Jeff Boatman: Redefining the World of Bikepacking
Story and photos by Thomas Atkins
Sierra Mountain Times
Sitting behind a sewing machine, Jeff Boatman carefully guides the fabric under the needle. The hum of the machine blends in with the music that fills the small shop off of Wards Ferry Road. When the stitching is complete he sets the material on a large table that fills up a majority of the 18X18 foot room, grabs a similar piece of material and resumes his work behind the machine. On the wall in front of him is a collage of pictures cut out from magazines of people who inspire him – people who were, and are, on the cutting edge of adventure and technology. This motivational shrine includes a picture of the legendary 70s surfer Jerry Lopez getting barreled at Pipeline and modern day mountain biker Jay Petervay after his ride across the frozen wilds of Alaska. Like his heroes hanging from the wall, Jeff also possesses a spirit of adventure, which he mostly experiences in the form of his favorite pastime known as “bikepacking”. Over time, he began to experiment with the gear available for this activity and started to make improvements of his own, so he could experience bikepacking at a different level. As a result, his garage was converted into a breeding ground for his innovative nature and became the home of Carousel Design Works, a company that has since begun to revolutionize the world of ultra-light bikepacking, endurance racing, winter riding and lightweight touring.
Jeff Boatman of Carousel Design Works
Born and raised in Tuolumne County, Jeff was introduced to the outdoor activities the Sierra Nevada can offer at an early age, but his favorite activity has long been cycling. Living on a piece of property that has been in his family for over 50 years, Jeff can often be seen riding on the back roads that lead from his house.
“I definitely do a lot of fitness riding right from my house,” said Jeff, 34. “I got started into outdoor sports as a cyclist so that has always been my first love. Living on the edge of the traditional farm and ranch land near town offers some great road biking along the country roads and down into the Tuolumne river canyon. I ride down there on a regular basis.”
However, once the snow melts, Jeff spends most of his time bikepacking in the high country.
“I like to be in the high country as much as any backpacker or equestrian,” he said. “This last summer I headed to the mountains whenever I could and I did a ride along the Tahoe Rim Trail around Lake Tahoe. “The mountains are the places with beautiful scenery and challenging trails and I like to be able to ride into those environments with all of my backcountry gear.”
Jeff Boatman, founder of Carousel Design Works, inside his shop.
This is a much different approach than the traditional touring cyclists who are often towing trailers or lugging heavy packs along paved roads and traveling from point to point. With Jeff’s backpacking designs, he is allowing riders to go off the beaten path.
“In traditional touring, the bicycle is more of a conveyance between destinations, but I’ve developed ways so you can now ride into the mountains with all your gear and still enjoy the riding,” he said. “It becomes more about the process than the destination. It’s all about reducing weight, eliminating mechanical complexity, and making the riding fun. With my lightweight system it opens a door to a whole new world of riding possibilities because you no longer have heavy racks and bulky panniers to get in the way and you don’t have to tow a trailer behind you like an anchor. You can really go lightweight and preserve the riding experience. I can ride trails and still hop over logs or ride like I normally would on a short day ride.”
But how did Jeff’s form of bikepacking come about?
“It all started from my interest in both cycling and ultra-light backpacking,” he said. “Those two things coming together is kind of a natural evolution of what I love do.”
While he has always been a cyclist, his passion for ultra-light backpacking was sparked while working for S.N.A.C (Sierra Nevada Adventure Company) in Sonora.
Jeff Boatman laying out material used to create his bikebacking gear.
“I got into a lot of ultra-light backpacking, which is a merging of lightweight technology and reduction of pack weight that allows you to improve your efficiency,” he explained. “That was in the early 90s and at that time you really couldn’t buy the kind of ultra-light equipment that is now the mainstream stuff at places like REI. You basically had to make your own gear.”
So that is exactly what Jeff did.
