Zack Shoom: Why I’m a Winter Hiker

Zack Shoom, Shipper/Receiver, Atmosphere Eaton Centre, Toronto, ON

Winter hiker since childhood

“It’s the most natural way to experience an environment.”

Thanks for sitting down with us, Zack. Can you tell me when you first started hiking in the winter?

As a kid, my parents would always take my siblings and I around northern Ontario to do things like hike, spot wildlife, and build little snow shelters. Once I was old enough to really get into it  ̶  probably around 10, I was already hooked on being outside, especially in the winter.

After your first few experiences, what got you really hooked?

I think that the simplicity aspect is what got me hooked on winter hiking. It's by far the most natural way to move around in the winter and adds an incredible element to the experience of being outside. So many sports these days require tons of gear and technology, but hiking is a little more bare-bones which I like.

What motivates you to get out there and hike new trails?

I’m motivated by getting outside and being in nature, and the feeling that gives me. Particularly the way everything looks and feels in winter is what gets me. I really support the use of social media and platforms that people use to share photos and experiences, I find it's a great source of motivation to get outside and make your own experiences.

How do you think it’s different from other sports and winter activities?

I love winter hiking because it`s simple and bare-bones. It`s the most natural way to experience an environment and makes you feel as though you are a part of it, rather than just looking at it. It offers an experience more natural and humbling than most winter sports. It may not offer the same adrenaline rush as other sports, but it's just as -- if not more -- fulfilling than any other way to get outside in the winter.

Would you say your parents’ love of winter hiking is what really got you interested in it?

My parents were really keen on taking us outside as kids, and I just thought it was cool to like it because my older siblings did. As I grew up, I realized that we all just enjoyed being outside because of the feeling it offered us and the experience of it. Outdoor sports are about the feeling it gives you, as opposed to so many other parts of daily life that are about other people and external factors. That being said, as I grew up I definitely found outdoors people who I look up to because of their ability to inspire me to go outside more. Specifically guys like Travis Rice, Jeremy Jones, and Bryan Iguchi who brought an extreme aspect to winter sports. Yvon Chouinard and all of the original Yosemite climbers have always been a big inspiration to me because of their approach to sport.

Was there a particular moment where your decision to embrace winter hiking as part of your lifestyle was solidified? Was there a moment that pushed you in the right direction?

Definitely. I remember always enjoying the winter and being outside during it, but one trip to the Kawartha lakes when I was 15 was eye opening. Seeing the vast expanses of silent frozen lakes, massive trees, and the stillness of a winter environment in February is an image that I`ll always think of, and keeps me going outside. Every time I go out I try and chase that same feeling. A strong contribution is definitely working at Atmosphere. Hearing about the experiences of customers and co-workers is so inspiring and makes me want to get out every day.

How long have you been with Atmosphere?

Since June 2015! I was just in the process of completing a Bachelor of Environmental Management from the University of Waterloo when I began working at Atmosphere.

Can you describe your role?

Currently, I am a shipper/receiver and previously a sales advisor.  

What motivates you to work here?

I love the interactions I have with customers, and helping to break down barriers between them and getting outside. Whether it’s selling product, or giving advice I find it very fulfilling to be a part of someone's ability to get outside! The conversations I have on a daily basis are why I wake up, and come to work on the balls of my feet.

Has anything surprised you about the job?

To be honest, everything about working for this company has surprised me. I first started as a part time sales advisor right out of university while planning on working full time in the environmental non-profit sector. Within a few weeks, I realized that I had a passion to protect the environment because of how much I love being outside, and I now hope to spend my career in the outdoor sports industry.

All of my co-workers are amazing people, and hanging out with them has made me want to do more of what I love and be outside more. I also really enjoy interacting with customers and helping them get outside in any capacity.

Can you recall a time you went above and beyond for a customer or gave them a nudge in the right direction, made them better at their activity?

On a few occasions I have drawn up backpacking and paddling routes on a map in the store with a customer. One of which being a couple's first self-supported canoe trip -- they now come back quite often to gear up for their next trip.

