How my favorite gear will die

In the last six months I seem to be reaching a point where a bunch of my favorite gear, the stuff I love to use and have recommended without reservation, is wearing out.  Given that this process is for most (myself included*) quite rare and usually gradual and therefore apt to avoid direct attention, it seems valuable to discuss a bunch of things in detail, for future reference.

R0020602Like pants and socks, shoes are semi-disposable gear.  Which is not to say that preventative reinforcement with Seam Grip isn’t a good idea, one which will give you a hundred or more additional miles out of a given pair.

*Recent experience as convinced me that, regardless of how often or how broadly I might get out in the wild, I am relative to the majority of folks quite easy on my gear.  I have habits cultivated at an early age concerning good maintenance, and they’ve been ingrained for the years before LB came along and made unpacking far more arduous.  They also reflect the many years before I bought most things at an industry discount or bro deal, and are a good idea because even at half off a good down jacket or hard shell is quite expensive.  By my standards at least.

Werner Shuna


My favorite piece ever?  Darn close, certainly.  In the first year, as wear marks accumulated on the blade edges, I assumed the fiberglass blades would eventually delaminate into oblivion, but nearly six years in that seems no closer than it was after six months.  Those blades are damn tough.  What has happened is that the center joint has loosened just a hair, something which was vastly accelerated by strapping them outside the pack for most of this trip (as they just didn’t fit).  The lesson here is twofold; use a pack big enough to fit all your gear with a bit of wiggle room, and that when I replace my paddle it will probably be due to preference rather than a structural issue.  Which certainly makes it one of the better gear investments one could make.

Haglofs Ozo

When I went to Alaska to do the Wilderness Classic in 2011 I fortuitously had at my disposal every WPB shell under 9 oz that was then on the market.  The Ozo was an easy choice, and to this day I’ve yet to find a hard shell I like as much.  Despite a thinness in the shoulder membrane visible the past few years, it has always kept me dry (enough).  And it still does, but the DWR can no longer get itself up to snuff, spray on or wash in or whatever.  WPB without a good DWR does little good, so as of a month or so ago the Ozo is officially retired.

Thermarest Prolite XS

I’ve been quite mean to this pad for the past six years.   Far more often than not it’s been used directly on the ground, and very often as a packraft seat.  In 2014 I put a small hole in it, which was easily patched with Aquaseal.  On the most recent trips it’s deflated quite a bit during the night, enough to be both uncomfortable and cold.  I haven’t yet put it in the tub, but I expect it to be riddled with unpatchable microholes.  Given that degree of reliability, I’ll probably buy another, and soonish.  Ridgerests on slickrock are no fun.

Seek Outside LBO


(This applies to all shelters made from quality sil.)  Currently the LBO is pitched in the backyard, weathering graupel and 25 mph gusts, with a few dots of silnet hopefully drying.  I put it up for LB and I to play in, and noticed three tiny holes, two seemingly from stove embers and one from the abrasion of a low lying stick.  Aside from these this 3+ year old shelter might as well be brand new.  So long as I don’t let sand kill the zippers, I expect the LBO to last for a decade or more, and or UV to kill it, which points to the importance of picking good shelters that will grow with you and suit many needs.  This ‘mid weathered (and well) the worst storm I’ve ever been in, and I currently think it’s the best one SO makes.  The peak height to footprint ratio is just right, tall enough to shed wind and snow (especially the later, the Cimarron is a bit short for me)) but not so tall relative to the width that achieving optimal stake angles in loose soil is problematic (4 man).  It’s small enough to fit a lot of places, but big enough for the three of us and gear.  Point being, it makes sense to do homework and get what you really want, whomever you buy from.

Gossamer Gear grips


My perfect trekking poles are hanging tough, but the grips are going to have to be replaced well before anything else.  Getting a good glue plug that will resist pressure over years is the key, something I did better with one pole than the other.  I’ll publish an improved tutorial when I replace them, but the state of these goes to show why most companies go with more durable, and much heavier and less comfortable, grips.

Western Mountaineering Ultralite


Our Ultralite is 12 years old, and while it’s been used a ton in that time, M and I haven’t come close to putting the nights in a thruhiker, or guide or other professional would in the same time.  Down can be washed often, which is needed to preserve down loft, but that washing does come with a cost.  The Ultralite isn’t quite a full as it once was, and that before I singed a bunch of holes on a wood stove back in January.  The Ultralite isn’t close to the end of it’s life, but at some point (5 years?) the loft and warmth won’t quite be there and it will be to be replaced.  Again, a great investment and one I would make again without hesitation.

Seek Outside Unaweep Divide review

Disclaimer: no way around it, I’m biased as hell about this pack.  Seek Outside gave it to me for free, and it is based in small part on feedback I gave on previous Seek Outside packs.  Beyond that, I like the folks at Seek Outside a lot, and they’re always a pleasure to talk to.  That said, I know they wouldn’t want me to hold back when discussing their work, so I’ve done my best to give all aspects equal weight.

