Top 5 backpacks of the past 10 years

The close of a decade approaches which, if you’re not stocking it with thinly context’d affiliate links, isn’t so bad an arbitrary cause to re-examine what has happened in the past 10 years.  Lists focus the mind, and the fingers.  The best of these use material goods as a vehicle to examine culture, and since hiking and backpacking media is boring as fuck compared to bike media, in the name of all us impoverished, sedate walkers I’ll aspire to that end here.  First, a list just for backpacks, my favorite, and later a more general accounting.

Kifaru Bikini frame

The most sustained place for development in backpacks the past decade has been in hunting load haulers.  Kifaru doesn’t make the Bikini frame anymore, but it still stands out as the apotheosis of the original Lowe internal suspension design; enough vertical structure to support 100 pounds, enough fabric and padding to keep it comfortable, and just enough else to keep it all held together.  The limits of the Bikini have to do with adding lateral stability without adding too much weight, and the inevitable weight and comfort limitations associated with stay-in-lumbar designs.

Kifaru’s short-lived KU series was a contender here, with an integrated frame and bag making it to this day the lightest load hauling pack ever (2 lbs 10 oz for 5200 cubic inches).  The suspension was at least as bold a design choice as the more obvious main bag fabric (dual layer sil) and minimal features, and I still wonder if the limits of the KU, with even less lateral stability than the bikini, had more to do with its short life at retail than the fragile fabric.

Seek Outside Unaweep 3900

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If Kifaru set the table for the modern hunting pack, Seek Outside (nee Paradox Packs) was at the front of the pack who arrived in 2013-2014 to eat the scraps.  The Paradox u-frame and hanging belt remains the simplest, inherently lightest, and thus in my mind best of the systems which have matured towards 2020.  It is also, again in my mind, the definitive reification of the McHale argument that hanging belts work better than lumbar pad systems.  Around mid-decade Seek made forays with this argument in the hunting sphere, but was beat back by the ideological weight of the Kifaru tribe.

Also like Kifaru, Seek has persistant struggled with coherence in their feature set.  For this reason, the OG (and long discontinued) Unaweep 3900 remains my favorite pack of theirs.  The tall and thin shape suits the use of Talon compression panel to carry all manner of things, and while the non-dimensioned bottle pockets were a bit small, they were also out of the way of the bottom compression strap.  A pack who didn’t have enough time for the market to catch up.

Osprey Talon 22

JMT photosOsprey is the pack company of the past decade.  For proof, hang out in any busy place, backcountry or front, in any national park and take a casual survey.  This fact encapsulates both poles of almost any pack question.  Many of their designs are substantive, while many have as much to do with in-store appeal than function on the trail.  Many of their products are outstanding values (the Talon 22 MSRP has gone up only $10 in a decade), something anything more than casual introspection can only regard as a troubling fact of globalization.

Therefore it is appropriate that the best Osprey product of the past decade is one which was introduced in the previous decade has changed but little in this decade.  Flaws persist (lame side pockets!), but in shape and function the Talon 22 remains the ideal daypack, from day hiking, to mountain biking, to summer backpacking (see above, on the JMT).

Ultimate Direction Signature series

 

Running vests existed well over a decade ago, but in terms of either size (Nathan) or function (Inov8) they had significant shortcomings.  The first generation of the UD vests had issues as well (this first mainstream foray into cuben packs did not go well), but when it came to features and overall vision they set a high bar.  An all star team of pros/designers often does not translate well to production, but in this case it certainly did, and the result continues to define the category, and show just what truly accessible pockets (a huge growth area this decade) should be.

Hyperlite Mountain Gear Porter

The Porter isn’t the most user-friendly, logical, lightest, or best carrying backpack.  But it looks cool, and was the linchpin product in not only changing the pack conversation (back) towards extreme functionality, but doing so in a wave of marketing that provided a timely antidote to lifestyle, hipster, do-little, fashion mongering abyss that gear in the instagram age was for the later part of the decade very close to falling in.  HMG makes capable packs, that cannot be contested.  A lot of their fundamentals were dated when the designs debuted 8+ years ago, but with respect to aesthetics, materials, and design they are bags meant to do thing, demanding things.

And if that isn’t the first ideal for a backpack, I do not know what is.

Straps back in stock

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Packraft straps are back in stock, now in either rainbow or gold with black buckle.  Stocking stuffer, or tool to tie poorly behaved guests up in the shed?  In any case fully seasonally appropriate.

