College is supposed to open your eyes to new possibilities, which makes it the perfect venue for a course with Sterling College’s newest adjunct professor—climber, bikepacker, reformed salesman, and bespoke pack-builder John Campbell. Last spring he helped a group of 10 students design and build their own backpacks on a trio of industrial sewing machines in his basement in Westmore, Vermont, which doubles as world headquarters for his one-man company, Alpine Luddites.
The name is a homage to the 19th-Century loom-breaking movement named for Ned Ludd, the phantom leader who gave shape to the very real frustrations of craftspeople forced into the mills at low wages to, as Campbell puts it, “make crap.” The Luddites Campbell identifies with weren’t anti-technology; they just wanted to live life on their own terms—a revolutionary goal the original Luddites expressed with sledgehammers and Campbell pursues with those sewing machines.
My competitors are VC-funded groups trying to make the most off of the least they can get away with building. That’s how I see the industry in general.
Campbell designs and crafts quality gear for climbing, bikepacking, and hiking. His workshop walls are covered with about 70 packs in various styles and states of completion, including a handful of vintage Karrimor and Chouinard Equipment packs like those one carried by his mountaineering heroes. Campell makes reproductions of those classics, but his stock-in-trade these days is custom bikepacks and backpacks. In Alpine Luddites’ first year, 2014, Campbell sold three packs. The business took off after he rode the Tour Divide, a 2,745-mile self-support bicycle race from Canada to New Mexico, using packs he designed and built himself. Customers now wait nine months for one of Campbell’s hand-crafted packs.
Adventure Journal: Did you ever see yourself as a college professor?
John Campbell: No. And the reality was I barely graduated high school. I got accepted at art school, but ended up moving to Chamonix when I was 18 years old and climbing full-time. When I came back to the States I worked at Outward Bound in the Sierras, guiding their mountaineering courses for four years full-time. May through September I was in the Sierras, and the winters I was in Bozeman. I got really into ice climbing.
So you dived right in with the hardcore adventure lifestyle?
I grew up backpacking as a kid and got into climbing when I was a teenager living in Connecticut. In 1985 when I was 16, I did the NOLS Alaska mountaineering course, and we did a five-week ski traverse of the Chugash mountains. We came out in Prince William Sound and that was a pretty brutal introduction to mountaineering. We saw no one for five weeks. In today’s world that’s a little unheard of. We were skiing with old Silvretta cable bindings and Colfax plastic boots and carrying Kelty frame packs—the typical NOLS course of that era.
We were all roped up, going up ice falls, down ice falls. Skiing on the glaciers, huge crevasses. We set up a camp for one week and just climbed peaks between snowstorms. We’d take three to four days to ski up one glacier that hooked up to another glacier.
Is that trip the one that pulled you in, or did you know before then?
That cemented it for sure. That’s what told me that this could be my life. It was like, Wow, these people do this for a living. I could be doing this for the rest of my life and never really care about corporate jobs or what people consider the real world.
So art school never had a chance?
No, it tugged at the back of my mind quite a bit. I really loved the craft of making stuff. I always have and that’s kind of where everything comes from. I made my first technical backpack when I was 18 on my mom’s home sewing machine. I went to the Andes the year after I went to Alaska, when I was 17.
I was really struggling with a lot of things, as we do growing up. And I got to see the Third World for the first time and it blew my mind. I’ve always been very political. If you read about me, you know that I’m on the far left. I’ve always kind of have those feelings. Going to South America the first time in 1986 and seeing the poverty people lived in and the conditions that they lived in—it opened my eyes.
The Shining Path was fighting in Peru at the time. They blew up a power station when we were in Cuzco acclimatizing. We got held up at gunpoint. I thought South America was the wild west and I never wanted to leave.
That’s an interesting response. You get held at gunpoint and realize the people on the other side of the gun weren’t necessarily trying to kill you. It didn’t turn you off from the experience, or the place.
