Rogue Panda: Dedicated. Rugged. Relentlessly Custom.
Rogue Panda is one of the best custom bag makers out there. Inspired by the local terrain of Arizona, Rogue Panda approaches bag making with a 'singletrack first' process. This ensures that their bags are ready for anything. Grab a coffee and enjoy our chat with Rogue Panda founder Nick Smolinske about how it all started, where it's going and about a special new bag they have been working on. Let's go.
Almost three years ago, I was looking to get my first custom bikepacking bag made for my new 2020 Surly Krampus. Until this point I was buying off the shelf bags which never really left me smiling inside. After a week of research I had narrowed it down to 2 or 3 makers who looked like they could handle the job. Rogue Panda designs was not on that list until a friend whose opinion I really trust said to me very plainly “don't mess around … get a Rogue Panda”. So I did.
I initially had doubts on how any company could create a bag for an inner triangle without seeing the bike in person. However, the Rogue Panda website was clear that this was their specialty utilizing a proprietary process they called Pandavision. Pandavision. I had a small chuckle at the name but ultimately I was sold, and I knew it. The Rogue Panda experience was fantastic from start to finish and the team blew me away at every step. Of course they were already prepared for my Krampus as they had probably knocked out 100s of frame bags for them before mine. I'll never forget how the bag showed up in a box without much fanfare which flared my doubts once again. Alas, the bag fit perfectly and ended any skepticism of remote custom bag building full stop. The bag has not come off my Krampus once in almost three years as you can see here. And I'm not sure it ever will.
I was absolutely stoked when Rogue Panda founder Nick Smolinske agreed to chat about how they became one of the best bikepacking bag makers on the planet. I was even more excited when he started telling me about a new dropper post bag that they were working on and how they started a crowdfunding project to produce it.
How and when did Rogue Panda enter the world?
The Rogue Panda brand launched in 2014, but the journey started a year earlier when I kept hurting my knees on hikes in the Grand Canyon. That led to me trying to lighten up my load. To do that, I broke out my mom's old sewing machine and started making my own lightweight tents, sleeping bags and backpacks. Once I had the gear-making bug, I started looking for other things to sew, and after an accidental bikepacking trip (that was meant to be a bike shuttle) I started making bikepacking bags. Soon I was taking requests from friends and decided to try to make a business out of it.
How did you land on the name “Rogue Panda” and what does it mean exactly?
The name comes from a peculiar act of vandalism that happened back in 2011, when I was in Flagstaff working for a conservation corps. On our way home from work one day, we passed an electronic road sign that had been hacked to say “Rogue Panda on Rampage”. When I was trying to pick a name for my bikepacking brand a few years later, it popped in my head and wouldn't leave.
Even though it started out as a bit of a joke, the name has come to symbolize our company ethos. Going our own way and innovating rather than following the crowd, and always keeping a sense of humor about ourselves while we're doing it.
Rogue Panda is known as one of the best at what it does. How do you think it got this reputation?
Tireless self-improvement, and a commitment to customer service. We're always trying new things and improving our processes and our products. We're big fans of reinventing the wheel - it's the only way to get better wheels!
What inspires you at the moment?
Lately, I've been inspired by dropper-compatible seat bags. It's been a long-term obsession with prototypes dating back at least to 2016. But the newest design is a leap forward in terms of tire clearance and stability, and we're really proud of it. Actually bringing one to market is a lot trickier than other products we've made, because we can't make everything in-house.
Great segue… What can you tell us about your new seat bag?
Our new Ripsey seat bag is the culmination of years spent working on dropper-compatible seat bags. We've sold a couple models over the years, and developed even more prototypes that never made it to market. However, this design is better than everything that's come before it. We created an injection-molded nylon harness that's more durable, stiffer, and lighter weight than sewn options. Most importantly, it's way better at keeping the bag away from your tire! Minimum tire clearance is just 3 inches at half capacity, and 4 inches at the full 8 liter volume.
We are crowdfunding the project because the startup costs are high for a small company like ours. Just creating the mold for the harness will cost more than all of the sewing machines we've bought in the past 8 years! We could take out loans to get the project started, but we'd end up paying the bank a lot of interest. Instead we're giving that money to our customers by doing a preorder sale to collect our startup costs. That way our customers get a good deal and we get the startup capital we need. It's a win-win for everybody (except the bank).
Check out the Ripsey crowdsourcing project on the Rogue Panda site.
What is PandaVision and how does it work?
Pandavision is our process for turning photos of bikes into custom-fit frame bags. We were the first to use photos instead of cardboard templates, starting back in 2014 with our very first frame bag. Originally I used math to scale out a triangle, then we switched to projecting images onto a table a few years later. Our next process update happened in 2020, when I was quarantined at home and started playing around in Inkscape, an open-source vector graphics program. Now all of our template-making is done digitally, which has the added benefit of making it easier to do custom one-off printed bags.
How important is in-house production to you?
It's very important. Making our bags here makes it easier to ensure that our workers are making a living wage and have a healthy work environment. One example of where this shows is in our product design. We've developed and redeveloped tons of gear over the years, and seeing the bags being made in our shop has changed the way I view the process. Sometimes we'll have a design that produces a good final product, but it gets reworked because it requires too much crimping finger manipulation to sew, which is a carpal tunnel risk long-term. This is something we would have easily overlooked if we outsourced production.
How does being from Arizona affect how you make your products?
Arizona is home to some really epic and tough bikepacking routes—The Arizona Trail being the most well-known, but not the only. These trails influence our products quite a bit. Our default assumption when we think of “bikepacking” is someone riding a full suspension bike on rocky, steep singletrack. Our bags work great for all kinds of bikepacking, but designing for singletrack first ensures that our bags will be durable enough to take anywhere.
What is the one 'must ride' in Arizona?
There are so many! I already talked about the Arizona Trail, but the Black Canyon Trail is another classic that is pretty awesome. It's a great winter ride that can be looped with dirt roads up Black Canyon, with the Fool's Loop route, or by running a shuttle. It goes through some quintessential southwest landscapes, with saguaro and cholla cactus galore.
What's the future of Rogue Panda?
In the immediate future, we've got so many product updates it's a bit dizzying. The biggest one is the Ripsey seat bag, but we've also redesigned our Bismarck Bottle Bucket and we're launching a snack-oriented handlebar bucket called the Happy Jack Snack Sack (all of our bags are named after sections of the Arizona Trail, and this seemed like the best opportunity to use the Happy Jack name).
Once those are all out, I'll probably take a long break from new product development. So for 2023, I hope to focus on creating useful video content, and making the process of ordering bikepacking bags even easier and more streamlined.
I always get a kick out of hearing how companies like Rogue Panda get started and continue to operate. As they say, anyone can have an idea but execution is everything. When I reflect on my experience ordering and using my Rogue Panda bag, it seems that Nick and his team really sweat the details on how it all comes together. Almost as if a bike bag is much more than just a bag. And with this being the case, we can't wait to see how the Ripsey comes together.