In other consumerist news, a new outdoor trade show launched recently.  Back in SLC, and supposedly excluding apparel and the many extraneous lifestyle exhibitors which have swollen Outdoor Retailer in the past decade.  They’re talking a strong and potentially relevant game:

“The outdoor industry was forged by men and women who took the same risks in business as they did on rivers and mountains. They refused to accept the status quo. They built gear that would keep their friends safer, dryer, faster, warmer. They were the scrappy, selling gear out of the back of their cars and met once a year in Reno for some commerce and community.  Years later, the outdoors has become mainstream. Mass markets love our plaid, our fleece, our sandals. The outdoor lifestyle is a way of life for tens of millions of people. But our industry is at a crossroads. Big boxes are failing our brands. Amazon is suffocating our local gear shops. The big are getting bigger. And private equity and Wall Street investors are threatening the soul of our industry.  The Big Gear Show is a show for the rest of us – the innovators, the start-ups, the domestic manufacturers, and the local gear shops where the staff walk the talk, bringing in novices and sending out enthusiasts.”

I’m very open to all of this, along with the perhaps logical extension that things like running, which the Outdoor Industry Association has long used to make participation numbers appear to grow, are no more outdoor activities than golf.  Growing the metaphorical tent is good, but needs to happen properly.  Core users, the kind who would like to attend trade shows and be part of the community (a prime virtue of trade shows according to every poll SNEWS ever does), are the more valuable area of growth, and the people who sink big funds into hard goods anyway.  Too long has the outdoor industry, and outdoor shops, slung along like a remora on the belly of the general public who like nifty jackets for the coffee shop.  Refocusing on the core of the industry can’t happen, in my view, without investing in the soul of the whole industry, which employees often forget is not them.

To whit; the thought of an OR a closer drive than Denver and without all the BS of Wolverine boots and the towering TNF booth, interests me, as a longtime nerd and member of the general public.  So then, how to use that to sell the stoke (ha) and not leave shops stuck with old stock?

More tomorrow.

Evolution of the Tamarisk; prolegomena

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.

Shit that used to work: Black Diamond Zippo

As I mentioned back in the spring, I love a good used gear sale, and most of all, love unearthing a well used, even thrashed, classic backpack.  These provide both design time capsules and occasionally profound insight into how packs hold up over truly extended use.

That being said, I was beyond excited to find a exceedingly well worn Black Diamond Zippo 27 recently.  I bought one new back in the early 00s, and it had a hard life before being sacrificed for parts after a decade of service.  It hauled gear for a bunch of obscure first ascents in the Red, rode along for White Rim in a day at least twice, as well as Lockhart to Moab on a cross bike with 32c semislicks, and most especially a whole lot of slot canyons on the Colorado Plateau.  The Zippo was built to be a technical daypack, and boasts the still fairly unique feature set of being able to carry skis, two ice tools, and crampons, simultaneously and all without blocking access to the clamshell zip.  This worked well enough, so long as the pack was close to totally full, something I found out on a truly obscure feat, an XCD ski ascent and descent of Pioneer Peak and Mount Catherine (from the Maple Grove campground) in the Pahvants.   In March the 10,000 foot ridge between the summits was blasted bare, with a firey windchill that had me wearing every bit of clothing I had, at which point the floppy pack had my 190cm skis hitting me in the both the calves and back of head at every step.  On small packs diagonal carry is more reliable, something the industry has well settled upon.

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I cut off the ski carry straps and never really missed them.  The genius of the Zippo wasn’t in the strappage, but in the shaping of the bag.  Side panels contoured out, to lock into the lumbar and to sit well on the shoulders, made it work better than the average fancy bookbag.  Enough width to be a useable size, yet narrow enough to sit between the shoulders on an average size person.  Deep enough to carry bulky things (wetsuits, avy shovels), without being too big.  Soft corners, with the bottom corners tapering both up and in, were curved enough to not snag (and to look great), but not so much that they significantly impacted capacity.

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This, and the layer of packcloth inside the outer layer of Cordura, explain why this heavily used pack has no holes in the bottom.

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Contrast the shape of the Zippo with the still tapered but more squared off bases of the Osprey packs shown below.  More taper climbs and scrambles better, less holds a little more.

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For me the Zippo has the better balance here, along with the full clamshell zip providing more thorough and easier access, at the expense of more zipper weight and (potentially) less or no space for size pockets.

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The shoulder straps on the Zippo have long been an all-time favorite.  A single layer of 3/8″ foam laminated to packcloth on one side, and a soft stretch nylon on the inside.  This pack obviously saw a LOT of UV, enough to delam the packcloth on the user right strap, but the foam is still at 90% of new, remarkably.