“I read a book by Ray Jardine called the Pacific Crest Trail Handbook, which was really the start of that whole ultra-light revolution in backpacking gear and I started making my own equipment,” he said. “Because I was working at S.N.A.C. I was able to examine all types of gear and turn them inside out and think through the process of how they were made. Then I had my mom show me how to load the thread on the old Singer and from there I basically taught myself.”
By the late 90s Jeff traded in his backpacking boots for pedals and started experimenting with bikepacking.
“I started by wearing a small backpack and strapping some of my ultra-light backpacking kit to my mountain bike and then riding into the high country,” he recalled. ”But after breaking the hardware on the rack in the middle of the backcountry and trying to deal with that I realized there had to be a better way. So in about 2004 I started building bicycle packs that allowed me to ride in the high country in a lightweight style with more performance than I would have with racks, panniers and trailers. It basically evolved out of my use of those systems and finding their shortcomings and then applying an ultra-light ethos of simplicity, integration and reduced mechanical complexity to a bicycling perspective.”
During this time Jeff was working on the CDF Helitack crew when a tragedy made him reevaluate his future.
“The last year I was on the crew my friend and co-worker died while fighting a fire on the Tuolumne River,” he said. “I was working that day and it was one of those things that will make you think about you want to do with your life.”
Then at the end of 2004 an accident occurred that allowed his life to slow down enough to the point where he started to consider the possibility of forming a business.
“I busted my knee up pretty good on telemark skis… in the terrain park…listening to Black Sabbath. The devil made me do it,” he laughed. “I tore my ACL and then after having surgery to repair it, I fractured my knee cap in two…so that put me down for about a year in a half. It gave me plenty of time to think about my gear ideas and what I wanted to do. After I went through all that stuff and thinking about where I wanted to go, I decided to develop my gear ideas into a business.”
It also allowed him to focus on his true passion. Working at S.N.A.C., not only was he introduced to backpacking, but Jeff also got into kayaking, rock climbing, surfing, back country skiing and snowboarding.
“I haven’t been out for three seasons since I hurt my knee,” he said, referring to the winter activities. “But in a way I don’t want to go back out, because I was so into it before, that I don’t want to reintroduce myself to that and driving up to the mountain all the time. I have just been enjoying the simplicity of this bicycle thing…just doing one sport and keeping it simple.”
In 2006 Jeff decided to go ahead with his idea of presenting his bag designs as a business and formed Carousel Design Works.
“It just came from wanting to design stuff for myself and my own trips and then I realized that others would probably be interested in improving their bikepacking experience as well,” he said.
With the business came a logo that he began embroidering into each of his meticulously handcrafted bags. Jeff, who didn’t want anything flashy or fancy, kept it simple – just a star in the middle of a spinning circle.
“I came up with the name while going out on trips into the high country around here,” he said. “I was thinking about bag ideas while I was laying awake at night and looking up at the stars and the Milky Way, and thinking of the whole idea of a spiral galaxy spinning around in circles. It’s just that whole idea that things spin in circles on a lot of different levels, whether its bike wheels, planets, galaxies, or karma.”
With a few models of his bag designs assembled, Jeff began to get the word out on his products.
“It basically started to take off when I began shopping the idea at the 2006 Hand Made Bicycle show in San Jose,” he recalled. “From there some pictures ended up on the web and that kind of connected me to some people who were doing long distance, self supported endurance races and they wanted to use my gear and designs for those adventures.”
Things really started to pick up the following year when a man named Jay Petervary used Jeff’s gear and won the Great Divide Race, a 2,500-mile race from Canada to Mexico along the Continental Divide.
“It’s basically the length of the Tour de France but its self supported…and off road,” said Jeff. “It’s a route that people will tour – often taking two to three months to complete it, but Jay raced it in 15 days! That is an average of about 165 miles a day and 15,000 feet of climbing each day.”
