Rogue Panda Designs: AZT inspired
After spending a week bikepacking among the red rocks of Sedona, Arizona, we stopped in at Rogue Panda Designs, tucked away in the backstreets of nearby Flagstaff. Find out what makes this bikepacking bag business tick, learn about its distinctive flag-themed framebags, discover the story behind its quirky name… and enjoy an ultralight recipe from owner Nick Smolinske.
Born from an accidental first bikepacking trip, Rogue Panda Designs is located in Flagstaff, one of our favourite towns along the Arizona Trail. The 800-mile AZT, running from north of the Grand Canyon down to Mexico, is the inspiration behind all Rogue Panda product names, too.
Formerly a ‘one man and his garage’ affair, owner Nick Smolinske now employs as many as seven others, offering a range of framebags, top tube bags, seatpacks and more, all in a technicoloured rainbow of colors, shapes, patterns, and even flags. In fact, some of our favourite long-distance bikepackers – including Franzi and Jona – have completed their transformation from traditional tourers to more minimal bikepackers with Rogue Panda gear, whilst pedalling south across the Americas. Keen to involve the local community, Nick’s even been known to offer both passing tourers and Flagstaffers alike the chance to acquire their own custom framebags in return for help around his workshop…
Tell us a little about your background…
I grew up in Colorado and Michigan, with my introduction to the outdoors coming from family vacations to National Parks. But working for a conservation corps is what really made me the person I am today. When I first moved to Flagstaff I worked for American Conservation Experience for two years, building trails and camping something like 500 nights in that time. There’s nothing like spending that many nights outside to make you feel connected to a place. Everything I’ve done since then is built off of that foundation.
When did you first start bikepacking?
I had been a commuter for a long time and I’d also done a long road tour in Europe. But my first overnighter on dirt came in the spring of 2013 on what was supposed to be a backpacking trip. We had our bikes along to shuttle ourselves on dirt roads, but the roads were officially closed for the winter still. We just parked our car at the pavement and rode out to a spot on the Mogollon rim. It was an amazing campsite and we had no traffic to deal with, so I was hooked on the idea pretty quick.
What kind of cycling do you most enjoy? And what bikes do you ride?
It’s hard to beat Sedona singletrack this time of year. It’s just magical down there. But I also love commuting. Riding my fixie in town is a lot of fun.
My trail bike and bikepacking rig is a Guerrilla Gravity Trail Pistol (full suspension 29er). It’s a blast to ride and made in Denver. We have so much good singletrack here in Arizona, so I don’t see myself bikepacking on anything but a fully right now. I commute on a couple older bikes, and I also have a 29+ unicycle! Someday I will have to do a unipacking overnighter. It wouldn’t be particularly practical but I think it would be really fun.
Do you race?
Not yet. I’ve never really done much racing of any kind in my life, but I have been considering doing the AZT300. There’s no chance I would put up a competitive time but I would be racing against myself and my own limitations. That side of racing really appeals to me.
I had actually planned on trying it this year, but injury has kept me off the bike this winter. So, I might give the Coconino 250 Stage Race a try instead. Expect some posts in the coming months on our blog about my recovery and training.
What encouraged you to start building bikepacking bags?
My sewing career starting with making backpacking gear for myself (backpacks, tents, sleeping bags). I found that I really enjoy the design process. For my first pack I spent over two weeks crafting a flowchart before I sewed a single stitch. After my accidental bikepacking overnighter it was an easy decision to start making gear for bikes as well. Then friends started asking for frame bags and the rest is history.
You’re known for your distinctive flag designs. Can you tell us more about them and how they came to be?
It all started with the Arizona flag, of course. We have one of the best state flags in the country and it’s on display all over the place here. I made the first flag bag for my commuter, and immediately started getting requests for more and for other states.
We’ve done quite a few states now and it’s become a signature Rogue Panda thing, along with other custom designs. That said, it’s somewhat at odds with what I view as our core mission – providing affordable custom frame bags. The state flag bags are more boutique and a lot harder to find the time for now that we have grown as a company.
