Arguably the premiere authority on merino wool technology, First Lite co-founder Kenton Carruth talks clothing, camo, and conservation.
If camouflage printed merino wool has its place in your hunting ensemble, chances are you have a clothing company based in Ketchum, Idaho to thank. Specifically First Lite, co-founded by Scott Robinson and Kenton Carruth. I had the opportunity to speak with Kenton via phone to learn more about the beginnings of First Lite, their commitment to hunting and conservation, and various components of their successes and future plans.
Debuting at the SHOT Show in 2007 with just three base layer pieces, First Lite brought the amazing abilities of merino wool to the camo-clad hunting community. Merino wool, as a garment, was not a new outdoor discovery, as many mountaineering companies had used merino base layers for years prior. What changed Kenton’s and Scott’s future was being able to offer the quick drying and exceptionally breathable material in a camouflage pattern.
“Had there been another camo printed merino base layer on the market at the time, I would’ve been just as happy to have bought and used it and continued on with my photography career,” Carruth stated.
As outdoorsmen and winter sports enthusiasts, Kenton and Scott had an extensive background with merino winter athletic wear. “We noticed after a day of skiing and snowboarding, hiking and climbing, and sweating like crazy that there was very little odor, if any, and we realized that this fabric would be a great asset in the elk woods in the fall,” Kenton said. He added that the early hurdle to get over was printing a hunter-friendly pattern on the textile, a feat that hadn’t been accomplished before.
Finding a Pattern
“At that time there were great merino products available in base layers, but they were all solid primary colors,” Kenton told me. “We didn’t want to have to pair a subpar mid weight product in a camo pattern with the product we wanted to exclusively use.” The building blocks of First Lite would rest on the foundation of being able to print a camouflage pattern on merino wool.
Eventually, it was ASAT that provided the pattern that appeared on the SHOT Show floor over eight years ago. In 2010 MossyOak and Realtree patterns became available on First Lite pieces, and in late 2014 hunters would be introduced to the brand’s proprietary pattern, Fusion.
When asked what separates First Lite from the myriad of competitors both natural and synthetic, Carruth responded, “The scent control we have as a result of merino’s breathability and quick drying characteristics are a definite top quality.” Another advantage with the merino material is greater heat retention when wet. Like its heavier and thicker material cousin, sheep’s wool, merino retains a large part of its original insulation properties even when soaked through. This allows the wearer to “Go Farther” and “Stay Longer” as the First Lite tagline implies.
Being hunters and outdoorsmen/women themselves, the staff at First Lite also serves as the bridge between new products and the general consumer. “As hunters, we are aware of the relationship our customers have with their gear and we hold a mutual respect for their knowledge for what does and does not work in the field,” Kenton added. “Every one of our employees has the opportunity to test our products in a wide variety of situations from blacktail hunts in Alaska to morel hunting here in Idaho. If a product comes back with issues, we put our effort into fixing those issues before we offer it to our customers.”
For the Cause
The emphasis on being part of the hunting community, rather than just equipping it, is further evident in the First Lite position on conservation. In early 2015 the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers (BHA), a conservation group that advocates for responsible practices on public land amongst many other things, voted to award First Lite with the first Larry Fischer award.
“Responsible public access is vital to the success and continuation of hunting and the lifestyle that goes with it,” Kenton said. The award itself stands as a reminder that outdoor businesses have a vested responsibility as stewards of the outdoors. Kenton emphasized that.
“Keeping public land public is a priority for our company and BHA is an entity that works that ideal,” he said, before adding that most conservation minded groups give hunters a great advocate to utilize when we “vote with our money.”
“We feel fortunate to be in the position to be an active voice for conservation. Our roles as hunters and outdoorsmen require a level of stewardship for what we participate in,” Kenton stated.
On the Horizon
As the front runner in merino hunting wear, the bar has been set (albeit by themselves) to remain in that position. Kenton had this to say on First Lite’s future and growing celebrity status: “What we do really brings us happiness. We live it and practice it and strive to continue to bring a high quality product to the hunting community. By staying true to the hunting culture and lifestyle we feel our customers will continue to support our business.”
They are not alone in carrying that torch. The prostaff at First Lite includes some of the hunting community’s most recognizable celebrities. Fred Eichler and Steven Rinella, both stalwarts on outdoor network programming schedules, proudly sport the Idaho-based company’s product lines. Multiple Full Draw Film Tour submission qualifiers Born and Raised Outdoors, are staunch representatives of the ASAT pattern that helped establish First Lite nearly a decade ago.
Perhaps their most unlikely and unsponsored support comes from comedian/podcast guru/MMA commentator Joe Rogan, who has repeatedly mentioned the merino line of hunting wear on his podcast and has been seen sporting the gear in recent magazine photos.
“It’s a great feeling to have guys like Steve and Fred, who are great spokesmen for hunting and conservation, to be on the First Lite prostaff,” Kenton said, “and to have someone as recognizable (outside of the hunting community) as Joe mention and wear our products is kind of surreal.” Carruth was adamant that celebrity endorsement notwithstanding, the cultural mission to focus on high quality gear and an active conservation role would remain at the forefront for the First Lite team.
What seems like the “American Dream” realized doesn’t allow for the company to rest on its laurels. Research and development into product progression and potentially expanded line offerings continues in the Ketchum offices and in wilderness settings nationwide. Kenton and his staff truly walk the walk when it comes to living and supporting the hunting lifestyle and conservation movement, and they do so with a level of customer accessibility that is rarely rivaled in the outdoor industry.
If you have product specific questions, concerns, or just want to say “Hi,” check out the First Lite website for contact information. You’ll be hard pressed to find a friendlier, more knowledgeable group of folks around.