The year was 1974. A young student ambled by, dragging their backpack along the North Carolina dirt. The student’s instructor, Dan Madden, watched in fascination. An idea dawned on him. With the sewing expertise he’d gained from his grandmother, he could create a backpack strong enough to withstand years of his students’ abuse. And, better yet, it’d be a backpack his students would want to wear.
“It was a classic Outward Bound moment,” said Mike Valvano, president of Madden Equipment. “I think Dan was complaining a little bit, and the head of the program said, ‘Well, do you think you can do better?’ And Dan said, ‘I definitely can.’ So then he went ahead and did it.”
Within months, orders for Madden’s new backpack began pouring in from Outward Bound schools across the U.S. Seeing that he was onto something, Madden uprooted his life in North Carolina, replanted in the mountains of Colorado and opened up his first shop with his friend and business partner, Rob Lewis.
The company started out strong. Orders were coming in from across the globe. For the next 26 years, Madden Equipment fostered a cult following spread across the globe. Then, in 2000, after more than two decades as a quintessential Coloradan outdoor company, Madden Equipment was acquired by the French outdoor giant Lafuma. “[Lafuma] was interested in acquiring Madden because, as a boutique U.S. brand, there was a global appreciation for it,” said Valvano. “At one point, Madden sold more technical backpacks in Europe than any of the leading brands today — more than Osprey, more than Dana [Designs], more than Gregory.”
Yet after just three years of Lafuma ownership, Madden Equipment was defunct. Ten years passed. Outdoor brands made all sorts of advancements in backpacks. Everything became technical, over-engineered. And then, out of nowhere, Madden Equipment was reborn.
“At one point, Madden sold more technical backpacks in Europe than any of the leading brands today — more than Osprey, more than Dana, more than Gregory.”
“When we revived the brand, we asked, ‘Hey! is anybody out there? Does anybody still care?’ And they told us that they really cared,” Valvano said. “That gave us a lot of motivation to say, ‘Okay, we have to do something really special for you now.’ But because we’re still the garage brand, because we’re not beholden to anybody else, we agreed that we really need to spend some time and thought on this one.”
Madden Equipment’s second lease on life began in 2015. Not much had changed. They were making the same packs they had made in the ’70s: hard-wearing, understated, 100 percent USA-made heritage goods. The relationships hadn’t changed, either: “Our relationship with Cordura [nylon] is forty years old. Our relationship with Duraflex is long. Even the labels — the guy who makes the labels for modern Madden packs is the original label maker. Things have taken on a familial sense,” Valvano said.
Now, Madden Equipment has a brand-new website, along with some shiny new products — their most forward-thinking creations to date. In making the new backpacks and apparel, the brand had to do some soul-searching. “We basically asked ourselves, what would Madden look like if it had been continuous for ten years if there hadn’t been that little gap — what would the team have come up with? What would be true to Madden today?” Valvano said.
What Valvano and his team came up with is, indeed, true to the original brand. The products are still USA-made, still as durable as ever and, except for a few new products, still look and perform just like the ones worn decades ago by Madden’s students. The following five pieces are available now on Madden Equipment’s new website, which launched today.
Daylite by Madden Equipment $239
Getaway 2-Way Pack by Madden Equipment $219
Knapsack Daypack by Madden Equipment $109
#1 by Madden Equipment $249
Alpine Pullover by Madden Equipment $209