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The most obvious damage to this Zippo is the loose thread in the high load areas.  This is actually the primary stitch line giving way, under cumulative load, presumably exacerbated by dirt and UV working in.  Worth noting here is that the pack is still perfectly useable, because the secondary stitching (on the grograin binding) works as as redundancy.  A good reason to double, or triple, stitch main seams on a pack.

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Other noteworthy failures are the total delam of the PU coating, and that one of the sides of one lower ski loop (bottom, above) ripped out of the 500D Cordura completely.  This endorses the use of a reinforcing patch of fabric inside such a bar tack, even when using heavier fabrics.  It also highlights the primary role internal abrasion has on making PU delam; the coating on the Cordura inside the internal pocket is in decent shape.

One very noteworthy non-failure is the #10 coil zip, with nickle sliders and a big ole flap, which still runs virtually good as new.  Quite impressive under the circumstances, and a seeming endorsement of flaps and big, non-waterproof zippers.

For now, I’ll cut off all the technical strapping as before, and do some stitching and gluing to get everything back as close to square one as possible.  The dimensions of the Zippo are really the star of the show, and something I’ll be emulating in the future.

My ultimate hunting pack

Last month a reader contacted me about a pack bag for a Seek Outside frame, mentioning these bags as inspiration.  Primary use for the pack would be elk hunting in the Olympics, with capacity and simplicity as main design priorities, along with side pockets which would hold a sizeable tripod and 80mm+ objective spotting scope.  After some discussion, we agreed that I’d try to thread the needle and make side pockets which could both hold these hefty optics, and provide on the fly access to water bottles, backpacking style.

This was a enjoyable project, being in essence the 6th or 7th refinement of a set of dimensions I’ve settled on as ideal for an expedition pack, while tweaking features and materials based on experience.  Hunting, and then packing, elk in coastal rainforest is one of the more demanding activities I can imagine in terms of pack durability and weatherproofing, making the excellent X50 tactical fabric (in ranger green) an easy choice.  In the tactical series the x-ply is a kevlar thread, and far flatter than the traditional dacron, in theory removing it as an abrasion point.  Is does add tear strength, though I can’t see this being useful in the field given the toughness of the face fabric.  The base reinforcement is 500D Cordura, and wraps up the top a few inches for max security while sliding down talus and alder thickets.

Side pockets are 500D Cordura, and 20 inches tall on the front face.  They attach to the uppermost compression strap, and are fully dimensioned with square bases, 5 inches deep on the front edge, 4 inches on the user edge.  I don’t own a big eye, but as seen below they swallow two 48oz nalgenes with room for at least another, when the main bag is crammed full.

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Bag dimensions are almost identical to the packs in the bison post; 42 inch lower circumference (8 inch depth), 50 inch upper circumference (12-13 inch depth), and a 40-42 inch unrolled height against the user.  This large amount of upward taper makes the ~90 liter at full height bag more like 55 liters when rolled all the way to the top of the frame.  This makes a smaller load less floppy, and enhances carry in meat shelf mode, as the lower part of the bag can’t get cantilevered that far out from your back.  The customer asked, in response to my commenting that this was a moderately large bag, what one could do to make a pack even bigger.  A lower circumference approaching 50 inches would add a huge amount of volume, and you could certainly make the bag taller, which I’ve never tried.  Presumably even with stiff xpac fabric and a roll top, at some point you reach a literal tipping point where stability goes downhill.  With Seek frames you can stack extensions, and a custom job on a 30 inch frame could probably get close to 50 inches without issue, in the process truly getting into bivy bag territory.

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Truly custom pack building is the most satisfying type, as well as the most nerve wracking.  Perhaps with enough experience I’ll cease to worry so much about meeting expectations with brand new designs, though at that point the fun level might decline in tandem.  For the moment it’s hard to resist adding a personal anxiety tax each time I agree to such a project.

And hey, it’s September.  Time to go sheep hunting (in only a few days).  Almost sad I won’t be getting this bag dirty myself.

Introducing North Fork Packraft straps

The astute will have noticed months ago that I’m in the process of launching a pack company, North Fork.  I’m pleased to report that it is going very well indeed, in spite of no overt public evidence of progress.   Two years ago I sketched out a detailed idea of the two packs I wanted to build, and have spent the time since making prototypes to re-examine every relevant detail.  Just because I’d spent the prior decade as a hobbiest settling on my own preferences for wilderness packs did not mean those ideas were the best way of doing things.  This experimentation and development process has been immensely satisfying, largely because I freed myself from all time constraints.  I’d make as many packs, and do as many trips, as necessary for me to be content.