I always try and get the customer to determine what they want out of a product over a longer timespan, as opposed to what they plan on doing with it over the weekend. That way, people can start going on more intense trips and grow into their gear sooner than they grow out of it.

Here’s what I mean:

With a lot of our product, it is an investment as opposed to a purchase that will last a few months.

A few weeks ago, someone came in with the intent to buy a tent, knowing that it may have to be replaced soon. I explained that spending more money now means less risk on the trip, less fuss, and less money in the future. He has since come back into the store with plans to do much longer trips because his tent is better suited for what kind of activities he wanted to do in the future as opposed to what he was doing that weekend.

I have been helping a couple for around 8 months now who periodically come in to prepare for trips and each of their trips has gotten longer and a bit more extreme.

Last fall they went car camping in Killbear Provincial Park in Ontario and are gearing up now to do a two-week-long canoe trip on Lake Superior. They have built such an affection for wild places and nature and it makes me so happy to be a small part of that. I’ve given them route suggestions, my personal camp tricks, and even some tips on cooking backcountry meals. Some time in the spring they hope to head up to the Yukon for a longer self-supported paddling trip.


What is one of the more challenging experiences you’ve had?

This past winter I did my Avalanche Search and Rescue Level One in the Teton Range. At one point, we were socked into some questionable terrain with worse weather on the way. It took about 6 hours to get back to camp through rain and snow. It proved to be more mental than physical but I will always remember that as being a formative experience for me. That day posed so many challenges like: How far out can we go? How much can we push ourselves without getting in too much danger? We spent a lot of time considering our own comfort limits and capabilities in conjunction with the weather and terrain. Having a decent size group, it became very challenging to move together in a manner that made us all feel safe.

What’s challenging you right now in terms of your skills?

I'm in Ontario and we had a pretty disappointing winter so I spent less time out there than I would have liked. I also love snowboarding, and find hiking a welcome change of pace after a few days of beating myself up, but found it hard to have time to do both and definitely struggle with time management.

I have always believed that proper preparation and knowledge are the best way to combat any potential challenges in the field or at work.

Where do you see your abilities in a year from now? And five?

In a year from now I would like to have the ability to self-support multi-week through-hikes. Further down the line, I would love to have some trips under my belt in the Yukon and North West Territories.

What are some things people can do to get better at this activity?

I strongly believe that staying in shape is the best way, only because it will allow you to be more active for longer. As someone who loves winter sports, I make sure to run in the warmer months so I can be ready once the winter hits and make the most of my days out. I also would recommend someone to buddy-up, preferably with someone better at hiking and stronger than yourself. It can make hiking more fun when you're chatting about something, and just by going out with them you'll push yourself without really noticing it.

Being well prepared is also critical. It will help you avoid surprises, stay safe, and keep things simple once you're out there.

Most importantly, you have to love doing something to spend the time to get better, so keep trying new activities and focus on having fun, rather than progressing which will happen with frequency. A good rule of thumb is to do what you love -- like anything, the more time you spend doing something the better you will get at it.

Have you noticed any changes in trends in terms of both equipment as well as styles? Is there a piece of tech or new material that’s come out recently that’s changing winter hiking in a big way?

A big trend has been a shift away from technology in equipment, and back into raw materials and realizing the importance of simplicity. Specifically, Merino wool. 100% Merino wool is the best next-to-skin layer available, and it has almost zero technology in it.

I think Merino wool, and GORE-TEX™ SURROUND are becoming the biggest difference makers at the moment. The ability for both of these materials to keep your body comfortable has allowed me to stay out for so much longer, and has made issues like cold injury way less prominent. The innovations that brands have made with synthetic insulation is also quite remarkable -- it's a lot cheaper, keeps you warm when wet, and is much more efficient to produce.

I think constant innovation is a huge part of the outdoor world, and the ability of some brands to make things lighter/more simple is fantastic because it makes it easier for participants to get out there more, and people to spend less time playing with gear and enjoy their time outside.

Has anything surprised you about the activity?

As someone who does a lot of extreme sports, I would have believed that hiking isn't as much of a thrill and a little more boring than what I typically spend my time doing. In reality, I have found it such a great way to get outside and connect with nature. Specifically in the winter when everything is a little more serene.