Wool has been a staple of the outdoor adventurer’s kit for millennia, first worn by our primal ancestors in the form of woolly skins from the wild sheep they killed for food. Nature’s true miracle fabric, wool features prominently in the outdoor apparel business in the modern age and there’s no question it’s here to stay. The “new” wool is lighter, more comfortable and more versatile than ever before and it’s a rare mountain hunter that doesn’t own multiple pieces of merino wool apparel and truly swear by it. If you’re still wearing synthetics next to skin, you are missing out on the most adaptable fabric on the planet.
As usual, industries outside of hunting were the first to start innovating with wool and wool blends and it wasn’t until 2007 that a couple of guys living in Idaho had the foresight to see the potential for merino wool in the hunting industry. Stuck wearing their ski industry base layers in solid colours that were far from ideal for hunting elk, antelope and mule deer, they decided to launch the first ever camouflage merino wool company.
And First Lite was born.
Since 2007 Kenton Carruth and Scott Robinson have continued to push the limits of what wool can do for the Western hunter, all while keeping their profiles low and their vision for their company truly aligned with their core values. They are the “silent professionals” of the hunting apparel business, happy to make great products that perform at the highest level without constantly fighting for the “most extreme” limelight. Add in the fact that First Lite’s corporate HQ includes reloading benches, multiple gun dogs on any given day, snowmobiles and hanging set-ups for game killed before the workday begins and you’ll start to appreciate just how serious these guys are and just how serious their commitment is to producing the best mountain hunting apparel on the market. With the launch of their new Fusion pattern, they firmly announced their intention to continue to stay at the forefront of innovation in the hunting apparel business for years to come.
Kenton (left) and Scott (right) In the Office
What was the inspiration and story behind the founding of First Lite? What brought it to fruition in 2007?
Scott (First Lite Co-Founder) and I have been friends for twenty plus years and were hunting buddies. Both of us were in one form or another involved in the ski/snowboard/winter sports industry and around 2004, we started to see the shift from polys to merino. Once we started wearing merino we started to see just how versatile the fabric was and even started wearing it in the summer. So it was probably 2005 when we saw the opportunity in the hunting industry ‘cause we were totally into archery hunting, and saw the need for camouflage merino. As it was, all you could get was black or other dark, solid colours and in Idaho for instance, it could easily be 65-70 degrees during the early elk season and even hotter during the early antelope season. So we’d have this dark merino on underneath some sort of camouflage layer, basically just the most breathable camouflage we could find but it was a less than ideal situation. Ideally we’d have used printed merino but we’d never seen any, certainly not batch printed merino, prior to that.
So then it took us probably, I don’t know, eighteen months before we found a way to print the merino to where it still remained soft and colourfast. And once we did, it was just ASAT at first. The thing about ASAT that was nice was we had a dipped base colour and then it was just a two colour printing process. But the primary reason we chose ASAT was we felt it was the best camo. I should add, we liked both ASAT and Predator, and in fact we called them both but ASAT called us back first. And that was that.
So then we got started, and you know the first year was tiny. We literally were in an ASAT booth with the rest of their products at the trade shows. Scott and I were still holding down our full-time day jobs, Scott was working over at Smith (Optics) and I had a pretty solid photo business going but we had a few pieces printed, went to the ATA Show and the Shot Show that year (2007) without our own booths. We tagged on with ASAT and people started to take a close look at our pieces. It was funny because a lot of people had already kind of jumped on the merino bandwagon due to its use in other sports so even though we literally didn’t have a dime to spend on advertising we sold everything we made that first year. And pretty much every year since then!
Co-Founder Scott Robinson
And what were those first merino pieces in the initial year?
We did a long sleeve crew in a 170 weight which is still in our line today. A three quarter zip 230 weight, the Chama which is still one of our best sellers, and then we did boxers and long johns. And we had a balaclava as well so we had five pieces.
And things just took off from that point forward2
Pretty much, yeah. We had huge growth every year from that point forward and now we try to grow as fast we can afford to grow basically. We buy everything we can afford and pretty much sell out of it every year. So, it’s good. We started our outerwear program in 2012 and that was a pretty big leap of faith that has proven to be a good move. Everybody is really into the outerwear and then last year we veered off into the whitetail market.
