Photo by Will Mantani
Chicken Tramper Ultralight Gear started to take shape in early 2018 when Michigan Tech fraternity brothers Austin Gongos and Nathan Ackerman prepared to head out West to hike the Pacific Crest Trail.
They soon accepted the harsh reality that the backpacking gear they owned was much too heavy, and brand new gear was downright costly.
So, the two mechanical engineers, inspired by the Make Your Own Gear (MYOG) forums and websites, went to work.
“I made a million mistakes,” Nathan laughed. Then, pointing to Austin, “he made a million, minus 10.”
That spring, after a lot of trial and error, Austin, who was equipped with a custom, handmade backpack and a few accessories, set out to thru-hike the PCT. Nathan, who had a full-time engineering job at Milwaukee Tools, jumped on the trail a bit later.
While on the trail, the guys, in true thru-hiker fashion totally geeked out over gear.
“More and more people were asking about my backpack,” Austin said. “The more they asked, the more we realized there are some things people want, and some things people don’t want, in their gear.”
Austin called them “pack interviews,” and would talk packs with any hiker who was willing. “Most people took me up on it. People were pretty excited to be a part of improving gear.”
Through these pack interviews, Austin and Nathan got some big ideas. “Hikers stress lightweight and durability, but they’re not mutually exclusive. Different companies ride that line differently. We try and find a good place in there,” Austin said.
That first winter off trail, Austin and Nathan made themselves LLC-official, and in addition to custom packs, began making and selling essential ultralight accessories, such as water bottle sleeves, phone pockets, chest-strap pockets and fanny packs.
Their fun and unique brand name, Chicken Tramper, didn’t come easy, though. Austin described the challenge: “As engineers, we stress function over form.” The brand name wasn’t a top priority. “What we cared about was making a good product.”
But, before the name, they did have the chicken head logo dialed in. It was a timeless, silly inside joke among their fraternity family. “We just love chickens,” Nathan laughed.
And after learning Tramper meant ‘hiker’ or ‘backpacker’ to New Zealanders, they locked it in.
That winter, Nathan’s room in their two bedroom apartment became the sewing room/workshop. To save a little space and money, he slept on his camping pad under the workbench. “I was very close to our work,” he laughed.
They had rock-solid prototypes, a witty name and a crafty logo, but they didn’t want to just start selling backpacks without more substantial product testing.
“We still didn’t know that they’d last for 2,000-3,000 miles, so we offered a discount for 2019 thru-hikers,” Austin explained.
In exchange for updates, feedback, and photos of their experiences, thru-hikers clad in Chicken Tramper gear hit trails last summer.
If something broke, Austin and Nathan fixed it. If repair sewing kits were needed, they sent those to hikers on the trail.
Receiving feedback from hikers on their creations has been invaluable to Austin and Nathan, especially when it all just starts with rolls of fabric and bags of miscellaneous hardware.
“It’s just incredible to see something I made on the back of someone who is walking 2,000 miles, with a smile on their face. I can’t get over how people love what we made. We feel like we have something pretty special. We feel a big attachment to it,” Austin said.
Photo by Spencer Lacy
This passion is really what inspires them, and gets them up in the morning. Nathan added, “And, we’ve got orders to fill! We gotta get up in the morning!”
Everything is done in-house by the team of two. While they both share sewing duties, Austin took on the task of marketing. “Trying to get our gear out there in a responsible way is interesting,” he said. “We just want to make sure customers know exactly what they’re gonna get.”
Nathan takes on a larger portion of the business side. “As engineers, we’re used to making things, patterns are more acquirable to us. But the legal and business stuff can be daunting. Eventually, once you figure out what to do, it’s only a couple pieces of paperwork; we’ve faced a huge learning curve on that.”
In the coming year, Chicken Tramper wants to move some prototypes off the page and onto the cutting board, and keep ramping up exposure, too.
Not surprisingly, the guys both found their time on the PCT life changing.
“It opened my eyes to how big our world is,” Nathan said.
He affectionately described his “Midwestern bubble” of a home as “nice and green in the summer, or it’s snowing all time!”
But, “Seeing the desert as such an alien place, then going through the mountains; real mountains and real big trees! It was mind blowing!”
“Just being outdoors and living on our own in the middle of the woods, you learn a lot about yourself and what you can and can’t handle. It was a huge character builder for me.”
Austin agreed. “After college, I was just checking all the boxes, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do. Now I just want to walk through all the wild places America has to offer and then beyond.”
Getting outside and driving this appetite for adventure is the hope for the brand, as well.
“We’re super passionate about getting outside,” Austin said. “If we can make things that get people enjoying it out there, and instill a passion for the outdoors, and caring for the environment, all for the best.”