Bark River Micro Canadian re-scale

For the past four years my Micro Canadian has always been one of my very favorite objects.  It blends practicality and elegance in a way which few other categories of things can.  Restlessness, and extreme specialization (river rescue), are the only real reasons I’ve used anything else.  To address the former I bought a Bark River Ringtail this past winter (the brown handled knife with the ring, above), the idea being the Micro is a bit short on edge length and blade volume where processing game is concerned.  The Ringtail is very good for that, and has reminded me that if the Micro has any shortcoming, it is the blunter angle of the tip, which makes for a cutting bit whose acuity erodes quickly.

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My parents chose a gorgeous stabilized wood burl for the handle (scales) when they bought me the Micro, and over the years the wood has suffered, with many damper outings causing swelling, and after enough cycles, cracking.  A few weeks ago, one of these cracks propagated far enough towards one of the pins, and the front of one scale fell off.  The knife worked fine without it, and a few hours after sending an email to Bark River about a repair the idea to make new scales myself was firmly stuck in my head.  So I pondered that for another few days, then ordered some safety yellow pieces of G10, 1/8″ thick.  To this day, several weeks after sending the email, I still haven’t heard back from Bark River.

G10 was an easy (and cheap, on sale!) choice, being durable and impermeable.  1/8″ is a hair thinner than the wood scales, something I figured would slim down the somewhat blocky/squarish cross section of the handle as stock.  While I was at it, I knew I wanted to make the scales extend ever so slightly further towards the blade, to give my thump a bit more purchase.

After punching the pins out of the blade and cleaning it up, I clamped the blade to the front of the stacked scales and used that as a template to drill the holes.  I sharpied the outline to the scales, rough cut that out with a coping saw (both scales still together, then epoxied the whole thing together.  In spite of being very careful with alignment one of the rear holes was off a bit, and getting the whole mess together required a bit of last minute swearing and elbow grease.

After the epoxy was set finish work was the simple yet tricky matter of lots of sanding.  G10 sands well; I used an orbit sander with 220 grit for the initial stuff, and finished things off with lots of hand sanding.  I used a 1″ dowel as the template for the finger grooves, which worked well.  I am very pleased with how the whole thing came together.

The past four years of fixing things, renovations, and projects have seen home ownership being a huge catalyst for me embracing making stuff as equal parts an end and a means.  Something like this, which I carry virtually everywhere I go, every day, seems set to serve as a reminder of the many rewards that process has shown me.  Next in this series, my adventures making canoe paddles.

A daypack

After being so impressed with Ultraweave I naturally wanted to make several/a number of bags out of it.  My affinity for burlier pack fabrics goes back to the very beginning, both because I know that many of my favored activities shred lighter pack fabrics, and (more relevantly) because I have an aesthetic preference for things, especially things that I build, to have the potential to last a very long time.  For most of the last decade this has been quite hypothetical (that pack from 2010 looks awful in my today eyes), but in the last 3-4 years my knowledge has been such that I regularly make things that stand the test of time.  Making myself a pack from a fabric that could realistically last decades is today not just an ideological activity.

A daypack is not an especially exciting thing, both because day-type activities are less aspirational, and because designing and building a daypack happens on a persnickety scale.  Fit, for example, is an area where in theory a frameless little pack which will rarely carry more than 10 pounds ought to be forgiving.  Many companies making such packs in one size only would certainly suggest as much.  And yet I’ve found little packs to be difficult in this regard, having no frame and especially no belt and load lifters to take the focus off torso length, and strap size, width, and orientation.  Torso length is relevant both to maximize space, and to concentrate the sweet spot for both fit and comfort in the same location.  This pack is 20 inches exactly, an inch or a little more less than I’d make a larger pack (w/ frame, etc).  This maintains total shoulder wrap, with the pack ending just at the lower edge of my lumbar.  This feels most comfortable, most agile, and places the side pockets low enough for good access.  The upper few inches of the side panels tilt toward the user, on both sides, providing a nice shoulder hugging fit, and maintaining a trim yet generous 7 inches of constant depth.  The front panel is 9 inches wide, the back panel 10.5, with 2 inches of upsweep on the bottom panel.  It is easy to make a pack like this too skinny, in either direction, too pudgy, or to overdo the various tapers and create something with less useable space.

