The Story Behind LiteAF’s Customized, Colorful, Ultralight Packs
LiteAF co-owner and founder Chris Millard didn’t have starting a company in mind when he began making his own gear in anticipation of a 2019 AT thru-hike. With over 20 years of backpacking experience with a traditional gear system, shifting to ultralight felt like the right thing to do. In Chris’s words, he has “always been a maker” and so decided to eschew current market choices, spooling up the sewing machine to make his dream pack. The AT thru-hike didn’t happen, but the DIY gear remained.
LiteAF as a business started humbly. Packs were not an original offering and it was their flat-bottomed, DCF bear bag that put them on the map. Chris “thought it was kind of important” to have a food bag that could stand on its own. While the bear bag “was a major hit from day one,” and is still the biggest seller, LiteAF has since added both frameless and framed backpacks to their lineup (five in total). These designs cater specifically to the ultralight hiker, for whom simplicity is key. Pockets are few, zippers fewer. Each custom pack is made to order. In addition, LiteAF sells fanny packs, a variety of stuff sacks, and a hammock tarp. Everything is manufactured in New Jersey, using nearly 100% Dyneema Composite Fabric (DCF).
LiteAF Quick Hits
- Location: Southampton, New Jersey
- Founded: June 2018
- Pack price range: $315-395 framed, $225-342 frameless
- Pack weight range: 25-33 ounces framed, 11-26 ounces frameless
- Custom ultralight backpacks (30-46L), fanny packs, and bear bags
- All products nearly 100% (DCF)
- 15-16 unique DCF color options
- 100% of packs custom order, 12-week lead time
Growing Out of the Garage
LiteAF is very much a family business, co-owned by husband and wife Chris and Lorraine Millard, with their son and one other as the only other full-time employees. Growth has been steady, and the business officially moved out of the garage one year ago to a nearby warehouse. Chris, who makes all LiteAF backpacks himself, works long hours to keep up with demand, though there is still a standard 12-week lead time. Other items are made in the same warehouse and are generally in stock.
DCF is at the core of the business and quality is a top priority. They “try to use the best of everything,” all the way up from thread choice. The fabric is strong, light, and durable, making it ubiquitous in the cottage gear industry where every gram matters. Paired with internal seam sealing and rolltop closure, LiteAF packs are virtually waterproof. Same story for the stuff sacks and fanny packs.
Customization for Days: It’s all About the Colors
However, this alone does not set LiteAF apart from other ultralight gear suppliers. It is the custom options that offer the chance for a hiker to make a truly unique pack. All the standard options apply (hip belt, load lifters, ice axe loop, etc.) as well as some of the more unusual (bottom stash pocket, shoulder strap pockets, fanny pack).
“I’m not saying everybody wants to purchase a crazy color pack, but I feel like it’s a wow factor.” – Chris Millard, co-owner LiteAF
But it is the materials that make a statement. With roughly 15 colors of DCF to choose from (check their website for current options), customers can mix and match body and side pocket material, for a truly unique look. It is a revelation in an industry dominated by white, gray, blue, green, and black DCF. LiteAF even has two artists on tap for custom grooves when funky inspiration hits. As an example, their Aurora offerings depict a starry night sky overlaid with the ethereal glow of the aurora borealis. Licensed camo patterns are also available.
Enabling Technology: Dye-Sublimation
This expanded color wheel is made possible by dye-sublimation, a process that transfers ink from paper to the polyester layer on the 2.92-ounce hybrid DCF. Anything that can be printed is fair game. Working with their material supplier, LiteAF was the first to bring this technology, merged with DCF, to the public. It remains a key advantage in a competitive field. “Giving (hikers) as many custom options and colors as possible is really what sets us apart from the rest.”
Gear Highlight: 40L Curve Full Suspension Custom Pack
Backpacks are now the main focus at LiteAF. The original 30-40L frameless versions of their Curve line of backpacks remain available, and the newer full suspension versions have become a larger part of the business. The most popular pack is now the 40L Curve Full Suspension Custom Pack (46L version also available). It’s “a really good-sized pack for a majority of people that are not even just thru-hikers, but people out hiking for the weekend.”