For that reason we’ve arrived at a compromise solution – we restrict the number of flag orders depending on our workload. At busier times of the year we don’t accept them at all, but at slower times we’ll do quite a few. In general, your best chance at ordering one is early in January or September through November.
What draws you most to bikepacking? Do you have a favourite trip? Any future rides in the pipeline?
For me it’s the ability to have adventures right out of my front door. I love being able to leave my house, hit up the trails, and bike out to a campsite all under my own power, rather than driving to a trailhead. So most of the bike trips I’ve done have been local trips in the 1-2 night range. My favorite is definitely around the San Francisco Peaks. Lots of people ride it in a day but I prefer to do it as an S24O ride.
As for future rides, there is one in particular that just won’t leave me alone. There’s this very prominent summit in the Grand Canyon called Zoroaster Temple. It requires a long hiking approach and 5 pitches of technical climbing to get to the summit. For years I’ve wanted reach the summit from my house and back under my own power. Preferably on as much on dirt as possible. The round trip stats would be about 160 miles biking, 30 miles hiking, and 20,000 feet elevation gain and loss. The biggest challenge might be finding a partner willing to carry climbing gear through all of that!
There’s got to be a story behind the name, Rogue Panda…
I figured that one was coming! It’s a unique name for sure. It comes from an act of vandalism that occurred back in my conservation corps days – someone in Flagstaff hacked into one of those electronic road signs and changed it to say “Rogue Panda on Rampage.” A couple years later when I started making gear, it just popped into my head as a name.
Sometimes I think maybe I should change it to something more serious. But we’ve got a great logo and I’m a pretty quirky guy so I try to just embrace that aspect of my personality. I do ride a unicycle after all.
What inspired you to base your business out of Flagstaff, AZ? What’s the riding/bikepacking community like here?
The riding community is awesome and friendly, with great local bike shops. But really I started the business here just because Flagstaff is home. Boring answer, but I’ve lived here for almost a decade now. It’s a pretty great place to call home, with world-class trails right here in town, and easy access to lower elevations when you need to escape the winter.
What values are important to you in the way you run your business?
Quality, work environment, and customer value. Everything starts with a commitment to quality. That’s the foundation that informs all of our decisions. Fortunately, that focus dovetails nicely with my desire to keep our production here in Flagstaff – we produce better gear than we could through outsourcing, and it’s a priority for me to create a good work environment where we work as a team and solve problems together. We have fun but we work hard too.
Having a great team also helps us achieve our goal of maximizing value to our customers. We try to be as efficient as possible without cutting corners or outsourcing labor, and I’ve long since lost track of how many improvements to our processes have come from my employees. Not just the sewing, but the development of the systems is a group process.
I know it’s a broad question, but what do you think Rogue Panda does best?
I think we do a lot of things well, but I’ll go with innovation. We try to only put out products when we’ve got something new and interesting to bring to the table. With our frame bags, we were the first to size bags using photos, and we’re working hard to keep lead times short and make ordering a custom bag a more convenient experience.
I’m also really happy with our new Ripsey and Highline seat bags coming out – I don’t think anything matches them for the combination of low weight, short tire clearance, and volume. That design has taken an incredible amount of time to develop and the end result is very stable without the need for any metal components.
The one place we haven’t done anything very innovative yet is on the handlebars. Now that our seat bag lineup is well established, that will probably be the next area we look at. I have some unique ideas that might see the light of day later this year.
And another tough one: what product are you most proud of?
Custom frame bags, for sure. Nothing else showcases the skill of our team like doing custom work. Currently we have 7 employees, and we all work on the frame bag production line. Only one of us was a sewing professional before starting here, so it’s taken a tremendous amount of training to get to where we are today. Now that everyone is up to speed we’re a pretty well-oiled machine. The goal is to make ordering a custom frame bag as convenient as possible – you just select which options you want on the website, place your order and send us a photo. Then we’ll give you a projected ship date so you can plan, and make sure you won’t be waiting on gear for any trips you have coming up.