For all the seeming contradiction of a forever fabric and a zipper, the classic clamshell is an obvious choice with a pack this small.  It is cleaner through the brush than a rolltop or drawcord, and far faster to access.  Mid panel always seems to work best with a zipper, and this straight run and constant radius curve, along with dual #10 nickle plated sliders, maximizes durability.  Additional internal features amount to a pad sleeve against the back, a small zippered pocket (9″ by 7″), and another sleeve pocket behind the zippered pocket, handy for garbage or for isolating wet raingear from the rest of the contents.  These details, along with the cord sleeves on the side pockets, were old 200ish denier nylon from a sailbag I got free off craigslist.  Orange seemed a good color to halo through the main fabric, and having touseled accents to such a fancy pack seemed logical.

Side pockets in a small pack that legit fit a nalgene aren’t common.  These envelope a standard nalgene, and carry a 48oz cilo well enough that only a big tumble off a log (did it) will knock them free.  These are 14 inches back to front, with a 3 by 3 inch dimensioned gusset against the user side, and the remaining 11 inches fit down to 7 with a big pleat.  The single pleat restricts the pocket size with a single hard object, but expands easily with softer items, ergo a nalgene doesn’t rattle around, but you can wedge a full set of raingear in.

Hopefully five years from now my current state of knowledge doesn’t prove too antiquainted.

Essential Skills: Garment zipper replacement

Replacing a zipper, generally in a full zip jacket, is one of the most common and thus, most essential serious gear repairs you’ll do.  Serious in this case being roughly defined as requiring more than tape or glue to manage.  The zipper on my 4 year old Haglofs Pile hoody recently died, providing a good tutorial on how to effect this repair.

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The first step in any repair is preventative maintenance.  With jacket zippers, the first step here is to buy garments made from good materials.  #5 YKK zips are a good place to start (# refers to size, bigger meaning larger, and the number can generally be found on the back of the slider, bottom stop, or both).  #3 zippers are in full zip jackets a invitation to a short product life.  Zippers fail when the materials wear, so keeping the teeth clean and not yanking too much both go a decent way towards maximizing function.  When separation begins to occur (see above), often a worn slider is at fault.  The metal of the slider wears ever so slightly, enough that it doesn’t fully engage the teeth when pulled up.  Engage the zipper, and bend the two halves together with pliers (this page has good photos).

With my jacket, this did not get the job done.   Wear to the plastic teeth, combined with fraying on the bottom stop, prevented things from seating properly, making total replacement the only option.  As I outline below, this isn’t too difficult or time consuming, but it is also not the most basic repair.  Companies with good warranties and repair policies (e.g Patagonia) will replace zippers, often for free.  Companies with mediocre policies (e.g. OR) will usually send you a new jacket).  Companies with less good policies (e.g. Arc’teryx) will often give you the run around before replacing the garment.  For me repair is both better style and better for the environment.  Knowing I wanted to put a beefier zipper into this specific jacket (packed size and weight not being a concern), I ordered up a #8 YKK coil zip as a replacement, and got out the knife.

Haglofs did a good job making the zipper both well sewn in an fairly easy to remove.  The strip of grosgrain is the key here: remove the little bartack on either end, cut out a few inches of stitching on one end, and at this point the thread is thin enough you can just rip the rest of the stitch line in a good yank.  The zipper itself is sewn directly to the fleece with another line of stitching, similarly slowly cut out a few inches with a knife or seam ripper, then give it a rip.

The only tricky part of sewing the new zipper on is the tendency of fleece to stretch, especially if your machine doesn’t have a walking foot.  Pins aren’t a bad idea to prevent this, or use stitch lines in the garment as reference marks, sewing 3-5 inches at a time and making sure the fabric doesn’t stretch.  If you let the fleece stretch, the zipper will get longer than it should, and the fit will be weird.  Once you’ve stitched the zipper in on either side via a plain seam, and in this case reused the zipper flap, again via a plain seam, flip the garment back right side out (top photo) and top stitch through the folded seam to lock everything in place.

Simple, easy, and now you can fix your own stuff.  Once practiced this is a ~20 minute job.

Seek Outside Flight One trouble shooting

The Seek Outside Flight One is a ~50 liter, reasonably featured ~2.5 pound backpack designed to carry loads over 30 pounds well.  Better load carriage and more coherent features than a Windrider 3400, and a burlier build than a Gossamer Gear Gorilla.  In short, a modern lightweight backpack; an increasingly busy class, with the relevant reference point being the Rogue Pando Zoro, a point to which I’ll return in closing.

