It's not even 8 a.m. one Thursday morning in mid-September and people are erupting with laughter at Mountainsmith's headquarters in Golden, Colorado. I'm gathered around a pot of coffee and a pile of backpacks with a lively bunch of writers and Mountainsmith employees before we head out to hike the 14,278-foot Grays Peak. Most of the jokes and funny comments that morning—and for the rest of the trip—are coming from brand ambassador Thomas Gathman, known to 50,000 Instagram followers as the Real Hiking Viking.
Gathman, 36, has a beard down to his sternum, bicep tattoos that peek out from under short-sleeved T-shirts, a gravely voice, and a full-belly laugh. Over the last six years, the thru-hiker has logged more than 20,000 miles on foot in several countries. In 2013, he quit his day job—and sold his car and most of his belongings—to hike for a living. He completed the Appalachian Trail in winter, hiked across the Jordan Trail this past summer, and almost never stops moving from place to place, project to project.
Over two days, a group of us tested out Gathman's new pack, the Zerk 40, co-designed with Mountainsmith, a 40-year-old backpack maker with roots in the Rockies. We romped from the summit to a backcountry hut, through the woods for lost frisbees and firewood, and then back to our cars—with momentary breaks from laughing, bantering, and storytelling. Someone would blow their nose or saunter off into the woods for privacy and Gathman, with a big smile and a cackle to follow, would riff, "It's always snot rocket season!" and "Everybody say poop pride!" He clearly packs his sense of humor on every adventure.
During two phone calls after the trip, Gathman and I shared a few more laughs, discussing how he first fell in love with hiking, what it was like to design a pack to fit his needs, his 2019 so far, and his thoughts on being an "influencer."
What were you doing before you became the Real Hiking Viking?
I got out of the Marine Corps in January 2010. I was attending Bucknell University in Pennsylvania and working part-time at Vargo Titanium, an ultralight backpacking gear company. That job was my introduction to backpacking as an industry. I didn't identify as a backpacker even though I had gone on a couple trips in middle school and high school when I was a Boy Scout.
What set you down the path?
When I was working for Vargo in May 2012, the owner, Brian Vargo, asked me if I could go down to the Appalachian Trail for Trail Days and sell gear to thru-hikers from a vendor booth. I had no clue people hiked from Georgia to Maine. I’m from Pennsylvania and about 325 miles of the trail go through my home state. I had actually driven across it hundreds of times without realizing. My mind was blown. On the first night of Trail Days, there was a torrential storm and we went to the local café and got some pizza and beer, where bluegrass music was playing and karaoke was happening. The energy was high and I was like, what’ve I walked into down here in this small little town of Damascus, Virginia? The next two days, I talked to a lot of dirty hikers that’d just come 500 miles from Georgia and had another 1,600 miles to go to Maine. It really struck a chord with me. On my drive home from the event, I called my dad and I had decided. Everything for the next nine months was all preparation for getting ready to go do that. By March 2013, I was walking north from Georgia to Maine.
What do you love about hiking?
At that time, I had a nice vehicle, I had a nice house, I had nice things. I was enjoying my life. Then on the trail with next to nothing I realized that I was even happier than I was when I had all the things. I emptied my entire house of all my belongings and put my stuff in storage. I had that storage for five years without touching it and a year and a half ago, I finally got rid of all that stuff.
Where did you get the name Real Hiking Viking?
I was at my sister’s after hiking the AT and she encouraged me to tell my story through a blog and social media. She’s like, what if you could get other people to pay for it? I wasn’t thinking of companies subsidizing my life. It wasn’t even on my radar. I had been growing my beard since March 2013. A lot of people were constantly complimenting it and I was being identified by it. When I was in the Marine Corps we called ourselves warriors, not soldiers. So I took the idea of a bearded warrior, or a Viking, and put it together with hiking. On Instagram, the handle was taken, so I added "real" to it. I don’t personally know for sure if I have Viking blood, but my father’s side is from Germany and my mother’s side is from Scotland and Ireland. It’s a possibility.
How do your brand sponsorships make your life easier?