The race is set up as a gentleman’s race with no entry fees, prizes, or management. The main rule for the race is that it is completely self-supported. The riders can use all the amenities they find along the route, whether it be hotels, restaurants or stores…but they can receive no outside assistance in anyway. They can’t get help fixing their bike, get a ride, receive food, or any other support.
“They have to carry all their own equipment so it is a great test arena for my gear,” said Jeff. “Jay ended up setting the course record that year and was the first ever to complete the route with a rack-less system like that.”
Mary Collier, also helped spread the word about Jeff’s gear after she became the first women to complete the Tour Divide – a longer version of the Great Divide route that starts in Alberta instead of at the border, making it 2,711 miles long. Jay also promoted Jeff’s gear when he won the treacherous Iditasport Race, a 350-mile race through Alaska on snow, with temperatures down to minus 40-degrees, along the Iditarod sled dog trail.
The inside of Jeff’s shop.
The Great Divide Race and the Ididasport Race are basically considered the two hardest bicycle races in the world,” said Jeff. “Through those races, it kind of peaked peoples’ interest and showed them a new way to travel lightweight in the backcountry. That has been great exposure…it’s advertising I couldn’t pay for. It’s mostly come around through word of mouth and people racing and doing some pretty amazing things with my stuff. Through events like those I have had a couple mentions in national magazines and a review with mentions of my gear is coming out this spring in a major publication, so that is awesome.”
For the past ten months Jeff has been working full time in his shop and has been receiving calls from all over the world.
“I just got a phone call from Switzerland,” he said when I arrived at the shop on a rainy Monday afternoon. “I do custom frame packs for people and have been sending them all over the place. People will trace me the dimensions of their frames and I will make a pack that custom fits in that front triangle. These are held on by Velcro and different buckles and webbing so that it’s a simple non-mechanical connection which is less likely to fail. Even a well designed aluminum rack that is rigid is going to be prone to stress failures after over 2,500 miles of off road riding, but using simple sewn connections reduces that chance.”
These high quality bags can take Jeff an entire day or more to make.
“It’s pretty labor intensive stuff,” he said. “Right now I am making seven seat bags, which will take me two days. But everything I sell is ultimately a value for the amount of time I put into it, since I am still just getting started and charging a very reasonable rate for my time. People are starting to realize that most of this stuff is made in a way that you aren’t going to see coming out of a factory because it’s ultimately based around what performs the best instead of costs and profits. I am taking the approach of trying to make the finest stuff I can. With all of my designs I have tried to take the idea to its fullest realization, without really thinking in a production capacity. I am an enthusiast making stuff I want to use – not a business man trying to get rich quick.”
Heated by a small woodstove, Jeff spends most of his days alone in the shop trying to keep up with the orders. His only company is his dog Maddie, the “shop dog”.
“I’m a one man band,” he laughed. “It’s just me. It’s definitely a challenge to stay connected to that world and to be motivated by just working out of my home and realizing that people around the globe are checking out these products. But it’s been fun and I always have something to do. I do the design work, the building and answer phone and take emails. Most of the time I’m trying to keep busy at the sewing machine.”
His sewing machine competes with the music of “Band of Horses” coming from a computer in the corner as he demonstrates the machine’s capabilities.
“I have a few different sewing machines that allow me to do all the different stitches I need,” he said. “The main one is an industrial sewing machine which allows me to go over some pretty heavy stuff.”
As the short tour continues, he shows me bags he is finishing up on the giant layout table. Buckles, clips, velcro, scissors, rulers and various parts of bags-to-be are also scattered about. Beneath the table are dozens of rolls of various fabrics and materials he uses to create his bags.
“I started out buying the material in very small batches at retail prices, but now I am buying more in quantity direct from the manufacturers,” he said. “I am increasingly working with more plastics, foams, metals, and things other than just fabrics to create my bag designs.
Ultimately, I see myself as a designer more than just a seamster.”
There has definitely been an evolution in his bags over the years.
