What we have to remember before we start looking into packs is that backpacking technology as we know it was almost non-existent at the time. Traveling on foot with all of your gear on your back was not something that was done all too often. The standard form of travel in the wilderness was by horses or canoes. You can check out my posts on 18th Century Woodsmanship and Its Modern Applications and 19th Century Woodsmanship and Its Modern Applications. The practice of carrying all of your gear on your back when in the woods starts to develop during the 1880 through 1930 period, and backpack technology developed along with it.
From what I have seen, there were two main sources for pack technology that influenced pack use by woodsmen during what I am calling the Classic Backpacking period (1880-1930). The first is rucksacks; a small bag with two shoulder straps. The second was portage packs; larger packs with shoulder straps and tumplines, designed to carry larger amounts of gear on canoe trips, primarily when the canoes had to be carried from one body of water to another. Preferred designs leaned to one side or the other depending on the author.
In some of the earlier writings, we can see remnants of the methods used by soldiers for carrying their gear, which would later be replaced by packs of different types.
“For carrying your baggage you will perhaps prefer a knapsack, though many old soldiers are not partial to that article. There are also for sale broad straps and other devices substitutes for the knapsack. Whatever you take, be sure it has broad straps to go over your shoulders: otherwise you will be constantly annoyed from their cutting and chafing you. You can dispense with the knapsack altogether in the same way that soldiers do,— by rolling up in your blanket whatever you have to carry. You will need to take some pains in this, and perhaps call a comrade to assist you.” John Mead Gould, How to Camp Out, 1877 p.23
While the practice of carrying a blanket roll was apparently still around in the time period with which we are concerned, 1880 through 1930, it was not popular with any of the authors I have previously listed. Kephart even comments on his dislike for the blanket roll: "Some pedestrians like the blanket roll because it saves the expense and weight of a pack-sack or harness, and because it can be shifted from one side to the other. In reality nothing is gained in ease of carrying, but rather the contrary. All the weight is thrown on one shoulder at a time, and there is no help from the hips. A man can carry a heavier load in a pack-sack with less fatigue in the long run." Horace Kephart, Camping and Woodcraft Vol II, 1918 p.118
A decade and a half after John Mead Gould's writings, the practice of carrying gear wrapped in a blanket over your shoulder appears to have gone out of favor, and replaced by the use of packs.
“Firstly, the knapsack; as you are apt to carry it a great many miles, it is well to have it right, and easy- fitting at the start. Don't be induced to carry a pack basket… The loaded pack basket on a heavy carry never fails to get in on the most vulnerable knob of the human vertebras. The knapsack sits easy, and does not chafe. The one shown in the engraving is of good form; and the original — which I have carried for years — is satisfactory in every respect. It holds over half a bushel (approximately 18 litters; Kephart mentions one that is the same design but about 24 litters p.128 of Camping and Woodcraft Vol II), carries blanket-bag, shelter tent, hatchet, ditty-bag, tinware, fishing tackle, clothes and two days' rations. It weighs, empty, just twelve ounces.” George Washington Sears (Nessmuk), Woodcraft, 1892 p.8
The pack described by Nessmuk is similar to what later Kephart describes as a rucksack design which was in use in Europe. Kephart states such packs were too small to carry all of one’s gear, althoughhe mentions Nessmuk’s was a larger pack sack of such design. I have no reason to doubt that these rucksacks were of European origin, although it does appear that large versions existed in Europe, as such packs were used by Edward Whymper to climb the Alps in 1872.
“This is made inside of linen for strength, and is covered with the gossamer mackintosh. It consists of a square sack drawn in round the neck by a cord, having a flap, as sewn, to keep out the wet, with an outer pocket for articles to be bought en route. The straps are so placed as to lie into the hollow of the shoulder where the braces are and so leave the neck free. From the two bottom corners a strap comes round the waist and not only holds the bag in position but it takes part of the weight on the hip bones.” Thomas Hiram Holding, The Camper’s Handbook, 1908 p.369
Most woodsmen whose writings I have read, seemed to personally prefer a Duluth pack. Duluth still sells these packs today in their canoe section. They are portage packs that were adopted for general use by many woodsman at the time.
“For the trapper who is tending a long line of traps, and always has something to carry with him, also for any person who is going into the woods for a camping trip, making long trips and carrying a light outfit, I recommend the use of the pack sack. As its name implies it is a sack or bag, made of duck, and fitted with both shoulder and head straps, all adjustable… The sack is made square, about twenty-six or twenty-eight inches in size and has a nap covering the top and fastening with three straps and buckles. The head and shoulder straps are fastened securely to the opposite side and should be made of heavy leather, the shoulder straps being placed very close together at the top, so that there will be no trouble in keeping them in place.” Elmer Harry Kreps, Camp and Trail Methods, 1910 p.40-41
“The harness for packs is varied enough, but the principle remains simple. A light pack will hang well enough from the shoulders, but when any weight is to be negotiated you must call into play the powerful muscles lying along the neck. Therefore, in general, an ordinary knapsack will answer very well for packs up to say thirty pounds. Get the straps broad and soft; see that they are both sewed and riveted. When, however, your pack mounts to above thirty pounds you will need some sort of strap to pass across the top of your head. This is known as a tumpline, and consists of a band of leather to cross the head, and two long thongs to secure the pack.” Stewart Edward White, Camp and Trail,1911 p.227
The pack in many respects is not all that different from a rucksack, except that it is a bit more square/rectangular, and has a tumpline. The tumpline allows the carrier to use his head as additional support for the load and for extra stability.