That process is, for the smaller of the two packs, beginning to wind down.  I’ve refined a simple, light, and supportive suspension system that can carry 40 pounds sustainably, involves minimal moving parts, and can be stripped down to completely frameless.  A protracted, 18 month diversion into complex side pocket design brought me right back to the basic design I started with.  Features and bag design took numerous diversions, and got back quite close to my original ideas.  That part is gratifying, that the first decade of experimentation was not misleading, but the assurance I bought in recent years only makes the original knowledge shinier.

I’m aware of exactly how full my days are, and have no intention of going down the solo cottage shop road of over committing and watching the wait times grow.  Thus, the bulk of North Fork packs will be sold as stock, and in batches, which will be available when they are available.  If things go as anticipated, the first run of Tamarisks (40 liters, technical multiday backpacking or race pack) will go live in time to be a winter solstice gift.  Development on the big, UL mission pack will continue into next year.  Ideally I’d like to sell some before next summer.

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To shake out the administrative kinks, and sell a simple thing whose value I’ve tested for even longer, we’re releasing the first run of packraft straps.   A ~70 inch length of 1 inch polypro webbing with a stout ITW buckle (each straps is ~72 inch tip to tip with buckle).  I made the first versions (red, immediately above) back in the pre-cargo fly days.  They weren’t quite longer enough, so I made the second (blue, all other photos) and final version, of which several have been in use for the past seven years.

A really big, really full pack will just about max them out.  The sweet spot for the length is a full 55 liter pack, maybe 36 inches in circumference.  The poly webbing is noticeably lighter in field use than nylon.  One inch webbing provides enough friction on both the buckle and against the pack that a cobble scrapping flip will not tear your gear loose, even if that gear includes a mountain bike (been there).  I have also found out, the hard way, that just because you can fit it inside your packraft does not mean, in the name of maximized puncture resistance, you should, making packraft straps relevant for all boaters.  The straps are also handy for keeping your boat rolled tight, for tying a serious overload to your pack (bear can?  100 meter static line?), and for taming awkward loads generally.  I used one last fall to roll up a bison hide for transport, and chained three together the other week to get our new-to-us (1950s Corona, ‘natch) range tight to the dolly and down many stairs into the kitchen.

Packraft straps are shit that works.  So buy some, or make some yourself.  Small item shipping rates meant that total charges for overseas customers are a bit excessive, even with us (M and I) cutting the profit margin a good bit.  You can bartack poly webbing on a home machine, and if you do enough stitches even poly embroidery thread will hold.  I use bonded nylon tex 90, the bartacks will hold long after the buckle shatters.

This is the long-awaited second phase of what began with our stickers and guidebook 2.5 years ago.  Straps today, with stock and (occasional) custom packs to come later this year.

PS: Half the straps sold over the weekend.  Much gratitude from us for the support, and the interest in the packs to come. 

Rebuilding the Osprey Vertigo

Sometimes function is encapsulated in a moment.  Back in the day Todd Goss had a solid gig guiding rock adventure courses for guests at the Green Valley Resort in Saint George, which in either of the few locales (Moe’s valley for convenience, the mountains to avoid the worst heat) involved some steep hiking, some easy scrambling, 5.3 toproping, and a gigantic zip line.  Ideal for adventurous tourists with no climbing background.  The rigging aspect was extensive, to say nothing of the gear hauling, as on public land nothing but the bolts stayed in place.  For a brief time I was the chief rope monkey and hauler, which also involved reeling in clients who yarded too hard on the panic handle.  We rigged them on runners long enough that grabbing the rope was not possible, but for psychological support Todd clipped a dead carabiner to length of rope and a wooden t-handle.  The more reactic and acrophobic clients would do a closed-eyed pullup for the whole 400 foot line, which would leave them hanging in space 20 feet short of the ledge.  I’d chuck them a biner on a 6mm line and haul them in like big fish.  It was fun work and good exercise.  Had M and I been able to better rebound from being booted by a very weird landlord, we might have been stuck in the most evil city in America for years.

In any case, my enduring memory from those days was Todd shucking his 50 pound Osprey Vertigo and unearthing a sheef of lockers and pulleys, and a 500 foot 10mm static line.  Since then the Vertigo, with its padded wings, big wrap around zipper, and perfectly organic Osprey geometry has been the definitive panel loader in my mind, with gear intensive day trips like climbing the ideal application.  So when Little Bear and I hit the jackpot at a local gear sale (see above) and found a thrashed Vertigo for free (!) I was beyond stoked.

The little details of the Vertigo are a delight.  Heavy mesh on the back of the stash pocket.  A generously pleated hanging bladder sleeve.  A hydration hose port which goes through a 5″ tunnel in the top of the pack (a little on the small side for many modern valves, granted).  A big #10 main zip with nickle-plated sliders.  Front compression straps which buckle to the sides for maximum squeeze.

