With the beginning of a new year, we’re all gearing up for what we all hope to be an adventurous and exciting 2021. In addition to the fresh season, the folks at Chicken Tramper Ultralight Gear are celebrating 2 years of building quality ultralight products for the hiking community.
As they dive into their third year, we learn about the guys who build the gear and where their journey started.
Chicken Tramper Roots
Chicken Tramper Ultralight Gear (CTUG) is the creative handiwork of Austin Gongos and Nathan Ackerman. The two met in school in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula - a place where nature is close at hand.
“Since the beginning of mine and Nathan’s friendship, we dreamed of starting a business together with the goal of being our own bosses. The dream then was about avoiding the standard path and being in charge of our own time. We had no clue what the business might be or what it would look like,” says Austin.
That dream became clear after a life-changing thru-hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. Leading up to the trip, Austin struggled to find the perfect backpack. It needed to be durable enough to last thousands of miles. He needed a comfortable pack that also had the right features. And of course, it needed to fit into a college students’ budget.
Unable to find a pack that checked all the boxes, Austin began to research how to build his own.
Interested in the experiment, Nathan got on board making his own pack. Finally, the time arrived for them to put the gear - and themselves - to the test.
What followed was a transformative experience for them both. Hiking the trail made clear to Austin and Nathan how much they loved the hiking community. And along the way, the idea for making ultralight backpacks came into focus.
Excited about this new idea, Austin began surveying other hikers about their own backpacks as he continued the hike.
Nathan and Austin went back home with their own experience, a new dream, and hiker surveys in hand. Ready to dive in, they began building Chicken Tramper Ultralight Gear. “We found our spark,” says Austin, “and fanned it as hard as we could.”
Chicken Tramper Today
Two years into the business, Austin and Nathan are making several styles of ultralight backpacks. They’re also making ultralight fanny packs, camera bags, shoulder strap accessories, and more.
They’ve grown from a 2 man, 1 sewing machine operation to a full-time business. They’re now hiring employees, buying more sewing machines, and filling a constant stream of orders. Austin and Nathan are proud of the progress they’ve made over the last couple of years - and really excited about the new sewing machines.
While a lot has changed, the guys at Chicken Tramper are still doing what they first dreamed of while hiking the PCT.
Says Nathan, “The most rewarding part is seeing pictures or hearing stories from people that are on the trail using our gear. It’s great to see people out in the wild enjoying the gear that we made.”
Through all these changes, Austin and Nathan recognize the support that’s helped get them to where they are. They’re thankful for many people, including the hikers, friends, and loyal customers who’ve given design input and helped with product testing.
In addition to these individuals, the duo notes the impact of other companies, like Garage Grown Gear, who gave them crucial exposure in the ultralight hiking community.
While Nathan and Austin are fans of other backpacks and hiking gear, they do think there are some things that make CTUG products unique.
“I would say that our gear is for ultralight hikers that still want durable gear they can depend on. We strive to make our gear as light as possible, but not at the sacrifice of durability. We want people to be able to travel light with our bags, but also be able to use them for multiple thru-hikes.”
Austin and Nathan credit their schooling for giving them a leg up on the design process: “We also have an emphasis on durability and use our engineering degrees to ensure that our packs will last for thousands of miles.”
While extremely durable and light, CTUG backpacks are also customizable. Nathan and Austin build each pack with customer measurements and color preferences.
Austin says that though they enjoy other brands’ gear, “it’s hard to find another backpack brand that puts such an emphasis on the customer’s choice.”
With their incredible attention to detail and dedication to customer service, Austin and Nathan do everything they can to deliver products that hikers will love. The company values consumer feedback so much, they have an entire Prototype Corner dedicated to collecting it.
Says Austin: “We had ideas for products but didn’t have the time to fully develop them or take them out on the trail to test.”
Rather than putting these ideas on the back burner, they decided to start building these products at a prototype level. They then sell them to loyal customers at a reduced price in exchange for taking a detailed survey. From there, they make thoughtful improvements on the prototype product until it meets the standards for the full product line.
After two years of growth and a whole lot of field testing, Austin and Nathan point to a few of their featured products for 2021.
First, the CTUG-25 Day Pack has migrated over from the Prototype Corner to become a full-fledged product. This pack is ideal for a long day hike or a quick overnight and comes with the best features of the bigger CTUG packs.
At 1 lb 5 oz, the CTUG-25 doesn’t compromise weight for utility. A removable hip belt, accessory-compatible shoulder straps, and generous exterior pockets allow major flexibility. Fully pack it for a 20-mile day, or cinch it down for a light jaunt.
The Sh!t Kit has also emerged from the Prototype Corner as a bestselling accessory. After the year we’ve had, we all know how valuable a resource toilet paper is, so why not take extra care?
The Sh!t Kit is the ultralight solution to keeping your “bathroom” essentials clean, dry, and organized. Weighing in at 2.1 ounces, the Sh!t Kit features a separate external pocket for your trowel and a waterproof interior for keeping your clean TP dry.
Cheers to Another Year
As the new year begins, Austin and Nathan look forward to the continued growth of Chicken Tramper Ultralight Gear.
“What excites me about the next year is that if we continue our growth trend of the past two years, we will in all likelihood need to solve a lot of problems that are good problems to have,” says Austin.
“Keeping up with orders, making [...] space in the shop to accommodate employees, finding new ways to reach out to customers through YouTube, email, and other social platforms” are just a few of the “good problems” they’re ready to tackle.
As we look toward the new year and reflect on those behind us, let’s take a cue from the guys at Chicken Tramper Ultralight Gear. It’s been a tough year for everyone, but we can all move forward, one day at a time.
Here’s Austin, referencing his PCT hike:
“There was a moment early on [...] where my friends from home were hiking a section with me. They pointed to a map of the trail and I noticed how far I had traveled.
“I felt like the last few weeks had been a long time, that I’d made progress, but from 10,000 feet looking at a map of the entire trail, I had only moved a few centimeters.
“That moment taught me some perspective and I reflect on it even now. I kept putting in the miles, the work, every day, and while day-to-day I did not notice the change in how far [..] I got, over time all those days’ work added up to thousands of miles.
“I keep that idea with me today when I’m working on the mountain of orders we have thinking we’ll never reach the end, but hard work every day pays off in the end.”
Cheers to a year of hard work, big rewards, and of course, quality time on the trail.