channels.

Western Mountaineering seems to work pretty closely with some top suppliers and makers. Can you talk a bit about those relationships in the creative process?

As you might imagine we don’t have a lot of leverage to pressure suppliers into developing everything we may want, we do enjoy a fairly solid visibility in the industry. Textile suppliers know that we aren’t in a position to place an order for 100,000 meters of a custom weave with extremely specific finishing setting requirements, but some suppliers will work closely with for two simple reasons.

One reason a textile supplier is willing to develop a material exclusively for us despite low order volume compared to big brands is that they realize that other brands pay attention to our products. There are still many consumers who may not have heard of our brand because we don’t do much advertising, but the brands in our industry all know our brand and pay attention to what we are using so what we may lack in order volume is made up by our visibility to other brands.

The second reason we have been able to develop specific custom raw materials with low order volume is that we are deeply committed to our supplier relationships and I have done my best to forge strong and lasting partnerships with each company we buy materials from. Whether it is our down, fabrics, trim, zippers, etc. I take many steps beyond just writing orders. One textile company told me that I had been to Japan more often than their US sales rep that I place orders with. This is because I want to see how it is made from start to finish including preparing the warp looms, weaving, calendaring, the dye process, all of it. It is really critical to me that our fabrics are downproof for many years, decades in fact. So by working so closely with suppliers we are able to buy the finest raw materials in the world, including a number of fabrics which are developed with our cooperation and sold exclusively to WM.

Who sets the design briefs? And which customers guide your efforts?

We hear from consumers directly and pay attention to forums in the lightweight backpacking communities. Our global dealer base also provides us with outstanding feedback on which products may be needed and which direction we need to point our development efforts as we expand our product line. With so much valuable input and being that we are a small brand that manufactures our own products, we are able to design and bring products to market fairly quickly. I work with our sewing supervisor closely to create the initial patterns. Once the initial pattern is cut we cut and sew the first prototype and continue refining the design with subsequent development samples until we are satisfied that the product has met or exceeded the design goals and is something we can be proud to offer. So we do listen to customers, very carefully, but we only add products to the line that we feel will make an impact in the industry and appeal to our customer base.

What is the process & how many prototypes do you go through before a product goes into production?

We usually make at least three prototypes or more, sometimes more than five, until we have worked out all of the details in the pattern and manufacturing process.    Even though we may come close in the first prototype, subsequent development samples help us to fine tune the product with the form and function that we are looking for.

Western Mountaineering Ultralite finish, sewing parts and zipper

There is an obvious industry trend towards making lighter weight gear. How do you think this impacts durability & is it possible to satisfy both requirements?

We do worry sometimes about the future potential of long term warranty issues as the industry moves to lighter materials, however we feel that the modern outdoor enthusiast is more aware of how to care for their products than the days when people were hitting the trails in a pair of Pivetta boots with an external frame Kelty on their back. People are doing the PCT in record times with lighter weight gear than ever before, and we expect this trend towards lighter equipment to continue. Our lightweight fabrics are surprisingly stable and will remain downproof for a very long time, and down is incredibly durable and lasting, so its mostly the use of lightweight zippers that concerns us.

We could make products so much lighter and far more compressible by using very tiny sized coil zippers but the sliders are not that durable, the starting pins or retaining boxes wear out and using them requires more thoughtful handling.

How to you see in the future unfolding for Australian outdoor equipment companies selling into Australia and the global market?

I think that the demand for lightweight products in the outdoor industry will continue to grow, both in Australia and globally. With fabrics getting down to nearly 20 g/m2 it is likely that over the next couple of years a number of down quilts and bags will come out at or below the 300 gram mark.

Which other brands/designers do you rate?

As a product designer and avid user of outdoor products I am always paying attention to other products. It is one of those things I can never turn off. My family all knows that if we are on a holiday we cannot walk past an outdoor store without me popping in and spending some time looking around. The most difficult places for me to visit are those with many outdoor shops in a concentrated district, like the ones that exist some of the big cities in Australia, where one or two blocks have a bunch of outdoor shops in close proximity. So I pay attention and try to stay on top of all other brands that make hardgoods and especially companies that make insulated down products.

Which design or product are you most proud of?

Every design is really a team effort but I am really glad to have initiated and played a primary role in a couple of designs that made a lasting impact on our brand. The first big break through in terms of a weight barrier was our Highlite, which came in at 450 grams or 1 pound. We had it at a trade show packed into a Nalgene bottle and people were a little shocked to see a bag stuffed into a water bottle. Things have progressed to even lighter weights over the years and it doesn’t seem that light any more but at the time it was a big deal. I am also proud of the redesign of our winter bags which moved away from a traditional sideblock baffle construction to a V-Block system which has better down control and increased the loft of our expedition bags by about 2cm without adding any weight. These bags provide amazing cold weather performance and in my opinion are unmatched in their warmth to weight ratios for mummy bags rated to 30 or 40 below. There are also some garment designs that I am quite proud of.

Image: Lachlan Gardiner

What’s next for you guys?

