Team Wideopenmag’s enduro riders have trusted the Camelbak KUDU for the opening portion of the 2018 season.
We caught up with Camelbak’s R&D team in the US to see what goes into creating a pack for the modern mountain biker.
Pete had a chat with Camelbak’s Kevin Taylor about where a company with such heritage in making packs like Camelbak start when designing a new product like the KUDU.
How has the KUDU developed over time to meet the demands of mountain bikers?
Today’s riders are demanding lighter, more minimal gear that doesn’t compromise on impact protection. We’ve removed weight and streamlined these styles as much as we can, without losing the stability, durability and level of impact protection we’re recognised for.
We’ve also designed them to be a two in one product that can be used for protection and minimal cargo only, for the times you don’t need a full size pack.
What are the key elements that you have to start with for any Camelbak pack?
All our pack products start with one of our core hydration technologies: a Reservoir or Quick Stow flasks. From there, it’s all about fit, durability and features that are designed specifically for the end user.
How many people are involved in bringing the idea from concept to prototype?
We have a team of roughly 5 involved throughout the process for design, development and feedback. Many more test each round of prototypes on the trails, including professional athletes, testing groups and of course Camelbak employees and their friends.
And what’s involved in that process?
We start with several months of end user research, then once the design is established there are several rounds of prototypes, which go through relentless testing. Throughout the process we also conduct material research and testing to make sure the product will last and live up to our lifetime guarantee.
Has that process changed over the years?
We are always improving the process to help create better products. This really comes down to more research, more user testing, more feedback and more fine tuning of the design.
Where did the inspiration for the new KUDU come from?
With the increase in enduro-style riding we saw a greater need for protection products, this paired well with our mission to supply consumers with the best hydration products on the planet. We’ve obviously become pretty established in the cycling pack world and since impact protection can come in the form of a pack, it was a pretty obvious path.
What did the KUDU borrow from existing packs, if anything, or was it a ‘from the ground up’ design?
It was mostly from the ground up, but we borrowed a little bit of the construction from our existing styles that we thought would be effective for this style of pack. Features like dual sternum straps from our run line and more stable hip belts from our hike line were obvious starting points to ensure a super stable fit, which is crucially important for impact protection enabled products.
What did you know you did and didn’t want to do with this pack?
We wanted them to be lightweight, but also protect the rider to the highest level. We felt it important to fulfil the needs of all the potentials users, but didn’t want to include unnecessary features. We tried to stick to our motto of “all that you want, nothing that you don’t.”
What are your priorities when designing a pack like the KUDU?
Fit/comfort and stability are paramount, then level of protection. After that, it was about the things we try to accomplish with all our packs like: ease of access to essential items, staying lightweight and minimal, and finally aesthetics are always important to us.
How hard was it to build in your desired level of protection?
We have a partner who specialises in protection. With this partner we feel that we were able to offer a protection panel that is a market leader. Protection technology, as well all know, has really advanced in the last ten years. Majority of all protection panels take up the same volume and foot print, so it really comes down to technical performance and durability.
We opt for one of the highest levels of protection and the ability of it to withstand several impacts. At the end of day our biggest limiter is MSRP, which in this case it’s really a matter of getting what you pay for.
Why was it important to you to not just run a CE Level 1 protector?
Outside of making sure we are offering the most advanced protection enable products available, we wanted to ensure that end user has a product that will last ride after ride and doesn’t require the panel to be replaced after one crash.
We also found that some competitions require CE level 2 rated protection and we wanted our consumers to not only be able to use the KUDU for everyday trail riding, but also for competition as well.
How did you decide you wanted the back protector to be removable and what challenges did this present?
We wanted to give riders a versatile pack with the option to remove the protector panel if they were doing a more mellow ride or wanted to use the pack for an activity outside of biking. Obviously, this presented challenges for the design, but luckily with our reservoir integration knowledge it made it a bit easier.
How to you narrow it down to your three storage pack sizes?
Similar to most pack designs we conduct a thorough assessment of the market and identify the appropriate sizes necessary to fulfil the needs of majority of consumers.
Did you have a material in your head before you started?
Not necessarily, we always put functionality first. For this pack we used a brand new material because we wanted something highly durable, yet light and weather resistant. It also has a more premium look and feel which was important for a higher price point product.
What are the pros and cons of using a traditional hip and chest strap over a harness-style strap?
We’ve found that when stability is of the utmost importance a larger hip belt and dual-sternum straps are the best way to create a comfortable and adjustable solution that will act as necessary in the event of a crash. These features cost a bit more to integrate, but its small price to pay when back protection is the end goal.
With riders increasingly moving their spares/tools/food to their bikes, how hard is it to make a pack a more attractive option?
We are tackling minimalist storage with other Camelbak products, but making sure our packs are streamlined and don’t include unnecessary features are one way to make them more appealing. Research shows there will always be a marketplace for more storage. Improved bike technology equals longer rides which equals varying conditions which equals more necessary cargo.
We’ve also found that many of today’s consumers want a unicorn product that is great for several types of riding, in that regard you can always take things out of a larger pack, but you can’t easily add to one that is too small.
How much of a challenge is to keep making the next pack better than the last?
It’s always a challenge, but it’s also the most exciting part of what we do. Creating new products and making significant redesigns is far more fun than just adding colours to a lineup. It’s where all the research comes in and all the testing too, which is probably the best perk of the job. Plus, it doesn’t get much better than seeing a product resonate with the consumer, especially when the design is something they might not have originally expected.
How many prototypes did you have before getting to the production KUDU?
Too many… This one was especially tough because we had to get it right for several reasons. The packs are super feature rich and all the elements that make them comfortable and stable for the protection element had to be refined several times, not to mention the conversion element paired with the essential stability. It was one of the more labour intensive projects by far.
Can you talk us through the prototype stage?
We do initial prototypes that push the boundaries of what we can do. We then hone in on what works and what doesn’t, then we refine to something that can be tested. We then test, test and test some more. We continually apply the testing results and feedback directly into the product which results in more prototypes until we get it right.
Keep in mind we make the prototypes oversees which means lots of late night dial-in meetings and at least 1-2 international trips to the factory. We actually test while at the factory and can make up to several prototypes while there, since it is much more productive.
Beyond the development of prototypes, what form did your testing take?
We are not only designers, developers and product managers by trade, but also riders ourselves. We get our prototypes on not only the best riders in the world for testing, but we also ride prototypes every weekend. We, our friends and our sponsored athletes do long rides as well as short rides in rain and shine to determine the best pack design. That paired with some professional testing services that know what to look for in product design, rounds out the process.
How important are your athletes to your testing process, and did they have any influence on the KUDU?
Our athletes are vital. Not only their feedback on what the product should be, but also for in-use testing of prototypes. Depending on the product, they can be involved from the very inception of the product. When we designed the initial KUDU styles we met with our professional athletes several times before even beginning the design process. KUDU couldn’t have been successful without them.
We wanted KUDU to be something everyone could use to increase rider safety, but it was born out of the idea to create a product that would fulfil the needs of the professional enduro racer. Even if it failed as a consumer product we were going to make it anyway. If nothing else, it is a pinnacle product that shows our dedication to the evolution of mountain biking.
How much of a challenge is it making packs for a range of riders in a single sized pack?
The latest KUDU now comes in two sizes, S-M and M-L. It is a huge challenge trying to fulfil the needs of every size and shape of rider. This is even more true when you are dealing with back protection, since you want to protect as much of the back as possible. This was ultimately why we decided to go with a sized option for this next generation of KUDU.