Unfortunately the Flight One combines a major design flaw with a major construction/patterning issue, the result being the carriage of the belt and lumbar pad not matching the other parts of the pack.  I modified a Flight bag recently for a friend, following Philip’s mod detailed here, an easy job others may wish to emulate.

The Flight One uses an internal U frame, made from thin, solid aluminum rod, with a top piece of alu tube, that pushes on and makes it into a solid rectangle.  The frame fits into a full internal sleeve, very tightly. This tight fit and the 7000 series alloy rod make the frame solid, springy, with an excellent degree of twisting flex.  It’s a really nice solution to the modern pack problem.  The problem is in the lumbar and belt arrangement.  The belt comes in two halves, and adjusts for width with velcro.  It velcros behind the lumbar pad, a la classic Dana Designs.  Dana packs had a very stiff belt, and ran the main alu stay into the lumbar pad itself, both of which prevented sagging.

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The Flight sags quite a bit, mainly because (as seen in the top photo) the lumbar opening is 3/4″ too large.  As seen in the above photo, when I have 40 pounds in the pack, this slack hinges out immediately, effectively reducing the torso length of the pack by over an inch.  In theory a 24 inch tall frame, the longest Seek offers on the flight, ought to be good for all but the tallest users.  But that is a narrow if, and 22.5 inches is, for a taller but not beyond average person like myself, a fast problem at loads around 30 pounds.

Taking the bottom seam out and sewing the pad tighter would be one way to deal with that issue, but removing and resewing structural seams is a bit dodgy on relatively light fabrics like X21.  Instead, my friend obtained extensions for the frame, and I removed the load lifter buckles and haul strap and sewed them 2 inches taller.  A non-reversible modification, but simple and effective.

It’s illustrative to return here to the Zoro, which has had its issues, and takes a quite different approach to the belt-frame interface, using snaps to connect a hanging belt to the base seam, something quite similar to what Seek (re)introduced to the public with their original packs.  Quite simply, I think this is the best way to go about building a pack, both because the connection methods tend to eliminate the possibility for stretch and sag, and because I don’t think lumbar pads really bring anything to the table in terms of enhancing load carriage (whether the lumbar benefits from different kinds of padding relative to the hips is a separate question).

 

How the Dana Longbed Works

Amongst the few dozen folks worldwide who care about such things, the Dana Designs external frame packs are regarded as the pinnacle of the genre.  I spent a couple hundred field days carrying an Arcflex, and for a number of reasons gladly passed it along a decade ago.  Finding both the load carriage and feature set deficient, I can’t fathom a reason to go back to that tech, but I’m enough of a pack nerd/historian that when a Longbed popped up for cheap enough locally, it was an easy decision to buy it.

First, the numbers.  The early oughts era Dana Designs Longbed is listed as 99 liters, and 7 pounds 13 ounces, stock.  My version, with medium straps and belt, and a regular harness, breaks down as follows:

  • Belt: 14.5 oz
  • Straps: 7.3 oz (pair)
  • Bag: 3 pounds 12.6 oz
  • Harness assemblage: 8.1 oz
  • Magic wands (pair): 7 oz
  • Upper frame 4.9
  • Frame. 1 pound 3.2 oz

121.6 oz, total.  Which is heavy, by any modern standard, and really heavy by most measures.  Modern load haulers are generally 2-3 pounds lighter, in a package with similar capacity, but a more sleek feature set.  The Longbed is not sleek, as evidenced by the bag weight.  Four separate zippers, including a huge #10 U zip to access the main bag, are the main source of the overall weight, along with the huge lumbar pad and hypalon reinforced frame sleeve, which are sewn to and thus included in the main bag weight.  In this respect it is the worst of late 90s pack design, complete with floppy, non-functional mesh sides pockets, and a size that isn’t even that capacious (42 inch top circumference).

These criticisms would be valid for almost any pack of that era, making the more interesting question why this most modern of external frame packs might have something to teach us still.  As mentioned in the posts cited above, making a frame both rigid enough for load hauling and not massively heavy is challenging.  On the one hand the 19 oz Dana frame is porky.  On the other, it is more rigid than something like the Seek Outside Revolution, is at 29 inches taller, and that 19 oz figure includes totally rigid cross bracing.  With a modern belt removing 5-6 ounces, and a less complex overall harness design cutting something close to 2 pounds, the Dana frame might be a more coherent package than it first appears.  

