I was deep in the underbelly of the internet, digging through some niche backpacking forum, when I came across a name I’d never seen before: McHale Packs. Curious, I dug deeper. Everywhere I looked, veteran backpackers spoke of a mysterious old man named Dan McHale who, for several decades, has apparently been running a tiny custom backpack operation somewhere outside of Seattle. Some called him “genius,” some called him a “nutcase.” But the one common thread was this: his backpacks are, according to his fiercely loyal customers, second to none. To hell with all those big outdoor companies with their fancy slogans, sponsored athletes and R&D budgets. McHale hand-builds his packs in his garage, yet somehow manages to humiliate multi-national corporations. Dan versus Goliath.
I had struck gold. On McHale’s website — which, to put it mildly, is a charmingly unmitigated disaster of biblical proportions — I learned about McHale’s impressive history as a climber, mountaineer and thru-hiker. I learned that he, in order to ensure the best possible fit, requests that every customer sends him their precise body measurements, either through email, DVD or VHS cassette tape. I learned that every pack comes with an instructional DVD. I learned that no two McHale packs are alike, though all feature some configuration of Cordura nylon and Dyneema, two of the strongest fabrics in the world. But, above all, I learned that McHale’s packs appear to be a best-kept secret, and that I’ve barely scratched the surface.