As all good adventures do, this story begins with a book. I set off on the Appalachian trail in the spring of 2009 like so many others with 60lbs (28kg) on my back after having read Bill Bryson's "A walk in the woods". I knew absolutely nothing about what I was getting myself into and some nine years, seven thru hikes and 12,000 miles later and I'm still hiking, not just for pleasure but as a professionally certified UK Mountain Leader.
On the Te Araroa in late 2013, some 5,000 miles into this journey, I examined a lightweight pack that belonged to a featherweight hiker named GH Supertramp. It was the most simply made thing I had ever seen yet he’d paid an outstandingly high price for it. It was brilliantly designed but its simplicity led me to think I could have a try at making one too. He was tall, like me, and complained that the hip-belt was far too high – at 6ft7 a problem I find with almost any standard pack on the market.
Fast forward a few months and my partner at the time and I were sleeping in the spare room of a friend’s house whilst we found our feet post trail in Kendal, Cumbria. This friend, Suzie, owned a sewing machine and, with her careful guidance and infinite patience, I destroyed a few square yards of fabric and levelled most of the ground floor of the house. After several hours (or even days) of swearing, I emerged with a backpack. It was a monster, a hideous creation of indescribable horror, its seams uneven, ugly and unbound, there was little beauty to be found in the thing but, that said, I have never been more proud of anything in my life.
There are very few places where you can buy outdoor fabrics in the UK and, as I had no idea what I was doing, someone had suggested to me that I go and talk with Adrian Moore at Aiguille Alpine Equipment in Staveley. This was possibly the most influential decision I made in this entire process as, 15 months later, I would end up sitting behind a sewing machine there for three days a week for the best part of 2016 and the most intense learning experience I could ever wish for! Now, Adrian is, for the most part, horrified by the idea of making anything out of anything that isn’t 1000 denier Cordura - His packs can last lifetimes and rightly so, they are built to suffer in some of most hostile places on earth with time proven methods and materials and are the go-to for mountain guides, rescue teams and those in the know. Both great talkers, we spent two hours on this first meeting trying his hardest to dissuade me from doing anything so dangerous as to send someone into the wilderness with a piece of lightweight kit. He showed me every fabric he held that could be suitable and then told me why making it out of 1000d Cordura would just be better.
We are both from engineering backgrounds and, whilst I could see his logic, I could also see a window for newer, more modern materials and minimalist design to cut weight without sacrificing strength. My first three packs I built were what I call stupid-light: I used the lightest materials that I could find to build packs that, when full, could hold 30+lbs (15kg) of gear and then wondered why they were uncomfortable and showing significant wear after a few uses.
Slowly, through trial and error, I found materials and methods that met my needs and after taking packs No 3 and 4 on the PCT for 5400 miles of testing without serious failure, I realised I was onto something. I had to stop in Reno with a friend, Andrew, from the Te Araroa who put us up in his home and dug out his girlfriends sewing machine, I had put two stupid-light roll top closures on these packs and both were in the process of failing heroically. If you’ve ever seen what happens when 0.5oz Cuben Fiber loses its integrity you’ll feel my pain but an hour or two of hard work and the packs were good as new with some uncoated diamond ripstop closures that still survive to this day. A huge thanks to Nicola aka “Dubstep” for having the patience and confidence to test this pack for me, and for having the honesty to call out its failings.
It was after returning from this trip that things really started progressing. I designed ten packs in the weeks after finishing the trail and the soon got an industrial machine and got busy making well designed but poorly sewn and finished backpacks. My enthusiasm was high but my sewing skills lacking, I sold a few packs to a few people and experienced first hand how poor quality foam can come back to haunt you: British explorer Emma Kelty took an early pack on a trek across the length of England. After just 200 miles I had to go and meet her with another backpack as the foam I’d used (a cut up camping mat) had completely disintegrated. Emma would sadly later be killed whilst Kayaking the length of the Amazon river, I put a picture of her here as she was instrumental in firing me up to make a go of this business and was one of the kindest people I will ever know.
Emma Kelty at the end of her unsupported journey to the south pole
I continued visiting with Adrian at Aiguille and would regularly pop in to buy buckles and fabrics and on one of these meetings I jokingly asked if he employed freelance machinists – he hastily said no, that you had to be there full time to learn fast enough and on my next visit I was surprised to be offered a job. The next months would see my skills and confidence as a machinist grow and, under his guidance, was soon producing packs to a professionally finished standard. Operating under the mission statement “outdoor equipment to last a lifetime” really forces you to focus on every stitch and this experience was one of the defining moments in taking Atom Packs to the high standard they are today.
I also reached a compromise – I had built some stupid-light packs and suffered at their failures, I had also gained knowledge of materials, manufacturing and design that made me realise that weight wasn’t the be all and end all in pack design – a 300g (11oz) bag cannot possibly be expected to provide the support and comfort of one twice its weight with twice its features. A pack twice its weight could enable the user to feel as though they are carrying less overall, therefore the 300g weight penalty is worthwhile. This isn’t to say that a 300g pack has no place on the market, it absolutely does, but they must be used only at the hands of the truly ultralight
Every pack I have tested over several thousand miles is still usable. The grey pack you see pictured is the one used on the CDT in ‘17 and, bar a few holes in the not-durable-enough mesh that I used, I have no doubt that I could set it off on the same journey again tomorrow and the materials or workmanship would not fail. With thru hiking as a proving ground I now am positive that what I make can last the miles and more and with the same methods and materials used to make rugged mountaineering bags employed to make the super-light Atom, there is no reason why a lightweight pack shouldn't last a few years solid service.
As with anything, if you treat your gear well it will repay you in longevity. On the CDT I was actively trying to break my pack – it was constantly full to the brim and overloaded and I always picked it up just by the shoulder strap to see if the stitching would fail, I sat on it daily, I threw it about, dragged it off trucks and glissaded on it in the San Juans and, still, the only damage was caused by cacti in the desert, a salt hungry porcupine and my ice axe in the San Juans.
I believe in what I do and I stand by what we make. It has been a mad journey to get to where we are and I am crazy proud of what my team and I are creating. In developing this range, I had packs being tested on Glaciers in NZ, on 10,000 miles of thru hikes in the US and on the backs of some of the most hungry climbers I know and the number one bit of feedback that I get is “Damn, this thing is tough”
So that’s how I got here. Thanks for having a read and checking out the site, I'll see you down the trail.
Covid 19 update. 21st Jan 2021
In order to protect the health of our team, we have decided to scale back our production until infection numbers in our area decrease.
This will, of course, have an effect on our lead time. Luckily, we were quite well ahead on our orders going into Christmas so at present things aren’t looking too bad. Motown and I are still producing some orders, although not to our normal scale, nor at the normal work crew’s efficiency. We will aim to update the lead time each week.
We appreciate that any delay may be disappointing, but we ask for your patience as we try to navigate through this safely.
Take care of each other and please, wear a mask
Tom and the team. x
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