A daypack

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

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

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

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

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

Green straps

We have a new packraft strap color; emerald, with tan buckle. The green is a hair more vibrant than pictured above, soothing, but extra-natural enough that it won’t disappear if dropped in the bushes. Rainbow will remain an option, and I have one set of gold straps still hanging around. We also added, after making a few on request over the past year, the AK strap; a full 30 inches longer than the standard strap for those exceptional loads.

Canny readers will also note that I snuck the Tamarisk product page, and custom pack page, on to the nav bar the other week. Tamarisks will be in stock when they are, but all the components are on the premises and I have already started piecing them together. The intention is the have ~15 go live at once. Once I have a better handle on that timeframe, I will add a few custom pack builds to the que.

The next year

I did not much miss travel this past year.  Or, to be more precise, I was more than content with staying in Montana (two trips excepted), and ran out of both energy and creativity before I ran out of options.  As I think about 2021, my eye keeps coming back to the home state, and the many places I would still like to go, and the ways I might fit those trips into the next 12 months.  My resolution from the beginning of the pandemic has only grown stronger, after a summer of a few intensely memorable trips within a couple hundred miles of home.

So why not do more of those?

There is a mountain range near to town, which tends to hide in plain sight, and has some truly exceptional canyons and trails that very few human eyes ever see.  I’ve done a few trips there, each one having been exceptional, and while I’ve yet to settle on the exact route, something a little more extensive in early summer will be a priority.  I’ve made a reservation to spur me along towards that end.  I’ll share impressions when it happens, but never details, there being enough knows out in the world as is.

There are also a lot of rivers in Montana, with many hiding in plain sight once they put the mountains below the horizon.  Again I have no definitive plans, but with the smaller child getting big enough that backpacking will become ever more difficult, the boating phase of family development should be in full force this year.  We bought a canoe this past year, and have another packraft on the way in a few weeks, so we should use them a bunch.  On that note, a full Escalante float really ought to happen this year.

And on the subject of packrafting, there are still two major creeks in Glacier I have yet to float.  And I’m pretty certain that both of them will be very worthwhile.  Restrictions in the park this past year took both off the table, so there is a special urgency and poignancy to being able to get into those pieces of backcountry, one of whom is amongst the handful of named drainages in the park into which I have never set foot.  And on the subject of packrafting, a year with minimal socialization has me contemplating the privilege of being around likeminded folks.  Spending the summer solstice in the center of the universe with the relevant folks and as much beer as we dare to carry is an idea that won’t quite leave my head.

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I am also hopeful of, finally, having some more packs go out the door.  Tamarisk 0.2, above, is headed out the door tomorrow.  While I did not intend to put a full year of testing into version 0.1, having the confidence that it both works so well across applications and that the individual components hold up so well is an unexpected luxury.  Mark 0.2 is a wee bit bigger (as requested) than 0.1, and than the production model will be.  It scales nicely, looks good, and carries (with the final alterations to the hipbelt) even better.

On that commercial note, I should mention that stock of gold packraft straps has grown quite thin after the holiday surge. 3 pairs, to be exact. Anyone who has been wedded to that color but not moved to act ought to do so now. Anyone with thoughts about what color should appear next, to compliment the rainbow (which will be stocked perpetually), do comment.

Much thanks

In spite of, or because of, it all, there are many objects for thank today.  I want to thank all of you.  With few exceptions writing has been tough this year.  With a head crowded enough that bare basics are generally daunting enough, and big, unpleasant, hard to grasp things doing that clogging, putting thoughts in order has on a daily basis been pushed down the road.  Which is ok, just not ideal for composition.

Even so, conversation here, and with readers and friends over text and email, has been a highlight, and a reminder of what we all had and still have.  So thanks for that.

Anyone who orders some straps between now and Monday, and would like a few stickers as well, just say which ones you would like in the order comments.

Evolution of the Tamarisk: Shoulder Straps

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

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

And I am ok with that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Packrafting the Crown of the Continent, revised

When it comes to packrafting the next three months have excellent potential.  A pretty good winter in the Glacier and the Bob has turned into a darn good spring, with plenty of water yet to be released.  Not necessarily exceptional, but if May doesn’t prove too warm, good flows could persist into August.

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It seems like a good time to release the revised version of Packrafting the Crown of the Continent.  It could be a better time, with many COVID-19 restriction having been recently lifted and the state bracing for the presumptive outbreak summer tourism will bring.  My hope is that people will packraft in the Crown this summer, and do so responsibly.