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I think the Seek Outside Unaweep Divide 4500 (hereafter, the Divide) is a damn good pack.  For a lot of people, and for a lot of uses, I think it is one of the very best packs money can buy.  It is also one of the best values to be had in the pack world, when one takes weight to function into account, and especially if one cares to enter the fact that it is sewn in Colorado into the equation.  I have a number of small complaints concerning the Divide, but overall it is a nearly mature product.  When a fully dialed feature set is added to the existing stellar suspension, the Divide will be a remarkable backpack.

I discussed the dimensions and features of the Divide here, so if necessary peruse that before proceeding, as familiarity will be assumed.

rIKLuBPQAWXCR6lGhajO9R3cPdhOVO7pACr-H9tHSHbd6jfAV-ejUdJMOTgI0ocaNO8eReFlPPISxnrJDm7KjF2lsyLujBHHzzAztFbNhmX7Hc_tGgKA8hUrAgwpENj8sXbBy8tbPj0pJm3Z7g3kQmkxpuxU9JT8c1zXbRJxDiCz92z_gMp46eJFOBeeOAmfir6_cMlRfrWR2LLdj3wvAVsqRVNKyajyhoPhoto by Skurka.

The shockcord cinch on the side pockets has been one of my favorite features.  It is dead easy to loosen a pocket, get something out of it, put it back, and cinch it down, all with one hand while walking.  The pockets can be cinched very tight to provide security while bushwacking.  They do need to be a bit bigger, and a bit taller on the non-user side.  When the main bag is really stuffed full of hard objects (like a rolled up packraft), fitting a standard 1 liter nalgene is a bit harder than it ought to be.  But overall, A grade on these.

Historically I haven’t been a huge fan of mesh pockets, but the Divide one isn’t bad at all.  it’s big enough for plenty of clothing, a wet mid, or even a pair of crampons.  The shock cord cinch closes it securely.  I go back and forth on this feature, on the one hand I want it taller, broader, or both, or even replaced with a big bellowed zip pocket.  On the other it works fine as is, and much of the time I could do without it at all.  The mesh has stood up to abuse very well, including being hauled up a few chimneys with crampons inside.  No real complaints.

The lash straps below the mesh pocket I also have mixed feelings about.  It’s not really a good place to put much, besides a foam sleeping pad, and I can’t imagine anyone actually carries a bear can there.  On the other hand they are removable, potentially handy, and extending the mesh pocket longer would be a likely invitation to overstuffing.  My one sustained quarrel is with the metal bachelor buckles, which require tension to stay put when not in use.  I’ve replaced these with Kuiu hook/carabiner buckles that stay hooked when loose, but can be detached when tying on something bulky.


The bachelor buckles on the compression straps I like, but they need a small modification to work ideally.  They great because they detach like a quick release, while being unbreakable and being much shorter.  This last is important because it gives the compression straps more travel, and allows the bottom of the pack to be pinched off completely when hauling meat while hunting.  The downside is that they unhook when loose, which can be a pain.  The solution, seen above, is to sew a slightly greater than 1/2″ loop into which the buckle can hook.  It will still come loose, but only with enough effort that it is never accidental.

The harness, hipbelt, and frame are the same Seek Outside ones I’ve been raving about for years, and the last few months of trips have only reinforced my enthusiasm.  It is an external frame, insofar as the frame is outside the bag, and in that the frame doesn’t give or flex under load, and can thus support whatever your muscles and will can.  At the same time, the frame flexs with the body when necessary, and is wide enough that the load wraps around your hips, and is uncannily stable.  In most places there’s only a single layer of fabric between your back and the pack contents, the result being that the Divide is below 20 pounds second only to frameless pack when it comes to dynamic stability, and at 25 pounds and above is the most stable, body hugging pack I’ve ever used.  It is, to put it mildly, counterintuitive that the same pack which can haul out a deer in one load can also stick to you while downclimbing 4th class choss, but the Divide does exactly that.

I do dislike the way the load lifter and top strap buckles are sewn into the same bit of webbing, with some slack between them and the frame.  This is intended to introduce some give into the unyielding frame, which makes sense, but on the rare occasion you need to tighten the hell out of the both the top strap and load lifters the result is an irksome tug of war.  I cut and resewed the load lifters to remove this source of conflict.

Having a 21″ torso, I’ve been running my pack with 2″ extensions cut down to 1.25″, which gives me just a bit of additional lift for heavy loads.  25.25″ isn’t as good as the full 28″ of my Revolution frame when it comes to straight hauling, but it’s a good compromise that ensures I never have to fiddle or adjust anything, no matter when the trip.  At this height the frame is still tucked up against the bag quite seamlessly.  I recommend anyone with a torso of 19″ or greater order 2″ extensions with their Divide so they can experiment.

Other details and complaints are minor.  The X42 fabric is tough as, and the olive a nice low profile color I like (though it sucks in photos).  The lack of a white interior scrim makes it a dark hole of a pack, and finding stuff at the bottom can be a chore.