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With the top bar at full extension the Dana frame is a full 36 inches tall, a full ten inches beyond most modern hunting frames.  It is also lighter, shorter, and narrower than something like the Barney’s Freighter frame.  The other argument for external frames, beyond the virtues of tubing over stays, has always the footprint of the frame.  The 26″ by 12″ footprint of modern hunting packs (Stone Glacier, Kifaru, etc) equals, when loaded 10 inches deep, 3120 cubic inches, about half a carefully boned out elk, and more weight than most people will be able to carry over rough terrain.  A load bearing footprint beyond this is handy for loads less easily tamed.  A bison hide is an example with which I have personal experience, or a moose quarter or rack of ribs (which many places in Alaska must come out of the field bone in), which explains Barney’s enduring popularity up north.

For myself, I’ve long wanted to experiment with a larger platform for family load hauling, and the Dana frame makes an ideal platform.  

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Carrying the Longbed in stock form does not make me at all nostalgic for my old ArcFlex.  The external frame is indeed more forgiving of poor packing.  I loaded up a five gallon bucket of iron window weights, resulting in a load too heavy to stand under without rolling over and crawling upright (a boundary I’ve found that for me is right around 100 pounds).  The adhesive properties of the aggressive lumbar pad and thick, soft hipbelt were immediately obvious, as were their longer term impacts, having to cinch things repeatedly as you travel and motion and gravity combine to help things compress.  

The years have taught me that the rough contours of hips require different sorts of padding compared to the less sensitive, and often concave depths of the lumbar.  But I still struggle to see lumbar pads as anything other than a crutch for fit issues.  I’m excited to experiment with the frame.  I’m also excited to put lumbar pads in the bin until something unforeseen comes along.  Dana packs remain the apotheosis of that design, and this pack not suiting me injects confidence into my dismissal.

Evolution of the Tamarisk: Shoulder Straps

First: what the hell is happening with those packs, maan?

A lot.  Unfortunately, almost none of that is helping to get you a pack faster.  While the pandemic hasn’t impacted our family as directly or egregiously as it could, or still might, it has made the world more complicated.  I’ve been and remain on a slightly reduced salary, and our decision in early April for M to go back to work has been wise, in that any financial concerns have been well preempted.  What that has meant day to day is that we juggle our schedules, and that my time has been full enough that choices must be made: kid time, spouse time, meals, work, fun and exercise, yes.  Much else (e.g. cleaning, and sewing), no.

And I am ok with that.

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Hopefully one of the things we, as a society, get out of the pandemic is an easier time admitting that doing it all, especially as parents, is neither possible nor desirable.

One of the benefits of such mandatory emphatic choices, and of the necessity of managing creeping universal anxiety, has been lots of time in the woods, both on my own and with the little people.  The prototype Tamarisk has been used almost daily, even if that is only to transport rafting gear 200 yards from car to lake, or on a pint sized bikerafting trip (top photo, 5 miles on gravel, 10 miles of twisty and fast class I+).  I am more confident than ever in the design and size, and embracing the extended and indefinite timeline to tweak a few things (the belt could be a bit better, improved attachment points for a PFD).

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After 6 months of use I remain exceedingly pleased with the shoulder straps, which in packland present a problem whose answer is difficult to properly balance.  Too much padding is certainly a thing, as is too little, too stiff, and too supple.  My old Dana always chafed a little, and never really broke in enough (even after 200+ days) to conform to clavicle and armpit.  The 2012 Gorilla did almost everything right, with the thin foam being a little too stiff, and certainly far too ready to pack out.  The HPG shoulder harness was a study in how far one could get in patterning and conformity, but the Cordura facing against the user chafed and held sweat, and the thin and relatively supple foam let the webbing strap dig in once the load was big enough to stretch the Cordura.

With these three examples as limit posts, I set out a couple years ago to find something well in between them.  Most combinations of foam and materials have worked decently enough, and there is a case to be made for shoulder straps being an ancillary detail to things like the hipbelt and frame, so long as they are good enough.  But the whole point of the Tamarisk is to not just be good enough, and it is easy to recall trips like this one where anything with the least potential for discomfort will sing out to that effect, and loudly.