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The straightjacket design of integrating stiff foam into each wing (red portion) is a fascinating design.  Osprey claimed it thus: “The StraightJacket side panels achieve their maximum stiffness when they are perpendicular to your back. Conveniently, this is when the pack is at maximum capacity and needing maximum support. When the pack is relatively empty, the side panels are designed to fold over each other, like arms in a straightjacket, and lie flat against your back. In this mode, they show a high degree of flexibility.”  This is true, but comes at a cost of weight and bulk, as well as crating abrasion point in the lower edges of the back panel (see below).

The suspension on the Vertigo is quintessential 00s, functionally similar but scaled down from the 90s Dana Design suspension.  The frame sheet with single stay goes into a sleeve at the top of the pack, and swaps into the lumbar, with the hipbelt velcroing behind.  The 1″ thick piece of cushy open cell foam slides in front of the framesheet.  The major design issue here is the potential for long term abrasion.  Dana managed this with insane reinforcement and a bunch of dense padding in the lumbar.  The Vertigo had neither, and obviously the previous owner put plenty of miles into this pack even after the sleeve was starting to fail.  I wanted to make this pack useable for me, so this is the number one issue that needs fixing.

The belt and straps on the Vertigo are perfect, mostly as good as these things get.  The soft fabric against the user has a 1/8″ layer of soft foam laminated to it, with 3/8″ of medium-dense (3lb ?) EVA behind.  I cut the straps off (following section) which allows us to see that even on an 18 year old pack with tons of use both foams are functionally new.  The belt is a medium which is Osprey sizing is to this day perfect for me.  The packs torso is also medium, which is way too short.  This is modification issue #2.

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The torso length issue is an easy fix; cut the straps off, cut the load lifters off, sew the first to the second.  The total back length of the Vertigo in medium is 21.5″, the number I would’ve picked had I been building from scratch.  The straps themselves are a bit short, an oddity peculiar to a lot of older packs.  Workable, especially given the quality of the padding.

Making a functional suspension with support the whole length of the pack is considerably more difficult, in no small part due to the swaths of stiff foam in the wings.  maneuvering the pack to get under foot makes for serious limitations.  A single stay with a bit of foam in the back panel provides good load carriage and enough structure.  I could get the top of the back panel under the machine, so sandwiched a layer of 1000D between the layers of fabric to create a stay pocket which doesn’t quite go to the top of the pack, to prevent abrasion.  A small pocket, of double layer 1000D, on the bottom of the belt holds the stay in place when the belt is velcro’d to the pack.  I was able to wiggle a layer of stiff 1/8″ foam into the existing sleeve, and then slide a pocket of 1000D over the bottom, stitching the whole lot to the sides.  This got a bit ugly and was a pain to execute, but got the job done.  I anticipate either hand stitching or gluing (more likely) the bottom of the 1000D sleeve to the exiting lumbar fabric for a cleaner look.

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What will I do with this pack?  I’m not entirely sure, but it was both a fun project and a cool addition to the functional gear museum (unlike the brick-heavy Chouinard axe, which will probably go the on the wall.

How the Imlay Kolob works

Sometimes you are in the right place at the right time.  M and I lived in Moab for most of 2004, which was significantly the first spring after Mike Kelsey’s Technical Slot Canyon Guide to the Colorado Plateau was first published.  Prior to this there was plenty of incomplete or tangential beta for technical slots available, but Kelsey’s publish everything and sort out (ethical, environmental, and accuracy) concerns later approach made the first edition of this book the largest single dissemination on the subject that had or will ever be able to happen.  We were in a unique position of being able to both experience many precious places prior to their first publication (a cold November morning busting microwave sized chunks off the wall in the upper forks of Butler, the day after North Wash had flashed to within a few feet of the base of the Hog Springs footbridge) and to have an easy feast of cheap info before the approach trails were beaten in and non-sketchy anchors established (finding Upper Iron Wash with nothing but fresh g-hook holes).  It was a time of great adventure (reinforcing decades-old drilled angles in the Roost, using knot chocks to rap off snow drifts in Echo) with just enough info and good enough online maps to go most places quickly, and enough unknowns to make it satisfying.

We returned home to Moab after eachs weeks adventure to dry ropes on our apartment balcony and repair wetsuits with a big can of contact cement.  Three different packs which had started the year new or close to it were most of the way to their graves by the time we left.

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The Imlay Kolob is a curious critter, because it is an unabashed specialist.  Tom Jones retired from a career at Black Diamond (where he designed classics like the gen 2 Bullet and the Zippo), and as a climber, to be a hiker with ropes and build canyon gear out of Mount Carmel Junction.  By the time the hybrid version of his Kolob pack was released around a decade ago, canyoneering had become a mature sport on the Colorado Plateau, with a coherent set of demands.  The Kolob Hybrid was the first and still the most coherent reflection of these.