The tapered packbag is one of the more inobvious strong points of the Divide.  Volume increases exponentially as you fill it further, which means that a bag barely filled to the top of the frame (top photo) is a much smaller one than the same bag stuffed full.  In short, the Divide accommodates both a full load and a partial load quite well, with minimal sag and flap.  The tapered bottom panel, which slants both in and back, does a fantastic job of sliding off ledges and snow, and adds to the climbing prowess.  I do wish the bag were just a hair (2-3″) taller to provide more overload room, and that the rolltop stiffener was stiffer.  I prefer to clip the rolltop to itself, which is faster and cleaner then using the side straps (which I remove).  A stiffer closure would make it easier to get a good seal when the bag is close to max volume.


The Divide isn’t a sexy pack, unless your definition is centered around spare lines which cede nothing to anything but function.  But it has that in spades, which makes it equally suited to backpackers of all stripes, hunters who prioritize weight, and semi-technical mountaineers and canyoneers who need both load carrying and agility in the same package.  All the bad things I can say about it are pretty minor, and for personal trips this spring I’ve used nothing else, which I suppose is all the endorsement I need to give.  Because of its spare elegance and above all versatility, it is probably my favorite pack, ever, or at least thus far.

Closure options for large packs

A good, simple, light closure for a big (top circumference in excess of 40 inches) pack is somewhat difficult to do well.  Volume in a big pack can fluctuate significantly, and pack height above the frame needs to be controlled so it does not go bobble-headed and flop around.  Additionally, weatherproofing and easy access for accessories (which can be easily lost in a large main bag, are concerns, as is occasionally strapping bulky things up top.  Lastly, weight reduction is important for big packs, which are meant to carry big loads where ounce counting is paradoxically most relevant.  As a matter of style and design integrity, I try to keep even the largest packs below 4 pounds.

Three classic options (pictured left to right) are a rolltop, drawcord with lid, and drawcord with cinch straps.  Rolltops are the simplest option, and provide easy volume reduction and compression, with good weatherproofing.  Their disadvantage is that they use more fabric for the same capacity, relative to a drawcord, and without a lid usually don’t provide additional organization.  Should one go with a rolltop which clips to cinch straps, rather than to itself, those straps add weight and complexity, and must be located such that they are effective with loads of various heights.  Some companies do rolltops poorly by substituting velcro or snaps a properly stiff reinforcement, which is crucial for keeping the rolltop rolled when the pack is particularly full.  I put 1/16″ HDPE sheet in at least one side of a rolltop when I build one, and do not find this to be overkill.

Drawcords are the more classic pack closure, provide the best volume/weight arrangement, provide the best durability,work well with oversized loads, and in smaller packs I find them to almost always be the less fiddly option.  In larger packs this is not the case, mainly due to the need to control height and volume.  Lids do this well enough, though they require 4 straps, need to shaped well, and keeping them from being floppy when the pack is near empty is difficult.  The functionality of lids is great, but I just don’t like the added complexity and weight, and never feel the need for the more extensive pocketing which tends to go along with them.

This leaves cinch straps to keep the drawcord in check, and while this can be both functional and light, I’ve never had it work as well as I wanted.  A single strap, a y strap, and dual straps in a variety of configurations; all created ears of the pack fabric and somewhat even compression.  Plus, I do like at least a small top pocket to keep maps and snacks separate from the bulky main load.


My current experiment in this area is with a rolltop which clips to itself, coupled with the ability to run dual straps over the top (think sleeping pad or antlers) and a slash pocket right above the top of the frame.  The pocket zipper is over 10 inches long, and a fat #10 vislon.  To maintain the full opening on this pack, which I’ve found invaluable, the bit above the vertical zipper closes with velcro.  It’s the best thing I could think of that would be pliable enough to roll tightly.  Pictured above is the latest version of this pack and this pack.  Revisions over the 2015 version include mouting to the Seek Outside Revolution frame, which vastly simplified construction and increased comfort with odd loads, as well as a #10 coil for the vertical zipper, and slightly fatter circumferences (49 top, 45 bottom, 40 tall).  I also went to a non-floating, segmented compression scheme which provides tons of volume control, as well as the ability to lash stuff on and compress the pack bag, simultaneously yet separately.  I did not change the use of X50 fabric, which is ideal for hard use, nor the essential idea of having an enormous bag into which one can fit just about anything.  This bag is big enough for a five day whitewater packrafting trip, with PFD, drysuit, helmet, and the usual essentials all inside.

This fall I’ll report back.