My current layup for the Tamarisk shoulder straps is a 5mm layer of fairly stiff EVA foam, 5mm 3D mesh turned inside out, and 500D Cordura, with a length of 3/4″ webbing bartacked every 3 inches the whole length.  The result is quite pliable, due to being well under 1/2 an inch thick, yet rigid, due to the EVA.  The thick 3D mesh makes things feel cushy, and wicks sweat (see above), both of which fight chafing during hot 12+ hour days.  Keeping the mesh inside out eliminates the traditional bane of that material, namely the extent to which it traps pine needles and debris, which build up over time no matter the cleaning efforts, eventually becoming abrasive to both clothing and skin.  The greatest cause for celebration is that testing the inverted mesh over the past two years, and this particular foam since January, has revealed no concerns with longevity whatsoever.  img_0010

The packs will come, eventually, but in this age of uncertainty I’m not making any specific promises.

Shorty

For a number of years I’ve wanted a short handy shotgun like my modified Tuffy, but with more ummph.  .410 is an excellent squirrel chambering, and mostly adequate for grouse and rabbit.  With these larger critters range is a practical limiter, not so much outright than with respect to pattern.  With a .410 20 yard shots on a static grouse or snowshoe are reasonable most of the time.  Moving shots are marginal without a high level of skill.  Much beyond that and one runs out of power quickly.  If a short shotgun is a practical tool because of portability, because you might bring it where and when you wouldn’t something bulkier and more refined, marginally expanding capability in a few targeted areas might be worth some extra weight.

I’d been on the lookout for a candidate for a while, and a few months ago we found a Stevens 9478 12 gauge at a pawn shop in Butte.  The folks there were quite willing to let the rather ugly little thing go for less than asking, and I think we paid $70 for it.  First step was to cut 10″ off the barrel.  This made for a cylinder bore.  I was able to unscrew the original bead sight and reinstall it, a welcome economy measure.  Next step was cutting the stock down for a straight grip, and stripping the ugly, slick, and in the end incredibly thick finish.  I left the texture a bit course and did a simple linseed oil finish, which feels nice in the hand.  Testing revealed the length of pull was too long, so I cut nearly an inch off, making it 13.5 inches, and as a test replaced the plastic back plate with a 5mm bit of dense foam, glued on.  Last mod was installing Grovtec flush cups, for the mandatory comfy carry with a sling.

Slimming the stock and reducing the LOP took off enough weight that the balance point was brought back a few inches in front of the trigger guard.  Pointing ergonomics with a shorty shotgun aren’t really a priority in the same way they would be with a full sized over/under, but as it stands the Stevens shoulders fluidly enough that tight, close shots on flushing spruce grouse seem very reasonable.  High, fast, straight away shots which seem to be the standard on ruffed grouse around here likely won’t be in the cards, but a gun like this is as a much about being present for ground sluicing blue grouse and hares 20 miles from the trailhead as anything else, and for that the just sub 5 pound weight will do very well.

I hope for an exhaustive field report in the fall.

Evolution of the Tamarisk: features

Or; as few things as possible.

Backpack features don’t make up the majority of a packs weight, but they do make up the overwhelming majority of the weight which is easily negotiable.  There is only so much weight to be shed with material (before you sacrifice durability), only so much with suspension or frame elements (before the pack carries poorly), and for a technical backcountry pack good side pockets (and belt pockets) are mandatory.  So the design task left is to make it possible to carry all the technical goods, along with the unexpected and unexpectable, with the least material possible. 

This includes snow gear like skis, crampons and ice axe(s), and a shovel, along with water gear (PFD), and perhaps something odd like firewood or even a bike.

I’ve settled on an extension of the reinforcing layer of bottom fabric, with horizontal daisy chains 15 inches apart.  Each daisy has a second layer of fabric inside.   Not only does each bartack thus have serious resistance to the ends pulling through the fabric, but the load is transferred to the whole fabric panel, and thus 16+ inches of seam.  The sleeve is not primarily intended as a pocket, being non-dimensioned, but is open at the top and thus not a bad place to stash pesky things like paddle blades, but the first intention is to both spread the load and provide abrasion resistance. 

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Pictured above is the full deal, for a trip which involved a 12 mile hike to even reach the skiing, and ended with steep skiing (on terrible crust) at 8500 feet.  A shorty 45cm ice axe mounted, old school, to a cord loop on the lower daisy.  The shovel shaft went inside the sleeve pocket.  Skis mounted diagonal, with ski straps, and crampons went under the top cinch strap, on top of three days of gear. 

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The final piece is the top strap, which is bartacked into the middle of the top daisy chain on one end, and with the buckle directly under the upper stay pocket on the other.  When the pack is on the empty side the angle of the strap, combined with the taper of the bag, provides compression.  When the pack is full the strap pulls the load towards the suspension, transferring the load and enhancing stability. 

