When Nancy Gold first started Tough Traveler 40 years ago, backpacks weren’t like they are now—especially regarding comfort. Single-strap, small briefcases were the norm and often caused much discomfort for those using them. It even led to students carrying their books to avoid shoulder pain. Eventually, two-strap bags, now known as backpacks, started to gain popularity. Not finding a comfortable bag for herself, Gold took to the drawing board to capitalize on the new fashion trend while focusing on a relaxed fit using materials produced in the United States.
“It seems random, but it really was about comfort for ourselves. There was nothing like it [comfortable bags] that we knew of,” Gold explains.
The company, which focuses on the manufacture and sale of luggage, bag and pack products, often mixes old designs with new and innovative patterns. Being fans of customizations, Tough Traveler often works with its customers to create bags for their liking—adding cosmetic details as necessary.
“It really is a service company, not just a design and manufacturing business,” Gold says. “If someone looks at one of our bags and wants a pocket, we can add one for them.”
A natural problem solver, Gold finds herself constantly searching for ways to help people and often finds solutions within her own business. Tough Traveler’s popular laptop backpacks represent a unique product borne from her problem-solving method to benefit others.
“When laptops first became popular, we thought about how people would transport them. Surely they wouldn’t carry laptops in their hands?” she explains. “Our solution back then is the same product we make today because of its durability.”
Innovation didn’t stop there, though. The company branched out to different types of bags: luggage, duffle bags, fanny packs and even dog backpacks, which have become a staple on their website. The Fido-friendly bag allows customers to carry their pet with them wherever they go. It’s something that becomes a necessity as dogs start to age and are less mobile.
“The dog backpacks are sort of intriguing because many people are attached to their dogs. Instead of leaving their dog at home, our packs allow owners to take them on the go,” Gold explains. “Since designing our first backpack to carry dogs, we knew there would be a use for it. We think of ideas—not so much out of desperation—but what people need and how we can deliver on that.”
Gold’s need to help others isn’t just limited to carrying electronics and furry friends, however. Tough Travelers’ emergency responder bags are designed to have appropriate capacity and compartments for much-needed supplies. Gold says that the company’s bags are used by responders during medical crisis and have the durability to handle any scenario.
Durable is just one way to describe Tough Traveler’s bags. In fact, durability is part of the reason behind the company’s name. Using strong, reliable material is crucial to the bags’ production process. Gold explains that the company continues to make its products in the United States due to the availability of high-quality materials. The company sources fabric and foam from other small businesses that also manufacture in America. While sourcing challenges exist, Tough Traveler has the support of these businesses to help keep it focused.
“We want our products to last a long, long time, and they generally do. If we don’t buy it [U.S. made products], how will they [the companies] stay in business?” Gold says. “We stuck to that method to help preserve small businesses because we appreciate the quality. The U.S. must maintain the textile industry because when we need it, where will we find it? And if we don’t help maintain it, who will?”
U.S.-made products are typically hard to find in retail stores. With that challenge comes the need to remain flexible. By staying curious and noticing the needs of its customers, Tough Traveler has remained on top of the ever-changing fashion trends. No design is set in stone at the company, but as fashion often repeats itself, there are times when certain styles are more popular than ever. Gold cites the fanny packs as a design that she never gave up on because she knew it would come back around eventually.
Along with customization, Tough Traveler also offers bag restoration, though Gold says that request doesn’t come as often.
“I think that’s how we stayed in business—we remained flexible, but not flexible enough where they [backpacks] were made offshore,” she says. “You really need people that are interested in this sort of thing. You need the jobs for people that have these skills and to give them jobs in places that are adequate to work in.We need people to continue to come to us and ask for help. If at some point we don’t have the right manpower or equipment, we know how to accommodate them in the future.”
Loyalty continues to drive Tough Traveler. Originally starting out with just two employees, the company has grown to as large as 150 workers manufacturing the bags that are widely loved by many. Gold says that every day she receieves comments from customers who have purchased her bags saying they will never use anything else. While bringing joy, the comments bolster Tough Traveler’s history as a product people can rely on.
“A lot of our business is based on the history we have. We have a history of good quality, good design and reliability, which keeps people coming back to us,” Gold says. “Being made in the U.S.A. is very important to some people, and it’s important to us too—it’s why we’re still here.”