“The haversack or knapsack slung by a strap from one shoulder is out of date and never measured up to the requirements for use in heavy packing. It is handy for lunches or as a ditty or emergency kit bag. The best pack sack was originated and put out by one Poirier of Duluth some twenty-five years ago and was originally really the whiteman's improvement of the Indian tump line and pack cloth, ingeniously folded and tied so as to serve as a sack with suspension harness. As listed today by most outfitting firms it consists of a sack with shoulder straps and head suspension. It is a very desirable article from the point of view of the wilderness voyageur as he is enabled to ease up different sets of muscles while on the hike and in handling a heavy pack the combined use of the neck and shoulder muscles are brought into play. _ This pack goes under the name of the Duluth, Poirier, Woodsman or Northwestern Pack and with slight modifications is listed under other names by various dealers in camp supplies. The genuine, however, consists of a simple flat bag of dimensions twenty-eight by thirty inches with adjustable shoulder and head straps. It has a large top flap with three long straps to hold it down thus enabling one to ad just it to a large or small pack. The following features are to be insisted upon — get the straps broad and soft and see to it that the connections are both sewed and riveted. The Poirier pack is much used on the Canadian border and is easily procurable or it can be made at home.” Claude P. Fordyce, Touring Afoot, 1916 p.57-58
Horace Kephart seems to agree with Kreps and Fordyce. He gives thee examples of what he considers good pack sacks out of all of the available options. One of them is the Nessmuk type pack, the second is the Duluth pack, and the third is the Whelen pack. Both the Nessmuk and the Whelen packs appear to be large rucksacks, with the Duluth pack offering a tumpline and a more rectangular shape. His preference was for the Duluth pack.
“For regular packing, when one sleeps out, the best pack sack at a moderate price that I know of is what is known as the Duluth, or, from its inventor, the Poirier pattern (Fig 32). Originally made for trappers, timber cruisers, and other professional woodsmen, it is now used by many sportsmen as well. The Duluth sack has no boxed sides, but is sewed up in the form of a simple bag, and so is made wider and higher than boxed ones of equal capacity... The standard sizes and weights, in A grade, are as follows: No. 1. 24 x 26 inches- 2 1/4 lbs.; No. 2. 26 x 28 inches- 2 1/2 lbs.; No. 3. 28 x 30 inches- 2 3/4 lbs. For a pedestrian the No. 1 or No. 2 is large enough.” Horace Kephart, Camping and Woodcraft Vol II, 1918 p.129
The above of course is a small sampling of the available literature on the subject. Kephart probably has the most in dept discussion on packs out of all the authors mentioned. I do think however that it gives a good idea of what was available and actually in use by woodsmen at the time.
So, moving away from the text, I my goal within this Classic Backpacking thing I am trying to do, was to find a suitable pack which would be functionally equivalent to the packs discussed above, without costing too much. You can actually go on the Duluth website and purchase a #2 Canoe Pack, which will be just about an exact replica of what Kephart used. However, you would have to pay upwards of $200 for it. I am okay spending that type of money for a good pack, but I am not willing to do it for a canvas bag with two straps.
An affordable option I was able to find was the Gootium 21101 Pack, size Large. It is a random pack that I found on Amazon, but I was very happy with the purchase. For $43 I think it’s a good choice. The pack weight 2lb 1.0oz.
The pack is 2048 cubic inches (34 litters). I find it large enough to hold a large wool blanket, a tarp, a 2L pot, a canteen, a cup, a sweater, and all my other odds and ends. In the pictures above it is very filled, so it looks like it has a shape, but it’s just a large canvas bag with a draw cord on the top, a flap to cover the opening, two straps, and some small external pockets. It is very similar to the pack illustrated in Thomas Hiram Holding’s The Camper’s Handbook, as well as the Whelen pack illustrated in Kephart’s Camping and Woodcraft.
As you can see from the above picture, there are no axe holding accessories on the pack. When I need a larger axe, I carry it similarly to the way one would carry an ice axe. I slide it down between my shoulders and let it come out through the shoulder strap one one side. The only difference is that I slide it through the handle on top of the pack. It is surprisingly comfortable due to the lack on frame or rigidity in the pack.
There are two noticeable inaccuracies with the pack that you may want to address. The first is that there is a zippered pocket inside the pack. It just dangles from the top and is very easy to cut off.
The second is that under each of the buckles, there is a brass snap. This allows you to quickly open the pack without having to undo the buckles.
While I believe brass snaps were around during the time period in question, I seriously doubt that there were any packs with this type of construction. The problem is easy to fix. You can epoxy the snaps shut, or you can sew the are around the snaps to the leather underneath.
Of course, I am not trying to tell you that you should get this pack. If you look around, you can probably do better, especially if you are willing to spend a bit more money. For me thought, it is a good fit, and I believe is very functionally equivalent to the type of packs that were around between 1880 and 1930. It is also very similar to the type of packs we used to use back in the old country when I was growing up, so it brings back memories.
The size of the pack (34L) is perfect for me. During my regular backpacking, I use a 40L pack, and most of the time it’s a third empty.
Here for a winter trip, I have to fill up this pack to the top, especially because I have a bulky blanket. Three days of food is about the maximum I can fit in it, so for longer trip I would either need a larger pack, or I would have to strap things to the outside of the pack.
Lastly, I leave you with an image of the actual pack used by Horace Kephart, along with its tumpline, held at Western Carolina University.