by John D. Mead
Hiphugger Pack 1962
As much as we love great gear, we will leave it to other companies to battle it out to sell it. There are so many terrific brands out there right now who are building great gear, that I’m 100% certain that your needs will be well taken care of. Going forward, A16 will focus on offering unique lifestyle products online that remind all of us about where we have been and inspire us to keep-on-exploring.
Mic & me on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho, 1970
I first started working for A16 in 1970 as a 14-year-old kid who loved to spend time in the mountains. I idolized my uncle, who had just taken the reins of the 8-year-old company. I was more of Mic Mead’s shadow than an employee as I followed on his heals from the factory floor to the retail shop. And I spent a lot of time in his office as a fly on the wall listening to him talk with everyone from suppliers to bankers, to Customers, and the dozens of people who came seeking his advice and opinion. It was kinda like the God Father meets John Muir. Mic was a naturalist, an inventor, a philosopher, a backpacker, an artist and one the best businesspeople I knew of. He is still those things, except at 88 I am afraid his backpack just hangs on the wall. It was a wonderful way for me to learn the business. BTW, as far as I know he never put a hit out on anyone. Although there were times when I’m sure I was on a list. Shadows are nice for a while, but…… He couldn’t shake me until 1995 when he moved to the boonies of Indiana where he bought and settled on a good-sized plot of land. It is the place where he went to camp as a kid and later became a Camp Counselor. It was there that he developed his love of nature. Someday the land will be a park. Fitting!
Adventure 16 began as the dream of an adventuresome group of young Explorer Scouts and their leaders who in the late 50’s and early '60s were involved with running rivers & backpacking. Under the leadership of an avid backpacker and engineer named Andy Drollinger, they set out to make films documenting their various high adventures to share with other Scout and outdoor groups. The goal was to raise enough money to purchase a 16mm movie camera. Thus, the name. In the process, their passion turned to making backpacks, and Andy's garage in La Mesa just outside San Diego became a workshop for the group. The filming stopped, the name stuck, and their primary focus became the development and manufacture of a revolutionary pack design that allowed much of a pack's weight to be distributed comfortably around one’s hips. Their production methods were crude by today's standards, including dyeing fabric in the bathtub, hand-bending tubing for the frames and hot cutting fabric one piece at a time.
By the mid '60s the hobby had turned into a bona fide business and later in the decade they moved into a World War II era Quonset Hut in Santee California, on the west side of Gillespie Airfield. By then the innovative, well-designed, and sewn line of products included not only the pack, but also down sleeping bags with unprecedented loft-to-weight ratios and the first two-layer dome tents, built specifically to meet the needs of backpackers. At that time all the packs we’re custom made to match the size of the Customer. Your pack would “be ready a week from Thursday.” Wayne Gregory, who later founded Gregory Mountain Products, worked on pack design while his wife Suszy did the books. Steve Noals was the master tent designer, and Steve Williams ran the store in a small room next to the factory floor. Anyway, these were their jobs when they weren't out on the trail, which was nearly every weekend. Never did they return from a trip without an idea for improving a piece of gear. It was what I call the awakening period of the outdoor industry and the environmental movement, and it was a fertile time for dreamers and doers in the outdoor arena. The business was growing – but without a real understanding of how to solidify their efforts into a stable enterprise that would live beyond the next week.
Mic field testing the A16 Half Dome tent in the Sierra. c 1972
Mic in his Log Cabin Office 1978
Throughout the '70s, growth and innovation were steady. Mic focused on design, marketing, improving production efficiency and ingraining proper business practices. The company pioneered several innovations that are standard today. Mic and his young team, among other things, designed the first baffled down parka; underarm ventilation; pioneered the use of aluminum alloy tent poles; opened retail shops and began distributing products nationwide. So proud and confident did he become with the quality of Adventure 16’s line that he stamped every product with a Lifetime Guarantee. As steady growth continued for the next 40 years the core ideology remained intact: Recruit capable, caring outdoor active employees, provide high-quality innovative products, give plenty of inspiration and education. Early on A16 also helped introduce new and promising brands like Chouinard Equipment, The North Face, Eagle Creek and Patagonia to folks in Southern California. And years later we were early or first to market with brands like Mountain Hardwear, Ex Officio and Icebreaker. Always the best!
El Cajon Factory & Retail Shop 1974
A wholesale distribution division was started in 1980 and quickly gained the reputation for being the most responsive, innovative, outdoor accessory distributor in the industry. Starting early on taking Customers to the mountains was just what Andy did after he taught the in-shop backpacking class. The trips we’re done somewhat casually. In the early 80’s under the primary leadership of famed outdoor writer Michael Hodgson, the classes turned into a formal program with regular classes and in the field trips for learning Backpacking, Snow Camping, Rock Climbing and Navigation with a couple thousand attending each year. For the most part, employees from nearly every department and division of the business were the instructors, which only served to strengthen the culture of the company.
Wholesale Distribution Catalog Cover 1980
A16 became an Employee-Owned company in 1987 which served to reward the exemplary staff and gave them a piece of the risk as well. Soon thereafter we opened 7 beautiful and unique Southern California Mountain and Adventure Travel shops packed to the gills with the finest gear and clothing available. Not to mention hundreds of employees who knew their stuff from first-hand experience, and who were dedicated to serving their Customers exceptionally well.
A16 West LA
In 1997 we formed a non-profit entity, Donate-A-Pack Foundation. It provided copious quantities of gently used backpacking and camping gear, which primarily came from Customers, suppliers and A16’s rental program, to worthy SoCal organizations who took underserved youth on wilderness excursions. That Foundation lives on today.
Youth getting a Wilderness Experience is a recipe for magic!
Growth and prosperity would not last as the challenges of business in the radically changing retail landscape slowly took its toll. Try as we might, we couldn’t keep up, and in late November 2019 announced that we needed to close our doors within a couple of months. I’m proud to say that we wrapped up a 58-year run with our heads held high as we served our beloved Customers to the very end. And in the fairest way possible we ended our relationships with our wonderful suppliers and service providers, who we remain friends with today.
San Diego Shop Team early 80s
In those final days, I couldn’t help but be profoundly moved by the genuine heartfelt sentiments that hundreds of Customers and Employees shared with me. It became apparent that unlike other businesses that I’d seen come and go, the hole that A16 was about to leave would not be easily filled. During the shutdown, people traveled, called and wrote from all over the country, in fact the world to visit one last time and/or tell their A16 story. It was a crazy thing; we had in many ways fallen out of favor as their primary place to buy gear and get advice, but the meaningful memories we’d help create and the friendships we’d built had been lasting. The place and what it represented was truly going to be missed. Many encouraged me to find a way to keep the name alive, but things had good to far awry. We sold off everything including the kitchen sink to pay the bills and closed the doors for the last time. Of course, in A16 tradition we also through several large Going-Away parties.
A16ers together on San Jacinto 2011
My son Jordan who had been the loudest voice saying “hang on and find a way” didn’t give up and over the past year helped me come up with a plan. I’m delighted to write that I think we’ve figured out a good way to keep A16’s heritage and spirit alive. A much smaller and more focused A16 is beginning to emerge, and hope and fun are once again on the horizon. Jordan, who has built a successful business in the action sports industry and Ricky Schlesinger, who helped found and run the amazing travel luggage brand Eagle Creek and who has also been my long-time business advisor, are my partners in this new venture.
The Mountains are Calling Collection A16 late 70s & 80s Logo
The first 58-year journey was wonderful and rewarding. I’m now excited about the new journey that lies ahead and very much hope that you’ll jump in and come along.
In the Spirit of Adventure!