Any plans for the future that you can share?
I’m a big fan of Japanese management techniques, and the most important of those is “kaizen.” It basically means a philosophy of continuous improvement from all levels in an organization, where everyone is empowered to point out problems and then work together to find solutions.
So, further improvement on the custom frame bag system is the main thing we’re working on now. For the past several months we’ve been focusing on training and the more technical side of the production line. Now that we have such a skilled team on the sewing machines, it’s time to switch the focus to improving our processes and making sure everything goes smoothly for every customer.
Anything else you’d like to mention?
I’d like to thank my team at Rogue Panda and all of our customers over the years, who have at times supported us through growing pains. One of the downsides of striving for continuous improvement is that I am intensely self-critical – in my mind, we are never as good as we should be. But when I see customers out in the world using our gear and loving it, that gives me a lot of motivation to keep improving.
Can you share your favourite local trail for anyone visiting Flagstaff?
The trails up in the mountains are pretty well known, so I’ll go for something a little more obscure – you can make a loop out of the Flagstaff Loop Trail and the AZT “equestrian bypass” option between Fisher Point and Old Walnut Canyon Road. My preferred direction is south out of town on the AZT proper, east on the Loop, then back west on the AZT bypass.
I happened to be the leader of the trail crew that built part of it, so I may be a bit biased. But it’s a great loop, full of fast rolling singletrack with some side trails to views of Walnut Canyon. And, of course, some well-built switchbacks to stop and admire.
Just one last question… Where’s good for food and drink round here?
Pizzicletta, hands down. Literally the best pizza I have had on this planet (including in Italy). You can also order your pizza outside at Mother Road Brewing, which is a fantastic way to end a summer’s day of riding.
Nick’s Culinary Tips: Sesame Chili Ramen
Given that we’d heard about Nick’s skills in the ways of making homemade, dehydrated food for hiking and bikepacking, we asked him to share tips and a recipe…
I am pretty obsessed with my backcountry food and I have a whole set of shelves in my house devoted to storing it.
There are two ways I make meals – either cooking a full meal at home and then dehydrating it, or buying individual ingredients. Here’s a recipe of the second variety, one of my all-time favorites, Sesame Chili Ramen.
Three ingredients really make the dish – one is Pork Sung, a cotton-candy like pork product that you can find at most Asian markets. The next is the chili garlic sauce – it’s made by the same folks who make the classic Sriracha sauce, but it is lower in heat and loaded with flavor. And lastly, toasted sesame oil adds its own distinctive flavor to the dish (and plenty of calories).
-4.5 oz of ramen noodles (1.5 packs), crushed and flavor packets removed
-Half an ounce/14g each of freeze-dried peas and dried tomato pieces
-One ounce/28g of pork sung, chopped into ½ inch pieces
-Optional: Half an ounce/14g of dried onions, garlic, or a combination
-One tablespoon toasted sesame oil
-One tablespoon neutral oil (peanut or canola works well but any neutral-flavored oil will do)
-Two tablespoons chili garlic sauce
To make, simply combine all the dry ingredients with 1.5 cups water, stir, and wait 10 minutes. You’ll want to keep it warm somehow – you can wrap a jacket around your pot, reuse a freeze-dried meal pouch, or just use a gallon ziplock bag and keep it under your jacket while the meal reheats (that way your meal heats you up twice – once from the outside and once from the inside).
After 10 minutes, all of the water should be absorbed and all the ingredients well hydrated. Then just add the sauce and eat!
Notes: I only call for 1.5 cups of water because I prefer my noodles to end up hydrated but not soupy. If you prefer soupy ramen just add more water. You can find pork sung at your local Asian market, and I buy my freeze-dried peas and dried tomatoes on Amazon.
I use my vacuum sealer to make my own sauce packets when I pack a meal like this, but you can also use a small bottle or reuse a baby food container (the new mylar ones, not the old glass ones). I go for the fruit and yoghurt flavors myself, they are pretty tasty.
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