Kelly Belknap and Matilda Sandstroem are doers. Struck by the poverty they encountered while traveling through Eastern Europe in 2017, the husband-and-wife duo filled their backpacks with extra apples, bread, and water to pass out to those in need. When they returned home to Denver and noticed a gap in the backpack market, they started brainstorming how to launch a travel-and-adventure-focused pack brand. And keen to help families that face food scarcity, they decided—like Toms Shoes, Warby Parker, and other brands they respected—their fledgling company would have a give-back component.

Last month, their business, Adventurist Backpack Co., celebrated its sixth birthday and its best year on record. Perhaps an even more impressive milestone is that the pair has now donated more than 370,000 meals for hungry families through a partner nonprofit, Feeding America. “As we grow,” Belknap says, “we’re hoping that we can have more influence in other areas, just to tell other brands, ‘Hey, this is a good idea to give back in some way.’”

Belknap says that six years ago, he and Sandstroem might have hoped to be where they are today. But considering that neither knew much about running a company, they didn’t necessarily expect it. Originally from Sweden, Sandstroem crossed the pond in 2014 to be an au pair for a family near Denver. She stayed stateside after meeting (and eventually marrying) Belknap, who’s from Colorado and graduated from Colorado State University.

What they lacked in real-world business experience, however, they made up for with an eye for design, an understanding of what travelers want (combined visits to more than 30 countries will do that), and what Sandstroem calls an “entrepreneurial spirit.”

Adventurist co-founders Matilda Sandstroem and Kelly Belknap. Photo courtesy of Adventurist Backpack Co.

Throughout their travels, they’d seen plenty of backpacks. Some were rugged, with high denier stitching and waterproof coating to protect gear inside from the rigors of the trail. Others were style-forward with sleek lines and city-ready color palettes. Still others were affordable—but lacked durability, style, and an impressive brand name. The duo had yet to find a backpack that met their desired criteria: high-quality materials, fashionable aesthetic, and a sub-$100 price. “If we were feeling this way,” Sandstroem says, “then there were probably other people out there that were feeling the same way.”

Putting the interior design degree she earned in 2016 to use, Sandstroem sketched out what would become the Adventurist Classic. Water-resistant and durable thanks to a 1,000-denier fabric construction, the 16-liter backpack features YKK zippers and vegan leather straps. Today, the Classic remains the company’s best-selling backpack.

While Adventurist has managed to grow its sales every year, some time periods—2020 most notably—were more difficult than others. During the pandemic, Adventurist centered its messaging around how well its packs work for hiking and biking and began focusing more heavily on social media, email marketing efforts, and direct-to-consumer sales strategies. Although Belknap and Sandstroem knew 2020 might be a lean year from a business perspective, the two never considered redirecting funds earmarked for donations back into Adventurist. Instead, the two increased the company’s giving, and for April, May, and June 2020, helped to provide 50 meals to families in need for each item sold.

The Sidekick Crossbody bag. Photo courtesy of Adventurist Backpack Co.

By spring 2021, Belknap and Sandstroem felt ready to begin expanding with the introduction of the Sidekick Crossbody. A year later, Adventurist added two sling bags, the Summit and the Nomad, to the line. “We like to design bags that we ourselves find a need for,” Belknap says. And as they did in the beginning, they “just hope that other people will also want it.”

Belknap and Sandstroem know Adventurist’s success won’t mean the end of food scarcity. But the couple hopes to encourage other businesses to establish their own give-back models for their preferred causes. In short, they hope others start “doing” too. “We really believe that in the United States, business and capitalism, the way it’s set up, that’s a great tool to be able to give back,” Belknap says, “and actually solve problems in sustainable ways.”