So, that brings up a topic we wanted to get into, which was your decision to extend the line to include outerwear. As you said, that was a bit of a leap of faith from merino to waterproof breathables. What can you tell us about your and Scott’s thought process behind this?
It had been in the works for quite some time. Early on we realized there were a lot of limitations hunters were faced with by having camouflage pants, because prior to this year, you really couldn’t print on nylon. But if you go look at any of the high-end, non-laminate pants, they’re all nylon. And the reason for that is nylon is way stronger, you don’t have to weave it nearly as tight to keep it tough but still breathable. So back in 2008 when we started to consider outerwear, nylon was out of the picture but we happened to see a North Face backpack that was a blend of ripstop and merino and instantly we were like “We need to make some pants out of that”.
Once we did, we found the pants to be extremely breathable and good to go in a huge variety of temperatures. You can wear them antelope hunting in August or with a pair of long johns in late September, or early October. You can wear them active hunting, you know like run and gun elk hunting or hiking for days sheep hunting but they’ll also work when it’s really, really cold. It was amazing. So that was our first foray into a true outerwear piece.
The one downside to them was they just weren’t super-durable, even with the core spun wool and the (ripstop) nylon. In the Rockies they were fine. Most guys in Alaska, fine, but people that were hunting in places with briars and brambles or similar nasty vegetation, were kind of beating them up but we were really loathe to come out with yet another of these poly-crappy pants.
A couple of our core philosophies are, first that we don’t want to come out with something unless we truly believe we can do it better than everybody else. And two, we really want to sell people fewer products. Virtually everybody is trying to sell people more stuff. We feel like, especially with Fusion our new camouflage pattern and our history and core within merino wool, we’re going to sell people fewer products that will do more. Does that make sense?
So, coming back to those nylon pants, we realized they were the best possible option but couldn’t get them manufactured in camo. And it wasn’t until this past year that we figured out how to make it work with a printer that could print a cold print process and print the nylon in camo. Nylon doesn’t react well to heat and all the modern technology, for the most part, is all a heat based print. That’s why nobody has done it before. So our new nylon pant is a big deal.
Corrugate Guide Pants
That’s the new Corrugate Guide Pant in the 2015 catalogue, correct? They look pretty incredible!
Ya, that’s them and they are really excellent pants. That was a big deal you know, we’ve been after the nylon pant for years now so we’re beyond excited to get it out there. And we have a few other innovations up our sleeve for the line in 2016! Our goal really is to just make the best stuff, and we love doing it.
Right and what’s interesting about you guys Kenton is you’re not out there claiming to be the latest and the greatest, and the most extreme. Or trying to convince the consumer to keep buying more gear. You seem to have pretty unique core values compared to some of the other players in the industry so, let’s just say this is your opportunity to make that crystal clear to the mountain hunting community. What are the core values and philosophy of First Lite?
For sure. Our number one core value is to create a kit that truly works. It’s been tested before we bring it to market, we’re not going to “guinea pig” our customer. If it takes us an extra year to come out with our stuff, like it certainly is with the stuff coming out in ’16, then so be it. But we want to have at least tested it. We’re not a theory-based company, we’re a tested-based company. I think a lot of the technology that comes from the backpacking industry is great but we’re not building backpacking clothes. If you go backpacking and you end up in the type of situation that you do on your average hunting day, something has gone horribly wrong – you’re off the trail, you’re climbing through bushes – that’s not what happens when you go backpacking.
So I think a lot of these companies that try to advertise lightweight or this or that, I think that’s a theory-based product philosophy. You take say a Patagonia Nano Puff jacket – phenomenal piece – but that piece for hunting has no place being worn as an outer layer. One trip through the alders and it looks like you got attacked by a piranha. So to us, everything, is we’re hunting-based and we tested-based.
