Jun 21, 2016860 views

Massdrop Profile: Meet Danny Milks!

Our Massdrop Profile series introduces you to the people behind the communities you love. They’re responsible for sourcing products, communicating with members, and making our site an awesome place to hang out. You might recognize them from Discussions you follow—they’re the smiling avatars next to those tiny Massdrop logos—and now you can get to know the personalities behind the handles.
This time, we’re talking to Danny Milks, who leads the Ultralight team at Massdrop. First, we’ll let you read a little about his background and passions. Then, we’ll turn the mic over for a community Q&A. Submit your questions in the comment section, and he’ll answer them as soon as he can.
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What do you do at Massdrop?
I pick the products and negotiate the drops on behalf of our community. I scour the forums for new info, test out new gear, and help with the photo shoots. I’m also working with various designers and companies to create more custom ultralight products.
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9-day trip, southern end of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, southern Patagonia, Argentina
When did you get started in the ultralight community? What got you interested?
I started getting into backpacking in college in the early 2000s. The ultralight movement was already on its way, but I was mostly unaware, as my info largely came from Backpacker Magazine and friends. I had limited money and resources, but I knew that backpacking gear could last decades, so I wanted to make wise choices. Some of my first gear purchases were fairly traditional: the Gregory Palisade pack, the Sierra Designs Meteor Light tent, and the Mountain Hardwear Sawtooth sleeping bag. Together, those three weighed about 15 pounds, and at the time, you were considered “going light” if you could get your pack, tent, and bag under 10 pounds.
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Lago Quilotoa, Ecuador
A few trips with some older, more experienced friends taught me that it’s basic common sense to want to carry as little as possible. I quickly sold or traded my nearly-new gear and lightened up with a Mountainsmith Mountainlight Ghost pack, Exped poncho tarp, and a GoLite Featherlite 40 (a hoodless, zipperless bag that I eventually split down the back to make a cozy two-person quilt). Just like that, my “Big 3” weighed 5 pounds! And they didn’t cost much: $67 for the Ghost, $55 for the Featherlite, and $60 for the Exped (the only item not on extreme discount). Eventually, I upgraded from the poncho tarp to Tarptents, though the Ghost is still my main pack and I use the Featherlite quilt on all my warm-weather trips.
The influence of a few friends, plus the desire for efficiency, led me to the ultralight movement—but it was BackpackingLight.com (BPL) that got me hooked on the community. That’s where I read the most thoughtful forums and honest reviews, and eventually made many a friend.
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Unknown summit, remote backcountry skiing trip, Norway
What does “ultralight” mean to you?
The Ultralight Community is very focused on numbers, and the traditional definition is that your base weight (all of your non-consumable gear) is under 10 pounds. But to me, ultralight is the lightest weight for your needs and budget. This seems pretty straightforward, though I think most people won’t agree, as they don’t often think about how varied those qualifications can be. I’ve expanded my thoughts on this based on my travels and interaction with members around the world. Also, when the activities are so varied (thru-hiking, fishing or hunting, mountaineering, packrafting, family camping…), how do you define base weight?
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8-day sea kayaking trip, Gulf of Baja, Mexico
Tell us about a few of your favorite trails/places.
I’ve backpacked abroad for more than 3 years, bicycle-toured the west coast of Italy and the Pacific Coast of the US, and hiked the JMT twice (first SOBO, then NOBO). The greatest trek was the partially off-trail circumference of Cordillera Huayhuash in the Andes. The highest elevation was 19,931 feet (6,075 meters) at Mount Chachani in southern Peru. I’ve guided numerous climbers up Shasta. I’ve run a few ultramarathons, biked a double century (with a high of 109 degrees), and gone on several other silly adventures. To me, the Sierra Mountains feel like home, and October to November is my favorite time there.
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Off-trail hiking in Desolation Wilderness, Sierra Nevada, CA
What do you typically bring on a weekend backpacking trip? Do you have a favorite piece of gear you never leave behind?