Rab Novak

For several years now I’ve been looking for an ideal fleece insulating layer, with only modest success.  This layer should be warm enough for stand-alone use in many three-season conditions, as light as possible, have minimal to no lycra in the fabric, fit over a baselayer but under a shell, and have a few pockets as well as a functional hood.  Until recently almost all men’s fleece jackets were either hoodless, or not as warm as desired.  The old Patagonia Los Lobos jacket came close to this ideal, but the hood was baggy, taking up too much space under a rain jacket and blocking peripheral vision.  I bought an XL women’s Retool hoody from Patagonia, which fit when modified and had ideal fabric, but the kangaroo pocket on this pullover was made from moisture loving mesh, and I could never make the hood fit quite right.  Then a few years ago Rab came out with the Novak hoodie, and all my problems were solved.


The Novak hides in plain sight as part of Rab’s “Escape” lifestyle line.  It’s a solid coffee shop or bouldering jacket, but this winter and spring I’ve been using it as a technical layer with great success.  The hood, fit, and features are classic Rab.  The sleeves and torso are long, the hood covers my brow and stays put with nothing more than tailoring, and the jacket has two hand pockets and one left chest pocket.  Hem drawcords, good non-absorbent mesh in the pockets, and plain finished cuffs round out the package.

The cuffs are the one aspect of the Novak’s casual intent that come up short in the backcountry.  The sleeves run from the elbow to cuff with minimal taper, making the large wrist opening a significant source of heat loss.  Thankfully the arm seam is plain finished, and the cuff seam serged with only two lines of thread, making it fairly easy to rip a few inches of the cuff seam and 5 or so inches of the arm before giving the lower sleeve quite a bit more taper when sewing it back together.  In the above photo I’ve taken almost two inches of circumference out of each cuff compared to stock, and there is still enough room and stretch for the sleeves to be rolled up above my elbows.

The Novak fabric is 270 grams/meter, 100% polyester “honeycomb” fleece Polartec has been pushing lately.  The exterior has a somewhat dense, rough texture, while the inside is as soft and a bit denser than traditional fleece.  This fabric is a bit thinner than traditional 300-weight fleece, and has a hair of wind resistance.  It dries quickly, and moves moisture fast.  The only downside, relative to the more fluffy heavy fleeces (e.g. Patagonia Synchilla) is that it’s substantially less cuddly for anyone you might have occasion to hug, especially when the Novak is new.

I’ve worn the Novak to work and the brewery plenty, where the warmth and understated look are appreciated.  I also used it as my only insulating layer on this trip, and my primary insulation for this trip.  For outings where internal and external moisture are both probable issues, fleece works better, and when the cold is serious, a thick fleece like the Novak is my preference.

Beyond that, I think there is a good case to be made for something like the Novak as an outright replacement for a light synthetic fill jacket (such as the Rab Xenon) in all circumstances.  The Xenon has an edge in weight (roughly a half pound lighter), packed size, and in having integrated windproofing.  The Novak has the edge in better moisture management, not loosing insulating value with use (or only doing so very slowly), and in being less than a third the price.  When you combine the lower price of entry with how quickly fills like Primaloft loose insulating value, I find the Xenon option hard to justify, both from an economic and aesthetic perspective.

There are now a couple of good, heavier, technical fleece hoodys on the mens market.  Most, like the current version of the Patagonia R3, are a bit lighter than the Novak, but most also approach synthetic fill jackets in price.  At $70 the Novak is a bargain, and it being so functional only enhances the deal.  My only wishes for improvement are the cuff fit, as mentioned, and for the fabric which backs the hem drawcord to not be more absorbent than the main fabric.  Otherwise, the Novak is about as good as fleece gets, given current technology.

2016 Bob Open gearlist

No video this year. The array of stuff is so familiar that writing it out seems redundant, but folks have consistently expressed value in the video versions, and I like them for future reference.

We had a mild winter and early spring in northwest Montana, but the last week has brought record precip, which fell as rain in the lower and middle elevations and snow in the highest.  With temps warming a bit the next two days it shouldn’t be a very snowy traverse, but it will be a wet one.  Forecast is for rain, maybe a touch of snow Saturday and Sunday, overcast skies, highs in the 50s, and lower in the 30s.  Mild temps, but if conditions twist just a bit to the harsh side almost ideal hypothermia weather.  The only mild touch is that in the southern half of the Bob early melt has made the rivers lower than usual, even with a fair bit of rain.


  • Seek Outside Divide 4500 with homemade lid/packraft bow bag
  • Feathered Friends Vireo Nano w/ 3 ounces of overfill in the upper section
  • Thermarest Prolite XS
  • Homemade spinnnaker tarp and Sea to Summit Nano bugnet
  • Homemade trekking poles


  • Patagonia Rock Craft pants, Sitka Core LS hoody, BD Alpine Start Hoody, First Lite Dobson boxers
  • Buff, Coal beanie, Arcteryx visor, Rab Novak hoody
  • Sierra Designs Elite Cagoule, BD Liquid Point pants w/ neoprene waistband
  • NRS Hydroskin gloves and socks
  • LaSportiva Bushido, Montbell gaiters
  • Two pair thin go socks, one pair thick sleep socks.