While I’m rich in many other senses, I'm not financially rich. And if I don’t have these brands, I’m not able to be exactly what I am. I would have to be more of a weekend warrior with a full-time job and work really hard for X amount of time and then take time off to do these adventures. Without Altra giving me five to 10 pairs of shoes a year, I don’t have the money built into the budget to get a new pair of shoes when I need them. Without Point6 sending me socks, I don’t have as much money for food. Without Mountainsmith tossing me a stipend for working with them on a custom-built pack and then giving me a cut of the profit, then I’m not able to grow within what I’m doing. It’s been fun to maintain, but I’m also trying to grow and set myself up for the future.
What was it like to develop a pack with Mountainsmith?
After all those miles backpacking, I just had this idea in my head: What would be the perfect backpack for me? I had been working with Mountainsmith as a brand ambassador for camera equipment over the years. I had another sponsor for backpacks. I just knew I wanted creative control over something and I knew Mountainsmith wasn’t quite speaking to the long-distance hiking crowd in a way that maybe they would want to. I knew there was an opportunity there.
Going from the first prototype to the final product was a lot of fun. It took about a year, from spring 2018 to about spring 2019. I was living in the Tetons last year and I was bouncing back and forth between Colorado and Wyoming, both for design purposes and for testing purposes. I threw down a lot of miles in the Wind River Range and the Rockies to get to what we put out. I lost count of the prototypes in the 10 to 12 range. I'd literally call or text or FaceTime the designers and hold up the pack and go, this is a yes, this is a no. It's like taking a giant piece of wood and carving it down and chiseling away to the intricate thing you want. And even with the final product, I'm still finding things I want to fine tune.
Our first run of 300 sold out completely and we just got our next run of 300. We’re going to be pumping these out between now and next summer and hopefully we’ll sell out of those and have to order more. It’s for the more minimalist crowd. It’s meant for the long distance backpacker or somebody who likes backpacking light.
Take us through your year so far.
January: Trained in Central Pennsylvania for snowshoeing the Long Trail, from the Massachusetts-Vermont state line to the Canadian border
February: Experienced bad weather on the Long Trail, and hiked 14,000-foot mountains in Colorado instead
March and April: Hiked the 420-mile Jordan Trail for 54 days
April: Hiked the 850-mile long Hayduke desert trek from Arches to Canyonlands to Capitol Reef to Bryce Canyon to Grand Canyon to Zion National Parks
May: Promoted the Zerk pack at Trail Days on the Appalachian Trail
June: Hiked from Rocky Mountain National Park to Berthoud Pass, then went on a family vacation
July: Hiked Mt. Katahdin—the northern terminus of the Appalachian trail—with my nephew, then hiked the Wind River High Route
August: Hung out in Colorado and went on our press trip with Mountainsmith
September: Returned to the Wind River mountains again in early September; then in late September, shipped off to attempt the Long Trail in Vermont again
October: Got off the trail on Oct. 2 due to a knee injury; I've been hanging in Pennsylvania since, waiting for my surgery and hitting the gym
How's your knee doing now?
It's fine enough for now for getting around, but it has some serious structural issues that need fixing. I couldn't get an orthopedic appointment any sooner than Nov. 11, so just training in the meantime while waiting for that and taking it easy on my lower body. I love hitting the gym and doing upper body stuff anyway. I had a full ACL reconstruction 20 years ago with a torn meniscus. I'd say I've been doing pretty good in the injury department since then, having had zero joint issues since.
What's your favorite part and least favorite part of being a so-called influencer?
My least favorite part is that word. I think there’s a negative connotation with the word influencer and it’s just what the industry calls it, but I find it to be strange. I’m just a dude who found a way to continue to have fun and somehow people enjoy following it, are inspired by it, and want to replicate it. My page isn’t a walking advertisement for things I don’t believe in. In fact, I’ve never taken a single dollar for a post on my Instagram. My favorite part of being the Real Hiking Viking is that I have the ability to be a role model. It didn't really strike me that people would look up to me until my brother told me that his son looks up to me. If there’s other people like that, then that’s great.