  • Pack: Mountainsmith Ghost ‘05 with Gossamer Gear hipbelt pockets (size large)
  • Tent: Big Sky Mirage 3, Tarptent Double Rainbow, or Black Diamond Skylight
  • Quilt: GoLite Featherlite (modified), Enlightened Equipment custom, or Nunatak Dual Arc Alpinist
  • Pad: Thermarest NeoAir
  • Stove: Jetboil Sumo or Kovea Supalite with Evernew 1.3L pot
  • Down jacket: Borah Gear with Black Rock Gear down hat, GoLite Bitterroot, or Rab Neutrino
  • Shoes: Inov-8 Roclite 286
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5-day canoe trip in the Boundary Waters, Minnesota
What’s the biggest investment you’ve made to pare down your pack?
My partner, because we share everything (even our toothbrush). On our first backpacking trip together (which might also be considered our first date), we were at the trailhead packing up our gear when we realized we could fit everything into my frameless GoLite Jam2. A lot of ULers pack solo, but there is so much efficiency gained when you can share a tent, stove, filter, first-aid kit, and so on.
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Camping gear, plus laptop, books, and foodenough to backpack for a year through South America
My next biggest investment has been the time spent researching. Not just gear, but technique, fitness, trail conditions, and so on. It’s 100-percent true that the more you know, the less you need to carry. This includes taking the 80-hour Wilderness First Responder course (and re-certifying three more times), along with several avalanche safety courses.
In terms of monetary investments, some of my pricier items have been my Black Diamond mountaineering gear and tent, NeoAir sleeping pad, and various Rab down jackets.
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Chamonix Valley, France
What did you do before working at Massdrop?
I helped run an outdoor education program where I trained university students to become guides. I’ve also guided backpacking, snow camping, rafting, and backcountry skiing trips. I’ve worked as a guide for Shasta Mountain Guides on and off since 2009. For a number of years, I wrote for BPL. Personally, I traveled and hiked a lot, so I have a good idea of what works in a great variety of conditions.
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Guiding an ultralight backpacking course for UC Davis students
What’s your favorite thing about working here?
My job is to check out the best gear, read the forums, test out products, and talk with hikers and the greatest people in the outdoor industry. On a regular basis, I get to chat with the leaders of the ultralight community—from cottage company owners at ULA, EE, TT, BRG, LUL, and ZPacks, to bloggers like Will Rietveld, John Abela and Philip Werner, and not-so-famous people like Manfred and Michelle, KenT, Casey and Emily, Todd and Jess, and more.
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3-day whitewater rafting trip, Klamath River, CA
Which ultralight companies or products are you excited about today?
I’m excited about several companies, and I’ll try not to play favorites with my list. CalTopo.com has evolved into the best custom mapping site for wilderness adventures, and it’s free. Enlightened Equipment is the fastest-growing company that I know of; I think it won’t be long before they expand beyond quilts, and I can’t wait to see what they do next. I’ve been a fan of Henry Shires since I bought my Contrail in ‘07 and Double Rainbow in ‘09. ULers anxiously await Tarptent’s new releases and product redesigns like others wait for a new iPhone. Finally, I’m super psyched about the tiny house movement, because I feel like that’s taking the ultralight philosophy to an entirely different, higher level.
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Off-trail hiking in the Huayhuash Range, Peru
Last question: What’s on your bucket list?
  • Return to Cordillera Huayhuash in Peru to spend more time off-trail hiking
  • Pacific Crest Trail
  • Sierra High Route
  • A year in a camper van with my family in the Andes
  • Hiking in Slovenia, Iran, and Kazakhstan
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Caucasus Mountains, Russia
Any questions for Danny? Leave ‘em in the comment section below—or just drop a quick “Hello!” If you’d like more ultralight info, hit the "Follow" button to get notified about future posts from this account.
