As if thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada wasn’t enough of a challenge, Austin Gongos decided he needed to make his own gear for the 2,000-mile-plus trek.
That decision ultimately led Gongos to co-found the Hancock-based Chicken Tramper Ultralight Gear with a friend from college.
Preparing for that trip, the college buddies found that their backpacks were too big, too heavy and had too many unnecessary features.
“So we decided to teach ourselves how to sew and found patterns online and kind of worked with each other on designs and made all of our own gear to go and hike,” said Chicken Tramper’s co-founder Nathan Ackerman, who joined Gongos on a portion of his 2018 PCT thru-hike.
The company founders working in their shop.
“While we were out there, we got a lot of really good compliments and cool feedback from people that thought it was really neat we were making all our stuff,” he added.
Gongos and Ackerman met when they were both in a fraternity while studying mechanical engineering at Michigan Technological University in Houghton.
At Michigan Tech, the two had always talked about starting a business but weren’t sure what form it would take.
“As we were graduating, Austin decided to hike on the Pacific Crest Trail,” Ackerman recalled. “He decided he was going to hike out there and so I decided to come out with him.”
That trip provided insight into their futures and their gear company.
“Everybody out there (on the PCT) is super into their gear and trying to figure out what’s the best thing to have out there on trail. They had a lot of things they like about their backpacks, things they don’t like about their backpacks, features they wished they had, features they don’t use at all,” Ackerman said. “Austin and I kind of saw there might be a hole in the market for an ultralight bag that’s still super durable, that lasts a long time, but features the things you really need and not stuff you don’t really need – the bare bones of what you really need to get by.”
The hike also helped with the creation of the company’s name.
“Tramper is a term in New Zealand they use for backpacking or hiking. The chicken comes from our logo, it kind of looks like a rune of a chicken head symbol.” Gongos said. “That (symbol) comes from back in our fraternity days when Nathan and I met at Phi Kappa Tau fraternity when we were both at Michigan Tech.”
“It’s on the walls of the fraternity, behind paintings and such,” Gongos added. “So when we were looking around for a name and a logo we slapped a couple words together; the chicken coming from that … and then tramper came from a group text thread of my trail family on the PCT … It’s a fun term for hiking long distances over rough terrain for recreation and we thought it fit.”
After hiking a portion of the PCT with Gongos, Ackerman returned to the Midwest to take a job with Milwaukee Tool in Wisconsin, while Ackerman continued with market research during his hike.
After completing almost all of the of the 2,650 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail – minus approximately 100 to 200 miles he was forced to miss due to fire closures and the need to attend a cousin’s wedding – Gongos joined Ackerman and the two began designing and creating their packs and accessories in earnest.
Their initial focus was ultralight hikers, which Gongos described as a mindset built on emphasizing reducing pack weight for a more enjoyable experience.
“When you go on a multi-day backpacking trip, if you can whittle down your gear list more and more; you’re going to have a better time. The idea is … ounces make pounds and pounds make pain,” Gongos said, explaining some go as far as to cut the handles of their toothbrushes to save that unneeded weight.
“When we started the company, we wanted to create gear that would be lightweight but also durable. It’s one of those things that you buy once and then you probably won’t have to buy again unless you want two of them,” Gongos said.
Although the company’s focus is ultralight hikers, the gear can be used by anyone.
“We make a lot of gear for backpacking, but it’s also great for regular hikes or even attachments to your backpack or bag on a day-to-day basis.” Gongos said, adding that a lot of accessories, like their phone pocket or water bottle sleeve, can attach to bags made by other brands as well as those the company makes.
The accessories allow hikers to customize their gear to meet their hiking needs.
Emilee Pike, a hiker with roughly a decade of experience hiking many of Michigan’s sub-100 mile trails for up to a week at a time, heard about the company while living in Marquette. Pike, who now lives south of downstate Gaylord, said she was drawn to the quality and appearance of the Chicken Tramper products.
“I have a few small things of theirs that are now in my permanent set up. A hiking wallet, a phone pouch and, best of all, an amazing bathroom kit; aka my poop purse,” Pike said. “I love the colors, the quality of stitching, etc (of the products).”
Soon after starting the company, Ackerman quit his day job to focus on Chicken Tramper full-time. With both co-founders working for the company, Ackerman said the move to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula was a natural transition.
“Both Austin and I went to Michigan Tech, (we) loved it up here. I have family up here,” Ackerman said. “When we were looking for places to go, it was kind of a no-brainer to us. Why wouldn’t we just move back up to the Keweenaw and move back to Hancock? The place we love, we still have friends and family up here. You can pretty much go in any direction and end up out in the middle of the woods or out on (Lake Superior) or on top of a big hill. It’s always been a cool place for us to adventure around and go see things and be out in nature.
“Once we decided we were going to do this full time, I don’t think there was another place that was on the list to go, we just decided we were going to move back here.”
As Chicken Tramper celebrated its five-year anniversary in December, Gongos said the moment forced him to take time to reflect on the company’s journey. In that time, the company grew from the two co-founders to nine additional employees and has reached customers through the company’s website and select retailers.
““Each year we’ve experienced growth, we’re continually growing our team over the years and growing the retailers that we work with and sell to, growing our customer base,” Gongos said. “Throughout the years we’ve definitely seen success and growth, there’s a lot more we can do to grow the business and develop the brand but I’d say it’s been successful these last five years.”
As they continue to perfect their hiking gear, the company is also exploring expanding into related activities.
“Bikepacking is another one people ask for a lot. Packs for people’s dogs and dog accessories is another huge one,” Ackerman said. “Hopefully as we get all the products we have now up and running a little smoother we’ll have more time for Austin and I and our other employees to do some (research and development) and get new products on the shelf.”
Chicken Tramper gear can be found on the company’s website, chickentrampergear.com
, and in select retail stores. Customers can also visit the company’s Hancock location.
“We don’t have an actual store front but we love having people come by the shop and they can buy stuff off the shelf,” Gongos said.
Given everything that has come since he set off on his PCT thru-hike, Gongos said he considered the journey a success even if he was forced to end the adventure a little early.
“I hiked over 2,400 miles. (I) met a lot of cool people along the way, got to spend a month hiking with Nathan which was really great and we found this spark for Chicken Tramper,” Gongos said. “So I’d call it successful. I really loved my time out there and I can’t wait until I can go thru-hike again.”
A former reporter at the Ironwood Daily Globe, Richard Jenkins moved to Ironwood in 2015. He was born and raised in Metro Detroit. He may not have been born in the Upper Peninsula but got here as soon as he could.