It all started with this video, shot on location 9 years and 2 months ago up on Blue Mountain above Missoula, down on the middle Bitterroot, and most significantly, along the North Fork of the Flathead upstream of Kintla Creek. That trip, planned off the back of a job interview which changed my life, was done with no advanced knowledge and perhaps 10 minutes looking at a map. I don’t think I’d ever been north of Bowman before, and discovered the patrol trail north of the Kishenehn Ranger station the good way, by stumbling into it when I expected to bushwack. I had assumed the out and back to the border would be an overnighter, but with a trail all the way, the elevated streamflow (rain) and my rudimentary floating experience I went to the border by early afternoon, and then way downstream of Kintla before I realized it, road walked miles back upstream in the dark, and ended up sleeping in the Xterra at the Quartz Creek campground. I killed a bit of time the next morning floating lower McDonald Creek, and in less than 24 hours had done one of my all-time favorite packraft routes and then heard elk bugling, both for the first time.
That trip, and what it symbolized, changed my life just as much as what became my career. After years of pursuing overnight backcountry travel in a haphazard fashion, mostly as a necessary evil for climbing, canyon, and mountain biking objectives, I had in our first two years in Montana fallen for backpacking hard, finding the outdoor pursuit to which my preferences and talents were best suited, and happened upon packrafting right on the cusp of whatever popularity it will, as a backcountry pursuit, ever have. I have no doubt that the ability to do all of this 97% in first descent mode is an opportunity I’ll never get near again in my life.
I was learning about light and fast all season backpacking, skiing, and packrafting at a time when the gear and especially backpacks were not especially good. The Golite Jam (pictured at top, on M in White River park) and Pinnacle were the standard. HMG didn’t yet exist, no one save true garage fanatics were making packs out of cuben, and consumers could only buy Dimension Polyant by either calling the company and (literally) begging for scraps or having a connection to one of the very few people using it commercially (forever thanks to Eric at Epic Designs (now Revelate) for selling me the VX-21 which became the first North Fork pack, and throwing in a few scraps which included some of the first VX-42 to ever make it into a backpack).
It was fortuitous timing to get into backcountry travel, and making backpacks for it, right as 21st century ultralight backpacking went mainstream. I got to learn many of the important things being out front, with little if any explicit modeling.
The Jam was pretty good as far as dimensions and features go. To this day that design has a lot to teach us. The various iterations also revealed, quickly and definitively, the limits of first frameless and then pad-in-pocket suspension. My first North Fork pack was frameless, as I was still in thrall to the delusion that careful packing can make the contents the frame. This is true, until it isn’t, and those many instances where it isn’t (most simply, when the pack isn’t full) drastically reduce the versatility of frameless packs. The final few versions of the Jam were actually the exception to what I call the Osprey Rule, where a packs frame can support significantly more than its hipbelt/lumbar complex. Both conceptually and in terms of sewing ability it took me a few years to get beyond having a belt which worked better than the frame, or vice versa.
When the first, frameless North Fork bag tried my patience and chaffed my hips too much I ripped out of the back panel, and gave it a rebirth with a better belt and a full sleeve, into which I put a dual layer foam sheet with a single aluminum stay laminated inside. This supported weight decently enough, but (for a variety of reasons to be discussed in a later post) I could never get it to stick to my lumbar, and like many packs I’d like to have back for reference and nostalgia, it got cut up for other projects.
Progress in my thinking accelerated when I started working with backpack companies, first Gossamer Gear and then Seek Outside.
Much of what I’ve been trying to accomplish since has been to bring the best of these two systems together. The old Gorilla was a pretty good do-everything pack for lightweight backpacking, but a few nuances of the dimensions and feature set, along with the materials, failed emphatically if taken too far off the beaten trail. It was the first sub-2 pound pack I used extensively that, after I modified the hoop stay to ride directly in the belt, had a belt good enough to max out the frame. And the old Gorilla belt wasn’t much, no contour and a single layer of foam with stretch nylon on the insides and ripstop on the outside, a lesson more than anything in the utility of the basic. Gossamer Gear has moved with the market (helped I hope a tiny bit by my clamoring 6 years ago) and made the Silverback, which started as a tougher Gorilla but has been weighted and watered down by that companies general REI-ification, in which shelf appeal has added features of questionable utility.
Seek Outside packs set the bar for what load carriage in the pack should be, and their frame and belt design has in the six years I’ve used it continued to ask and re-ask questions about just what and how a pack could carry weight well. I’ve been vocal to the point of perseveration on the shortcomings of the platform for lightweight backpacking, but over the past two years of pack development the question I’ve been brought back to it as a touchstone repeatedly. The Gorilla is the best example of how to do away with traditional ultralight wing-in-seam belt architecture without being too heavy, and thus take a pack beyond the ~20-25 pound load limit such a design almost inherently has. But how to have something slimmer, lighter, and more flexible than the bulky SO system which still meets the benchmark for long term load carriage, up to 45 pounds?
The answer, as I’ll try to illustrate in the coming weeks, isn’t just about finding the right structural elements and attaching them correctly (though being satisfied that I’ve found a way to maximize the potential of a single stay is nice). Dimensions and features all get wound together and become codependent and almost inextricable. There are some basic rules, some of which can be bent to good effect. Details, to follow in the coming weeks.