In the 3rd Cottages Interview of 2018 we get to know Tom Gale of Atom Packs 🇬🇧
Atom Packs I found when Alex Roddie tweeted about the company earlier this year, and like Alex I think the packs which Tom makes are really great looking with smart details. As I was making the list of companies to interview for this series Tom has one of the first ones I contacted, and I am very happy that he agreed to participate (he’s super-busy and hasn’t had a day off in four weeks, so order your pack AFTER you read this interview, OK ;). Without much further ado - here’s Tom’s Interview!
Tom, please briefly introduce yourself and tell us who you are. Since when are you backpacking, and how did you start?
Who am I? Whoa now, this could get deep. I guess I’m a hiker: It is at the core of nearly everything I do.
I started long distance hiking in 2009, setting off on the Appalachian Trail like so many others under a crippling load with as many things strapped to the outside of my bag as were inside. I think I also had maybe 8L of water with me. Urgh. That guy. The longer I hiked, the more content and quiet my busy brain became and I swiftly began to feel that this had to be something that I built my life around. I came home and began working towards becoming a professionally certified Outdoor Guide and, within a few years, was doing what I loved and sharing my passions with others every day.
How often are you outdoors nowadays?
Hahaha, less so now than I would like. I tend to get out on my mountain bike for at least an hour a day. This business expanded much quicker than I’d anticipated but I try and find the time, normally I work until about 7pm and then get out for an hour, chasing the sunset through the trees on one of the mountains near my house. I’m pretty well situated for some incredible riding, even if I’m exhausted it always makes me feel better.
Are you more of a “weekend warrior” or do you have some long distance trips under your belt?
I’m a huge fan of micro adventure. I try and get out most weekends but the reality is that currently I don’t get much time off - Hopefully soon things will come back under a little more control. I live surrounded by mountains and lakes and it’s very easy to just grab a pack and go, but I suppose my priorities are currently with growing my business.
I have hiked some 12,000 miles now on the big three trails in the US, the Te Araroa and another few thousand miles around the coast of England. I don’t plan on stopping any time soon, this business might try and stop me but, hey, I’m thirty years old and it’s about time I tried some of this so-called “adulting”. I promised myself I’d give the business three years and see where I am at, only then will I decide if it was a dumb idea.
Hiking in Finland Readers & me, we are gear-nerds! What is your typical baseweight?
That’s a great question. I actually have no idea. Somewhere between 3 - 5 kg. I used to count every gram but after my third major hike I realised it didn’t actually make much difference to me - I’m a big guy, 6ft7 and 100 kg and I eat an absolutely OBSCENE amount of food, at least 2kg a day when on trail so my pack weight is always pretty heinous when leaving town. I also realised it was completely relative – my 3.5kg base weight felt just at terrible the day I left town on the PCT in 2015 as it did leaving town on the AT in 2009 with a 9kg base weight. It doesn’t matter what your baseweight is – your bag will ALWAYS feel like shit the day you leave town. Why worry about a couple of ounces here and there when you are about to hike out an entire rotisserie chicken, three avocados, a bunch of bananas, some beer and whole loaf of bread out of town… It’s good training. I’m not belittling the gram counting approach – for people who have some control over there caloric intake I’m sure it’s very justified – I will just always completely fill my bag with food regardless of how long it is to the next town so the base weight becomes a pretty small percentage of that.
There are a lot of hikers who can starve themselves on trail and come into town with zero calories i.e. without a morsel of food left in their bags. This is the elusive thru hiking “gold star” but, the reality of achieving that largely gives me an anxiety attack, I think I’ve only ever done it twice in 12,000 miles and I nearly fainted. It’s completely out of my control.
I do try to stay under 3.5kg but my process on a thru hike is always the same. I start heavier than I want to, then pare my gear down over the first couple of months, shedding everything I can, and then I realise I’m cold and uncomfortable and in as amazing hiking shape as I’ll ever be and then start adding luxuries items again. I’d say I’m at my most ultra light eight weeks into a hike.
Please tell us where the name “Atom Packs” came from, and what it stands for.