I had a sense of social injustice at that time. We had the war in Nicaragua going on, and Honduras and El Salvador. So my time in South America, I knew what was going on. I knew what issues were even then. I just wanted to see it with my own eyes. I just needed to travel. I needed to go see stuff. I wanted to climb. It was all tied together.
I talk about it to my Sterling students. I never know when I’m going to say something that’s going to help them, either at that time or later in life. Because we are on the same page. These kids are me—maybe a little smarter, maybe a little more together than I was at 18 or 19 or 20. But they’re in the Outdoor Ed program. I know why they’re there.
Because being in the outdoors is the way many of us cope with the world?
Yeah. I had some difficult years.
When did you realize that you could make a living building custom packs?
Well, I didn’t think of it in those terms. I looked at it as something I just really wanted to do. And I knew there would be a market for what I was doing. I didn’t question that. I mean, look at Dan McHale. He’s been building packs for 40 years and he makes excellent packs. There’s a small group of people that do what I do, and I look at us all more as comrades than competitors.
My competitors are VC-funded groups trying to make the most off of the least they can get away with building. That’s how I see the industry in general.
I was a sales rep for 10 years in the outdoor industry. I worked for Cloudveil for eight years. I worked for Western Mountaineering, Dana Designs, G3 in Vancouver. I worked for Lowe and Sterling Ropes. There’s a bunch of brands I worked for over the years, and that’s a business I started by myself. I just went to OR [the Outdoor Retailer tradeshow] and got a bunch of customers that were small and specialized to hire me, like Madden Packs and Integral Designs in Canada.
That’s how I started my repping business. I was sleeping in my car or camping. I made no money the first few years, but I was used to that. I didn’t have any expectations, and I made my business into a million-dollar sales business. I left to become the sales manager at Macpac in Christchurch, New Zealand.
I bring up Macpac because that’s real important to Alpine Luddites. I didn’t realize this at the time, but I got to Macpac at the end of its end of its lifespan. It’s still in business, of course, like a lot of brands. But less than 12 months before I got there, they had shifted all their production from New Zealand, where they had over 250 sewers in their factory, to Asia. And it broke the heart of the people that work there.
They were one of the last brands to move from domestic production, not just in New Zealand but anywhere, to Asia. It just broke the owner, Bruce McIntyre. He started Macpac in the ‘70s with all the great climbers that came out of New Zealand. Being forced to go towards the bottom, where everything was based on profits and not people—you could see how it broke him. It’s just not worth it. I saw the same thing at Cloudveil. It’s when VC money came in that things got really ugly.
Money seems to ruin everything that’s good about the outdoors.
What made you decide to leave that million-dollar gig behind and start sewing packs in your basement?
I just wanted to do my own thing. I always have. I mean, I was thinking about this when I was 18 building my first pack. Growing up in New England, we have a reference of people who do this. We used to have Wild Things, John and Titoune Bouchard out of a little shop in New Hampshire. And Titoune, who was a friend of ours later in life, told me she sewed every big pack they sold.
And then we have people like Limmer Boots making custom-fitted hiking boots for the last 70, 80 years. I worked at a bike shop when I was 20 in Connecticut, and everyone there had handmade bikes, made by local framebuilders. So I knew that existed as well, and all those guys are kind of all my inspiration.
How old were you when you took that leap?
I was 45.
It was a leap of faith. I had faith that there were enough people out there with my attitude that I could find enough customers to do this. And you know, in my first year I sold three packs.
2014 was my first year, and in 2015 I raced the Tour Divide for the first time, a mountain bike race from Banff to New Mexico. That really changed things for me. I wasn’t ever going to get into building bikepacking gear until I did the Tour Divide, with my own gear that I built. And my gear held up better than a lot of other gear, and I just knew I could do it. Orders just came in. I’ve had a waiting list ever since.
Now it’s what, eight months?
Is it satisfying to have a core of people coming to you saying, ‘I love your stuff, I want more.’
