The Ascent of Bag

Backpacking's Upright Evolution

Mark Synnott

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IN THE TIMESCALE OF BACKPACK EVOLUTION, pre-1950s was the Pleistocene, with everyone hunched like Homo erectus under the same heavy wood-and-canvas sacks. But natural selection has favored the best, most well-adapted bags, and today—whether you’re tenderfooting or humping the entire Appalachian Trail—you’ve got access to strong, light, hold-everything luggables that brilliantly keep the weight off your shoulders. Here are nine creative bursts that got us there.

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Hiking around Alaska in the spring of 1920, Lloyd Nelson wore a typical native pack: sealskin stretched over willow sticks. Filled with 30 pounds, the bundle rubbed Nelson so raw that he built his own rucksack, a rigid wooden packboard with a removable canvas bag. He started selling the famous Trapper Nelson from Seattle in 1929; prospectors, rangers, and Boy Scouts happily endured it until the fifties.
In 1955, Dick Kelty had the bright idea of swapping wood for lightweight tubular aluminum, and canvas for thin nylon packcloth. The Kelty A4 weighed about half as much as the Trapper Nelson (three pounds), took decades to wear out, and comfortably carried twice the weight. Loyal Kelty fans argue that the A4 virtually ignited the outdoor-recreation boom of the 1960s.

By the seventies, climbers were begging for an alternative to their external-frame packs, which snagged on trees and bounced off rocks. Enter Greg Lowe and his 1972 Lowe Alpine Systems Expedition: a fabric box with interior aluminum stays (inspired by earlier internal-frame packs from Europe), a chest strap, an adjustable harness, compression straps, and, most important, a high-and-tight fit.

The Gregory Cassin, the first backpack to come off like a fancy, tailored shirt, hit the market in 1977. It had so many added features—like a side zipper and sleeping-bag compartment—that it weighed nearly seven pounds. Taped seams prevented packs from unraveling around the stitching—a common problem at the time—and later, four frame sizes offered a better fit.

“Light and fast” mountaineering was the rage by 1982, when John Bouchard and Marie Meunier, husband-and-wife founders of Wild Things, introduced the Andinista, a backpack stripped naked. The removable waist belt and shoulder straps allowed climbers to smoothly haul the bag up cliffs. And the foam “frame” served as a make-do bivouac pad.

Taking up where Wild Things left off, Cold Cold World, Randy Rackliff’s one-man show, introduced the Chernobyl in 1992. The frameless pack had no bells and whistles, and represented another conscious step away from the feature-laden backpacks that big gear companies were pumping out. Rackliff still designs, sews, and ships every Chernobyl himself.

The beauty of Arc’Teryx‘s Bora, created by Larry Reid in 1995: It was many things to many people. It offered waist belts and shoulder straps in dozens of sizes, ensuring the best fit possible for men and women, and employed cutting-edge technology to mold all foam straps. Its high-quality craftsmanship meant the pack was light, but not weak.

Pack design had split into two branches by the midnineties: spartan frameless packs, and deluxe internal-framers. In 1997, designer John Cutter grafted the two sprouts with The North Face Thin Air. Thanks to an internal X-frame of light-but-strong carbon fiber, the Thin Air was able to heft a 60-pound load while weighing a miniscule three pounds. Inspired by the “light is right” approach of climber-inventor-backpacker Ray Jardine, GoLite espouses the controversial belief that most outdoorspeople should rarely carry more than 30 pounds. Hence, GoLite designed the 2001 Gust pack—with haul loops and two ice-ax holders—to weigh just 19 ounces. Not surprisingly, it carries like a minimalist’s dream.

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