The bearable weight of backpack features

A backpack should be a sturdy bag to hold your stuff, with a suitable suspension system, and just enough straps and/or exterior accoutrements to not impede efficiency.

Efficiency in the backcountry has more to do with knowledge and experience than equipment, which makes the question simple: how little exterior stuff on your pack can you get away with?

The math here is basic: fewer accoutrements make for a lighter pack. There’s only so much to be done saving weight with frame and harness components, and sacrificing function here is short sighted. A 60-70 liter pack will use a bit less than a yard of fabric for the body and bottom, so only ounces can be cut going lighter here, and often at the expense of longevity.


Above is the bag I used on the recent Grand Canyon trip. You can see a good photo in use here. The relatively clean exterior was driven by time constraints more than anything, as I realized that this pack wasn’t going to be quite big enough, nor carry ~40 pounds as well as the Paradox suspension.

The above bag is 1000D cordura, with a double 500D cordura bottom. Two compression straps on each side, and bottom straps (mainly to keep the frame seated. Provision for a top strap, but I rarely used one. Weight as taken on the trip was 20 ounces, not bad for a bag with a continuous 37″ circumference, and functional 36″ height.


I took mental notes on the shortcomings, as I always do. One set of compression straps were mandatory to hold poles when not in use. A front pocket would have been nice, to hold ropes and extra clothes more securely. The roll top strap needed to be 1″ rather than 3/4″, as it got yarded on a lot when passing packs. Some form of upper organization would have been nice, either in a lid or pocket, as opening the bag to get maps and the like got old. Side pockets are not so big a deal in the desert, when you’re using a water bag with hose anyway, and they tend to get torn up.

The above panel went into a pack the same size as the canyon bag, but in different materials and with more features. The body is VX-42, and the pockets a combination of 1000D cordura and a lighter 400D ripstop. 1″ webbing for all compression straps and the daisy chains not shown. The idea here was a pack which would be durable enough for another Grand Canyon trip, waterproof enough for spring trips here in Montana, and enough load control for hunting.

The cost of these features? 12 ounces more than the previous bag, for 32 ounces total. VX-42 is 8.5 oz/yard, 1000D is 10.8. Features make the difference.

They also make building it take a lot, lot longer. Experience makes me confident that I’ll use all the stuff I put on it, but compared to the nice, clean canyon bag, the weight and complexity bum me out. Nothing comes without cost.

12 responses to “The bearable weight of backpack features”

  1. Dave, this might be contrary to personal philosophy, either anti-corporate, financial or aesthetic (or all of the above) but the one solution is really quite simple, spend the coin and get yourself an older Arc’Teryx Acrux 50 or 65 liter completely waterproof backpack. There has never been anything like it. The space-aged material is absolutely bombproof and waterproof. There is nothing like it on the market. It has two aluminum stays and carries like a dream for a simplistic, albeit high-tech rig. You will have the pack for a very long time.

    I know this is contrary to most of the anti-corporate philosophy espoused at BPL as it is neither cottage-company made nor weighs more than a pound and a half. But the fact of the matter is, everything evolves and backpack construction has gone a light year ahead of everyone else with composite construction and materials and techniques not readily available to the general public. Building a pack out of 1,000 denier cordura is akin to still wearing blue jeans on a backpacking trip to Isle Royale. The sole reason I ditched my Dana packs was the 1,000 denier absorbed water like a sponge. I just recently dropped the coin on a the new Alpha Fl pack, the little brother to the Acrux and it is a piece of art in both aesthetics and function, in the most stripped down sense. True perfection for done-in-one to three-day mountain adventures. As a bonus, it weighs just over a pound.

    The Acrux pack is perfectly suited to your style of adventures… the hybrid backpack/packraft backcountry outings. I have used it from ice-climbing in the Canadian Shield, to weeks spent in the Canyonlands, to getting rained on for a solid week in the Wind River Range. It performs flawlessly every time. Give it a go, you might find yourself surprised. I apologize if this sounded like a heavy-handed sales pitch but I see it as best possible, if not most capable solution.

    1. No need to apologize for strong opinions.

      I’ll admit I’m very skeptical of the Acrux’s hipbelt, and the idea of a waterproof pack. Non-absorbent materials, sure; but nothing is waterproof with holes in it.

      1000D may have shortcomings, but for high abrasion, low moisture exposure activities (which canyoneering is, oddly enough) the weight/performance/cost ratio is unmatched. 500D cordura plain weave with some manner of silicone impregnation to kill the water sucking tendencies after it’s been roughed up a bit would be great.

      There are spectra woven/laminate hybrids and hi-bias cubens out there that are the future of pack fabrics. Until I stop enjoying the learning process of pack making, or have a lot more disposable income, I won’t be spending the 50-110 dollars a yard they cost.

    2. Rog, comparing the Acrux at roughly 60 ounces to Dave’s creation at half or less of that is a bit of a stretch. The comfort of Arc packs is very, very hard to beat (my most comfortable pack is from them) and extra weight easily goes unnoticed due to that comfort but I’m not sure about 30+ ounces.

      As for your thoughts on 1000d, that material is used so readily because of how quality it is. The combination of extreme water resistance balanced with exceptional tear and puncture resistance is good reason why highly respected pack manufacturers are still using it.