It’s immensely satisfying and I can’t put it into words, really. I hold my customers in really high regard, and every custom pack I build is a protracted effort to be perfect. Here’s someone I spent an hour on the phone with. I know what they want to do with this pack, I know what their dreams and aspirations are. It’s really important to me to get it right.
I’ve built hundreds of packs now. More than hundreds. I don’t even know how many packs I’ve built, and pretty much every one is a one-off, except for the day packs, like the classic Chouinard stuff I reproduce.
Do you think when you’re building these packs about where people are going to take them, the adventures those packs are going to take part in?
I’m more worried about getting it perfect to meet their needs. Sometimes I hear stories about where they’re going, sometimes I just don’t know. I have a broad spectrum of customers.
For some people its a tool, and for others it’s something more?
Yeah, it’s their VW Microbus to the Dead show. So I feel a responsibility to do the best job I can. If you ask my wife, she knows I stress about the wait list. I wake up at 4:00 in the morning sometimes like, holy fuck. I gotta get to work.
I am a one-man show, so I have X amount of hours for production, X amount of hours to ship, order supplies, do marketing. I did a one-off custom pack last week for a guy, he’s a Canadian soldier and he has a 25-inch-long back—super tall guy, 6’5″ or 6’6″—and I made him a lumbar pack for his trip to Kilimanjaro. I’d never built one before, and I thought it would take me 10 to 12 hours for me to be happy with it. It took me 30 hours.
I think anyone who works at a craft, whether it’s sewing packs or carpentry or writing, knows that compulsion to get something just right before putting it into the world.
The funny thing is anyone else looking at what we’re doing can’t see the difference, but we can see it exactly.
Right, and the corollary to that is the feeling of satisfaction when you finish something that’s a really nice piece of craft. You can look at it, or another pack builder can look at it, and appreciate the thought and skill that’s gone into every detail. There’s a satisfaction that comes with it.
You know, it’s funny with other pack makers. A designer asked to meet with me at OR, and he was a little dumbfounded that I actually build everything myself. ‘Why would you do that?’ was one thing he said, and then he said, ‘Your designs are really basic.’ And I’m like, well you go build it. I don’t care. That’s not the point.
But push back on that. What’s wrong with basic designs?
There isn’t. That’s the problem. Modern designs are inherently weaker. If you’re designing in CAD [computer aided design] it’s lot easier to do lots of curved seams and have things flow together easier than if you’re designing in analog like I do.
There’s a reason people want those Chouinard-style packs. It’s a super simple design but there’s also something timeless about it, isn’t there?
Yeah, there is, and when I started Alpine Luddites I was just going to build replicas of all these classic vintage packs, like that purple Karrimor, the Alpiniste. That’s one of the first packs I wanted to build for my company. I love the colors. I love the history of it. And you look at any climbers in the 70s and 80s in the Alps and the Himalaya, you see those packs all over—Doug Scott, Alex MacIntyre, Joe Tester, Pete Boardman, the Polish climbers, Wojciech Kurtyka—they’re all climbing with that pack. That pack is insidious with my fascination with alpine-style Himalayan climbing. Which I chose never to get into because I knew I would be dead.
Why do you say that? Are you a risk-taker?
There’s too many things outside my control. I’ve always been a mediocre climber. I’m just average. I lead with old tools, and there’s nothing here I can’t climb with gear from 20 years ago. Even things I climbed in my 20s, I can still climb today. So my standards are the same. Everyone’s just a lot better now.
I have a feeling you’re underselling yourself. And being as good as you used to be at 50 is pretty great.
Yeah but I don’t I don’t think of myself as being 50. People are always surprised to hear my real age. My Sterling students just stopped and stared when I told them I was I was 53.
Right, let’s get back to the class. How did it come about?