In some ways significant changes have taken place with packrafting in the Crown.  At some point in the near future a new river management plan will go into effect, and if and when that will mean permits for the North Fork of the Flathead (likely to both happen and to impact packrafters) and the South Fork of the Flathead (also likely to happen, less likely to impact packrafters).  Packrafting in the Crown, especially on the South Fork, has continued to grow in popularity.  Most people continue to do something like this, (North Fork Blackfoot, Danaher, South Fork to Spotted Bear).  I also wonder if, like with bikepacking, the difficulty of the thing as a backcountry practice has begun to limit packrafting, or at least shape the mean use of the boats to sidecountry and day trips.  The mean weight of boats getting heavier would suggest as much.

I remain exceedingly pleased with the guidebook, with the writing, the structural choices, and its modest reception and impact.  Lots of people, but very far from an overwhelming amount have used it to have goods trips.  No one has needed a high profile rescue from the South Fork.  And most importantly for me, folks have consistently reported having plenty of adventure on their trips.  This summer will mark an even decade since my first float down the South Fork, and as distance has steadily increased the power of that memory, being a good steward has only become more important.  To that end, it was nice to make only modest additions, and even more modest revisions.

(Anyone who bought the first edition and would like the second, email me, and I’ll send the new one, gratis.)

Evolution of the Tamarisk: features

Or; as few things as possible.

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

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

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

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

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

And that, is it. 

 

The Bob bag

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Field report to follow this summer.

Pack prototype sale

[3/20 update: all packs are sold.]

Over the past three years of developing the Tamarisk I’ve built a lot of packs.  There’s no other way to see how ideas work in the field.  Prototyping is a profoundly fun process, and at the same time necessarily protracted and tedious.  The pile of 40-60 liter packs in the house has gotten a little excessive, and most unfortunately, there are a few especially good ones that these days hardly ever get used.

So I’d like some of ya’ll to use them for me.  I have three ready to go.

(numbering is left to right)

Pack one is a 60 liter tough and basic prototype I made for a bushwacking trip on Isle Royale. Features a beefed up version of the Tamarisk suspension (add load lifter and dual density belt padding), X50 main fabric, Tamarisk side pockets, roll top closure, zippered stash pocket above load lifters, and wrap around compression straps. There is no provision for over the top strapping, and one side pocket is coating side out (oops).

42 inch upper circumference, 40 inch lower circumference, 36.5 inch unrolled height.

19 inches midbelt to shoulder straps, 22 inches midbelt to load lifters.

Belt is 25.5 inches padding to padding (somewhat deceptive as the soft padding compresses and thus lengthens under load).

Suggested torso in 19-21 range, fits waists 30-32 inches.

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Pack two is a mid sized experiment that is a bit bigger than the Tamarisk will be, but features close to the same suspension system.  It has a fixed belt with 1/8″ by 1″ stay.  The side pockets were revised several times over, and are thus both a bit rough and a bit on the small and low side (but very easy to access).  The dimensioned rear pocket compresses with the side straps and holds a good amount.  Main fabric is custom 33 xpac (no V ply or X grid) with 500D Cordura on the base overlay and all pockets.

42 inch upper circumference, 38 inch lower, 35 inch unrolled height.

19 inch midbelt to straps, belt is 27 inches padding to padding.

18-20 inch torso, 30-33 inch waist suggested.

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Pack three is a 40 liter early prototype of what became the Tamarisk. Dual 3mm by 13mm stays with sewn in 1/8″ foam padding in back panel. Burly Mountain Hardwear shoulder straps, no load lifters, floating belt. Compound side pockets with a flat, zippered pocket inside the larger drawcord pocket, both of which extend on wings. Tons of fast access to gear. Drawcord closure with top strap, dual daisy chains. Custom plain 33 D-P fabric (no V, no X ply) in main bag, 500D Cordura in side pockets, 1000D Ballistics base reinforcement.  Main downsides to this one are messy sewing on the belt, and a cut up near the top of the bag which I mended with a patch.

37 inch upper circumference, 33 inch lower circumference, 34 inch unrolled height.

Midbelt to straps 20 inches, belt 31 inches padding to padding.

20-22 inch torso and 32-35 waist suggested.

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As noted above all three of these packs are in places quite rough.  Unideal stitching, a few things uneven, mismatched materials, revisions and additions done with expediency rather than aesthetics in mind.  All of the fundamentals are sounds, and if anything goes wrong or needs fixed I’ll take care of it, for life.

Evolution of the Tamarisk; side pockets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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