And that, is it. 

 

The Bob bag

Lets get this out of the way: I won’t make you one of these.  Working with these fabrics and with stretchy Climashield is not something I find fun.  This design is straightforward and quick to make, so create your own ugly.

Ever since my first Wilderness Classic nearly a decade ago I’ve been turning this idea over; what is the lightest and fastest way to get a bit of sleep in the midst of a fast wilderness trip?  Curling up around a fire would seem to be the easiest answer, and has the advantage of self-selecting for only the most vitally needed sleep (read; you get cold and wake up).  The problems are the questionable quality of rest, and the potentially considerable time put into making a fire under unideal conditions.  Adding a tarp or bivy sort of addresses the second issue, but not the first.  In the last decade truly UL sleep items have become common enough that most peoples answer to this question has been to just bring a standard backpacking kit, or at least a light bag, tarp, and minimalist pad.  These systems can be in the 2 pound range, but usually come in between 3 and 4 all told (stakes, etc).  Not much weight, but not a tiny amount either.

The functional intermediary between these has long seemed to be a light synthetic bag come insulated bivy sack.  Enough insulation to maintain ~4 hours of warmth around freezing, and a waterproof/breathable shell with minimal seams, that sort of thing that would allow you to flop under a half ideal spruce and stay protected enough in the just the bag.  Synthetic insulation, as sub 10 oz down fills tend to be overly sensitive to moisture accumulation.  This winter a friend bugged me enough that I finally overcome my reluctance and made two such bags.  In the next few months we’ll truly find out how they perform in the field. 

I used 10D WPB for the shell, .66 oz/yard taffeta for the liner, and 3.6 oz (120 grams/meter) Apex.  The former is the obvious choice, being essentially alone at that weight.  The taffeta has a nice feel and is calendered, with synthetic insulation I reckoned that eeking out every little bit of warmth with low CFM fabrics all around was a good call, with no functional downside.  I went with safety orange for use in signalling aircraft.  I certainly could have used lighter insulation, but past experienced suggested 120 g/m was the lightest that would still be useable in all but the most specialized situations.  I made the neck cinch out of 30D ripstop, as anything lighter doesn’t let the cord run so smoothly, and in time abrades along the opening.

Using the (raw cut) dimensions in the above photo, finished weight was just over 16 ounces.  The fit is narrow, on purpose, but long enough to mostly go over the head of someone a 6 feet tall.

The main design challenge was avoiding any exposed seams in the top of the shell, as I really didn’t want to get into sealing anything.  To fix the top of the insulation to the bag without doing this, I stitched the liner, shell, and cinch tunnel together (left photo) and then folded the shell out of the way, slid the insulation in, and sewed through the interior seam, insulation, and liner fabric (right photo).  Apex is stretchy enough that you can be imprecise here with no problem.

After this, stitch around the side and bottom edges, then put the footbox together.

The footbox is a point down triangle.  The photo show it inside out (left) and then right side out (right) in both cases with the top of the bag facing up.  What you can’t see well is that the top of the footbox is longest, making the two seams run backwards, with the footbox overhanging them.  My expectation is that anything short of serious, sustained rain will not wet this out.

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The ~1 pound weight it what I wanted out of this.  It approaches down bags of comparable warmth, and should exceed them in damp conditions over a few days.  Packed size is another matter.  Squeezing air out of the bag is not a simple thing, and without tons of compression it wants to stay as a roughly basketball-sized lump.  It will go smaller, but in the game of ounces the pack space this demands is less than ideal.

Field report to follow this summer.

Evolution of the Tamarisk; side pockets

Side pockets which are easily accessible on the go and large enough to carry a significant percentage of the days gear (water, food, rain gear, maps, etc) are the defining element of a modern backpacking pack.  Belt and shoulder strap pockets can play supporting roles here, but my last three years of testing has heavily reinforced my conclusion that here is no substitute for good side pockets on a mileage-oriented pack.  How did we manage for so long without them?  Slower and less efficiently.  Just look through this post and cringe.

