Profile: Rod Johnson of Midwest Mountaineering


Rod Johnson on the Pacific Crest Trail in the San Jacinto Mountains, May 2009. (All images courtesy of Rod Johnson)

“Ask us. We've been there.”

Not only is that the slogan for Midwest Mountaineering, it epitomizes the life of the outdoor store's founder and president, Rod Johnson.

In 40 years, Johnson has created one of the best known mountaineering stores in North America, offering outdoor gear and advice to backpackers, climbers, and paddlers, and all the while pursuing his own outdoor adventures on peaks, rivers, and trails around the world.

Whether it's a dozen people learning how to paddle a canoe or 80 people filling the meeting room to hear Johnson describe his approach to ultralight backpacking, Johnson and his staff offer outdoor gear and skills clinics to the public about three times a week. The events fill up quickly. Midwesterners crowd into his Minneapolis store to learn how to dress properly for cold-weather paddling and jam his climbing cave for beginning and intermediate classes on rock climbing. Even more show up for his twice-a-year Outdoor Adventure Expos. “Minnesotans are incredibly outdoorsy,” said Johnson.

Why are people so eager to hear Johnson's point of view about wilderness adventure?

“Because people want to have more fun backpacking,” said Johnson. And “they trust me because I've done so much of it.”

To say that Johnson has “done so much of it” is an understatement.

In 1970, he began rock climbing at Taylors Falls on the St. Clair River with a group of University of Minnesota students. Almost 40 years later in 2009, at age 60, he spent three months hiking 1,000 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail with the very minimum amount of gear.

In between, he climbed, hiked, and paddled all over the world, including:

  • put up three new routes on Devils Tower, Wyoming,

    Johnson, with rocks in his pack in 1973, training for a successful ascent of Mount McKinley.
  • climbed The Nose on El Capitan and the northwest face of Half Dome,
  • attempted a 1977 alpine-style ascent of Mount Everest without Sherpas,
  • climbed Mount McKinley (Denali) by the West Rib and West Buttress,
  • retraced the 1,000-mile Powell Expedition of 1869 through the Grand Canyon by dory, and twice descended the Grand Canyon by kayak,
  • attempted to make the first descent of the Victoria Nile River, and twice attempted to make the first kayak crossing of South America,
  • backpacked the John Muir Trail in California and the Wonderland Trail in Washington state,
  • climbed Mount Kilimanjaro twice, including once in one day, and
  • trekked, climbed, and paddled throughout Nepal, New Zealand, Australia, and China.

During all these years of outdoor adventure, Johnson also built Midwest Mountaineering into a destination store. In January, it was named Outdoor Retailer of the Year by Backpacker Magazine and outdoor industry trade publication SNEWS. And all this in a prairie state where the highest elevation is only 2,301 feet above sea level (Eagle Mountain) and where multi-pitch climbing routes are rare.

The history of Midwest Mountaineering began when Johnson was only 21 years old. His outings with the Minnesota Rovers Outdoors Club inspired a serious interest in rock climbing, but he soon learned that he needed more and better gear — gear that wasn't available in the Gopher State. His quest for adequate equipment led him to California.


Johnson outside Chouinard Equipment, destination of his 1970 hitchhiking trip for gear.

In 1970, he hitchhiked to Southern California to shop at Eiger Mountain Sports and Chouinard Equipment (forerunner of today's Black Diamond and Patagonia companies). He returned with a backpack full of climbing gear, and within seven days he had sold it all. “Looking back,” he said with a chuckle, “I realize I made a big mistake, hitchhiking to California and then returning with a hundred pounds of gear just to avoid $20 in shipping costs.”

Soon, he was operating “The Johnson Company” out of his kitchen and finding business among members of the Rovers. Within a year he had opened Midwest Mountaineering on Hennepin Street. In 1976, urban renewal forced him out of that location and into a rundown building on Cedar Avenue, which had the advantage of being near the University of Minnesota campus. In 1981, Johnson added Thrifty Outfitters to offer high-quality but inexpensive outdoor gear, plus expert repairs.

What set Midwest Mountaineering apart from just any store offering outdoor clothing and camping gear was Johnson's commitment to providing good advice and technical expertise, based on personal experience. “Ask us. We've been there.” became the store's slogan. Johnson also offered a big dose of enthusiasm for wilderness adventure.

After 40 years in business, Johnson is still a cheerleader for Mother Nature. “My mission is to get people outdoors and having fun outdoors,” he said. “I'm not just telling them my techniques. I help them develop their own techniques. I tell them not to copy me but to develop their own system that works for them.”