The bare facts of the Kolob are a basic top loading draw cord bag with a floating lid, fixed shoulder straps, removable hipbelt, load lifters, and internal frame set in a pad sleeve.   Back length (base to load lifters) is 21 inches, while the base to strap measurement is 17 inches.  Top circumference is 36 inches, with a 10 inch wide back panel and sides which taper up from 7 to 8 inches deep.  The 40 liter size estimate is thus rather generous, with  30 liters being in my book more accurate.  The Kolob looses a considerable amount of capacity to the aggressively curved bottom, which makes sense.  For this pack bag shape, pocketing, and especially materials must be suited to the canyon environment.   Otherwise there is no reason to steer away from the old method of buying a 40 liter climbing pack on clearance, putting a bunch of grommets in it, cutting a bunch off, and using it for two years until it dies.

Abrasion and water drainage are the twin demands which separate technical canyon hiking from other disciplines.  Skinny sandstone slots are not just phenomenally abrasive themselves, good and safe downclimbing technical often demands using your pack for friction.  I made a simple bag out of X51 before this trip, and after 36 hours and four short but intense slots it was almost worn out.  Similarly, after this trip the 1000D main panel of my pack had a number of holes.  Point being; no single layer of fabric is tought enough for Colorado Plateau slot canyons, mainly because harder objects (bottles, roles) within are an inevitable subject of point abrasion.

To this end the Kolob not only has a radically upswept bottom, that bottom has three layers; holey PVC on the outside, closed-cell foam in the middle, and heavy mesh inside.  The rest of the main body is also two layers, mesh on the inside to hold the weight and expedite drainage, and either PVC or Cordura on the outside for abrasion resistance.  Double layer fabrics, with the inside layer ever so slightly undersized, makes for a massive jump in abrasion resistance, and the Kolob uses this approach in a way which guarantees no water in held in the pack, even if you use it as a kickboard for a 150 yard swim.

The downside of this approach is of course in added weight, with the Kolob weighing over 4 pounds.  Not a huge deal for a technical day pack that might easily be loaded with 30-40 pounds of rope, wetsuit, hardware, and drinking water at the start of a big day.  I have no doubt that the Kolob (and the most recent version, which has a bit less PVC) will hold up better enough than other packs to justify the premium.  The question is, does it carry those big loads also well enough?

Tom characterized the Kolob thus:

The Kolob’s suspension is simple yet sophisticated. Two aluminum tubes provide a rigid vertical structure, which are tied into the pack via six-inch-tall sheet-plastic panels at the top and bottom. The structure is separated from your back by 3/4″ of closed cell foam. The tubes are straight, though some degree of curve is built into the shape of the pack…The Kolob carries really well – the rigidity of the structure controls bounce, an energy-losing effect of flat-bar-based suspensions. The lack of pre-curve in the ‘stays’ allows the pack to have a wide fit range – helped by the willingness of the foam to develop a ‘memory’ of your particular shape.

It’s a unique suspension arrangement in my experience.  The tubes terminate in plastic sleeves held together by a strap and buckle, and this arrangement is inserted into the pad sleeve along with a tri-fold of dense 1/4″ CCF (a very pragmatic bivy pad).  The combo sure is vertically rigid, but between the frame being so short (borderline unuseable for me) and the hipbelt lumbar area not having any real way to not be vertical load transfer to the hips is modest.  Suffice to say past experimentation has me acutely skeptical that the foams “memory” with use will do anything to alleviate these design issues.  Part of the issue is that when this version was produced it was a one-size fits most pack, and taller folks can sorta get along better with a too small pack than smaller folks can with one too large.  Imlay has since added packs built for smaller folks, but none for larger, which is somewhat of a surprise, as I’m not exactly a giant.

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It has to be said that any more effective suspension I can easily imagine would also be more complex and likely less abrasion resistant.  It also has to be said that the reason to Kolob works is that the feature set is tuned to a single goal, with all the salient details (extra bartacks on handle, top photo) well attended to.  It’s a bit busy for my taste, and the frame height issue is a deal breaker, but it is one of the more interesting packs out there, and has been for some time.

The perfect pole; revised

These poles have worked very well in the 5.5 years since I put them together.  They’ve been light enough, bomber, and the ability to swap lowers and have a pole longer enough for nordic skiing (or pitching a mid with a single pole) has been very handy.