I was trying to think of the smallest, lightest thing that I could. Initially the name was Atomic Ultralight but try typing that into Google and you’ll quickly realise why I changed it, you just can’t compete with the entire spectrum of information on quantum physics. I was stuck on the name for ages and then one day the name Atom Packs came to me. The fact it’s got my name in it as well is just a very happy accident – A-Tom Packs. People give me credit for that. They shouldn’t.
What makes Atom Packs different from other cottages?
I make durable, lightweight gear (Dura-lite if you will!). I build the best packs that I can out of the best materials available to me. Sure, there may be lighter materials available, but that comes at a cost of either durability or comfort. The way I see it, there has to be some sense behind design: A backpack has the hardest job of any piece of gear that you carry, it is responsible for holding onto literally everything else that you take with you into the wilds and an extra few grams in its design can greatly increase both the durability of the pack and the carrying comfort of the user - In my view that is well worth the weight penalty. If you design a pack right, you won’t know that it’s heavier because the weight is working FOR you, not AGAINST you.
I think, in essence, most companies are all in this for the same reason: There isn’t the gear that we desire available to us, so we make our own. Every hiker on the planet has a different way of doing things, so I aim to create the gear that individual people want. Sure, some people will say that another brand/ fabric/ method is better, and they could well be right when it comes to their way of hiking, but I have designed my brand to be flexible to peoples needs so, I’d ask that person to shoot me an email and lets talk. It’s a great learning experience for me as well as people force me to step out of my comfort zone and design something new – quite a few of these requests have actually become part of my daily designs.
Is Atom Packs your full-time job or “just a hobby”?
It’s now full time! Argh! I have some token bits of guiding work over the summer but the reality is that I can’t really afford the time away from the business at present so, yep, I now sew for 70+ hours a week. It’s pretty intense.
Atom Packs makes lightweight and stylish backpacks and backpack accessories. Can you tell us how the idea to start the company emerged and how you see its future?
It mostly came from a need to create the gear that I wanted - I’m so tall that any off the shelf backpack/ daypack that I bought ended up with its hipbelt somewhere below my nipples. Combine this with a natural curiosity for the unknown and I found myself sitting at a sewing machine making quite a horrible mess. That is basically the process that is still ongoing today, if not a little more refined!
In the coming weeks I am moving into a proper workshop. Here I will expand my production to cope with demand and begin training up an employee or two. I know that this business cannot possibly expand any more than it currently is with me crouched over a sewing machine for 70+hours a week. The danger is that I eventually have some kind of sewing-induced break down and run bare-assed and screaming into the cold night, never to be seen again. A lot of cottage companies have gone the same way and I’m trying really hard to not make the same mistakes. I’m still slipping and sliding my way along the learning curve but my processes are getting more refined with each day.
Any intentions of starting to branch out into other segments, for example offering shelters and bivys?
Yes… but lets not get ahead of ourselves.
Are there any other cottage manufacturers in the United Kingdom that you work with?
Not at present. Everyone I have spoken with has been very supportive though! I’d love to team up with a few brands in the future, that way we can all benefit.
And are you in touch with other cottage manufacturers in Europe, Japan, Canada, the USA and other places?
Other than a few messages/ comments via Instagram, not currently. There are some great companies making some great kit out there, Instagram gives you a nice peek into what they’re up to.
Your company is a just several months old and already has been getting good reviews and praise from all across Europe. Is business going well?
Haha, yes it blew up pretty quickly didn’t it!? I properly launched the website at the end of February and quickly got far more orders than I knew what to do with. I don’t advertise or spend money on promotion, I’m just trying to let it naturally grow by putting the product out there to be seen. Any product worth its salt will succeed, given the chance, I’m just very wary of outstripping my production capacity. I think that’s always the issue with cottage companies – when you are one guy in a shed it is easy to get overwhelmed and something that started off as creative and fun becomes a great, snarling monster that consumes most of your life. It’s been quite a journey, that’s for sure.
Can you tell us a bit how you went about the design process of The Atom pack, and where the inspiration came from?
I used to work with Adrian Moore at Aiguille Alpine Equipment and he used to say that “if you take away everything else, a rucksack at its most basic is just a potato sack with straps”. The Atom came from stripping back everything that I knew about backpacks and starting from the ground up. I wanted people to be able to start with a tube and add whatever they wanted to it, The Atom as you see it is exactly the pack that I would want on a thru-hike, it just happens that that has become the standard design.
