Story Highlights:

  • Outdoor gear manufacturer ust completed a move to Columbia, Missouri, in 2019.
  • ust conceives, designs, and tests its gear in the Missouri Ozarks.
  • ust is working to create a diverse, inclusive outdoor culture in Missouri.

It’s possible you’ve not heard of ust — all lowercase — even though the outdoor equipment manufacturer conceives, designs, and tests its gear in the Missouri Ozarks. But don’t worry. The company, which completed a move to Columbia in 2019, plans to change that.

“We really want to speak to the Midwest. We want to get as entrenched and engaged as we can,” said Brand Manager John Holdmeier. “We’re taking this opportunity to re-imagine what ust can be moving forward.”

People literally have been trusting their lives to ust since 1936. Formerly known as Ultimate Survival Technologies, the brand began in the Northeast as a manufacturer of marine rescue gear, then expanded into survivalist camping equipment. As time went by, it branched into recreational products and accessories.

Last year marked the release of a new-look product line created right in “our backyard” by the 10 employees who make up the team at ust headquarters. (American Outdoor Brands Inc., the parent company of ust, is based in Columbia.)

ust Highlander 2-person tent

ust Highlander two-person tent.

The new collection includes the Highlander two-person backpacking tent, Monarch sleeping bag, Fillmatic sleeping mat, Freestyle lightweight backpacking sleeping mat, House Party four-person tent, House Party six-person tent, and Swerve hip pack (see our sidebar for a detailed look at two of the products). The new creations are intentionally fun and accessible, says Holdmeier, while also being innovative and functional.

“A lot of brands source whatever the manufacturer has. The result is imitative products,” he said. “All of our designs come from in-house. They solve problems and are suitable for entry level but tested in the Ozarks, so they stand up to hard use.”

The re-imagining of ust goes beyond product development, says Holdmeier. The company is also trying to distance itself from the competition by “being outdoors, not being outdoorsy”.

“A lot of brands, their branding looks similar. I see a lot of epic pictures of similar-looking people staring out over crystal-clear lakes,” he said. “It’s a challenge for a brand to look different. We don’t want to promote the ‘gear snob’ culture.”

Holdmeier has sought out a diverse network of relatable people in the Midwest to contribute stories to the ust website and social media platforms. One such storyteller is Jennifer Potts from Southern Illinois, a hair stylist and co-owner True North Expeditions, a business offering guided backpacking, hiking, kayaking, camping, and yoga-based events throughout the Midwest.

Jennifer Potts - True North Expeditions

Jennifer Potts is a ust storyteller.

“As a 36-year-old woman who’s not modelish, I feel like ust is a brand that represents the outdoors as real, rugged, and authentic,” said Potts. “I like the fact that they approached someone like me, who doesn’t fit the mold, and they work with people of color. I think it’s important that people know the outdoors are for every body and every person.”

Potts, a big fan of ust’s compact cooking kits, says she looks forward to submitting blogs for the brand’s website and is especially interested in promoting Midwest exploration and working to diversify the outdoors.

“We’re sort of the underdog of the outdoor industry,” Potts said of the Midwest. “But we really have everything — mountain bike trails, long-distance trails, rivers, mountains, lakes—and it’s beautiful and unspoiled.

“Also, with more people getting outdoors than ever, it’s important to educate them on responsible outdoorsmanship, because we want the natural outdoors to be here for years to come,” she continued.

Holdmeier agrees, adding that he thinks the Midwest region is “having a cool moment” as more people are discovering its many charms and settings. It’s a sentiment reflected on ust’s revamped website: “We feel incredibly lucky to have the rolling hills and hollers of the Ozark Mountains for our backyard…product testing, exploring, work, play…the lines get blurry.”

Despite being relatively new to Columbia and the regional outdoors, ust already is making strong community partnerships. It provides promotional gear to the local Boy Scouts council and throughout the COVID-19 pandemic has been donating camping and survival equipment to help homeless people in the area. It also donates gear to Missouri River Relief for the nonprofit organization’s water cleanup initiatives.

“These opportunities are truly special and make a direct impact on the community,” said Holdmeier, “and that feels good.”

ust Monarch Sleeping Bag

Monarch Sleeping Bag
Two removeable “wings” fold open or closed for amazing temperature control. Plus, there’s a hood with pillow sleeve, front pocket for your valuables, and overstuffed footbox with a zippered vent. Unprecedented versatility. $270.

ust Swerve Hip Pack

Swerve Hip Pack
Thanks to its modular design, this pack can be worn with or without the side pockets and can even be attached to your bike’s handlebars using the integrated tabs. A fleece-lined pocket in the main compartment keeps your phone or sunglasses safe. $70.

Author: Brad Kovach is the editor/publisher if Terrain Magazine.