Dyneema fabric

Forget Overseas. Dyneema Should Be Made Right Here In The Kootenays

The strong social and business case for a Kootenay-based Dyneema end-product manufacturing facility capable of producing high-quality tents, packs, bags and other outdoor gear. Story by Andrew Findlay.

Dan Durston knows the value of strong, lightweight gear. The Golden, BC-based entrepreneur is a veteran adventurer and thru-hiker who’s completed the 4,200-kilometre Pacific Crest Trail and was the fastest finisher five times in the 160-kilometre-long Bob Marshall Wilderness Open in Montana. His experience testing gear during those events as well as on other adventures, and writing subsequent reviews, gave him an eye for design and a sense of what works and what doesn’t. He started thinking hard about how to make tents and packs better suited to long-distance treks.

More than a decade ago Durston designed a tent made from Dyneema before most established outdoor brands even knew about this tough, space-age, ultralight material. Then, in 2019 he launched Durston Gear with the X-Mid 1 ultralight tent as his flagship product. He has since added three more tent models to his product line as well as a backpack, all made with Dyneema. “I focus on doing what I’m good at, which is mostly the design side of things. I do a little prototyping here in Golden but mostly I obsess over ideas to try to figure out ways to make better gear,” Durston explains. “Once I think I have something, I turn that idea into computer drawings for our factory overseas.”

Dan Durston

Dan Durston

However, as a boutique gear maker, Durston is at the mercy of market forces. Dyneema, like a lot of materials used in the outdoor gear industry, is dependent on a convoluted global supply chain. By the time a Dyneema product gets in the hands of a consumer, the material has criss-crossed the ocean several times and passed through the hands of numerous players in the production line. That makes for a supply chain with a high carbon footprint and one that’s vulnerable to disruption. The COVID-19 pandemic made that vulnerability even more acute. “COVID has been hard for almost everyone, but we have had it especially hard because we’re a new and rapidly growing gear company without the long-term supply chain partners that most other companies have,” Durston explains. “Normally lead times for gear are about six months, whereas today lead times are commonly about two years.”

This has people in British Columbia’s outdoor gear sector talking about disrupting this fragile model by creating gear here rather than relying on production in distant factories. “I think the time is right to onshore manufacturing in the outdoor gear sector,” says Kevin Pennock, executive director of the Kootenay Outdoor Recreation Enterprise (KORE). To help make a case for the shift, KORE analyzed the Dyneema supply chain with the help of Trail-based consultant Wewerke Design and a grant from the Economic Trust of the Southern Interior BC. The resulting report makes a strong social and business case for a Kootenay-based Dyneema end-product manufacturing facility capable of producing high-quality tents, packs, bags, and other gear.

The Durston X-Mid Pro 2 Tent, made with Dyneema

There are clear takeaways from the study. The current supply chain is environmentally costly from the perspective of greenhouse gas emissions, and costly to outdoor brands that face supply uncertainty while being subject to high tariffs and import duties.

Unpacking the Dyneema supply chain took some serious sleuthing. Dyneema, also known as DCF, is a patented ultralight fibre made from non-woven laminated composites owned by Royal DSM, a Dutch multinational firm. First, licensed manufacturers, most of which are located in China, produce the raw fibre known as UHMWPE. The fibre is then shipped to a single DSM-owned facility in Mesa, Arizona, where the fibres are laminated between sheets of mylar/polyester film, to become DSF (that’s the raw material from which tents and other gear is made.) From Mesa, the DSF is shipped to third-party distributors for resale as well as directly to companies that manufacture their own products and to large overseas companies like Jasper Outdoor Products Ltd., a massive manufacturer in China that makes products for numerous North American brands.

The current model of Dyneema production requires multiple trips across the world.

Which means that, by the time a Dyneema tent or backpack lands in the hands of a Canadian consumer, the material from which it was made likely travelled more than 36,000 kilometres!

According to the study, a Kootenay-based Dyneema manufacturing facility could solve inventory, planning, and marketing headaches for Canadian brands and greatly reduce the carbon footprint of the Dyneema supply chain. Needless to say, Dan Duston loves the idea. “It would be great to have closer oversight on things where we could stop by the facility and troubleshoot issues in real time,” he says.

KORE’s study proposes a Dyneema production facility based in the Kootenays that would be an economic boon to the region and an environmental benefit for the world.