Simple: It’s a Backpack
Chris “always (tries) to keep things as simple as possible,” and the 40L Curve is just about as simple as a framed pack can get. The main body is 40L in volume (yes, it will hold a bear can). The external pockets add an additional 15L of peanut butter-carrying capacity. The two adjustable side pockets are made of the same durable DCF material (Gridstop optional) as the main pack and each hold two 1L SmartWater bottles securely. The front pocket is made of stretchy black Lycra mesh and provides a convenient place to stash quick-access outer layers or wet gear.
A rolltop closure seals up the main pocket like a dry bag. Seams sealed with Dyneema tape do the rest to keep water out. The top strap combined with five-point side compression straps help keep the pack tight when not filled to capacity. Switch out the single top strap for a Y strap (+$2.50) for more secure chip carrying ability. You get some trekking pole loops too.
Hip belts come standard on all LiteAF framed backpacks (optional on frameless). Combined with two removable aluminum support stays (3 ounces) and a padded back panel, LiteAF claims that this pack has the structure needed to carry up to 30 pounds comfortably. The hip belts measure 4 inces wide and are fully padded, layering spacer mesh and closed cell foam. Gridstop fabric covers the outside. The 3.25-inch wide, S-shaped shoulder straps share the same construction, albeit with slightly thicker foam. And, as one might expect with a custom pack, hip belts are available in four sizes for a range that spans 26-50 inches. There is even an option for longer shoulder straps for chest sizes above 42 inces.
Although hip belt pockets are not standard issue, they are available as extras (+$25, 1.1 ounces, 1L each). Hikers who absolutely need zippers can find them here, and they also feature a Lycra front pocket. Of course, the zipper is waterproof as is the DCF pocket material. Some other options include an ice axe loop (+$2), shoulder strap pockets (+$10 for two, +$6 for one) and the nifty bottom pocket (+$10) that is a great place to stash snacks and trash.
With so many custom options, it can be tough to understand the full picture of these packs. Price and weight are highly dependent on pack size and feature additions. The 40L Curve Full Suspension cost ranges $315-$360, and add $50 for two hip belt pockets. Weight starts between 25 and 32 ounces, and will climb a touch higher with add-ons. However, the toughest part might be picking the colors. No one can tell you what to do, but maybe it’s finally time to buy that pink and green watermelon pack that you’ve always wanted.
Where to Get LiteAF
LiteAF does not currently have any retail locations to try or buy their products. This puts prospective customers in a pickle—one that is shared across the cottage industry—and demands a certain amount of faith. Dealing in custom gear makes returns tricky, though this has not been an issue at LiteAF. To build a pack or see the full catalog of products, head to LiteAF’s website. Stuff sacks and food bags are also available online at Garage Grown Gear.
Chris’s passion for this business is evident. He dreams of expanding LiteAF to satisfy increasing demand and also offer more in the realm of shelters. The first run of their hammock tarp sold out in 30 days this January, and flat tarps seem like a natural next step. But Chris doesn’t want to get ahead of himself. “We like to put everything on at least an entire long trail thru-hike, like the AT or CDT or PCT before we even offer anything to the public.” With each new gear concept undergoing such thorough testing, the goal is that when it does reach the market it’s worth the weight.
Making high quality, ultralight backpacking gear affordable is no easy task. While affordability is subjective and chronically elusive for DCF gear relative to nylon counterparts, LiteAF prices are competitive within the DCF gear bubble, and the other company tenets stand up to scrutiny. The strengths of DCF are well-known and simple backpack designs keep weight way down for those willing to go without. The colors speak for themselves.
LiteAF packs are not for everyone. Staying under the comfortable weight limit may pose a challenge without a comprehensive lightening of the remaining gear list. Many will miss a top lid, hydration port, or separate pockets. However, for hikers who have already given up camp shoes and extra underwear in the name of going light, ditching these conveniences will hardly be noticed.
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