 

Shortcomings have been two fold.  While the grips themselves have aged well and certainly have the rest of the decade in them, the lack of a solid end plug resulted in dual issues.  The pole with less glue, at right, started working its way out the end of the grip around 3 years ago, and while strategic epoxy stopped progress, the end has never since been as comfy.  At left, the pole with the more solid glue cap bent over under the combined weight of a rain, snow and wind during a magical January night in Choprock Canyon two years ago.  I also want straps, a vaguely controversial admission.  This is mostly for nordic skiing, but after using the Fizan compacts over the past year and a half I’ve come to appreciate having the option of tying in and not dropping poles when I’m tired.

I couldn’t think of a clean way to integrate adjustable straps into the GGear grips, nor a totally satisfactory way to alleviate the above issues, so I looked elsewhere for a solution.  Massdrop ultimately sent me three different sets of Fizans trying to find a pair which didn’t slip (they all did, at least a hair), so I decided to sacrifice one.

img_7121It took a lot of boiling, cutting, and work with pliers, but I separated the plastic core of the grip (above) from the rest of the pole.  The foam part of the grip was a loss, and the brittle alloy of the shaft made extracting it in one piece tricky (and required a LOT of the heat).  The OD of the BD upper is a bit bigger, but the plastic here is maleable enough that some inner sanding and a hammer got them seated.

 

Next, the grip body.  In the same of simplicity and not leaving the house I used some leftover handlebar tape, doing a short wrap for the lower pommel, and then wrapping the whole thing with more.  If one had more tape and was so inclined, the fashionable grip extensions could be added.

img_7124I’ll update on longevity in a year or so.  My assumption is the tape will need replaced every few years, and my hope is that the plastic grip cap won’t ultimately split after being forced onto the pole.  Regardless of how well this arrangement works, these poles have been one of my more satisfying projects, in that they’ve been a simple and no-compromises solution to (literally) every trip across the seasons., one which has yet to be exceeded by anything commercial, and shows every sign of being equally relevant for another 5 or more years.

 

Pack materials for 2018

This post and the follow-up a year later have remained among my most popular works, and with 2018 coming into focus they are at last worth updating.  Not too much has changed in the world of backpack fabrics, but time has allowed for enough clarification that a few things are worth saying again.  There are even some new trends to highlight.

Context matters.  I’ve taken plenty of flack over the years for denigrating trail and thru hiking as a useful design metric for backpacks.  This is a statement I still endorse, but do not mistake holding something up as a metric as equivalent to it being the most frequent or likely use.  Plenty of people get along just fine with fabrics I dislike, and unless you really want to count grams current technology makes producing a good, light, functional trail pack simple.  My own interest has always been, putting the outlier of canyoneering aside, in making and using packs which are as light and functional as the best modern packs, and tough enough for trips like this.

R0010199Nylon ripstop on the Gossamer Gear Type 2 (above) and Osprey Rev 18 (below).  Relatively cheap, certainly light, and for small packs durable for years of reasonable use.  Lighter packs carry lighter loads, can thus usually expect more careful handling, and thus can often get away with lighter fabrics, even if they are used most often.

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Pack fabrics can still be separated into two categories depending upon what waterproof coating they have stuck to their backs.  Polyurethene remains the most common, by far, and provides predictable and in many cases quite satisfactory performance.  The strengths of PU coated fabrics are lower prices, a more supple hand, and a lower amount of weight given over to the coating itself.  The downsides are the eventual degradation of the coating, the fact that most PU fabrics are waterproof to a degree which can be reliably if not commonly exceeded in field conditions, and that applying the coating weakens the fabric.  No one is complaining about the tear strength of something like 330D cordura, but I do believe that attribute of hot-application coatings is why they’re not more liberally applied (which would solve the waterproofing issue).  The quality of PU coating varied drastically, from very good to utter crap, which muddies things for both the home maker and the person just wanting to buy a good pack in the shops.

Laminate fabrics such a hybrid cubens and the various Dimension-Polyant fabrics are the second option.  If I were making a canyoneering pack I’d pick a PU fabric like 1000D cordura without hesitation, as the added weight and waterproofing given by a laminate just doesn’t make sense, especially in the face of no current laminate fabric being adequately durable for such use.  I used several test packs made from X51 (500/1000D cordura) last year, including for this two day excursion and even with careful packing 2 days and five canyons had the X51 on the edge of destruction.  For mountain backpacking, especially outside summer, the added waterproofing and weight of laminate fabrics makes them justifiable.

R0021333Cold and knackered along the Escalante in January.  Canyons beat up packs like little else. Laminate fabrics dedicate a greater percentage of their weights to the waterproofing layer, relative to PU fabrics.  I think the later makes more sense in the desert, for this reason.

