Chapel Hill’s Tom Mrotek: Bikepacking & Beyond

Tom - Bike camping with Pam Andrae American Tobacco Trail, Durham NC 2015

We often say that our staff works hard so that they can enjoy an active lifestyle in their time off.  Tom Mrotek is no exception.  For almost three and a half years, Tom Mrotek has supported staff & customers in the Chapel Hill shop.  He serves as the Boating Department manager and the Climbing Department manager.  When he’s not in the shop, he’s finding adventure in his backyard as well as across the country.

What, or perhaps who, first introduced you to the outdoor lifestyle?

My parents first met one another on a camping trip orchestrated by their mutual friend, Jeannie, who was consciously playing “matchmaker”.  It was only natural that they would take my brothers and I camping as well.  We took annual family trips to go camping, hiking and fishing through much of the USA including a number of national parks.  From there it was a steady progression for me as I began backpacking, mountaineering and rock climbing.  

Tom - Mountaineering with Jon Lawrence Athabasca Glacier, Canadian Rockies 2005

How did you get involved with Great Outdoor Provision Co.?

Well, a while back I was the head buyer for an outdoor specialty shop, Appalachian Outdoors, in central Pennsylvania.  Part of my responsibilities was attending trade shows including Grassroots Outdoor Alliance, a partnership of specialty outdoor stores.  There I met with Tom Valone, founder of GOPC, and Travis Zarins, VP of Merchandise, several times over the years.  I also met with Bob Sears and Chad Baird when they were both buyers for GOPC out at the Outdoor Retailer trade show more than once.  And come to think of it, I am pretty sure I met Chuck Millsaps, President & Minister of Culture, once or twice at Snowbird Ski Resort for the annual North Face Summit Dealers’ event.  So I knew a number of folks from GOPC before I ever set foot in one of its shops.

Fast forward to 2012, I rode my bicycle down to Durham, NC to visit my parents who had moved here from Pennsylvania.  Since I only had the cycling clothes I brought with me, I found myself needing some new pants one day.  I sought out the closest independent shop that carried Mountain Khakis which took me to the GOPC in Cameron Village Raleigh.  Once inside, I discovered very similar surroundings to the shop that I had worked in for so many years in Pennsylvania.  After that shopping experience, I put two and two together and remembered all of the folks I had met from GOPC over the years, dropped off my resume at a later time and the rest is history… 

Tom - Modeling Cocoons in Indian Basin, Wind River Range WY 2008

What are your specialty areas at the shop & what drew you to working in these areas?

Uh, I guess I am a jack of all trades.  From sizing a canoe paddle, rigging a climbing anchor, discussing fabric denier to fixing loose floorboards, I can help you with that.  Each time I pick up a new activity I typically go overboard learning all that I can about the subject.  But if I had to state one area that I am most drawn to, it is equipment and clothing maintenance and repair.  Admittedly, this is not the most exciting (or profitable) area of the shop but it is something I am passionate about.  In order to keep a rein on our impact on the earth, we should first choose a quality, durable product then maintain and repair it if necessary rather than simply buying anew.  I love discussing a boat repair with a customer, informing someone on how to repair a broken zipper, reconditioning a tent, or even taking an odd item home and stitching it back together.  I really get a kick out of being an advocate for reducing one’s impact.

What’s a particularly big trend you see right now?

One of my big passions is traveling by bicycle and extended bicycle touring trips.  Bicycle touring used to mimic the backpacking days of yore when you strapped everything you could think of on your bike and take a trip of several months.  That’s still quite enjoyable and many still practice this form of travel, but currently bicycle touring is undergoing a similar “ultralight” revolution that backpacking enjoyed 10+ years ago.  Many folks are taking the essential ultralight backpacking gear on their mountain bikes and riding trails or swaths of country that would have been unthinkable 5 years ago.  Trips are often times shorter in length, sometimes as short as 24 hours.  This new version of touring has been coined “bikepacking” and many people find it appealing because you can travel further than on foot, the riding is more enjoyable with a lighter bike, and you can avoid cars if you’re on forest roads or trails.  I have worked with a number of customers getting their rig together for upcoming bikepacking adventures.  It’s definitely something I expect to keep growing as the years go by.  

Tom - Weighing in at Adventure Cycling Association HQ Missoula MT 2012

What’s your most memorable bikepacking trip?

My most memorable trip is undoubtedly the 6 week bicycle tour that I took with my partner, Pam, in the summer of 2015.  In order to save money, we took a 3.5 day Greyhound bus ride out to Banff, Alberta with two big duffles and our mountain bikes boxed up.  From Banff, we rode dirt and gravel roads and trails hopscotching back and forth over the Continental Divide.  We passed through Banff, Waterton-Glacier, and Teton National Parks as well as too many National Forests to list.  The route took us through every sort of terrain imaginable and we rode and camped in every type of weather.  On the second to last day of our trip, a badger decided to destroy our tent and make off with my sleeping bag, never to be seen again.  The bicycle tour concluded in Steamboat Springs, CO but we still took a couple of weeks to take buses and rental cars throughout the West and then back home.

Where in the Triangle do you like to escape for a quick adventure?

It is no exaggeration to say that Duke Forest is my backyard.  All I need to do is walk out my door, hop the back fence, cross a set of railroad tracks and then I am on one of Duke Forest’s gravel roads.  I really enjoy taking a early morning walk out there before anyone else is moving around.  I commute to the shop by bicycle everyday and I enjoy incorporating the forest roads into my route as well.

What about the Triangle area makes the GOPC shop in Chapel Hill unique?

Having not worked in other GOPC locations I don’t know if this is entirely unique to the Chapel Hill shop, but I think that having UNC and Duke surrounding us makes for a truly international clientele.  I find myself working with customers who are in town from all corners of the globe as they are here to visit the universities or on business at the Research Triangle Park.  In the same vein, not a day goes by that I don’t help someone travelling abroad for a medical, scientific, humanitarian or recreational excursion.  It’s a good feeling to know that in some way, small or big, you will help their trip be a success.  I think that meeting people from such diverse backgrounds and discussing ongoing matters from about the world gives us a better perspective on how we fit into the global community.     

What do you love about working at Great Outdoor Provision Co.?

I love the fact that I don’t need to explain my outdoor lifestyle to my coworkers as they are on board 110% themselves.  I love that when I ask for time off for a trip my coworkers don’t feel inconvenienced, only jealousy.  I love that my coworkers don’t give me a hard time when they trip over my bicycle crammed in the corner reserved for dust brooms and toilet paper.  I love that customers seek me out to ask about an odd boat repair or some obscure corner of the United States.  I love that sharing my appreciation of the outdoors with customers is part of my job description.