Not all hikers, runners and all around athletes like the rain. Most of us are what can be called "fair weather" outdoors people, we seek the dry and sunny days (though it can be cold) and avoid those rainy days. I'm not like that: I love the rain, the quiet I can find in the trails, the fact that I have an excuse not to have any breaks and the noise of rain on my poncho or jacket. To make things even worse, for most of my adult life I've lived in wet, temperate areas: England and then Portland, OR. Hiking and backpacking in the rain, in muddy and boggy conditions, has pretty much defined my time outdoors. It is not surprising, then, that I have a love/hate relationship with mud.
Mud is great: it is sticky, makes funny sounds, keeps masses of hikers off my trails and gives me the option to be filthy in a "normal" way. On the other hand, it is slippery, will suck your shoes off your feet and can be very, very dangerous on the right slope.
With this background, it is not surprising I got a little hooked on the idea of figuring out a mud traction device to comfortably travel quickly and easily through muddy and boggy conditions. I started by focusing mainly on using mud specific shoes by Inov-8, one of the best fell running shoe manufacturers out there, but quickly I realized that I usually hike on mixed terrain, which means using big lug shoes on a compact trail wasn't comfortable. Next I tried my luck with more "all-round" trail shoes, like the Altra Lone Peak, but that also didn't work as the lugs just weren't deep enough in muddy conditions.
I did a lot of trial and error in the UK, mainly in northern England and Scotland. While I was on yet another longer trip in Scotland, trying to complete a fast pace trip on the Cape Wrath Trial, I had my idea: Mudpons! The idea was to make crampons for mud - lightweight and easy to use - that would give any hiking shoes stability and traction on muddy trails. This little idea happened a long time ago, before I started CNOC and even before I moved to the USA. It was my very first "If only it existed" idea.
The Amateur's Evolution of an Idea
Since 2014, I had the idea of the Mudpons stuck in my head, and all I could say to describe it was: like those winter ice spikes, but for mud, with big lugs. I know it sounds completely silly, but to this day, this is still the best way to describe the Mudpons.
In any case, despite having a clear idea of what the Mudpons would be and how they would look, I had no ability to make them. I'm not really a maker and I was even less of one 7 years ago, so I had no idea how to take the Mudpons idea and make it real. So, I started small. I got different ice spikes and added some lugs to the bottom. Here is the evolution of my amateur product development process:
1. First attempt (and prototype) was in 2016: some cheap-o ice spikes that I shaved the metal studs off and glued on lugs from some old running shoes (Inov-8 Mudclaws). The lugs fell off after 2-3 minutes, but when they were on, it worked! Proof of concept - sorted.
2. In 2017, with the help of some Microspikes (the good ones), I created the next prototype using rubber lugs cut off at about 15mm long and bonded to the plastic. Those lugs were way too long and not very well placed, but most of them stayed on through a 15 miles hike. Progress.
3. Later in 2017, I created another version with shorter lugs bonded on a Microspikes platform. That was more comfortable but they fell apart very quickly.
4. In 2018 I made a home attempt in mold making and pouring rubber. This was a very interesting experiment and to this day my father-in-law mocks me about it. I was very serious about it, using specialty compounds and even documenting the process, but that was a fail. The rubber was too thin and did not hold up.
5. In early 2019, with Devan's help, we recreated the molds with better materials and a better build. We managed to create 2-3 prototypes, but they were not usable. However: we had some real prototypes that I could show around and make a reality! Those were based on professional designs (see below) that we were hoping to try and prove workable.
This is roughly where I gave up on trying to make them myself. I decided to seek some professional work for the Mudpons to make sure they actually would make it to the next step.
Turning The Page - Getting Pros Involved
The first step in getting real, usable Mudpons (after my wild ideas and feeble attempts) was to make it into a real concept, one that is based on shoes and not just on idea. So that lead to working with a range of people, some ended up being part of the process and some did not. In the end, we worked with two main contributors: Peter Backus, a shoe designer, and then the team at Proof of Concept that specialize in footwear engineering and manufacturing.
The work with Peter was very interesting and allowed me to express all my ideas and see him come up with how the Mudpons should look. This was the first time I actually saw what the Mudpons could be, not just what they were in my head. A combination of colors, closures, strap adjustments, lug shapes and patterns. We had many revisions. After 14 variations, we a reached the magical balance of a functional pair of Mudpons that also allowed for practical manufacturing.
By early 2019 the Mudpons were ready for the next step, needing to move from concept to engineering, prototypes and manufacturing. This, however, is not what happened. In February 2019, Mika and I looked at the company, where we had been and where we wanted to go, and decided to put the effort into bringing our US made trekking poles to market first. What was originally supposed to be a 6 months break to finish the poles before picking back up to work on the Mudpons ended up being a year and a half. The Mudpons only made it to the next step in the summer of 2020 with the help of Proof Of Concept.
The small team of two (Gary and Todd) have helped us take those amazing concepts, designs and ideas of sustainability and move the whole thing to the production stage. This wasn't simple though, and took over 8 months. Starting by creating the first size, testing it and deciding on materials, and then expanding the size run for all 6 sizes.
We have gone through 5 prototypes with our factory that included changes in materials (rubber, soft rice husk rubber and at last a stiffer husk rice rubber), updates to tension to ensure the Mudpons won't slip, increasing lug depth for the front and back lugs (gas and break, as I call them) and even changes to thickness to get the best durability.
The last step after perfecting those size 10 Mudpons, was to find the best way to create a run that will be truly useful for all shoe sizes. Updates include curving it slightly, increasing shoe volumes (or decreasing for smaller sizes), changes in strap length, etc.
In the fall of 2020, we finally had the pre-production run of all sizes, only two pairs of each size, so the race for testing, abusing and approving started. In a couple of months the Mudpons samples have been used by the entire team, their family members, friends, and friends of friends. We wanted as much feedback as possible to feel good about going into the production. The results were clear: start making those little bundles of mud joy!
We are now just around the corner from getting the first batch of Mudpons, and I am very excited. This has been a 5 year long journey in taking a nugget of an idea and making it real.
I've been using the Mudpons samples I mentioned above for a few months now and I must say, they are all I wanted them to be. I've been enjoying not only the fact that one of my dreams came true, but the fact that I actually get to use them for what I wanted! I've been running, hiking and backpacking with them, feeling sure footed in the very wet and muddy conditions around Portland. I've learned that I can use the Mudpons for slushy snow and that works better for me than nano-spikes or crampons. I can wear my Mudpons for hours and not notice them, helping me turn my Altras into a mud guzzling shoe that they never would have been without the Mudpons. The Mudpons have delivered unrivaled traction on slick muddy trails.
Last, it has been the feedback we've been getting and all the idea of how they can be used: cyclocross races, hike a bike, snow, mud, shoveling poop on a farm (yes, on boots!) and more. I'm excited to what other uses you will come up for them that I never intended, but they work so well for.