Why aren’t many (any?) more commercial packs available in laminate fabrics?  First, the fabrics are more expensive, and needle holes which don’t self heal is I still assume a burden in mass production.  Second, D-P laminates face fabrics they don’t themselves produce in in the US, which means that a Chinese or Korean made cordura would be woven on one side of the Pacific, laminated on another, then shipped back again to be cut and sewn into packs.  Last, and most obviously why the first two hurdles haven’t been overcome, it is more difficult to articulate to the masses how your pack is more waterproof than other supposedly waterproof packs, and yet still is not submersible.  Plenty of people are trying to change these dynamics, and 2018 has the best chance yet of one succeeding.

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Abrasion in 1.3 oz pure cuben (above) and 150D hybrid cuben and VX42 (below).  Pure cuben isn’t reasonable for use in a pack, and the above photo show how easily the strong reinforcing fibers and weak mylar film are easily separated from each other.  The pack below is almost 4 years old, and has been a good test for how the two wear.  The cuben body is fine, but keeping it that way has taken lots of tape and aquaseal.

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Years have only reinforced my conviction that Cuben/DCF is in backpacks mostly hype.  Yes the 150D hybrid is a very good product.  Yes, good packs are made out of it.  But the face fabric itself is still relatively weak in the face of abrasion, and while the laminate itself is without question stronger in every respect than either PU or any PET I’ve seen, using weight and dollars to put strength there continues to not make sense to me.  200-300D nylon face with a thinner cuben film?  Sounds higher performance in every respect.  Since Cuben was purchased by DSM product development and availability has become decidedly less transparent, so while probably the greatest potential resides there in terms of pure pack fabric technology, I don’t expect anything new, one way or the other.

This leaves us with D-P products, which have become more diverse and vastly more widely available.  Rockywoods, for instance, currently sells 10 variants which could be suitable for backpacks, with more commonly available elsewhere.  Much to their credit, D-P has stuck with their fabric nomenclature, which initially seems obtuse but make discussion and differentiation simple.  For our purposes all fabrics have an inner PET laminate (the waterproof part) and an outer woven face fabric.  The V designation means there is an inner fabric laminated to the PET (easily seen by the white inner), while the X designation means the signature x shaped grid of reinforcing fibers is present, laminated within the PET.  Recent trends have gone away from the V layer, something of which I do not generally approve.  In heavier and especially darker face fabrics this results in a very shadowy interior which makes finding things a pain.  In the lighter fabrics, I’m thinking of X21 in particular, the lack of interior scrim takes away a good deal of stiffness, making an already oddly cut prone fabric considerably moreso.  3 years I was already less than fond of VX21, thinking that VX07 punched better given the weight, and that for me VX42 was almost always preferable.  This is not to say that X21 isn’t a good light pack fabric, just that I put it in the sides of a framebag a year ago, and have grown tired of little nicks appearing for no particular reason.

My particular favorites remain the cordura faces on X33 and X50, though VX42 and X42 are very nice.  The slicker face of the 420D plain weave used the latter does very well in brush and sticks, while cordura is better when dragged over rocks.  VX42 has proven difficult enough to put holes in that I’d use it for anything short of the slot canyon abuse shown above, content that I’d be patching holes and nicks infrequently.  X51 ought to be better than X50, but the difference in size between the warp and weft fibers make it a thorough disappointment.  Here my recommendation has not changed in recent years: VX07 for light trail duty, X33 for most things, and VX42 or X50 for abusive applications.

IMG_5567X50 significantly rubbed by 12 miles hauling an elk rack out of the wilderness.  Not overkill in this application.  This also illustrates the way the X grid accelerates abrasion.

A number of areas for improvement are available.  First, more Vspecific fabric options which omit the X grid.  Anyone who has put D-P fabrics to a good test has seen the grid be a major point of abrasion, such that the fabrics would without question last longer without it.  D-P has admitted that branding is at work here, but I also think that packs have become a large enough part of their portfolio that they will shortly be more malleable.   More broadly, it would be swell to see pack fabrics with some manner of durable surface coating that kept them from being saturated under gnarly conditions.  Arc’teryx has done this on a limited basis, so the potential certain exists.

This points to the real future of pack fabrics, which long term is probably in some manner of heavier non-woven.  The woven Dyneema used by Cilogear, HMG, and a few others is impressive, and points towards the way advanced textiles allow traditional fabrics to bend the rules as we know them.  My hope is that fabrics like the Liteskin line from D-P (a non-woven poly face with a woven nylon backer) will out perform traditional fabrics for the same weight, while being less expensive to produce at small and moderate scales than the various dyneema products.