That said, there are plenty of reasons to try to get along without them if at all possible.  Proper side pockets aren’t at all complicated pieces of design, but getting the details just right is fiddly.   The deeper reasons for avoiding them have to do with the more rugged and technical pursuits.  Backpack width is the most premium number in balancing capacity and performance, and good side pockets necessarily add a lot of this, usually 3-4 inches per side.  A 12 inch wide pack, the limit for conventionally sized adults wanting a sleek pack, could easily grow past 20, which can be a problem in brush and while nordic skiing.  Side pockets also don’t play well with things like a-frame ski carry, at least without making the pocket design more complex and heavy still.

Another limitation of side pockets is their gaping opening, which while bushwacking, hiking in the rain, and crashing on skis become magnets for pine needles, water, and snow.  Pocket security is also a consistent issue, the number of water bottles and cans of bear spray lost during the Bob Open to wrecks, creeping willow branches, and logpile gymnastics is easily in double digits, something that isn’t just an inconvenience, but potentially a safety concern.

When I started developing a pack targeted at trips like the Bob Open pocket accessibility and security was right up with load carriage on my list of problems to understand and find balance for (aka “solve”).  The first prototypes sought extra pocket capacity and utility by extending the pocket out on to a wing which cinched to the hipbelt.  One had a zipped closure, the other a flat zippered pocket inside the bellowed cinch-cord pocket.  These pockets worked well, but didn’t make the cut for a number of reasons.  One, they’re a serious pain to sew, and extending the pocket on to the wing doesn’t add enough function to merit the added complexity.  The zippered security was nice, and it is very possible to make a zippered pocket that is easy to open and close with one hand, so long as the pack is full, if you extended the zips with wings.  The zips become mostly if not entirely unusuable with a partially empty pack.  They’re also a long term durability concern, even with #10s, and in winter the zips can freeze up.

About that accessibility; there is a narrow window of efficacy with side pocket dimensions.  Assuming fairly conventional pack width and a bag that doesn’t hang too far down from the illiac crest, anything beyond 7 inches of depth demands more than most folks shoulder flexibility will allow.  Much less than 6 inches of depth makes for a pocket that gives up capacity.  The obvious answer is to extend the pocket all the way to the base seam, which is what I’ve been doing on all the recent prototypes.  Bumping the base of the pocket up the side panel a hair is tempting, as it enhances abrasion resistance, and a straight base line is the ideal in functional capacity, but in the end more space is better, simpler, even if un-ideal in some ways.

MLD and HMG are the top examples (with pockets that are identical in function if not construction) of a simple design that prioritizes durability over function, with flat, pleated side pockets elevated above the base.  MLD is on record as endorsing the loosen the straps and cant the back off the belt approach to bottle grabbing, with the physics being undeniable and the coherence, in situations where you don’t want to go for the flop, rather lacking.  Gossamer Gear has long been the other side of the coin, with the Gorilla (for instance), having dimensioned (i.e. 3D patterning) pockets right at the base.  These work a lot better than any flat pocket.

The answer to abrasion concerns with low pockets are to pack side pockets intentionally, which occasionally means leaving them empty, as well as using appropriate fabrics.  The 140D gridstop on the old Gorilla was, for instance, too light for my taste even for trail backpacking.  I discovered early in the pocket process that it is possible (easy, on a pack 8 inches or more deep) to make a side pocket too big.  The trick on the Tamarisk (7 inches deep at the base) was to make pockets that could hold a 48oz nalgene and sundries, while also collapsing mostly flat when empty.  Dimensioned pockets have been the only way to make full use of pocket real estate since the side pocket revolution got going, but with the Tamarisk I reverted to a hybrid style.

Against the user they’re dimensioned, and 4 inches deep, while the non-user side is flat, the excess depth of the pocket taken up in two pleats sew into the seam.  The curves of this seam goes both upwards and inwards towards the users spine, in both cases just enough to make for smooth edges without blunting functional capacity (more in the next installment).  The way the pleats limit pocket capacity ends up blending with the dimension of the main bag, creating a pocket that if big, but mostly disappears when needed.  The finishing touch is doubled shock cord, whose tension is adjustable on the fly (shout out to Luke Fowler).  In use tension is high enough that the pocket can almost be sealed shut, while maintaining easy accessibility, and with the perishable elements being user replaceable.

Alpine packs won’t and shouldn’t have side pockets, for the reasons listed above.  But if the wholistic mission of a backcountry pack is limited to 4th class and below, be it on rock, snow, or in the bush, side pockets are a necessity, as the best way to maintain efficiency and keep hydration, nutrition, and day gear close at hand.  As a process they embody well the compromises that shape every aspect of a technical, multiday pack.