      1. Hey Sam, I suggested the Acrux because of the stated desire to carry a 40 lb load in addition to using the pack to haul packraft gear in what could be a wet environment. I believe that because the entire pack and frame are laminated as one complete unit, the two extra pounds carry more efficiently than in a traditional pack two pounds lighter. Of course, all of this is regarding a person who is in pretty kick ass shape and has a great amount of muscle memory, carrying loads over varied terrain.

        The fact that the incredibly rigid packbody material, framesheet and stays are laminated there is no room for movement and sag that takes place in a traditionally constructed pack. When a pack has any moving layers in it, even the slightest movement, the carrying efficiency drops. By this, I mean, the fabric stretches and moves where it is attached to the frame, in other words – ‘the sags’.

        Now take Dave’s homemade pack. If it has just two stays and no rigidity to connect them and evenly distribute the carried weight, how much carrying efficiency is lost. Once this happens the backpacker’s physique would have to compensate for all that movement in the pack’s structure. In my mind, over the long haul, a pack that has an extra pound or two in a rigid frame system, might in the longer run, be as efficient on the carrier as a two pound frameless, carrying 40 lbs. Again, keeping in mind, the user being in great physical shape. I’ve done both routes, grocery bags with straps and otherwise, and depending on the trip, each has their place.

        As far a 1000d material is concerned, I believe the composite material is easily on par with 500d if not stronger based on what I’ve done with the pack.

        I think with larger companies – ie – Black Diamond and Arc’Teryx, we will see a shift in newer, stronger, more weather resistant materials come down the pike. As far as companies still using 1000d, I believe it is an easy, cheaper and time-proven material to fall back on for smaller companies to use. For more progressive and larger pack companies, I would hope to see them moving beyond 1980’s coated-fabric technology and putting their R&D capital into the new 1000d for a new generation. Once this occurs, the price will drop and smaller companies will be able to take advantage of the big guy’s R&D expenditures. That’s pretty much what happened with VX style fabrics.

        Of course, I never meant to rain on Dave’s pack making parade. I say move forward, but I would challenge him to look at it from a different angle. How can load carrying efficiency be increased while maintaining a ‘reasonable’ lower weight. I believe the answer lies in the framesheet. The ArcTeryx Nozone 35 has the thinnest, lightest and most rigid frame I have ever seen for a pack that size. That along with newer fabrics is the future of the pack.

        1. I agree with much of what you say.

          The tan pack pictured above uses the Paradox frame, which allows for no sag whatsoever in the back panel, without using a framesheet.

        2. No arguing that what Arc’Teryx is doing is well thought-out, and any extra weight is easily forgotten about with how comfortable they’ve designed their gear. That being said I feel that flexible frames are the direction pack makers need to go to reduce weight while maintaining high load carrying capabilities. If the frame stays, shoulder straps, and hipbelt are all intelligently attached to the backpanel very little rigidity is necessary in that sheet.

        3. I guess we’ll have to wait and see what surprises the future holds. I am anxious to see. In the past 30 years, companies have been experimenting with flexible frames. For laughs check out some old TNF catalogs. I am open-minded to any new design but I believe, as of RIGHT NOW, a rigid framesheet is the bedrock to a pack design, regarding superior carrying capability, rather than a flexibility. Kinda like a unibody constructed car versus a classic chassis built on two I-beams. Too much torque and lost energy resulting in eventual weakening of materials and carrier. With composite materials there is little stretch unlike most corduras. Imagine a carbon fiber framesheet laminated with a thin layer of closed-cell and a pair of channel-ground aluminum stays attached to a packbody with no stretch.

          In the past 25 years I have been really impressed by load carrying capabilities just once. That was Dana Gleason’s concepts when he was in his heyday. Granted, they were over-engineered and overbuilt, and weighed a ton but the foundation of his designs were spot on. If his designs can be constructed using high end materials from the frame sheet and stays outward to waistbelt and packbody, that would be incredible. The way straps pulled the load closer to the small of the back worked wonderfully. Imagine a 1990’s Dana Design ‘Bomb Pack’ carrying the same weight today but weighing only 2 pounds. Sign me up. The new Alpha FL 45 pack weighs only 23 ounces with a laminated closed-cell foam framesheet and no stays. With a little imagination, they could add a laminated plastic/foam composite framesheet and channel-ground stays with a slightly better waistbelt and it would top out at less than 3 pounds and still carry 40 pounds as well as a six pound Bomb Pack. 3 for 40 is not a bad ratio and as a bonus, it’s virtually waterproof.

          Again, I am open to some ground breaking paradigm shifts in pack design. I only use Arc’Teryx as the example right now because I believe they are currently approaching pack design in a more abstract way than anyone else, regarding all aspects of design, especially materials and laminated composite frames. And who knows, Black Diamond or Mammut could come out with the next ‘big thing’. That’s not to say a cottage manufacturer won’t, but as of right now they are working with the scraps falling off the corporate designer’s cutting table. It could happen, it did for Dana Gleason.

        4. In my experience, the Paradox carries heavy loads much better than any of the Dana packs. I owned a number of different Bozeman Dana packs and sold literately hundreds of them. They were the best in their day but the Paradox carries weight better at much less weight.

  2. Your pack looks like it carries really well. Well built, sleek external frames are such a rarity. Niche market item for sure. Someone really should sell something like that.

    1. Hopefully the Paradox Unaweep is that pack.

  3. […] is a good idea for a backpack to have some (or at least, the correct) external features, though as I discussed years ago features do add up in […]

  4. […] features don’t make up the majority of a packs weight, but they do make up the overwhelming majority of the weight which […]

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