“I started off with much simpler versions of my designs,” he said, pointing to a finished product. “The profile and taper are the key elements of this saddle pack design…they are fairly unique to my gear. When I started making them like that, I hadn’t seen any other similar bags on the market. I’ve done a lot of things that have evolved that design.”
Currently Jeff produces saddle packs, custom frame packs, fuel cells (snack packs that sit up on the top tube of the frame), and bar bags (most come stock in multiple sizes). His most popular item is the saddle packs because it is one of the key points of eliminating a rack and allowing a rider to use a lightweight bike.
“All of these designs have evolved for improved stability and durability,” he said. “I use a lot of different materials to optimize the design.”
Not only did Jeff familiarize himself with various types of material while at S.N.A.C., but he also worked for a year at the King Parish awning shop.
‘I used it as an opportunity to familiarize myself with all the industrial machines and processes,” he said. “When I worked there I was making giant canopies, awnings and tents, things that can weigh a hundred pounds and can take up a 30 by 40 foot space. Now my line of work is all very intricate and detail oriented. To get to the level where I feel that it’s worthy of being in stores, it’s definitely been a process of just doing it again and again.”
But of course his favorite process is testing the gear.
Alison Gannett, a World Champion extreme big mountain freeskier and competitive
endurance mountain biker, using Jeff’s gear during a ride. Alison is also a global
warming consultant and has spent her life dedicated to solutions to global warming.
She was recently named a Green All-Star by Outside magazine along with Al Gore,
Arnold Schwarzenegger and Willie Neslon. Photo Courtesey of Jeff Boatman
“That’s the fun part,” he said. “I have to prototype and test everything, basically being my own best customer. There are so many places to ride in this area. But with this kind of system it really becomes not where can you ride, but where you can ride legally…so I do a lot of stuff that borders the boundaries of the wilderness lands. There are rides from here to Bear Valley that stay out of the wilderness areas and rides towards Yosemite. My favorite thing to do is just take off from the house, ride into the mountains, stay a few nights and ride back.”
However, Jeff has done some bikepacking trips that have been up to two weeks long.
“With a lightweight system it’s really about how far you can go between resupplying food and other necessary items,” he said. “In America it’s pretty hard to ride for more than a few hundred miles and not come across some resupply opportunity. You really aren’t limited by where you can travel. With the kind of lightweight system I have on my bike, it’s possible to pack for about 5-6 days unsupported and still be relatively maneuverable. I carry the same sort of equipment I would bring on an ultra-light backpacking trip and my base weight – the weight of all my equipment including the packs it goes in – without food or water – is about ten pounds.”
But of course you can’t pack for everything, and Jeff has stories of various bikepacking trips gone wrong.
“One time on a backcountry trip my riding partner busted the derailler off of his bike so we had to rig his back wheel on with bailing wire, which we luckily had, and then later in that trip he stripped the threads on his pedal, so he had to finish the last ten miles of the trail with one pedal,” he said. “I try to learn from other people’s mistakes, if possible.”
Although most of his riding has taken place in the Sierra, Jeff hopes to expand his horizons soon.
“A lot of the gear development I have doing has been post knee operation so in a way I have been helping all these people get set up for these amazing boundary-pushing type adventures while I have been stuck building this stuff and rebuilding my knee and my health,” he said.
“But now I am at the point with the business and my fitness where I am looking at taking off on a few adventures this year.”
This spring he hopes to go bikepacking along a 300-mile trail called the Arizona Trail and possibly the 500-mile Colorado Trail in the summer. Yet he admits that there is no place like home.
“I like this town,” he said. “It’s where I grew up and I have a lot of family here. Plus we live in this area with so many great recreational resources that often gets overlooked for more popular destinations like Yosemite and Tahoe, but once you know where to go, it’s like having your own playground. We are all just passengers on this great carousel of life, so make the most of it and enjoy the ride.”
For more information and pictures, visit Jeff’s website at http://www.carouseldesignworks.com.
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