Packs - The design history

A pack is a means for carrying your gear: all else is detail. But in looking at the details, remember the two rules of ""Ygwypf"" and ""3C"". By and large, for us a pack is a bag with shoulder straps which we carry on our back. Some cheap packs fall to pi

A pack is a means for carrying your gear: all else is detail. But in looking at the details, remember the two rules of ""Ygwypf"" and ""3C"". By and large, for us a pack is a bag with shoulder straps which we carry on our back. Some cheap packs fall to pieces; badly designed ones are a pain. On the other hand, don't always blame the pack. One day I found that my pack was really creating a pressure sore at the centre of my back, no matter how I adjusted the straps. Eventually I stopped, opened up my pack and moved the edge of the hard gas container away from where it was sticking into my back: instant relief. Equally, some of the cheap Asian day packs would do quite well for many day bushwalks.

Things get a little more complex when you look at the larger packs: ones suitable for several days walking. The pack has to have some sort of structure to transfer the load from the pack to you, preferably to your spine since that is your principle load-carrying structure. No, the load is not carried entirely on your shoulders and hips - or should not be. A lot of it should be carried on your back (but not pressing directly on your spine). However, this does not always happen as the evolution of the Australian bushwalking pack has followed a strange and not very logical path, which we will briefly list here.

The first Australian packs were actually swags: a blanket roll containing some gear, slung over the shoulder, and carried by swaggies. A rather sophisticated version of this was developed by Myles Dunphy and Herb Gallop, and is shown in the picture of Myles to the right (picture copyright Jim Barret). It was called the Dungal swag after the two of them. You will note that the main load behind Myles is balanced by the food bag at the front. This allowed Myles to walk upright rather than bent forward: a far more comfortable position than some 'modern' packs require. However, this design does have problems in thick scrub and on steep rocky territory.

The next pack we had was probably the small rectangular army knapsack left over from the wars. I carried one of these once on a walk, but it was far too small and horribly uncomfortable, and I have no idea how the foot soldiers managed. One assumes they were not asked what they thought of it. Officers did not carry packs of course.

After the war Paddy Pallin introduced his famous A-Frame pack, in several models. It was a lot better than what had been available before, and the Bushwalker model with lots of pockets is shown in the picture to the left (photo of and courtesy of Jim Barrett again). I have carried one of these packs (the two-pocket Federation model) for many miles, and many of us will remember it well. However, while the picture shows the wearer standing up straight, the normal walking position was bent forward from the waist quite severely. It appears to have been modelled on a Norwegian pack of similar design, but that pack was designed for ski-touring, not walking. It had to have the weight very low and the shoulders free to twist for the old Alberg style of skiing. Bluntly, the purpose of original design was misunderstood and the weight was put far too low down for a load-carrying walking pack, and that put a huge strain on the shoulders and the back. It was not a comfortable pack, especially with any serious load in it. Those outside pockets pushed the load yet further still from your back. The upper part of your body ended up bent way over towards the horizontal. It was a real relief to get rid of it at the end of the day, and rest your aching back and shoulders.

Then there were two H-frame packs: the Flinders Ranges and the Mountain Mule. There is a picture of a Mule a little way down. (Good photos would be appreciated!) These were roughly copied from the H-frame packs used in America to transport quite large loads, but unfortunately the Australian and New Zealand designers once again misunderstood the basic design. They made both of these packs too wide and too short: the frames were almost square. The original idea was to transfer the load to the frame, and then have the frame transfer the load to the wearer's back. To be sure, these carried the load somewhat better than the A-frame pack, but not well enough. The short frame meant the load was not properly transfered to your back. The excessive width meant many wearers suffered regular bruises to the arms. There was still (a lot of) room for improvement.

Now we have the modern 'internal frame' pack, introduced in the late 80s. This appears to have been copied from the European alpine climbing pack, with lots of modifications and additions in the harness and frame section to try to make it a successful bushwalking pack. Sadly, once again, the manufacturers have got it wrong. To be sure, alpine climbing sounds glamorous, but so what? For climbing you need the load down low so there is not as much drag on your arms, especially when you lean back to reach for a handhold. This is the opposite of where all good load-carrying arrangements put the load, as explained below. And climbing packs need to be round with no protruding things to catch on the rock when being hauled up the cliff, so any frame has to be internal and is severely compromised as a result. Sadly, the glamour of the 'alpine' cachet and marketing won over functionality. The consequence is that manufacturers of internal frame packs still spend a huge amount of effort continuously redesigning their 'harnesses' in an attempt to get the load carrying right. But the more complex the harness, the further the load is from your back, and the greater the load on the shoulders. This is compounded by the popular myth that a harness must have a gap between itself and the wearer's back, for air circulation. More structure, and more distance between the load and the wearer. And, of course, the greater the weight of the harness itself and the greater the cost of that harness too. Sadly, none of the manufacturers seem to have stopped to really examine just what they are doing with this design and whether they are on the right track. Perhaps they believe that the public would not buy anything else now? Maybe.