WINONA, Minn. – Among serious outdoor enthusiasts, ounces count.
Campers, hikers and trekkers setting out on long trips look to shave every bit of weight they can from their packs; some even go so far as to cut off the stems of their toothbrushes.
Among this set, few pieces of outdoor gear are as treasured as a quilt from Enlightened Equipment in this Mississippi River city.
Founded in 2009, Enlightened Equipment pioneered the manufacture of outdoor quilts. Simply put, a quilt is like a sleeping bag with the backside removed. Used with a sleeping pad, a quilt keeps the camper just as warm as a bag, but with less material to carry.
Just ask Joe “Stringbean” McConaughy, who set the record for the fastest trip along the Appalachian Trail with an “Endeavor” model quilt from Enlightened Equipment in his pack. Its weight: 13.4 ounces.
“A quilt allows for great heating regulation and awesome weight,” McConaughy told Backpacker magazine in recounting his trip.
Enlightened Equipment gear draws wide praise from testers and users on social media and dozens of websites devoted to outdoor gear.
“They kind of have cult status among the thru-hiking people,” said Mark Burgess of Minneapolis, referring to backpackers who make end-to-end trips along major trails hundreds or even thousands of miles long.
Burgess, who’s taken extended hikes in the Himalayas as well as in the U.S. and Canadian Rockies, said sleeping quilts are much more comfortable for him than sleeping bags.
“A mummy bag is extremely confining if you’re a rotisserie sleeper who turns side to side,” he said. “The nice thing about a quilt is it fits a little more loosely. It allows me to rotate.”
In terms of weight savings, he added a hiker’s maxim: “On the trail, ounces turn to pounds.”
Enlightened Equipment is the classic tale of an enthusiast starting a company in his home. In this case, it was Tim Marshall, an avid hiker and camper who began sewing his own sleeping quilts.
After friends tried them, word got out in the outdoors community, and Marshall began producing them commercially.
Today, Enlightened Equipment employs about 75 people in a historic brick building near downtown Winona. Sales have been on the rise in recent years, now totaling between $5 million and $10 million a year, according to a company spokesman.
In the company’s production bays, giant rolls of insulation and bags of down are stacked alongside colorful bolts of synthetic fabric. All the cutting, sewing and stuffing are done on-site, with some of the workers having been with the company since its earliest days. Most of the company’s work is custom-ordered by buyers who choose the specific fabrics, colors and level of thermal protection they want.
The company’s most popular models retail for about $300. Enlightened Equipment also sells apparel, but more than 75% of its sales comes from quilts.
A giant Grauff machine whines and groans as it sends down into the quilts — an improvement over the previous method, which involved using leaf blowers to shoot the down into the quilts. But there’s still plenty of handwork involved, such as the men who pummel each quilt with their palms on a flat tabletop to make sure the down is distributed evenly.
“It’s good coming to work when you like what you’re doing and it’s popular,” said Jason Kane, a cutting specialist who’s worked at the company for four years. “When you’re building it and people say, ‘This is good stuff,’ that’s satisfying.
“You know, somebody’s life might depend on this quilt.”