Helping him reach that goal is Rod's wife, Sharon, his partner and chief financial officer. They met at a program he offered to a trail club; their relationship blossomed on the John Muir Trail in the Sierra Nevada. They've now been married seven years. Besides helping run the company, Sharon helps run the gear clinics and skills seminars on backpacking, adventure travel, and rock climbing in the via ferrata style.

One of Johnson's popular classes is a two-hour seminar on backpacking skills, with particular emphasis on how to lighten one's pack. Two of the most common questions involve dealing with bears and purifying water. Realizing that the seminars frequently run out of time before the audiences run out of questions, Johnson created a five-hour backpacking class.


Can't attend one of Johnson's clinics at Midwest Mountaineering in Minnesota? Watch his Wilderness Navigation Basics video above.

Sharon Hall attended the five-hour class on a recent weekend. The Fridley, Minn., resident took up backpacking just a year ago, but she was already an outdoorsy person, involved in bicycling and kayaking. One experience with her new sport was all it took. “I learned that I love it.”

Next she wanted to lighten her backpacking load. Hall brought her pack and gear to the class, where she weighed them and discovered just how much weight she was carrying with just the pack and sleeping pad. “I bought a lighter backpack after the class,” she said, and she may try out one of Johnson's most famous load-lightening tips: sleeping on bubble wrapping.

On the other hand, she'll pass on buying any new clothes just for backpacking — too expensive. “But I would if I were going to go backpacking for a week or a week and a half,” she said.

Stellar Mason was an experienced backpacker with the 235-mile Superior Hiking Trail under her belt when she attended this year's spring Outdoor Adventure Expo. “I had packed all my gear into the closet after my last backpacking trip in the fall and wanted to reorganize and reevaluate it with an eye to cutting down the weight,” she explained. On the Superior Trail, which follows a rocky ridgeline above Lake Superior from Two Harbors, Minn., to the Canadian border, she carried about 30 pounds of gear, 20 pounds of food, and occasionally up to 12 pounds of water. “That's a huge amount of weight,” she admitted. Although she carried extra warm clothing for October's wet and chilly weather, she estimated that she could have been comfortable with a lot less. “I could have got by with only fifteen pounds of gear,” based on what she learned at the Expo.

“Rod is very passionate about his sports,” she said, “He's highly unconventional and very inventive when it comes to ultralight backpacking. His ideas are unique. He even weighs his underwear!

“Rod has a saying: When the weight goes down, the fun goes up.” She added, “Rod challenges you to consider the necessity of every item. He says, 'If you haven't used it on your last five trips, what is it doing in your pack?'” Mason said she is considering giving up her Blackberry when she goes backpacking and maybe her bear vault as well, in areas where it's not really needed. But she has her limits. “Rod doesn't even carry soap — I'm not going with him!”


Johnson and his minimalist custom pack on his 2009 PCT hike.

Mason, who also enjoys canoeing, kayaking, winter camping, cross-country skiing, and other sports, charts a middle ground between Johnson's ultralight philosophy and her own objectives. “My goal is to travel longer distances and be self-contained. So every pound of gear I eliminate means one more day of food and one more day in the backcountry.” On the other hand, she cautions against leaving too much at home. Johnson, she said, has a wealth of experience and expertise to draw upon when he decides what he really needs in the wilderness.

Johnson's most recent large-scale adventure was his three months on the Pacific Crest Trail in 2009. Johnson hiked 1,000 miles of the 2,650-mile trail, choosing the most scenic sections, with his wife joining him occasionally. Thru-hikers tackling the entire trail — from the heat of the Mojave through the snow and ice of the Sierra, to the rain and cold of the Northwest — carry a variety of gear depending on terrain and weather, from bear canisters to ice axes.

When Johnson started hiking at the Mexican border in April of 2009, he carried nine pounds of gear — most of it stuffed into his VestPack, a shirt he designed with eight pockets to hold his gear and food. He skipped the usual tent or tarp, and instead of a sleeping pad carried a roll of bubble wrap — the kind used to pad packages for shipping.


One of Johnson's campsites, before Kennedy Meadows in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, May 2009. With his bivy sack, Johnson was able to make camp just about anywhere and cook while in his sleeping bag.

Not all of Johnson's gear survived the challenges of the PCT. The bubble wrap was good only down to about 50 degrees, well above the night-time temperatures backpackers face in the mountains. Solid fuel chemical tablets just weren't enough to heat his food, so after three days Johnson switched to a heavier, hotter, and bigger stove — a JetBoil PCS — which meant ditching the VestPack and taking up a more traditional backpack.

