Winter Thru-Hiking The Long Trail, The Zerk 40, and Shaving His Beard: An Interview with The Real Hiking Viking

The following is a Sponsored Post courtesy of Mountainsmith.  Head to their website to check out an assortment of backpacking related goods and to their Indiegogo to see the pre-launch details of the Zerk 40

If there was a “Can’t Stay Still Hall of Fame,” Tom Gathman, better known as The Real Hiking Viking, would be a first ballot inductee. Although he started backpacking less than six years ago, Viking has racked up more than 10,000 miles. This is a man who likely needs no introduction, but if you wish to better familiarize yourself, check out any of the articles about him on this site.

Since we last chatted with The Viking, he has joined forces with Mountainsmith to develop the Zerk 40, a pack designed specifically for thru-hikers and fastpackers. We caught up with him to learn more about this pack, along with his upcoming plans (another winter thru-hike!), the evolution of his backpacking gear, and what it’d take to get him to shave his beard.

Head here to find out how you can win a FREE Zerk 40 Pack. 

the real hiking vikingGive us the highlights of your backpacking experience.

The Real Hiking Viking: 24-hour BALLER ass hike on the one and only LEGENDARY (and one of a kind) Lone Star Trail, Triple Crown, SOBO winter thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, Arizona Trail, Colorado Trail, two times on the Sierra High Route, Wind River High Route, and the Wonderland Trail, to name a few.

What is your personal backpacking gear philosophy? Where do you fall on the kitchen sink / ultralight spectrum?

TRHV: That really depends on my goals. I’ve had everything from a 7-8 lb baseweight to a 15-20 lb baseweight. Depends on the season. Depends on the mission. How fast or slow I want to go. Earlier this year I attempted an FKT. What I packed for that hike will be far, far different from what I will pack for my upcoming winter snowshoe thru of Vermont’s Long Trail.

What’s the inspiration for the winter Long Trail thru-hike?

I felt like doing a fairly involved winter hike, but I didn’t feel like biting off as much of a hike as the Appalachian Trail would be. Since I’ve never done the (entire) Long Trail before, I felt like the LT would be a decent option. Granted it’s not going to be easy with how cold it’s going to be and the amount of snow they already have up there, but having shelters along the way will help tremendously.

Are you hiking North or South?

TRHV: As of right now I am planning to hike North to South.I figured that I would want to finish closer to more populated civilization than in the middle of nowhere along the Canadian border. I don’t know if it will make a difference with how short the trail is in relation to any climate changes in just a few weeks, as would be a consideration for seasonality on longer trails. It’s going to be winter the whole time up there. From start to finish. Killington Peak, which the trail goes over, has received 81” of snow so far this season with a current base depth of 24”. Day time highs are typically in the 20s and nighttime lows are typically single digits or low teens, and even colder depending on the wind chill. So I will most likely have a very similar gear list to what I had for my southbound AT winter thru hike.

Do you have a time goal for this?

TRHV: My time goal is open ended at the moment. I feel like three weeks is a nice round number and is quite possible. But I’m not opposed to it taking longer if I get bogged down by any weather systems that come through. I could likely do it faster if I had to, but I really am not looking at this hike in terms of speed. More thinking about it in terms of safety. If I can do it faster while being safe, then so be it. Once I get out there, I can adjust to whatever the elements are giving me.

Give us a brief overview of the evolution of your backpack. What did you start out with on your first thru-hike? How has that changed as you’ve gained experience?

TRHV: My very first thru-hike was a NOBO hike of the AT in 2013. I started in Georgia on Saint Patrick’s Day. In that first week it was cold and we had snow. My pack reflected the fear of being cold by including all sorts of layers. I had a bursting at the seams Osprey Atmos 65, which tipped the scales at like 45 or more pounds at Amicalola Falls. Honestly it could have been 53 pounds, I think my brain is blocking out that trauma. By the time I had reached PA (greatest state on planet earth), I swapped it out for a lighter 60 liter Granite Gear pack. The next year I started the CDT with an Osprey Exos 58. I was proud that I was going with a lighter pack, but I hadn’t adopted any sort of an ultralight mindset. In fact I was practically adamantly opposed to going UL. I specifically remember telling someone at the Twin Lakes General Store that “I will NEVER go UL.” Well, by the time I had reached Yellowstone National Park, I was swapping all my crap out for lighter things so I could crush out the remaining ~1,000 miles of the trail to Canada as quickly as humanly possible. I was under a time constraint and I was at my limit for dilly dallying and had to turn on the jets to make it to the border in time. 30 miles a day for 1000 miles will do that, and that’s what I needed to do. So I threw my new, lighter load into a Gossamer Gear Mariposa. I started going lighter from that day forward. I wanted to push myself more, and that meant going lighter.

What features did you feel were lacking in other backpacks to warrant the creation of The Zerk?

