A small pack manifesto

Small packs (20 to 35 liters) are the most used, for those of us who choose to pursue a career in civilization. Tiny (sub 20 liter) packs are handy and can even last for multiple days in the summer, but a small pack works for technical day trips in all seasons, multidays in milder conditions, and hauls all the picnic supplies one could want for leisurely half-day outings. Pretty much all of you will also need a big pack (35-60 liters), and possibly a monster pack (60+), but I’m assuming that you’re like me and the small pack gets used the most.

The challenge of making the ideal small pack is to combine simplicity and versatility. A small pack doesn’t need much in the way of suspension or a complex harness and waistbelt, and depending on shape doesn’t need much if any ability for load compression. It does need the ability to carry a variety of things outside, from skis to ice axes to foam mats. Given the hard life small packs lead (at least mine), in the last year I’ve been puzzling over the minimal, ideal feature set for a small pack. One which lets me carry what I need to without too much time-sucking contrivance, but doesn’t weight the pack down or otherwise create a burden when not in use.

The 610 pack (white, below) has been the experiment.  The black pack I made recently to continue this investigation.

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First, dimensions: a backpanel width of 9″ sits firmly between my shoulder blades and feels light, tight, and out of the way.  I use four panel construction, with the side panels being identical and the front panel being a fair bit narrower than the back.  This gives these packs the consistent, brush-shedding taper of which I’ve become so fond.  For the side panels I use the side taper at the shoulders (explained in detail here); one inch of horizontal movement over 4-5 inches of vertical movement seems about right, with the shoulder attachment point about 2/3 of the way up.  Overall circumference of the lower pack (below the aforementioned taper) is around 30 inches.  Height is somewhere between 26 and 28 inches.  For me this is below brush snagging height while bushwacking and won’t hit my helmet while cycling, but is long enough to fit the shaft sections of my Werner paddle.

The harness is important, as they’re not much of it.  Thin and flexible shoulder straps will support modest loads enough, and stay out of the way during athletic movements.  The 610 has Osprey Talon 22 straps, the black pack straps off a BD Bbee.  Both are reinforced with a daisy out of 3/4″ grosgrain, and the Bbee straps have additional foam in the upper part.  A waistbelt of 1 or 1.5″ webbing should be removeable; I rarely use it but for heavier loads and especially active endeavors it is handy.

Torso length is critical, and with the black pack here I discovered that for small packs it can be made too long.  You want the shoulder straps to sit a bit on the lower side, like in this photo, because such a connection down by the scapula keeps the pack still while reaching high for a hold or windmilling the arms to avoid a faceplant.  Strap attachment even 3/4 inch higher, as is the case with the black pack, will have better load transfer to the hips, but that’s not especially relevant here.

I’ve found that for these packs compression straps are not necessary.  All I need are two loops on either side of the back/side panel interface, a central daisy chain, and a top cinch strap of 1 or 3/4 inch webbing.  1/2 inch webbing didn’t provide enough friction for holding things like sleeping mats, but is more than strong enough for the side loops.  An ice axe goes on the daisy chain in the traditional manner.  A shovel can go here as well, with the blade facing up one side of the t handle can go into one of the daisy pockets, and the shaft can be strapped into the daisy.  I carry skis via a diagonal system similar to the one shown here (start at 18 seconds), with a loop of cord in the left hand (as worn) loop and a long voile ski strap through the daisy pocket on the  right shoulder strap.  Being able to rig a ski carry with the pack on is very valuable.  If large things need to be hauled, a lash strap can be rigged between the side loops and the daisy, and the pack is still fairly slender.

After experimenting with a zip top on the 610, and a roll top on previous packs, I still strongly prefer a simple drawcord.  Yes this will let rain in, though less than you’d think.  It is the lightest option for  a given capacity, and the most versatile because long things like partially assembled paddles can be carried sticking up and out.

Both of these packs weigh around 14-15 ounces without a foam pad in the full length interior sleeve.  You’ll want a fairly flexible pad for this purpose, or it steals some of the body hugging performance.

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The black pack uses VX-42 for the front and side, and Junior Ballistics for the bottom and back.  I used a PALS spec grid on both bottoms, with the idea being that accessory pouches and bottle holders could be added, as well as this serving as a waist belt and ski carry attachment point.  I’m not so fond of putting bottles here, but works well for skis and gives lots of options.

I also tried an outward taper in the lumbar section, which I think would work well, but because of the aforementioned long torso issue it doesn’t quite sit well with me.

The only issue with packs of this sort can be organization.  It’s easy to loose stuff down deep in the narrow interior if you don’t have your packing dialed.  Odd loads like an avy shovel carried inside exacerbate this.  The black pack has a 6″ by 5″ zippered pocket attached to the velcro pad sleeve flap inside.  Handy for keys or headlamp, but for me I don’t think it’s necessary.

All this said, while the other week I was trying to sell the 610 pack, now I’d like the sell this black pack.  It’s pretty darn solid, and I’ve used it skiing for around 6 days total.  It would fit a fairly long-torso’d person (21-22 inches).  If interested comment here and I’ll email you.  I want it to have a good home and am willing to let it go for rather little.

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13 thoughts on “A small pack manifesto

  1. Have you had your hands on any of CiloGear’s smaller packs? More feature-rich than what you’ve got going (attachments points, waist belt, suspension) but very similar overall. I got a 30L a few years back and enjoy it more and more every time I use it. Hard to explain why, really. It just feels good and adapts to whatever I want to do.

    1. I’ve handled but not used a NWD 30 and a normal 45. Make sense for climbers. Not a huge fan of all the seams they use, though the varied materials make sense.

  2. I use a Jansport pack which has long since been discontinued. Far too many bells and whistles to be lightweight, but it’s light enough, comfortable, holds a lot and shows no signs of wearing out, so I think I’ll be using it for some time yet. Probably words of heresy to a pack junkie. 😉

    I agree with you on the drawstrings. Rolltops are good for drybags but overkill on anything else.

      1. Fixed.

        I try to adhere to one pack of each type only, though there are various and sundry packs I don’t use often laying around. Part of why I want that black pack to find a new home.

  3. Reminds me of my Cold Cold World Ozone. Very affordable, bombproof backpack and customizable, by Randy Rackliff, the friendly shop owner.

    1. We’ve got a very beat up Ozone we bought at Pagan in Moab years ago and thrashed canyoneering. An excellent design, and even better than you can order it to fit (the stock torso is pretty short).

  4. If you haven’t sold it yet, I’m interested in the black pack. I’m just getting into dirt touring, bikepacking, and geocaching, and this looks perfect for that.

    1. Hypothetically, at some point in the future I might buy an industrial machine, and might occasionally make packs for sale. Maybe. I don’t enjoy sewing that much.

      The interest is quite flattering, and I thank everyone for it.

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