Even there, however, Johnson found an ultralight solution from Cooke Custom Sewing, based in Lino Lakes, Minn. His 7.6 ounce pack can carry 20 pounds of gear — plenty for an ultralight backpacker like Johnson. One of the things he carried in that pack was an odor-proof food bag made by O.P. Sak, which doubled as a pillow at night on those parts of the trail that don't require bear canisters or provide bear boxes.

Rod had an extra incentive for his PCT trip: a pain-free knee. “I had a total knee replacement about six months beforehand,” he said. “Before, I could barely walk for one mile.” Suddenly, he could go back to walking as far as he wanted. “Why not go for something big?” Not that it was easy to just walk away from the job. At age 60, Rod is still on the job on a daily basis. “There's never a good time to leave when you own a business. You've got to have good staff you can trust. Even with that, you have to keep in touch. It's a real pain, but it's the sacrifice you make.” Asked how other people can realize their dreams of taking months off work for a long outdoor adventure, he said, “It's not easy. You just have to do it.”

Johnson has seen many changes in the world of outdoor adventure over the past 40 years, most of them positive. Backpacking, for example, “is lighter, more comfortable, better … and even some of the costs have come down.” He notices more overseas visitors in the great American outdoors, a trend he ascribes to a weak dollar compared to the euro. And he said environmentalism is high. “Everyone is more environmentally conscious, especially the younger generation.” He even notices less litter on the trail.


Sharon and Rod Johnson hiking a section of the PCT together.

What's next for Johnson and Midwest Mountaineering? “My newest effort involves getting kids outdoors more,” he said. Rod has two children, and Sharon three — all of them grown up — so they know about raising a family. “I'm talking to groups like NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School), Outward Bound, and other groups in Minnesota about offering half-price trips” for children who wouldn't ordinarily get a chance at outdoor adventure. He's asking companies to come up with the money for the other half of the expense.

“The idea is that if you get people involved in the outdoors when they're young, they will stay involved,” said Johnson. “Lots of kids would benefit from these outdoor camp experiences, but their parents can't always afford it.”

If Johnson is an example, then those youngsters he plans to help introduce to outdoor sports are in for a long life of pleasure.

Is there another adventure in store? Definitely. “My wife and I are going to Machu Picchu” in Peru. “We're going to hike in the Andes.”

Chances are, fellow backpackers and outdoor adventurers will be able to ask the Johnsons about that trip at a future Midwest Mountaineering clinic.

 

Rod's 2009 Pacific Crest Trail gear lists

 

VestPack (9 pounds filled)

 


Johnson wearing his VestPack at the start of the PCT.

VestPack = 12 oz.

Western Mountaineering Highlite sleeping bag = 16 oz.

Bubble wrap = 1 oz.

MontBell W/B sleeping bag cover bivy sack = 6.5 oz.

2 - .5 liter disposable bottles of spring water = 36.8 oz.

Patagonia Houdini water resistant jacket = 3.5 oz.

MontBell down jacket = 5.4 oz.

Princeton Tec Scout headlamp = 1.6 oz.

Personal items = 1 oz.

2 - Esbit cubes = 1 oz.

Small pop can stove = .1 oz.

Lighter = .5 oz.

Food for 3 days, 2 nights:
2 - two-person freeze dry dinners = 14 oz.
10 Clif Bars = 22.5 oz.


Johnson started with an Esbit-fueled pop can stove, but the food never got warm enough.

Eric the Black's PCT Atlas = 4 oz.

Extra pair of merino running socks = 1.5 oz.

Total = 8.12 pounds

I should have had two additional liters of water for this section, because the seasonal water supply halfway through was dry. This would have added an additional 4 pounds. I was planning on 30 miles per day x 3 days food = 90 miles. In this section I only made 20 miles per day.

Cooke Custom Sewing pack

 

CCS Ultralight Pack = 7.6 oz.

Western Mountaineering Highlite sleeping bag = 16 oz.

Bubble wrap = 1 oz.

MontBell W/B sleeping bag cover bivy sack = 6.5 oz.

2 liters water = 65 oz.

2 liter water bladder + extra bladder for dry camps = 10 oz.


Johnson switched to a Jetboil stove, and thus a pack to carry it in, after three days.

Patagonia Houdini water resistant jacket = 3.5 oz.

MontBell down jacket = 5.4 oz.

Princeton Tec Scout headlamp = 1.6 oz.

Personal items = 1 oz.

JetBoil stove + fuel = 17 oz.

Lighter = .5 oz.

Food for 5 days, 4 nights, 100+ miles:
4 - 2-person freeze dry dinners = 28 oz.
20 Clif Bars = 50 oz.
8 Packets of Instant Oatmeal = ~20 oz.

O.P. Sak = 1.2 oz.