TRHV: I wanted increased access to items within arms reach, while still physically hiking. I don’t love taking my pack off to get to anything I need. More mesh shoulder strap pockets…and BIGGER. We even added mesh pockets to the outside of the water bottle pockets, to stash extra items that you still want access to that don’t fit in the shoulder strap pockets.

How’d you come up with the name?

TRHV: Well, it was SUPPOSED to be called the “JABBA 40” but George Lucas and Disney have better lawyers… and more of them. So we had to think up a new name. We wanted it to be something unique that was also fun. We eventually settled on the old Viking word “berserk” which means out of control with anger or excitement; wild or frenzied. If you know me, you know that is actually a great word to describe the way that I act. And the word “berserker” means an ancient Norse warrior who fought in a wild frenzy. Between the way that I live, hike and with my warrior background in the Marine Corps, we felt that this was a great name for the pack. Only, it was a bit too long, much like this explanation. So we decided to shorten it to the ZERK.

Who is The Zerk geared towards?

TRHV: The ZERK 40 is geared towards people who want a lighter pack but aren’t willing to go bare bones and skimp on features. This is a comfortable frameless ride that still gives you tons of functionality with its feature-rich options for stashing gear and accessing it on the fly. If you want the lightest pack on the market, this isn’t it. This is a well-rounded pack that can be used for a multitude of different hikes. You can do anything from thru-hiking one of the Triple Crown trails, to doing a weekend winter backpacking trip. While this doesn’t have a substantial weight-bearing hip belt (it is removable webbing), the wider shoulder straps and harness do a great job of “shouldering” the load for those heavier carries.


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One week from today, the ZERK 40 Fastpack launches on Indiegogo. ⁣ ⁣⁣ Countless hours, thousands of miles, a hundred beers, and one admittedly sexy beard later, I couldn’t be more excited to unveil my collaboration with @mountainsmith. ⁣⁣ ⁣ We don’t need your money to get this brand spankin’ new pack off the ground, it’s already happening. We just wanna bring this product straight to YOUR face…and at an INSANELY discounted price too!⁣ ⁣ For the first 25 backers we’re offering a deal as crazy as I am… Get the ZERK 40 FOR ONLY $100. (55% OFF)⁣ ⁣ Slap that link in my bio to be first in line for the ZERK 40 on December 12 (check out full length video too).⁣ ⁣ #ForgedForLife #ForgedForTheViking #ZERK40 #Fastpack #ItHoldsMoreBeersThanYouNeed #SexyBeard

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What’s the top piece of advice you’d give to an aspiring thru-hiker?

TRHV: My best advice would be to only learn what you can from other hikers who have been there before starting a hike, but don’t model their style to the letter. You are going to have your own evolutionary journey. Start by leaving room for improvement. It will give you more flexibility and will allow you to enjoy yourself so much more.

What’s the rest of your Big Three right now?

TRHV: That depends on where I am and what season. If its buggy AF, I love my Gossamer Gear The One shelter. If I need room for two, I love my Big Agnes Tiger Wall UL2. If I am moving fast and light, I love my Zpacks Hexamid Solo Tarp (with Zpacks groundsheet poncho). And if I’m on a trail with shelters, you best believe I be using them… unless its peak AT season. Then I won’t be caught dead in one. Hashtag NORO.

The biggest mistake you’ve made while backpacking?

TRHV: Hmmm… mistakes? That would imply that I am not perfect. And I am unwilling to do this. But seriously, I have made loads of mistakes. It’s my favorite way to learn what works better for next time. I actually don’t like to think of them as mistakes so much though…except for not carrying bear spray in grizzly country when I had a seriously intense encounter with a black bear. That is one mistake I wish I could have back. Because I definitely would have used it in that moment.

If you could only hike one more trail for the rest of your life, what would it be?

TRHV: I would have to go with the Continental Divide Trail. So much variation throughout that trail. So much wildlife and being away from the masses of other hikers and towns. I am very excited to do that trail again. She is a true gem.

How much would someone have to pay you to shave your beard?

TRHV: Can I have 50 bucks? 40 bucks? What do I need 20 bucks for?  But for real, it would cost $5,000 for someone to get me to shave this beard… that or my cold lifeless carcass.

Don’t forget to head here to find out how you can win a FREE Zerk 40 Pack. 

Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity

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Comments 4

  • freight train : Jan 2nd

    Hello! I am psyched to hear that you are planning a winter thru of the LT! I live in VT and have a strong love for the LT (well, more like a love/hate depending on the section…) When do you plan to start? If you need anything while you’re out there, I’d be happy to help! happy trails.

    • EasyRider : Jan 4th

      I have 90 days off work. Can I jump in on a section?

  • Peter Livingstone : Mar 12th

    I’m really interested in the Zerk 40 but I missed the Indiegogo campaign. When do you expect it will be available to the public? Thank you.


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