If you are reading this, you must have bought a backpack sometime in your life or maybe you are planning to buy one. The process includes spending hours in the gear shop, immersing yourself in a sea of available options to find your perfect one. Your backpack ultimately is the only thing that tags along in every adventure like a silent friend that has
your back always (Literally! :D).
Now, have you ever wondered or put yourself in the shoes of engineers who design your Backpack?
What are their thoughts while they intricately design each feature of the bag for your safety and comfort? Well, I didn’t give it much thought either, until I got this amazing opportunity when Decathlon, one of the world’s largest sporting brands selected me as a part of the team to test their latest line of Backpacks. They invited us to their International Design Centre in Passy, France to test the prototype of their latest Backpacks while hiking the beautiful trails of French Alps.
My excitement held no bounds as trekking in the French Alps had always been a dream for me. But I never imagined that I would be doing it with the purpose of creating world class mountaineering products.As a mountaineer representing India, this opportunity gave me a chance to work alongside a very talented team comprising of the International Decathlon Product Design team and experienced trekkers from Spain, Italy, Netherlands, France, UK, and Germany.
We all came together with a common aim: To build a perfect trekking Backpack
For any professional mountaineer like myself, a good Backpack is a quintessential gear. I still remember the amount of time and energy I spent in buying my first backpack. I was looking for a lightweight Alpine Style Backpack that would easily accommodate my technical, personal, and camera gear. But most importantly it should have a suspension system, which is a combination of the hip belt, the shoulder harness and the components used for load transfer, like aluminium stays or a foam back panel. I tried many options, deciding between different materials and features for quick access and storage space. Finally, when I zeroed in on one, I knew it was my companion for many upcoming adventures.
This bond with the Backpack is not just for me but something that is common among all Mountaineers as we spend months together at high altitudes. Our bag there becomes our home which contains everything vital for our survival; you love it for its utility, you curse it when it gets taxing but at the end of the day you know that it’s your trusted companion.
So why do you think Decathlon, the parent company of brand Quechua would organize such an extensive exercise just to test one product?
Mr Xavier Paolozzi, the Backpack product head at Decathlon says, “The idea of testing a product with real users in actual rugged conditions is to receive genuine feedback and perspective that helps us in creating a truly global product. Customers from different parts of the world have different demands according to how and where they use the product, and that can be interesting and extremely crucial for the product design team”.
I second Xavier’s opinion.In India, we are generally inclined towards expedition style climbing especially in the Himalayas while in the European countries there is more of Alpine style climbing.Similarly, a more serious mountaineer would look for features that a novice trekker wouldn’t even think about. With this task in mind and keeping the testing conditions as dynamic as possible, we trekked in different climates and covered approximately 20 km every day, carrying 15 – 22 kgs per person for four days and scaling around 2000 ft – from moderate to extremely steep terrain.
The most striking feature of the Decathlon team was that they were all adventure enthusiasts and absolutely related to a what all a mountaineer could require when he is on an expedition.
This was clearly evident from our conversations and their approach towards every product from walking sticks to tents. Almost everything they designed was after keeping the end user in mind. During a tour of the International Design Centre or the “Mountain Store,“ I learned about the various stages that every product goes through.
The process begins with understanding and gathering user requirements, designing and creating prototypes and finally testing them before they are sent for production.The designers observe customer needs at the field itself to design initial illustrations of the future product. The product engineers discuss new ideas and find solutions.The prototypist converts these ideas into a sample, which is then tested by the technical partners to get real world feedback from the experts and enthusiasts like me. The entire product design team works together at the headquarters in Mont Blanc Valley with a vision to make mountains accessible to all, creating products infused with extreme pride and determination.
Our parameters for testing the Backpacks were not just comfort, features and durability, but also to find as many faults as possible in it.
Xavier cautioned us to not suggest solutions but only present the problems and let the engineers do the rest with an uncluttered mind. At the end of our trek in the Alps, we had a round of discussion with the product design team. That is when we presented our experience of using the prototype Backpack. Each team member ha d almost an hour long feedback sharing.
For myself, I spoke of both comforting and difficult aspects of the bag when you carry around 22 kgs of weight in it for four days in harsh conditions and terrain. Post that I pointed out specific things which I liked about the design like access and storage as well as the shortcomings in terms of comfort. They will now incorporate it into bettering the present design of Backpack so that it caters to a global audience.
During my time in France, I was exposed to this whole process of creating the perfect Backpack.
It was not just an exciting experience, but way more inspiring and motivating than I expected it to be. My world opened into a new paradigm of understanding how passionately the Decathlon team works to create products for us to make most of the outdoors. To be part of a process that helps in making mountains accessible to all is something that will stay with me forever.
Hopefully, very soon some of you guys will be carrying these backpacks while climbing some mighty mountains. Feeling my emotions as you witness the fine precision of designing the bag for you. And then at the end of the day when you marvel its usefulness, that for me will be the most rewarding outcome of this experience.