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donnahikes, Janine Robinson, and 20 others
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Hi Danny. I would like to use parts of/most of your post about shortening a Klymit pad in a post on my blog http://www.theultralighthiker.com/ I have already recommended the pad (and a number of other Klymit products - as well as lots of things at Massdrop) in previous posts. I know I could just redo your post (and I do intend to shorten a pad myself but I haven't got one yet) so this would be much easier for me. Of course i would reference the post back to yours. I would also like to use some of your photographs. You can contact me at stevendella@finnsheep.com Cheers, Steve Jones.
Very nice intro! Lots of great adventures under your belt. Looking forward to hearing about more of them and working on projects together.
SeanSewell
thanks Sean!
Dude! Nice!
engearment_dave
Thanks Dave :)
Have you ever tried a Zpacks Arc Blast? Any thoughts on it?
Fuzzymuzzle
Yes, I've tried the Zpacks Arc Blast. It's a fantastic pack as long as you can afford it and you don't carry too much weight. I love how simple it is, and crazy light but fully functional. I don't find it to be too fragile. I like the waterproofness, roll top design, and frame design that allows great airflow. I wish it had small hipbelt pockets because I love the convenience. And I've heard, but having pushed it, that the frame doesn't carry well above a certain weight (25lbs if my memory serves).
Love the shout out for Inov-8, Danny! Such a solid low-drop, lightweight company, and their zero-drops are so comfortable!
NicoleAndrescavage
Yeah, I'm a big fan of Inov-8 shoes. I also wear Vibram Five Fingers for trail running and Altras around town, but the Roclites are my go-to shoes for hiking.
Nice to finally meet the man behind the name. :)
Neist
Thanks @Neist
You can trust the opinion of outdoors equipment on people that use it! Also, you should put New Zealand on your bucket list, I have many many places to recommend to you.
nzchicken
@nzchicken - New Zealand is definitely on my bucket list, but probably 6th or 7th. I would love to buy a Vanagon in NZ and drive around for 3-6 months with my family, then sell the van. My wife has been to NZ twice and can't wait to go back. Before we go though we might have to check with you about gear - coming from sunny California, I literally don't have to plan for rain for 6-8 months of the year!
DannyMilks
Oh the old Vanagon. There's always a bunch of second hand car markets where you see people selling them on to the next person. You pretty much only lose about $1k on the van from the point you come in, to the point you leave. Absolutely about the rain. In the middle of summer on the Routeburn track, we were apparently super lucky to get 5 days of sun in a row. Rule #1 of NZ, don't trust the weather forecast. A good rain coat, bag cover, and a what we call a "Bath tub" floor on your tent (if you're tenting). But yeah, let me know if you're ever over this way, and I can give you a bunch of info.
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Slick hat!
sam-gilman
Thanks @sam-gilman. It's a Motagne hat that I got in Argentina, and am still using it. My previous Golite hat was literally following apart due to UV damage. You can see my hair sticking out of the top of the old hat in this picture.
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Not so famous, lol. Better than infamous! You're having a great life. Good job!
JerkyKen
No blog, no social media presence, no high publicity job - but you are responsible for the GGG community-organized ultralight meetup, probably the largest of its kind in the world. Maybe you are famous @JerkyKen?
I'm also pretty stoked to see what EE comes out with next.
tsturzl
@tsturzl - Thoughts on what EE might come up with next, or what you'd *like* to see them make?
DannyMilks
I think an EE down jacket without a hood would make a lot of sense, because you could simply pair it with the hoodlum and they probably already source everything they need to make one. I'd like to see them make a sleeping pad too, I feel like the market for sleeping pads is kind of bland and I'd like to see some innovation there. I like what Klymit did with their pads, but they are not very comfortable and the weight-to-warmth ratio isn't the best, I usually stick to a neoair-xlite. But I think if EE rolled out their own pad they could really figure out where to trim off weight to match their sleeping bags.
Really though they need to start making a down jacket. I would buy that in a heartbeat. Currently have the Mountain Hardware Ghost Whisperer, and while I really like it the quality of its construction makes me really scared. I've already snagged a seam and some of the fabric near the pocket is starting to tear, not even a year old.
Super summary of your background.
Dennist
Thanks @Dennist