Climbers testing prototypes for the high-tech Flowfold hiking pack ascend Mount Kilimanjaro in early March. Photo by Chris Bennett

Before making its debut at L.L. Bean next year, a waterproof, high-tech backpack made by a Maine-based company was tested in one of the world’s harshest laboratories – the flanks and summit of Mount Kilimanjaro.

The dormant volcano in Tanzania is the highest peak in Africa, rising from the surrounding rain forest to a snow-capped summit 19,341 feet above sea level. It took a team of climbers assembled by Flowfold, a company based in Scarborough, nearly six days to climb the mountain, gaining roughly 16,000 feet of elevation in a trek that began Feb. 27.

“We chose Kilimanjaro because it presented us with the opportunity to test our product in every type of environment that one could experience during the year,” said James Morin, a co-owner of Flowfold who was among the group of three women and six men that climbed the peak in East Africa.

The trek was designed to test eight prototypes of the backpack for durability in rain, freezing temperatures, hail, extreme heat and humidity.

“We wanted to know if it could handle all the weather that Maine could throw at it,” said Morin, who fulfilled a lifelong dream by summiting Kilimanjaro. “It was like we used the six days to test (conditions) that would have taken an entire year otherwise.”

More than 44,000 people attempted to summit Mount Kilimanjaro in 2016, with roughly 75 percent making it to the top, according to Climb Mount Kilimanjaro, a guiding service that specializes in taking people up the mountain. Though the easiest route up the mountain isn’t technically demanding, the altitude and weather extremes can be debilitating. The guide service estimates that six to seven people die each year attempting to summit the continent’s highest peak.

Morin’s group began its ascent in a lush rain forest with temperatures that soared into the 90s and ended the trek on the mountain’s summit, where a blizzard engulfed them in whiteout conditions. One day during their climb, the Flowfold team encountered a driving rain and hail that relentlessly pelted them and their gear.

“To make matters worse, the rain wasn’t coming from above,” Morin said in an online blog he wrote while in Africa. “This rain was nearly horizontal with the left side of our bodies and bags getting constantly hammered. The packs ended up doing very well, even without a pack cover, the insides were completely dry. Today was a big day for the packs. I’m happy about that.”

James Morin, co-owner of Flowfold, leads a group of climbers ascending Mount Kilimanjaro in early March. The group was testing prototypes for a high-tech hiking pack Flowfold intends to manufacture in partnership with L.L. Bean. Photo by Chris Bennett

Morin said he will remember the adventure for the rest of his life, and he hopes that the packs’ performance on Africa’s highest mountain will cement his company’s business relationship with L.L. Bean.

Curt Nichols, L.L. Bean’s corporate merchandise manager, said Thursday that the outdoor retailer is very interested in Flowfold’s backpack.

But before L.L. Bean can co-brand and market the backpack, it must undergo testing by people who work for the retailer. The trip to Africa was funded by Flowfold, not by L.L. Bean.

Nichols said the product development cycle can take a few months to complete, but if everything goes well, L.L. Bean could start selling the backpack in its retail stores, online and in merchandise catalogs sometime next year.

Morin said he took notes on each pack’s performance during the trek and is working on “Frankensteining” the results into the ideal hiking pack. As part of its review process, L.L. Bean will assess that data and compare it to what their field testers find, Nichols said.

So far, everything is looking pretty good for the Scarborough company to add their pack to L.L. Bean’s product line.

“Flowfold is an up-and-coming company,” Nichols said. “There are a lot of shared core values between the two companies.”

Morin said the packs all performed admirably on Mount Kilimanjaro, noting the real test came during the torrential, sideways rain a few days into the climb. Morin asked his team to not put covers on the packs so he could assess how waterproof they are. Each pack is made with a waterproof design, waterproof materials and waterproof zippers.

Hours later, when they stopped for lunch, Morin checked each bag’s contents. All were dry.

“That’s when I relaxed,” he said. ” I knew if they could survive that, they could survive a downpour on a climb up Katahdin.”

Morin described the fabric used in the backpack as a high-performance composite comprised of multiple layers laminated into a single sheet. He said the backpacks would be perfect for a hike up Mount Washington or a less strenuous day hike.

“You can go anywhere you want with this pack,” he said.

Flowfold’s headquarters are located in a warehouse in Scarborough, within walking distance of Pine Point Beach. The company has six employees.

“We’re just a few hippies who like to surf,” Morin said, referring to Flowfold’s co-owners and founders, Charlie Friedman and Devin McNeill.

Morin, Friedman and McNeill met at the University of Maine in Orono, where they began selling nylon, tri-fold wallets from the trunks of their cars. After graduating in 2010, the three men grew their business into a full-time venture.

“We’re just three Maine kids who will do whatever it takes to make Maine proud,” he said.

L.L. Bean has been carrying Flowfold wallets and bags, and the pack would be the fifth co-branded product sold at the outdoor gear retailer under a dual Flowfold-L.L. Bean logo.

“It’s so exciting to be on the logo under L.L. Bean,” Morin said. “For me, it’s like playing ‘horse’ with Michael Jordan or nine holes with Tiger Woods.”

Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

[email protected]

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