Let’s use Cocona as an example, so Cocona is the company (now known as 37.5) that we use for our waterproof breathable membranes in our waterproof outerwear. What was so appealing to us about Cocona is their whole platform is thermal regulation. You take Gore-Tex for instance, Gore-Tex is more waterproof than we are. Gore-Tex makes a product that is 25K waterproof, it’s awesome and I love their product, they do a great job. The problem is in order to get that 25K, it becomes 15K breathable and we found that especially out West with the exception of maybe certain spots in BC and AK where it’s just raining all day, for the most part guys out here wear stuff that they soak from the inside. They don’t even know. They just put on a shell, keep hammering and all of a sudden they get to the top of the hill and it drizzles and they’re like, “This piece isn’t waterproof”. Well, it’s very waterproof it’s just not as breathable as what you were wearing before. So for us, when we found 37.5, it was super appealing – it was still 20K waterproof but also 20K breathable. And speaking of not being theory-based, when we come out with our numbers, when we say a jacket is rated at 35,000, it’s 35,000. That’s our exact fabric, after print. There is no grey area.
So, needless to say for us, the 37.5 has been great and is the best that you can buy if you’re trying to strike a balance between waterproof and breathable. We made a conscious decision to sacrifice that extra 5K waterproofing to get the breathability.
Kenton In His “Other” Office
Out of all the places to run an apparel company, you guys set up shop in a small town in Idaho. Are you both from Idaho?
No. The both of us moved here over twenty years ago though. We’ve pretty much spent our entire adult life here in Ketchum. We’re both 44 and we moved here in ’93 so that would be 22 years this year!
Was the decision to move to a small town in Idaho from the standpoint of who you guys are as outdoorsmen?
No, it was a little more random than that. Both of us moved out here to live, to ski and fish and do all that stuff after college. I moved out right after college, I thought I was just coming out for the winter and never left. I can literally see chairlifts from my office right now. We’re about two miles from the actual chairlift and I could definitely just shoot my gun and land on the mountain easily (note to our readers, Kenton did not actually try this to our knowledge). By the time we started the business, I had my whole life and my family here and everything – I’ve got three kids – so we’d never move. It was a unique opportunity. No joke, we’ve had awesome elk hunts three miles from the office, plenty of deer like two miles from the office, and antelope are no more than 30 minutes away.
Wow, well when you read the “Company Culture” bit on the “About Us” page on your website, it certainly sounds like you and your entire team really and truly live and breathe the mountains and mountain hunting.
For sure. I mean it’s a big deal for everybody in the office. Everyone loves to hunt. When we have round tables every couple of months especially when we get closer and closer to product development time, every single person in the office, no matter what they do, gets to be a part of it. Because it’s often a guy in the conversation who knows the least about the clothing industry but matters the most because we might take all kinds of stuff for granted like certain design elements whereas if you have somebody that’s new in the office who says “I just got cold” well that’s important you know.
And what’s even more interesting is if you take the time to peruse the Campfire section on your website (the First Lite blog) you see a really unique mix of hunting stories on there. Everything from someone’s first kill to upland and waterfowl hunts and late season “meat bucks”. It’s a truly “real” view of what hunting is all about for 90% of the people out there. Not just inches and scores and being as hardcore as possible.
Without a doubt. That’s not what the experience is about. In this day and age where, I don’t know if this is a touchy subject but, people can buy certain experiences that amount to nothing more than showing up and killing something. If that’s what you’re into, that’s what you’re into but it’s like all the shit, and hard work and failure that leads up to killing the animal is what I think most of us are after. On a personal note, I switched to a recurve this year and I had the hardest damned antelope season, didn’t cut a tag. And I was so dejected at the end of the season but now looking back after 3-4 months and it was the best antelope season I’ve ever had. I had times where I spent freakin’ three hours going a hundred yards and then all of a sudden I’d spook the animal, it would run off and I’d hang my head and think, what the hell?! What am I doing?! But looking back on it now, that was the funnest three hours ever!
There’s no question there’s nothing like stalking in close on an animal only to get busted! Let’s talk about your new proprietary pattern Fusion. We were wondering when you guys were going to come out with your own exclusive pattern!?
Basically the Fusion project was started about three years ago and we were very interested in building our own pattern. We really liked the looks of a lot of the patterns already out there, liked the way similar patterns actually worked but we wanted to kind of fuse those two concepts together. Functionality with something that looked appealing. And, I won’t lie, from a marketing perspective, we needed something ‘cause a lot of times, we needed to differentiate ourselves from a lot of other products that weren’t super high-end. If people bought say one of our merino shirts in Realtree, they’re not cheap and generally people want to be known for buying nice stuff, but at face value there’s really no difference between our merino shirt in Realtree, or no obvious difference at least between our shirt and a cotton Walmart shirt.
