Skip Yowell, a passionate outdoorsman who helped found JanSport, a leading producer of backpacks, died on Wednesday, October 14th, 2015 in St. Peter, Kan. He was 69
His sister, Diana Crouch, confirmed his death and said that he had battled lung cancer.
Fueled by a 1960s back-to-nature craze and a love of the outdoors, Mr. Yowell and a cousin, Murray Pletz, started JanSport in 1967 in a spare room above a Seattle office belonging to Mr. Yowell’s uncle. The company was named after Mr. Pletz’s girlfriend, who became his wife.
JanSport soon grew into a multimillion-dollar business.
“His whole life was outdoors and introducing it to generations of people. That was so important to him,” Ms. Crouch said.
Mr. Yowell never lost his passion for nature, but when America’s love of camping cooled in the 1980s, companies making outdoor goods had toadapt.
JanSport’s initial focus was on external-frame backpacks, the type commonly used by hikers, but by the mid-1980s those packs made up just 20 percent of the company’s sales. Day packs, the kind students often use to lug around their pencils and books, made up half.
The VF Corporation, a lifestyle brand based in Greensboro, N.C., purchased JanSport in 1986. Since then, the company’s backpacks haveevolved to meet the needs of a changing world. Its customers, now more apt to be students than mountaineers, need backpacks to be water-resistant to protect their smartphones, tablets and other electronic gear.
Harold Murray Yowell was born on July 5, 1946, in Hays, Kan. His father, Harold, worked in the oil well business. His mother, Marjorie, was a homemaker taking care of four siblings.
After graduating from Great Bend High School in Great Bend, Kan., Mr. Yowell attended Wichita State University and then Fort Hays State University but did not graduate, Ms. Crouch said.
Mr. Yowell soon joined his cousin in Seattle. Mr. Pletz’s idea for an adjustable backpack had won some money in a design competition, and he enlisted Mr. Yowell and other family members to help him start a company.
Mr. Pletz promised his girlfriend, Jan Lewis, that if she married him, he would name the company after her.
It was several years until JanSport got real office space. Ms. Lewis helped with the sewing, while Mr. Pletz led the design work. Mr. Yowell was the salesman and would lecture the others on the importance of marketing the brand.
“Every day we heard, ‘Marketing!’ ” Ms. Crouch recalled.
At the time of his death, Mr. Yowell held the title of vice president for global public relations.
Ann Daw, the vice president for marketing, said that until his failing health prevented it, Mr. Yowell would often drive four and a half hours to the Denver airport to fly to Indonesia, Brazil or anywhere else he was needed to promote the brand.
“The hardest thing for him over the last 10 months was that he couldn’t travel,” she said.
Besides his sister, survivors include his wife, Winnie Kingsbury; a daughter, Quinn; a stepdaughter, Wesley Kingsbury; a stepson, Hunt Kingsbury; and a brother, Lindsey.
Mr. Yowell’s lifelong love of nature had material results. He and Mr. Pletz came up with the idea for a dome tent after being caught in a snowstorm on Mount Rainier.
He was a founding member of the Outdoor Industry Association, a trade group, and worked with the Big City Mountaineers, a wilderness mentorship program.
“Things just took off,” Mr. Yowell once said. In the beginning, he added, his major worry “was whether I was going to have enough money to go skiing.”
A version of this article appears in print on October 18, 2015, on page A28 of the New York edition with the headline: Skip Yowell, 69; Blazed Trail for Backpacks.