I have to give some credit to “Dubstep”, my esteemed hiking companion of 5000 miles. I asked her to design her perfect backpack and she, not taking the process particularly seriously, designed a pack with rockets on the side pockets. That’s what inspired some of the Atom’s aesthetic, I was trying to make it look like a rocket.
Tom, we love to be let in on the work-in-progress stuff! What kind of new products are you working on at the moment?
Removable carbon frames. They’re the future!
And any new lightweight materials that have you all excited?
Liteskin by Dimension Polynant. I bought a bunch of it and have been experimenting with it a little. KS Ultralight have been using it but I’ve not seen any long term reviews yet. It strikes me as a really solid fabric that, for its weight, is pretty incredible. I designed a 35L Atom with a padded hipbelt that came in at under 380g - that’s pretty special! The big test will be how well it holds up. I’ve been working with Andrew Sherry (@thehikingstory on Instagram) – I’m keen to send him one to try and break it just to see how well it holds up as there have been no real long term tests done yet and everyone, myself included, are a little twitchy.
How works the R&D at Atom Packs, do you have a need yourself that you try to fix, or do some of your clients inspire you for new products and ask you for solutions to their problems, which then are adopted in the Atom Packs line-up?
Yes, I think I sort of answered this before. I have already solved the problems that I have encountered, so when people come to you with new issues it can really help to develop the product forwards.
And where do your customer come from, and how do they find you?
I put something on Reddit in February and it sort of went a bit wild from there. I sell a lot of packs to Germany and Scandinavia, I’ve also sent packs to New Zealand, USA, Canada and even Brazil. Basically anywhere. I’ve been amazed at how the Internet has driven this business forward, it has been simultaneously humbling and terrifying – the world is a very small place these days.
When and where was your last trip?
My last big hike was the Continental Divide Trail, I’ve only just properly gotten over it mentally 🤣. Otherwise I try and get out on day hikes where I can. It’s good for the soul and a great excuse to test backpacks.
And where is your dream trip taking you?
The Te Araroa south island was about as happy as I have ever been. It was also the most amount of times I have ever nearly died in a period of time. I’d hike it again in a heartbeat! I’m aiming to go for the Arizona Trail this October but can not figure out if I can stop this runaway train I’m currently sitting on. I guess the dream trip is the next one you are undertaking or the one you are currently on. And there are so many trails! Argh!
Any favourite piece of gear which you always carry with you?
I picked up an MSR Blizzard Stake on the CDT and quickly fell in love. They cost $5, weigh 1 oz and I use it for both camping and digging cat holes (because everybody poops). Not only do you feel like you can dig forever but I also put a bit of duct tape on the inside edge and would use it as a water spout to get water out of slow trickling springs, it was amazingly effective!
Are you planning to get out for a trip soon, and enjoy the summer in the United Kingdom?
I would like to start a continuous walk around the Wainrwrights, these are 214 fells situated in the Lake District National Park. I doubt I’d be able to do it in one go but I can dream! Otherwise I am determined to hike the AZT in October. There are a load of 200 mile hikes in my vicinity. It’s just having the time!
Social Media - on which channels is Atom Packs active?
@atom_packs on Instagram. I need to get Facebook and Twitter set up properly so watch this space. It’s very distracting though.
Tom, I thank you very mucho for taking the time to answer my questions =) Is there something you would like to add?
I guess I’d like to encourage those who are seeking out their first UL setup go with their gut and not just the status quo. It takes many hundreds, if not thousands, of miles to truly understand what you need and don’t need. Just because you want a pack with a padded hipbelt does not mean you are no longer qualified to call yourself ultralight, no matter what they say on the forums.
Instead of obsessing over gear lists or whatever everyone else is doing, just throw some stuff in a bag and go hiking. If it works for you, keep it, if it’s cheap, even better. There are many thousands of ways to spend many thousands of dollars on gear. The best way to know what works is to go and actually do it yourself and then slowly, piece by piece, replace items for lighter alternatives. Once you understand an items use and, more importantly how you interact with it, then you can make a truly informed decision. Otherwise the danger is buying every piece of gear three or four times before you get it right – and that doesn’t leave you much money for hamburgers and beer. Thanks for your time, see you down the trail ☺
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