Come on man, that is top secret. I can tell you that we are always working on new lightweight products and we will be adding a new super light baffled top quilt for spring 2018.

Top 3 tips for new hikers, skiers and climbers.

I’ll give you four as I cant nail it down to 3.

  1. To help keep your bag in place on the pad and also to help keep your pad from sliding within a tent I put small beads of seam grip or something like it along the edges of my pad on both sides.   They act like small traction dots that help keep the bag from sliding with you when shifting  positions and can also help prevent the pad from sliding on the tent floor or when sleeping outside on a site that looks flat but may turn out to have a gentle slope.
  2. Don’t use your mouth to blow up or “top off” your sleeping pad. It won’t be a problem on warmer nights but if the temp ever drops below freezing and you do that it will be like sleeping on a popcycle and your body will constantly be thawing out frozen parts of the pad each time you shift into a different position.
  3. For backcountry ski touring trips, I try and plan them during the brighter moon cycles whenever possible because it is much quicker to travel by moonlight over snow. Once the snow sets up with a light crust as the temperatures drop I can travel much easier and considerably farther than if I set out in daylight hours in a fairly deep and soft snow because I can usually stay closer to the surface. Gliding over snow that has firmed up is much quicker than punching your boards through deep snow like a plow. The snow conditions vary throughout the world so it may not always make a huge difference depending on the snowpack density, date of most recent snowfall, temperature, etc. But I have always made better time ski touring by moving over snow at night or super early in the morning before sunrise.
  4. Get used to eating firm pasta or oatmeal and it will save you much fuel on backpacking trips. I like to call my backcountry specialty “pasta prematura”with noodles barely soft enough to eat. Combine this technique with the diligent use of a windbreak whenever you need to boil water and the combined effort will prove to be extremely fuel efficient.

Top 3 pieces of equipment you always take with you?

Aside from food/water I always have the following with me in the mountains or accessible at all times even if I’m not in the backcountry but on a road trip:

  1. Warmth (insulating clothing or a lightweight bag)
  2. Rain protection (i.e. a shell jacket, lightweight tarp, or shelter)
  3. Sun protection (could be a hat, sunglasses, etc.)

Gary at Indian Cove, Joshua Tree

Paddy Pallin and their customers are very environmentally aware. Can you tell us about what Western Mountaineering is doing to help the environment?

There are many steps we take to help minimize our impact on the environment, but much of my effort over the past two decades has been somewhat concentrated on textile finishing. This is where I feel the most change is needed, so I have been pushing for shorter chain chemical compounds for DWR treatments and calling for changes to the dye agents for many years with all of our suppliers. From what suppliers tell me we are one of the only companies that orders our lining material without any DWR treatment. It is common that all fabrics will be treated with a water repellent finish because it tends to stabilize the material and make the fabric more durable. We have been ordering custom fabrics for decades which are woven with a balanced construction (i.e. same number of yarns is both warp and fill directions) and selecting precise calendaring settings so that our materials are downproof by construction and durable without the need for any chemical treatments in the finishing process. So none of our lining materials have a DWR finish, which spares our environment substantially by reducing the use of chemical compounds. The outer shell fabrics are still treated with a DWR but we have moved away from PFOA or PFOS based finishes to much shorter chain compounds that are designated as either C2 or C4 finishes. They are considerably safer for the environment as they do not have any known carcinogens and they are made with chemicals which do not create toxic or biologically persistant waste.

We have also been moving away from acid based dye formulas over the past decade and selected suppliers from countries with better systems and regulations in place for environmental protections. South Korea, for example, has developed a progressive and very unique system for regulating and handling chemical waste from the textile dyeing process. I have seen nothing else like it in the world.

In an effort to minimize the pollution from cargo carrying ocean freight shipping liners we source as many of our raw materials as possible from within the USA where our products are manufactured. We also limit the number of shipments on imported materials to a minimum by requesting full containers of our most important raw material, goose down, which comes to us from Poland.

Lastly, we feel that we are helping the environment considerably by making sleeping bags that will last such a long time. We know that down can last 40, 50, even 60 years when cared for properly so we do our best to manufacture sleeping bags that may be able to match the longevity of the goose down we use. The best way to reduce impact on the environment is to make something that lasts so long it will eliminate the waste at every level of impact to the earth and environment by the fact that you won’t have to replace the product for such a long time. Think about how much more impact to our planet and air would be caused if you had to replace your sleeping bag every 8 or 10 years vs buying one bag that will last 30 years. All of the packaging, fabric dying, printed hangtags, exhaust from the vehicles and boats used to ship products and materials, etc. etc. We make a lasting product filled with a natural, untreated (i.e washed but chemical free) pure goose down insulation and carefully chosen fabrics in an effort to minimize our impact on the planet and the environment.

Cheers Gary & thanks for your time

About The Author

Dave Casey

Dave has worked as an International Expedition Leader and in Outdoor Education for over 15 years. He has extensive travel and guiding experience in Australia, NZ, Asia, South/North America and Europe. In his spare time Dave is a keen bushwalker, mountain biker and climber while also dabbling in some mountaineering and sea kayaking.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.