Eric the Black's PCT Atlas = 4 oz.

Extra pair of merino running socks = 1.5 oz.

Total = 15 pounds

In my pockets I carried a very small Swiss Army knife = .8 oz. + Brunton 28NL compass = .35 oz. + clip-on sunglasses and credit card.

 

To read Johnson's PCT blog, with gear testing observations, visit http://rodspct.blogspot.com/

Filed under: People & Organizations

Comments

whomeworry
102 reviewer rep
2,295 forum posts
May 17, 2010 at 9:42 p.m. (EDT)

Sounds like he’s been everywhere, and cares for his public! His PCT project, or at least this article, however, seems more of an ultra-light merchandising scheme than anything else. If this represents his ultra-light credo, he is overselling its potential.

One only need look at his pack and realize this light weight spec is accomplished by leaving most anything considered a camp comfort at home, and lacks any gear for the occasional unseasonable weather the Sierras throws at you. While he could be comfortable mid summer, even high on the JMT portions of the PCT, often the same trail would force him to cook from his sleeping bag, as he describes. Likewise no change of under garments has to make for rather crusty camping, especially after one of those 30 milers! Thus this approach to camping pretty much precludes the typical night time camp comradeship. Besides, after thirty miles it is all one can mange to crawl into their sack and pass out. IMHO these considerations are serious strikes against his calculus “..when the weight goes down, the fun goes up.”

The warm layer is only good for one’s fleece layer equivalent, at least according to its manufacturer. Barely enough warmth to get through hustling to get on the trail in the morning. Again that doesn’t sound fun.

His shell layer is actually a wind shirt with water resistant properties, this according to its manufacturer. Totally inadequate as rain gear. A two day storm will be serving out exposure to those relying on such gear to weather a storm.

No warm head gear. Especially an issue for us bald dudes.

Odor proof food bags. Yea right! That must be how they smuggle drugs past customs sniffer dogs. Again this appears to be a product pitched beyond its true capability. I don’t think a canister is necessary, since I had been hanging food for 35 years without incident, but that requires he bring along cord to carry out this task.

No toilet kit, sun screen, chap stick, water treatment, means to clean his mess kit, or means to keep his pack contents dry. All items I consider essential. One can debate the necessity of water treatment, several studies of many Sierra Nevada water sheds indicate treatment is necessary only for locales open to livestock ranges, or receive moderate + equestrian use, or receive heavy human use. All of these studies conclude locations requiring water treatment are the exception, not the norm, and even in many of these instances one can find unsullied water by searching out and utilizing head water sources. But no toilet kit is just wrong! As for no sun screen or chap stick, well to each his own.

Lastly, anyone who has walked 20 -30 miles a day realizes very few people would equate such distances to fun, even with no pack at sea level, regardless of physical conditioning. Most people’s bodies cannot absorb that amount of abuse day after day. This kind of article is exactly what I and others commented on in another thread, that the promise of ultra-light trekking is way overstated, and that merchandisers are principle in overselling these virtues to the gullible. Every time I went with some ultra-lighter on a Sierra trip who had a kit even remotely resembled such Spartan outfitting, they ended up borrowing gear from others.
Ed

alan
0 reviewer rep
1,083 forum posts
May 17, 2010 at 11:12 p.m. (EDT)

Rod is a great guy, he runs a wonderful store. I've shopped at Midwest Mountaineering since 1982 when I moved to Minneapolis from Lake Wobegon to attend the University of Minnesota. The store has grown a lot since then. I had the pleasure of meeting Rod once (though I've seen him numerous times in the store). We sat next to each other at a counter in a local cafe and I enjoyed our conversation.

Centrasota
0 reviewer rep
1 forum posts
May 24, 2010 at 5:03 p.m. (EDT)

He seems like a cool guy. Lake Wobegon Alan? You really are a Minnesotan!

dm1333
3 reviewer rep
170 forum posts
May 24, 2010 at 8:41 p.m. (EDT)

And to think that John Muir, according to the legend, hiked around the Sierra with a blanket and some bread! He must have been miserable, too!

whomeworry
102 reviewer rep
2,295 forum posts
May 24, 2010 at 9:13 p.m. (EDT)

And to think that John Muir, according to the legend, hiked around the Sierra with a blanket and some bread! He must have been miserable, too!

Yes, and Paul Bunyan had a blue ox! John Muir did a fair amount of his trekking by horseback, his "blanket" was ten pounds (or so says legend), he carried an axe, a means to start a fire, things to wear for the cold, etc. Legend and folklore aside, he probably did travel light relative to his era, but rest assured he went to the mountains with more than a blanket and a crust of bread.

Ed

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