By Ben Wiese | Dec 12, 2021
Cargo carriers for cars and trucks
Sartin consistently came across a particular problem while traveling with luggage and outdoor sporting gear: accessibility. PAKMULE is his eloquent solution to the problem. The concept is simple: a hitch basket that carries things outside of the vehicle to free up space within it.
"I created PAKMULE probably eight years ago just as a selfish endeavor: trying to make it easier to load and access all my gear," says Sartin. "There were dogs and kennels and coolers and sporting gear; alternately, on family road trips, there was tons of kid stuff and travel gear and it was always overflowing. It was really difficult to access everything. You could get it in but it was like a Tetris puzzle."
Unable to find what he was looking for, Sartin decided to make what he needed. The finished product? A heavy, rust-susceptible, steel cargo carrier that more or less got the job done.
"I built [a PAKMULE] out of steel when I was in college, but it was like 80 pounds. It was cumbersome. It wasn't easy to use. It either stayed in the hitch for a really long time or it just didn't get used because it was too much. You had to call your neighbor to help you load this thing up."
Finally, he had enough. So, he got to work. "I just layed out how I wanted it on cardboard. I knew I wanted to hold a couple of coolers across the back while still being able to use the liftgate on the back of the SUV, still being able to get in and out."
He was turned down, a lot, by various manufacturers. "I called lots and lots of shops. Many people said, 'We're not hanging a bunch of aluminum off the back of your car. We don't want to be liable, it's not going to be strong enough.'"
But he did find a guy. (It just took three different phone calls to seal the deal.)
After securing the manufacturer, followed by creating a new design, the real fun began: a test run while dove hunting in South Texas. The experience was telegenic, says Sartin. "A bunch of buddies and clients are there. I hop out of the Suburban, hit the button; my liftgate opens. I walk back and open the kennel; my dog jumps out. My coolers are secured underneath the lid, I don't even have to unstrap it or anything; I just reach in and grab a beer -- crack it open, take a sip, -- I've been driving for five hours. I walked over to the other side, slid my shotgun out of a scabbard, a box of shells next to it, set it on top of the cooler, put on my bird bag, and said, 'Let's hunt!' Everyone was like, 'How did you do that?' They're full-on yard sale with all their things everywhere, trying to find their gear."
Since the initial PAKMULE design, weight and durability have been recurring questions demanding recurring answers. Consistently, Sartin and his team have needed to think outside of the box. "The tongue of the PAKMULE is a solid aluminum block, and we use our custom extrusion dye. We extrude all of that aluminum, then cut it, bend it, tack it together, and start welding it.
"All of the welds are tempered. Historically, people have said, "welds on the aluminum are actually weaker than the aluminum,'' but ours are not because we've tempered it all post-weld. It really sets us apart."
Sartin's team is small. Including himself, there are four full-time employees. Manufacturing has been contracted out to the plant across the street from the extruder. But with increasing demand, change may be in the works. "We currently contract our manufacturing, but we're examining bringing it in-house since the volume has reached a point where that's beginning to make sense," he says.
Whatever comes next, rest assured: there will be plenty of beer in the cooler, and it will be easy to access.
Challenges: Unsurprisingly, PAKMULE was not unaffected by the surging materials costs resulting from COVID-19. The pandemic has created an unknowable, shifting landscape that is difficult to navigate or predict. "We've already been hit on shipping. We've been hit on cardboard. We're hit on aluminum. Labor is tough. The world is chaotic and inflation is out of hand; it makes it really hard to forecast and know what to be doing."
With costs rising, Sartin issued a price increase on his products. By his telling, it was a necessary, albeit uncomfortable, decision. "What we did for most of 2021 continued to lose margin as the price of things went up, and hoped that the price would come down. We finally had to issue a price increase, and we hate that. We want to make it approachable, and our previous price was already a stretch for people."
Opportunities: Since PAKMULE's launch, Sartin has pushed for sustainable product design, using recycled aluminum -- nearly 70 percent of the final product, to be more precise -- and intends to be a louder advocate for similar practices throughout the industry. And rightfully so: PAKMULE is, after all, an outdoor lifestyle accessory. The products now include a "For Your Consideration" hang tag to promote eco-friendly practices among its customers.
Needs: Ahead of the curve the first time around, Sartin and his team have zoomed out on their approach to the PAKMULE, hoping to reimagine how product design can improve accessibility during travel without sacrificing sustainability or flexibility. "We're currently looking at the entire vehicle as an opportunity to improve the way people haul and access gear and utilize aluminum for its lightweight, rust-free construction," he says.