  • Alpacka 2015 Yukon Yak w/ thigh straps, cargo fly, WW deck
  • Werner Shuna
  • Inflatable snorkel vest
  • 1 cargo fly drybag, inflation bag

The rest

  • MSR Windboiler
  • Food, bear hang rope, food drybag
  • 2x Voile straps
  • Repair and first aid kit, Petzl Tikka XP, Fenix E11
  • Cairn Bob south map, compass
  • Osprey Grab Bag
  • GoPro w/ spare batts and mounts, Ricoh GR, camera drybag
  • Nalgene bottle with Capcap

This will be my sixth consecutive Memorial Day trip across the Bob.  It will be the first such trip were I’ll be carrying a pack I did not make myself.  In the closet I have a pack I built for this weekend, which is a hair lighter and made of a spiffy prototype fabric, but the Divide is just better.  Better built, and better designed.  I can’t improve on the Seek Outside suspension so until I think of a new idea I’m done trying.  The lid isn’t needed for space, but is handy for organization both on the trail and on the water.

My clothing arsenal is geared for everything being wet, at some point.  Everything is well tested and was an easy choice.  Having three hats and hoods on all four upper body garments is not overkill for this sort of trip.

I’m really looking forward to enjoying the enhanced performance and dryness of the 2015 Yak.  Those characteristics, along with unusually low water, is why I’m leaving the foam PFD at home.

The Windboiler is heavy, but after becoming used to its low-drama speed over the past six months I just can’t leave it at home.  During the Bob I’ve always run out of feet and willpower before I run out of daylight, so taking hot food and foot-resting breaks is an efficient strategy.  I am planning on hiking later than normal this year, hence the double lighting for enhanced bear warning.  And yes, there should be a video next week!

As usual, fire away with questions.



The nuclear option

I was hoping things wouldn’t have to go this far, but as I discussed here sorting out carry options for baby and multiday gear has not been simple.  Putting this pack on the back of the Poco AG has worked well, but it’s short on space, and relies on the Poco belt, which is good, but not Seek Outside good.  Those thing being the case, there was only one option left.


That is the Divide, with a UL frame and extensions cut to 25.25″, which gives me just enough shoulder lift when I run the belt in the lower position, and is also right about as tall as the Poco frame.

Thankfully the rigging is both solid and simple to arrange.  Two straps tied to the bottom of the Poco frame cinch around the Divide frame, then the whole thing is compressed with straps running between the Poco load lifter buckles and the top strap buckles on the Divide.  These four straps get lots of tension.  Secondary stability and anchoring is had via hooking the upper compression straps into a webbing strap I looped through the buckles which secure the Poco’s drool pad.

Meredith will carry all the day-access stuff in her pack, and we should be all set.  Load geometry is, to put it mildly, less than ideal, but the Divide suspension is good enough, and I’m trained enough, that I can manage, though I have to hunchback it a fair bit.  My core is not yet strong enough to stand upright with a load cantilevered out so far.  With me carrying this rig, and M with a heavier than usual load her in normal pack, we’ll both be plenty tired well short of 20 miles a day, and more than ready to give Little Bear plenty of squirm breaks along the way.

610 pack, the evolution

My best, conservative, estimate is that since 2009 I’ve built roughly 30 backpacks, and owned a further ~20, which were either purchased retail or given to me for review or prototyping.  This is a large number, especially considering that at the moment we only (!) have eleven packs in house, a mere two of which predate this period of my backpack obsession.  There have been a handful of bags that made it to the finished stage but due to flaws in conception or errors in execution never made it into the field, but otherwise all of these approximately fifty packs have seen significant miles, before they meet the inevitable end of sale, modification, or scrappage.  On the one hand using all these has been a joyful and educational process.  My original pack had a lot of things in common with the ones I’m building today, but it also demonstrates how much I’ve learned about fit, suspension, and features.  I used that pack, with its thin shoulder straps and 1.5″ webbing belt for my very first traverse of the Bob, and while I did fine sustainable load carriage was highly dependent upon shoulder strength and a willingness to suffer.

While I have the umpteenth package from Rockywoods arriving shortly for yet another pack modification, I find myself with less time for uninterrupted sewing than ever before, and a marked desire to sort out the pack quiver and be done with it, at least for a while, opening up a bit of space in the closet in the process.

I could make due with two packs for everything, especially now that the majority of outings require the added bulk of a diaper bag.  The first would be a very large one on the Seek Outside suspension.  That end of the quiver is undergoing revision, and will be discussed in an upcoming post.

The second pack would be a tall, slim pack around 30 liters, one that can serve as a daypack for just about any size outing, as well as light duty overnights.  This is the pack I’ve built most often, and written about frequently, so imagine my surprise when the most recent version, which was built from scraps and whose dimension were in some ways a matter of accident and circumstance, is the best yet, and might be one I can live with for a few years at least.