I was good friends with the folks at Jagged Edge Mountain Gear in Telluride, Erik Dalton and Crook Gray. They make their own line of packs and clothing and we had talked about doing an industrial sewing class at one of the community colleges to help create jobs, because on the Western Slope of Colorado there are plenty of businesses looking for sewers.
It didn’t happen by the time I left Colorado in 2019, but I knew Sterling, and when I got to Vermont I decided to contact the college and see if they’re interested in doing that. I just wrote a five-line email to the dean of academics. Covid hit and that kind of slowed things down, but they came back to me nine months later saying, ‘Hey we want to do this class next semester, can we do it?’
We wrote up a program between gear repair, learning how to use a sewing machine, and then working here at my shop. We split it between three staff and we made it happen. It was a very, very popular class, and I’ve had requests for interviews from all over the country about this class.
The name Sterling evokes a private liberal arts school, but I understand there’s more to it than that.
Sterling’s main goal is sustainability. They teach in the Wendell Berry School of Farming in Kentucky, and they have active farms here in Vermont. I shouldn’t speak for the college because I am just a lowly adjunct that teaches one class, but go to the website and read about Sterling. It’s an amazing program that’s based on need not tuition, and they have a great outdoor education program. They have great farming programs for sustainable farming and regenerative agriculture. It’s really cool.
When you say it’s need-based, if somebody whose family doesn’t make a lot of money gets in, they’re covered?
That’s great, because the way our society is set up, you make a big investment to get on a career track that requires a degree—but then you’re locked into that path to be able to pay for it.
Well, I think I think the four-year model of education broken. I don’t think it actually works for today’s world. The skills that people are going to need due to climate change and other things that are on our radar aren’t taught in four-year schools and they aren’t taught in high school pretty much anywhere. Sterling is one of the few colleges that really takes that head-on.
Vermont’s a unique place. There’s a deep respect for stewardship and thrift and making do. It’s kind of like what Wyoming used to be or Montana before it bacame Hollywood. Northern Vermont still has that.
Your students came to you to learn pack building. What did you learn from them?
That’s a good question. This may sound a little funny, but I realized I’m on the same page as they were as far as environment and other things–more so than most of my peers. Because this generation is going to be the last generation, or it’s going to be the generation that changes everything.
And they all seem, for the most part, pretty fuckin’ tuned in. I mean, we had discussions about why are we using nylon fabrics? Why are we still producing this stuff? My only answer for that is, buy it once. Buy quality and have a lot less.
There’s kids at Sterling who won’t buy new clothes. They just take hand-me-downs and modify them. That’s part of the culture for a lot of the kids there, being able to make do, and make their own stuff. One of the reasons I wanted to teach the class was just to have interaction with this generation, and not to judge from the outside.
Earlier you said you see people in this business as comrades more than competitors. Are you looking for young people to mentor into the pack-building business?
I’d be happy to. I make myself open to anyone getting into this, to answer questions, to help them. I get requests like, ‘What sewing machine should I buy?’ I always have been willing to spend the time to help them.
I love that your company is called Alpine Luddites. If Ned Ludd himself came to life and saw your shop today, what do you think he’d say?
Are you familiar with the real history of the Luddites?
Just that it was a movement that came out of the textile industry in the north of England during the Industrial Revolution, pushing back against the mechanization that was changing the way people had lived for generations.
Right, because it was destroying their quality of life, in rural England and rural Europe. They were working at home making a decent living and having a really good life. Then the industrial age started and their quality of life and level of income went down drastically. And they were making crap.
They weren’t upset about the machines doing it. They just wanted people to be paid well and make good products. They were never anti-technology. It’s been construed that a Luddite today would never own a cell phone or computer, and people make those jokes. It couldn’t be further from the truth.
You can walk out my door and go to my garden and I have maybe 500 square feet of organic potatoes, corn and black beans growing. It would be just like walking out of his house where he’s weaving at home, and seeing his garden.
There’s no difference. We’re the same people in that sense. We’re independent and we’re taking care of ourselves on our own terms.