First Lite’s New Fusion Pattern
We had used ASAT with a lot of success and we’d seen it actually work. The concept was, essentially, break-up at all costs, and it has worked very well so we wanted to take the concept of break-up and put that as the number one priority. And the second was to have it work in a broad array of environments and to work closely or far away. So then we backed in a lot of the newer technology that has basically come to light in the past five to eight years between the military and everything else with macro-micro elements. We had a military guy who helped us design the pattern but we’re in kind of a unique situation where we are in Idaho because all the south slopes are grass and sage – wide open. And all the north slopes are dark timber pretty much so literally any day of hunting, you could spend lots of time in either environment. So that created the biggest difficulty because you couldn’t pick one or the other so we started to wonder, can we even do this? And if we in fact can somehow come out with a pattern that works in both the open terrain and the timber as well as say rocks, then there’s no reason why it wouldn’t work well under a tree because it’s a very similar environment, in that in a tree you’ve got leaves which resemble dark timber and then you’ve got to have it work with no leaves which would be similar to an open field as far as colouration goes.
So that was a really big deal plus going along with our theory of selling less, we wanted to feel guys could build a kit that they could go from our base layers in 90 degree heat antelope hunting or next to skin at zero in a tree. The whole core of our outfit, is you can use it anywhere and virtually at any point in the season. The only time the branches or pieces in our lines really spread out, is when you’re going to get really cold in a tree or cold and wet in the mountains. You can hunt with the same kit now whether you’re it’s July 10th in California when Blacktail opens up, or if you’re back East right now in the late season.
So basically the Fusion project was a big deal for us. We really wanted to nail it and it goes back to our theory about selling less. I don’t feel nearly so bad about selling a guy a hundred dollar t-shirt if he can wear it in all these different environments and wear it no matter what he likes to do.
Fantastic, there’s no question it’s a unique and highly effective pattern. So moving on, what product are you the most proud of? That can be historically speaking, or one of the new products or both if you want.
Easy. Without a doubt the products I’m the most proud of are the Llano Crew pant and boxers. The next to skin core pieces of our line, those two things are going to do the most for the average mountain hunter. That and surprisingly enough, the compression sock is a pretty big game changer. I’m very proud of the new socks.
First Lite’s New Compression Hunting Sock
Right. Very cool. And in terms of the new products for 2015, what are the highlights that people should check out?
Highlights for sure are the new Kanabs with the new the merino, there’s nothing like it. It definitely has the ability to handle the widest comfortable temperature range. But also the nylon pant is cool to me because it always drives me crazy when we’re behind the traditional outdoor industry, and hunting pants have been stuck back in the nineties, so it was really cool to bring those up to the truly modern standards.
Excellent. Let’s move on to some rapid fire questions now as we always do at the end of the interview: Bow or rifle? If you had to pick up one only for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Bow, for sure and my recurve to boot. I’m all in.
Favourite species to hunt?
Oh, elk, no question.
What’s your number one bucket list hunt?
Number one bucket list hunt would probably be nothing too special. Probably, Unit 1 in Arizona or, something like that, maybe something in Nevada, like a super high-end elk hunt. Unit 1 would be it though I think in Arizona. I don’t even look at the draws anymore because I only have like seven or eight points but, yeah, probably be that Arizona hunt. That would be pretty damn fun.
What does a successful hunt mean to you?
Just being in animals. If I’m at all close to animals at any time during the day, when I come home, my wife will ask “How did it go?” and I’ll always say “great”. Just being close, that’s all I ask. I might not even have a legitimate, like I mean nowhere near chance of drawing my bow, but if I’m in them (the animals), it’s always super fun.
From the Editors:
Kenton, Scott and the rest of the crew at First Lite are truly some of the hardest hunting, down to earth guys in the industry. Their new Fusion pattern is a breath of fresh air in an increasingly cluttered camo landscape and with the additions to their 2015 line up, it’s clear they’re making a statement. You don’t have to constantly be in the spotlight to quietly but confidently produce some of the best apparel the mountain hunting market has ever seen. Check out their full line at www.firstlite.com or go to the Sponsors page to see their latest product videos.