The report envisions a B-Corp manufacturing facility that “could lead the way in social, environmental, and economic accountability” and also support and serve the growing technical outdoor gear sector in British Columbia. There are also bottom-line benefits to brands and consumers in the form of savings on taxes and duties for goods imported from China and other offshore manufacturing hubs. For example, the estimated duties and taxes on imported tents valued at $100,000 is more than $32,000. “An opportunity exists to capture some of the production requirements of existing outdoor gear manufacturers here in North America,” reads the report. “Building relationships with a local, accountable, environmentally responsible partner would sit well within existing outdoor gear brands’ DNA.”

Krista Humphrey and Bernard Mitchell of Wewerke Design, the Trail, BC-based company that did the map modelling above.

A Kootenay Dyneema gear factory could also be a hub for skills development outside of the types of training typically offered in BC interior communities, colleges, and high schools. As the capacity, product diversity and manufacturing capabilities of such a facility expand, there will be a corresponding expansion in the need for employees with specific skills and training. Kevin Pennock of KORE sees it as a big opportunity for investors, communities looking to diversify, and outdoor gear companies. “The global pandemic over the past two years has exposed the vulnerability of the offshore supply chain,” he says. “North American brands and consumers have seen availability drop and delivery times increase. The reshoring of production back to British Columbia could not come at a better time than now.”

Plus, Pennock says the outdoor gear market is very big and getting bigger. The global hiking gear and equipment market is valued at US$4.5billion annually and British Columbia is home to more than 60 outdoor brands in the biking, paddling, hiking, skiing, and climbing sectors and includes well-established companies like Mountain Equipment Co-op and Arc’Teryx, and boutique businesses like Durston Gear, and Instinct Skis.

Another Kootenay-based company working with Dyneema is Northern Ultralight in Nelson.

Shaking up the global supply chain is not just a pipe dream. Dustin Adams, founder and CEO of We Are One in Kamloops is proving that you can forego the offshore manufacturing model and still make money. Six years ago, when he told people he was going to design and build carbon fibre bike wheels from scratch in Kamloops, they said he was crazy. They were wrong. Now he employs 85 people and is set to expand into a bigger facility that will allow him to triple production.

Outdoor gear designers need a more robust, and environmentally friendly Dyneema supply chain. Discerning consumers increasingly want to align with brands with strong social and environmental platforms. Nimble and dynamic brands will benefit from being able to have close contact with a manufacturing facility that’s located in BC rather than 10,000 kilometres and 15 time zones away in Asia.

The Kootenays offers other advantages: space, value, and an inspiring mountain setting that is a product tester’s dream come true. The study identified six potential properties for a Dyneema manufacturing facility, and that’s just in the Trail-Nelson corridor. Plus, governments at all levels are keen to get behind rural economic development and diversification in BC. There is a host of regional, provincial and federal funding sources that investors could potentially tap for support, including community futures, InBC Investment Corp., and the National Research Council’s Industrial Research Assistance Program.

Don McCormick, mayor of Kimberley, believes innovation and diversity are key to economic development in former one-horse resource towns. Mining and forestry are no longer the bedrock industries of rural BC and he says people are moving to places like Kimberley for lifestyle and affordability—many are bringing their talents, skills, and often their jobs with them.

McCormick says a Dyneema-focused manufacturing facility in the Kootenays makes good business and environmental sense given the sheer number of gear makers in North America and BC, not to mention in his own Kootenay backyard. “The rise of the middle class in places like China and India mean that labour there is no longer as cheap as it once was.” McCormick says. “We have convenient access to the U.S., we have an under-estimated transportation infrastructure, and a homegrown labour market trained in our regional colleges. This opportunity is now, but we need to align investors and operational expertise to make it a reality.”

Back in Golden, Dan Durston says demand isn’t a challenge he faces. In fact, these days he can barely keep up. But supply and the unpredictability of offshore factories certainly is. In fact, it’s the only thing keeping Durston Gear from reaching its full potential. But with some imagination and strategic investment, we could be manufacturing Dyneema tents, backpacks, and other products right here in British Columbia. “Right now, nothing like this exists,” Durston continues. “But if we had domestic production we could save a lot of time, money, and environmental impact by not shipping gear all over the world.”