Similar things could have been said about the very first pack in the 610 series, the white pack in the first photo series,and had I been smart enough to leave that bag alone once I got a satisfactory pair of shoulder straps on it I likely wouldn’t have enough content to make this the long post that it is.  Unfortunately I didn’t bother to write down the precise dimensions of that packs panels, so I can’t be sure what made it so good.  The vital ingredients were a thin but not too thin profile, curves that ran in all three dimensions for good aesthetic and definitive snag-proofing, and a gentle increase in circumference from top to bottom, for easy loading.  That was also the pack where I discovered curved side panels, a crucial feature which I did not invent (our Cold Cold World Ozone has a mild version) but did publicize, and which a few companies have since adopted.

I eventually revised the futzed that DX 40 pack into oblivion, which was fine as that fabric had a fatal flaw.  Several similar packs followed, some of which I have no photos of, as well as a few like the Gossamer Gear Gorilla which were different in size but ended being influential in suspension or features.  The Gorilla and the blue and green VX07 and 210 denier gridstop pack both reminded me that burly fabrics and a clean exterior are beneficial for a pack which will get used all the time, as both were fatally shredded in separate outings in Utah slot canyons.

The 2014 version of the 610 was supposed to be my return to the original, with the addition of a few key features like a full side zip and luxury shoulder straps (from the deceased Gorilla).  The mix of VX42 and X51 fabrics worked well, but I screwed up the hipbelt attachment and got a little too fancy with the panel shaping, and after a year of solid use the lure of the scrap bin was too great.


All things fabric are subject to change, but the latest version of the 610 is the best yet.

The versatile suspension, discussed here, has proven to be excellent.  Without stays or belt the pack is light and flexible, and with them (how I run it the majority of the time) it can carry anything I’m likely to put in it, including 35 pounds of water and fleece jackets for training walks.  Most importantly the panel dimensions, discussed in detail here, are perfect.

I did change the main side zip out, replacing the #8 coil with a dual slider #10 aquaguard (taken from the now defunct Stone Glacier Solo).  The #8 slipped teeth on a few occasions when closed with force, compelling evidence that it wasn’t going to last.  I also switched out the aluminum hook buckle for the top strap for a little plastic triglide/carabiner hybrid, which came with the Kuiu Ultra 1800 I purchased on sale a few months ago.  The nice thing about this is that it can be detached with one hand (though not with gloves), but unlike the hook stays put when the top strap is loose.  Unless I’m lashing something large on top, I usually just loosen and then slide it to the side when opening to drawcord.  Finally, the refinement of attaching the top strap with a three-bar slider has the unexpected benefit of allowing said strap to be shortened and the excess tucked down inside the back panel, thus allowing you to both have a strap long enough for anything you might carry, as well as a strap which doesn’t flap like mad in the breeze when no excess cargo is being carried.

The whole point of making your own packs is to have exactly what you want; it certainly is not a good way to save either time or money.  While in the end the benefit to me has been deepening my knowledge, it is nice when years of practice gives you something that works as well as this pack does.


The 2015 pack fleet

I’ve been doing the pack thing for a while now.  After owning and especially building so many none of them can retain nostalgia for long, with any and every little detail subject to scrutiny, revision, and destruction.  That said, the novelty of cutting and sewing has also waned significantly in the last year, and it’s my intention in 2016 to only act on my best ideas and hopefully let a few of the packs discussed below live for more than 8 months.

These six are the ones currently in my closet, smallest to largest, good points and bad, along with an estimation of whether I’d buy it again and in the case of home made stuff speculation on commercial alternatives.


HPG Tarahumara.  I’ve had this for a few years, and the elegant simplicity and functionality continues to impress.  The contours of the back and side panels make it both streamlined and large for it’s size, and it’s built of bomber materials to absolutely impeccable standards.


I know just how good the stitching is because earlier this year I tore the top and most of the side panel seams out to add different shoulder straps and buckles which would interface with the Unaweep.  I’ve torn out a lot of seams, factory stuff and my own, and these were far and away the most difficult.  In this case at least the added quality of domestic manufacturing, and the associated surcharge, is no joke.  That said, the stock shoulder harness just didn’t work, especially for cycling, and the Patagonia Endurance pack straps have made it a solid little number for short ski and bike outings.  The back panel is still sweaty and holds moisture for a while, but I can’t yet find this objectionable enough to mess with it.

Overall I like this pack a lot, though I’m not I would buy it again.  The Osprey Talon 11 I used to have is in many respects a more functional option, though not nearly as stout or stylish.


Gossamer Gear Type 2.  A fantastic daypack which has gotten a ton of use this year; the Type 2 is just the right size and has just enough pockets for just about anything.  My shoulder strap replacement is nice, and makes the pack feel custom fit for me, but is far from obligatory.

I’d buy it again without hesitation, and recommend it to others.


610 Diaper pack.  The newest pack in the lineup, and the one with the most and widest variety of iterations behind it.  Based on the last 10 days of hunting and dayhiking, I’m optimistic that I’ve finally got things right.  The side zip works particularly well with the current dimensions, as setting the pack down on the side keeps it stable, gives good access, and keeps the harness out of the mud, all at the same time.  Being able to use or not use the twin aluminum stays is a very nice feature for a pack this size.

