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What makes a good rucksack?

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Back in 2003 I bought the car that I’m currently driving. I bought it new , with a view that I’d still be driving it in 20 or so years . Talking with the car dealer, he told me that car buyers fall into three categories : Performance, Efficiency, and Cup Holders. The Performance buyers talk about horsepower and handling, whilst the Efficiency buyers will pay attention to fuel consumption, repair costs and the general utility of the car (boot space etc). The Cup Holders buyers get excited by the number and location of cup holders, the quality of the stereo , and a new thing at the time called SatNav. Interestingly, he noted that the overall aesthetic of the car is most important to the Cup Holders crowd, whereas he thought that would be the Performance crowd. Cup Holders people will delay their purchase to ensure that they get the right colour.

Us pack manufacturers aren’t rich (we drive around in older cars!) but we think a lot about what makes a “good” product. Old mate at Penrith Volkswagen was onto something with his definitions of car buyers, and I reckon that rucksack design tends to be all three rolled into one.

Let’s change the term “Performance” to “Rucksack Fit”. Fit is essential to the good working of the pack. A good Rucksack to Human Interface ensures that the load is comfortable to carry across all terrain. It is a bit disheartening to see people try on a pack, walk three steps on flat ground to a mirror, and make their decision on the pack comfort. Seriously, get out on the street, step up onto a park bench, walk up a few flights of stairs, try different loads in the pack. Get to know the pack in terms of how it will work in the bush as best you can.

The best rucksack fit in our opinion is definitely achieved by a custom moulded frame, set up for the specific user. We can make a pack fit well, with a stronger and relatively lighter harness through a custom fit process.

We don’t believe that the customer should cut corners when it comes to fit. It will probably be the thing that when their mates ask them whether they like the pack that will truly define their experience.

Efficiency is best summed up as “how the pack is designed and built to do the job and ensure longevity”. This includes the pack being the ‘right’ capacity, having the ‘right’ key features, and being built in such a way to survive the abuse which it may encounter.

Back in about 2002 we released a new canyon pack design that had completely protected mesh sides. Thanks to its single minded purpose, we simply called it the Canyon.

In response to customer requests we’ve since built the Canyon Guide (a bigger capacity preferred by the local professional guiding community), and the Canyonita (a smaller size for recreational and ‘lightweight’ canyoners - the name “Amateur” was quickly knocked on the head).

The size of the original Canyon was based on experiences of us and customers in terms of required gear for a decent day in Blue Mountains canyons (taking into account proper roping gear, thicker wetsuit etc). The capacity was decided upon with a view to everything being carried inside the pack - especially useful in some of the more overgrown areas. The design of the bag has proven to be such a success that the Canyon is a consistent top 3 seller for us. We sell about ten Canyons to every one Canyonita, and 15 Canyons to every Canyon Guide, which shows us that although you must present “choice”, a good design will work well for most people.

The feedback that we tend to receive is that the pack is comfortable and flexible enough to be worn all day through canyons, the capacity is about right, the water drainage is unbelievable and it is bloody tough. A whole other 5000 word essay could be written on how we go about making that bag so “bloody tough”, but its getting late.

This leads us to Cup Holders : those parts of a pack that are most divisive. Pocket size and configuration, pack access locations and methods (top loading versus zippered) etc, have formed the basis of many a campfire conversation, and no pack is perfect in this regard.

Two things that I have come to grips with:
1. Humans are creatures of habit. We’d love our new pack to be exactly like our old pack.
2. Humans are supremely adaptable. On balance, we cope with small changes in our routines fairly well, and when we upgrade equipment it doesn’t take us long to come to grips with the new setup (as long as the Performance and Efficiency elements are there).

Whilst good Cup Holders are very important and add to the Performance and Efficiency of the pack, too many Cup Holders does not improve the pack. Extra features may seem like a great idea, but generally speaking they won't add to your overall satisfaction with the product. The things that we tend to remember are the comfort and longevity of the product. So long as those criteria are met, we tend to make do with the available features.

I draw breath here as this may be controversial, but I put advertised product weight into the realm of a Cup Holder. I talk with a lot of pack designers around the place and no-one intentionally wants to make gear heavy. We all want to produce comfortable, streamlined equipment that survives the journey over and over. Our philosophies on how to achieve this may be as divergent as the terrain in which our packs are used, but none of us want to design heavy and uncomfortable packs.

As a Blue Mountains based pack builder, we build packs for our customers, who coincidentally, seem to do a lot of walking up and down sandstone ridges. So we choose fabrics and build packs in such a way that they survive in this environment. The packs then have to be big enough to carry the gear that you need for the trip, and the harness has to be burly enough to comfortably carry the load in the pack. Then we set out to streamline the design to keep weight credible.

Our medium sized super tough canvas bushwalking pack (the Blue Gum) weighs an honest 2.1kg. By contrast , an Osprey Aether 60 (a great pack in our opinion) weighs 2.15kg and is built from relatively lightweight nylon. The Blue Gum features a big front pocket, two open topped side pockets, a lid pocket and a hydration bladder sleeve (enough cup holders?) with a custom mouldable frame in a tough canvas fabric. The Osprey Aether 60 features a different pocket configuration (ie few more cup holders than the Blue gum), with a custom mouldable harness, in a light weight nylon fabric that makes the pack seem lighter than the Blue Gum. In practical application however, they possess similar weight.

Coincidentally, we recently built a Blue Gum pack for a customer stripped of all internal framing and padding, removed side pockets and other features, and built him a bomber canvas pack for 1.39kg. He will have to pack it well otherwise it will hang like an old sack, but he has used a similar pack for a long time and was comfortable with the nuances of a frameless pack.

Weight is a byproduct of sensible design. When a pack is comfortable to carry, survives a beating, and has proven to be a long term partner, not many customers will still bemoan the fact that they could have shaved a few hundred grams off the pack weight. Weight seems to be given a primacy in gear buying decisions at the expense of sensible design. We often see the results of this shortsighted vision when customers express their disappointment in how their previous pack didn't meet their expectations : "I bought a superlight pack but it wasn't very comfortable" / "My pack didn't last as long as I expected."

We all like to spend time drawing down on our experiences with equipment and applying it to our next purchase. At Summit Gear we spend a lot of time developing new product and custom designing gear for technical end use, and we are open to feedback and criticism. What we know is that when we look to make products that people will truly find useful , we look to maximise Performance and Efficiency first, and add Cup Holders that do a sensible job and add to the value of the pack, not just play to the marketing angle.

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