The big pack

Not long after I started building packs from scratch I started packrafting, and realized in a hurry a truly large pack was a good idea if you prefer to not have a bunch of stuff yardsaled via straps on the outside. The result was this one. It’s funny to think back to designing and building that one, because a lot of things have stayed the same; while the pack discussed below is in many ways (chiefly having a frame) different, it’s also very much the same. My first ideas about size and features were dead on. Some things are different, such as a much more sophisticated understanding of suspension, and a wider availability of materials. In the fall of 2010 you couldn’t buy even VX21 anywhere at the retail level; Eric Parsons at Revelate (then Epic) Designs sold me five yards out of his shop. It’s been a long, enjoyable, rewarding, and in many ways circular road that took me from that pack to this one.

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(This and several of the following photos by M.)

A variety of things this summer put it in my head that I’d need a bigger pack than the 3900 Unaweep. I can do a week-long, unsupported summer packrafting trip out of the Unaweep, with nothing but my PFD strapped externally, but the narrower bag does limit how easy it is to chuck in a bunch of gear. At the same time I knew I didn’t want anything much taller, due to stability and brush clearance issues.

Therefore the pack above was made with a 38 inch lower circumference, 42 inch upper circumference, and a 42 inch height, which maxes at 39 inches with the drawcord actually cinched closed. These dimensions, combined with an exhaustive compression system, allow for flexibility. If you’re bushwacking, load the pack fully and compress it down to shoulder height. If you’re on trail, let the load grow taller and suck it in. If the load is both small and heavy, as in a full disassembled deer on a day hunt, cinch in the lower straps to keep the weight up towards the shoulders.

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This is the pack I used in the Grand Canyon this fall, where it was fantastic to have a lot of extra space. On the second morning it was obvious that both M and my mother were tired, so I took the majority of the group gear and food. With the Paradox frame and belt, and a new perspective on what qualifies as a heavy pack, I was able to take on all that and six liters of water and serve the best needs of the group through the long boulder hop of day two.  The muddy slides, downclimbs, and wades of that trip imparted some permanent stains to the fabric and webbing, a welcome bit of character.

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This pack has most of the essential features of the smaller bag I outlined earlier this week. This larger pack came first, and the simple, seam-minimizing layout was driven by the knowledge I’d be using it to carry potentially very large and heavy loads.

Big packs get more abuse the midsized packs (because a heavy load added to a tired hiker equals less care), but less than small packs (which get used most often, and for the most abusive things). Therefore the bottom of this bag is 1000D cordura. The sides are double layered cordura over X33, while the bottom is just a single layer of cordura. A double bottom is largely unnecessary with the bottom flap, and starts adding enough layers that my machine has a hard time stitching it all. Plus over the year I’ve most consistently gotten holes in packs right above the bottom along the sides.

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I’ve gone back and forth, but have decided that for big packs an internal compression strap is handy. This one attaches low on the front panel and buckles to a point right between the tops of the frame. Pulled tight it compresses and stabilizes the load, and (like the old Dana version) pulls the bag back and creates headroom. With a tall pack headroom will be a problem, unless like some companies you don’t contour the frame in above the shoulders (and then exacerbate it with a poor shoulder strap attachment point), which in my opinion is simply wrong.

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For reasons mentioned earlier this week I like drawcord cinches.  When you attach the cordlock to the bag and provide a grab loop on the opposite side of the collar, this system is very fast.  I used some orange 40D sil/PU I had hanging around for the top 8 inches of the collar, to save weight, seal better, and provide a bit of safety during hunting season.

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After some experimentation I arrived at two crossing top straps to cinch the top into order.  Finding a way to do this which isn’t heavy and slow (lid) and doesn’t have a ton of extra strap flying around is challenge with drawcord packs.

As can be seen in the top photo, my first draft was a Y strap, which created rabbit ears from the stiff X33 fabric.  This would not do.  But how to tame the strappage and have enough length for all possible loads?

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The answer was the attach a loop of 3/8 inch webbing to each 3/4 inch top compression strap, and tune the length so that when the straps are girth hitching through the top daisy chain loop there is just enough strap to attach something to the top of a very full pack.  In any other situation, the loop is hitched lower on the daisy, resulting in less slack when the straps are cinched down.

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I use the Paradox talon system with this pack, both the dual-pocketed blaze camo talon, and the slightly larger HPG Tarahumara shown here, modded to work as both a compression panel and a daypack with hide-away shoulder straps.  A just a bit narrower than the width of the front panel is crucial to directing the force of the compression in towards the back and making of the load a narrower, better carrying rectangle.  Full wrap compression straps work fine with light loads, but when really put to the test they sausage a heavy load badly, making it tight without really making it behave.

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Where the full-wrap mode, with talon removed, really come into it’s own is when the pack is compressed into day mode.  As hinted at above, this isn’t really relevant for anyone who isn’t a hunter. However, I like that I can have total load control at any volume between 500 and 7000 cubic inches.

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In spite of my or anyone’s obsessions on the subject, a pack is a piece of gear, whose ultimate judgement will only come in what jobs it does and how well. The main pleasure I’ve gotten out of this pack, and indeed the superlative Paradox Packs suspension in general, is how easily they’ve let me carry more than my share of the load. Ultralight packs which max a bit north of 30 pounds are fine, but upon occasion it’s nice to know that both your legs and your bag can handle, easily, a lot more.

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4 thoughts on “The big pack

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