It’s hard to think of a good commercial alternative to such a particular pack.  If the zip access were not crucial one of the HMG 2400 series packs would work well, or a Cold Cold World Ozone for less money and more abusive use.  The smaller Black Diamond Speed packs are a good value, and the Speed 30 in large is actually long enough in the torso, something shockingly difficult to find amongst smaller, “technical” packs.


Stone Glacier Solo.  I really enjoyed hunting out of this pack back in September, it was easy to conclude that a pack this size, with a meat shelf and at least partial panel access, is an ideal platform for warmer weather backcountry hunts.  It has enough space, but is small enough to force discipline and to fit through brush well, and spotting scope access is quick.  Unfortunately the Solo suffers from a few features I find unbearable, mainly the several seams at the top of pack which cause it to leak like mad in the rain, and the excessive strappiness.  You don’t want to shortcut compression for a load shelf, but I have a few ideas that should trim thing considerable, which is a way of saying that this is a pack which will be replaced, when the ideas I’ve been tossing around in my head become sufficiently refined.  The frame I made for this pack works well, the only flaw is that I didn’t quite make their bottom spacing wide enough, and this slightly impinges belt wrap across the lumbar.

If I were buying commercially I wouldn’t get a Stone Glacier, they’re far too expensive when a Unaweep 3900 (below) is hundreds of dollars less.


Seek Outside Unaweep.  I haven’t used this pack much this year, but there have been quite a few occasions when I had something else along and wished I could zoom home and instantly swap packs.  Simply put the Unaweep is the reference for how a larger pack should carry and function, and anything I come up with or buy has to equal it in all ways and exceed it in some to be worth keeping.  That is not easy to do.  As detailed in the previous post I cut a few things off my Unaweep, and I’ve continued to monkey with different Talon panels, but having it in the closet as a dependable option for anything beyond a light overnight it always welcome.

I didn’t buy this pack, but if I lost it I’d buy another as soon as possible and rest easy knowing I was getting a stellar deal.  I’d probably go for X50 fabric for better durability than VX42, and step up to the mondo 6300 size for a one pack quiver.


Canyon center-zip. Based on one overnight and one day hunt, I like this pack.  3900 cubic inches is not that big, and the added size will surely come in handy, as will I think the front zipper.  At this point far more testing is need to comment substantively, but given the number of previous packs which fed directly into this one I’m confident this will endure.  But then again I usually am.

The 610 pack, diaper version

R0011620I’ve made this pack, or one to fulfill the same role, 6 or 8 times now.  Most for my own use, a few for friends.  It continually evolves.  The most recent version got axed because the back panel taper got too funky and resulted in a subtle narrowing pinch point in the middle of the pack, which made packing and unpacking a pain.  The top closure was also too complicated, and the hipbelt connection didn’t work properly.

This version is made from scraps and pieces of this pack and this pack, plus some from another pack which never saw the light of the net.  You never get as much material from a cut up project as you think, but I was careful in my cutting and deliberate in my planning, and in this case it worked with no compromises.  Which is rare.  Using the intact backpanel from pack one even expedited construction such that once I got sewing the whole mess took less than three hours.  Which is very rare.  I should note that the death knell for pack one ended up being that damn spreader bar.  Nothing worked to my satisfaction, and an attempt to make a pack with a tapered foam panel that would facilitate similar dimensions did not work out.  So that’s currently an unsolved puzzle.  The tight exterior pad slot with laterally folded blue Walmart works very well, with an ideal balance of support and flexibility for 20 pounds and under, and keeping that feature was a priority.

The other things I wanted in this pack was access, fast, and plenty of it.  Quick and unpredictable diaper changes are a fact of life hiking with an infant, and no pack in the fleet addressed that well enough.  Diameter is 31 inches at the bottom, 35 at the very top.  Backpanel height in 28 inches to the top of the extension collar.  Materials are X33 and X50, with 40D sil/PU for the extension collar, 70D nylon ripstop for the inside of the rear pocket, and WX20 for the pad slot.  All zips are standard #8 YKKs.


The bottom X50 reinforcements on the side panels will be good for longevity, keep the zipper coil from the worst abrasion, and were dictated by the X33 panels I had to work with being a tad too short once squared up and sewn together,  Ideally I’d have been able to skip the seam on the non-zip side, but I can live with that.

The back panel is 9.75 inches wide all the way up.  Side panels are 7 inch, tapering to 8.5 above the shoulder curve.  The front panel is 7 wide at the pocket bottom, with a half inch of taper up to the extension collar.  4-6 inches of gain in diameter from bottom to top seems to be the magic range for packs, with smaller ones ideally being at the smaller end, really big packs at the larger.  Any less and packing is just a little less easy, any more and things seem to end up feeling ungainly.  As is plain in the penultimate photo, the bottom tapers both in (1.3 inchs per side) and up (3 inches total), to keep things sleek.  You loose capacity and a bit of packing ease compared to a square or rectangular base, but gain considerably in climbing ease and in style.  I am not interested in packs with non-tapered bases, generally speaking.

At the end of these projects there is always something you wish you did differently, almost immediately.  Aside from two minor sewing flaws the only thing to make the list is moving the upper lash loops along the side panel down an inch or so.  Which is not a bad list, at all.

As always, questions are welcome.

The next big pack

There were a few persistent flaws or sources of discontent with this pack, which eventually had to be remedied. Ergo the monster below, and yet another doorway/Bob map photo. It’s been tested in a very basic manner on a dayhike, but backpacking with Little Bear in Utah next week will be it’s first real trip.

R0011158The first issue, and by far the most apparent, was accessibility.  I can almost always pack a ton of stuff well enough to not have to dig deep mid-day, but 4 of 5 reasons for having packs this big is to carry other folks stuff, and in my experience it is simply not possible to ask others to be as organized as I am (or to communicate their system with me).  It didn’t take too much time on this trip or this one (can you get that thing, you know, the one in the food bag you buried in the bottom this morning?) to realize that a better arrangement, unfortunately involving a zipper, was in order.

R0011134Full-height zipper down the middle of the front panel.  #8 standard YKK coil with a big X50 flap and a single slider opening top-down.

R0011137The top buckles shut for security.  The whole thing can be blown open for packing (or carrying massive items in freightor mode using the compression panel) or the zip can be opened without uncinching the top to access certain items.  I contemplated putting a second slider at the bottom for more convenience, but couldn’t get over the certainty that placing a metal pressure point in one of the highest wear areas of a pack would be asking for a hole, so I refrained.

R0011139Second issue was size; the first big pack was not too big, but it was too tall, especially when a lid was added.  Gen 1 was 42 inches tall, with a 42 inch upper circumference and a 38 inch lower circ.  This pack is 36 inches tall (measured totally unrolled, along the back panel), with an upper circumference of 47 inches and a lower circ of 42.  The way this interplays with the Paradox frame makes the pack, especially the upper part, get wider as much as it gets deeper, which seems to be the way to go if you’re trying to weasel excessive capacity out of a pack which can still fit through thick brush.

Spitballing capacity by relying on what other manufacturers rate their packs (specifically the EMR II which inspired the zip), this pack is a hair under 100 liters or 6000 cubic inches.  When I think about trips in the near future, when one of us will be carrying the kid and the other will be carrying virtually everything else, this is in no way seems to big.  DItto for packraft hunting trips.

R0011136The third issue was the desire to do a little to avoid the poking and barreling issues I had with only a single layer of fabric between my back and the pack contents.  I spent too much time thinking of solutions, and in the end went simple with a sleeves inside the pack.  A single layer of Walmart blue closed cell foam goes into this, with a 1 inch by 1/8 inch aluminum stay duct taped to the top of the pad.  This stay runs horizontally across the base of my shoulder blades, and having that bit of rigidity seems key to keeping loads under control.  And it is easily removed if I don’t want it.


The rainbow loops are reinforced for hanging game bags and thus keeping the weight high and tight where it belongs.

R0011150R0011142The fourth issue was durability, and was addressed by using X50 for the main body and 1000 denier ballistics for the bottom, compression panel, and high-stress areas of the suspension.  The X33/1000D cordura of the old pack had years left in it, but a few holes had appeared and it was generally apparent via skid marks and chafing that for truly long term, worry free use a bit more burl was needed all around.


R0011147Other than those four things designing this one was a simple matter of refining standard features, such as the bottom panel tied into buckles sewn to the pack.  This flap holds the frame in place at the bottom, and provides compression to shrink the bottom when the pack is underloaded (again, keeping the weight high).  The bottom is canted three inches up to avoid catching to things as you downclimb.  The compression panel is a simple pocket, with an open top that cinches closed when the upper compression straps are tighted.  Big enough for a small static rope or a wet shelter only, so as to not tempt putting weight way out back.  The panel is narrow enough, buckle to buckle, to compress completed flat against the frame for day hunting.  I only used two compression straps on the panel, and they’re spaced almost 15 inches apart, because most of the time more is overkill.  There are occasions when a third anchor in the middle is needed, and to that end I added a webbing loop in each side seam into which straps can be hitched when needed.

The lid is X33.  Much though it pains me to admit it, a lid with 4 points of compression has a lot going for it when it comes to controlling the top of a big pack.  Detatchable side pocket are in the works, but not yet ready for prime time.

Because I tried to keep things as simple as possible, this pack ended up very light for something so large and tough.  I’d guess closer to 3 pounds than 4, all up as shown here.  More than anything this is a testament to why the Paradox frame system allows for light packs: it minimizes to a massive degree the amount of supporting and reinforcing junk necessary for a pack strong enough to carry heavy loads in abusive situations.  I look forward to staining it with sandstone.