Learning from the past is important and I sometimes think about this from a design perspective. Can we learn from old traditional designs, or techniques and apply them to modern design? Is all primitive design and technology inferior?
I believe that at the very least learning about old ways can provide us with food for thought, a comparison to our new directions and if necessary can inform any necessary adjustments to our course and design thinking.
External frame backpacks are interesting not only of their more versatile modularity, but also because the structural component of the pack is clearly visible and offers a great opportunity to any designer wanting to explore structural innovation. Designing compelling structural elements from diverse materials such as wood, aluminium, or even carbon fiber is something I think most designers live to do.
Every designer and their creativity draws from all forms of knowledge and inspiration, from the core to the fringes. From a footwear design perspective the compelling design of a soft shoe upper that is interchangeable from a structural sole could one day also be inspired from an external frame backpack. A potential design improvement on function, versatility and environmental impact.
What follows is a short insight into some of the history of External Frame Backpacks. A reminder that although the external frame backpack was superseded by the internal frame almost 30 years ago, it is still a very functional piece of equipment and has an ancient history to prove it. It’s long history is also a very compelling reason to explore new ways to make it relevant again in today’s outdoor market.
Although its unknown how long humans have been carrying packs on their backs, the first external frame backpack dates at least as far back as Őtzi, a shepherd who walked the Italo-Austrian Alps 5300 years ago. When we consider products over 100 years old to be antiques, its incredible to think that the external frame backpack has existed for over 53 centuries.
Since Őtzi load carrying frame structures have been documented in most of the world.
In the fjords and isolated Norwegian valleys they were known as ‘Hjuringsmeis’, the ones below date back to the early 1800’s.
This Norwegian external frame backpack is called ‘Sekk med Meis’ and dates back to 1880.
The Russian traditional external frame pack is called “Ponyaga” or поняги was originally used by the Tungusic and Nivkh people from the far eastern Russian regions of Eastern Siberia and Khabarovsk Krai, the examples below are from Irkutsk.
Via The Siberian – http://по-сибирски.рф
Also from far eastern Russia is this primitive backpack design called a “Flyer” or рогулек.
“Flyers” or рогульки are triangular or wishbone shaped frames.
The photos below are of Korean and Chinese coolies also known as rogulschikami рогульщиками in 1915 Vladivostok.
Then there is this similar Korean frame design that I don’t know the name of.
In the Alps traditional load carrying frame structures were known as Kraxe and were also made from wood.
Alpine porters were known as Kraxentrager and would carry their laden Kraxen through the Alps, like their Sherpa and Balti counterparts continue to do in the Himalayas today.
Some images of Alpine Kraxentragers and Kraxen.
To the east in Polish and Slovak Tatra mountains the Nosicz profession which operates the mountain shelters, is still known to carry loads of up to 200kg on similar wooden frames called nosiłek.
Laco Kulanga a record holding Nosicz with a record 207.5 kg load.
And in France and Germany similar structures were also used around the 1800’s.
Via Wood Trekker: A Brief History of the Modern Backpack (Comments Section)
Frame structures were also used by the First Nations people to carry loads across the American continent. But very little is written about them even though they are said to have inspired the design of one of the early commercial external frame packs, the Trapper Nelson backpack.
Via Tomahawk on Bushcraft USA
Maybe they also looked similar to this woven pack from the Waimir Atroari in Brazil.
Or like this Packframe Canoe Chair.
A design very similar to this Ojiwa frame from Bear Island in Eastern Canada, purchased in 1903.
Exactly what the earliest mass produced external frame backpack was remains unclear.
This frame below is from 1920, but does not include a pack.
But the first external frame backpack was probably patented by Colonel Henry C. Merriam in 1886. His invention provided soldiers with a light steel frame and hardwood sticks structure which transferred the weight of the pack to a belt above the buttocks. The frame reduced the pressure from the traditional crossed shoulder straps which typically caused pain to the chest on marches. The hardwood sticks then doubled up as a pole for a shelter tent.
Via Uniforms, Arms and Equipment – The US Army on the Western Frontier. 1880-1892
Over 20 years later in 1908 Ole F. Bergans invented the metal frame rucksack and his Patent Nr. 20547 was registered in 1909.
Ole F. Bergans believed that a backpack should be shaped according to a persons shape and height and should follow the form of the body. So using light tubular steel Ole F. Bergans bent a simple structure to follow the shape of the human back. The light tubular steel structure also made the pack more comfortable to carry as it prevented any awkwardly packed harder objects from making contact with the user’s back.
Originally made from leather the Bergans pack was later made from canvas.
Below is an unusual version of the Bergans Pack made from wood maybe in a time when metal was too expensive, or maybe even an early prototype. The story behind the pack goes that in 1980 an older man went to the Bergans factory asking for a new bag to replace his old one. It was not customary to sell bags from the factory, so the manager referred him to the factory shop. But as soon as the manager saw the old bag, realizing it was one of the first Bergans products he changed his mind and replaced the old bag for a new one.
Lloyd F. “Trapper” Nelson’s 1920s reinforced pack board was also a notable patent and invention. Inspired by a Native American sealskin and willow stick pack, the new design emphasized ventilation for the back and also prevented hard objects in the pack from putting pressure on the users back.
Lloyd F. “Trapper” Nelson’s design would later also become known as the Alaskan Packboard.
Later adopted by the U.S Army, the packboard saw a few design changes.
Except on some military packboards which were made using plywood.
The British Army Awkward Load Carrying Frame was very simple.
Although the design looks much older, Segen Packs an early environmentalist company from Eugene, OR made this backpack up until the 1980’s. Touted as a “Natural Pack, the founder Ed Segen stayed true to the use of classic natural materials of wood, canvas, leather and wool felt. But also adding some technical improvements like the modern designed hip belt.
The biggest leap in backpack development probably began in 1952 when Asher “Dick” Kelty and his wife Nena started the Kelty brand from their garage in Glendale, California.
One of the biggest innovators in backpack design, Dick was not only one of the first to produce and market external-frame back packs specifically for civilian use, but Kelty is also considered to be the inventor of the rectangular aluminium framed backpack, the hip belt, using nylon, adding zippers to the pack pockets and the padded shoulder straps.
In 1952 after several years of making packs in his home garage for friends, Dick sold 29 packs in his first year of business for 24 dollars each. Dick hand-formed and welded each of the frames, and his wife, Nena, sewed each of the pack bags using WW II leftover parachute pack fabric. Kelty packs first include aircraft-aluminum contoured frames, padded shoulder straps, waist belts, clevis-pin attachment of pack bags, nylon pack cloth, zippered pockets, hold-open frames, and nylon back bands. The first shoulder straps were produced using wool carpeting for padding. The original clevis pins were made from aircraft rivets.
Photos via Nick Gatel
Surprisingly Dick Kelty did not patent the original Kelty pack design from 1952. At the same time its not hard imaging how a passionate inventor is more interested in perfecting his invention than spending money on a patent. A modest man when asked by his wife Nena to patent the pack design, Dick replied ” Man has been carrying stuff on his back forever. A backpack is nothing new.” – Nena Kelty
The aluminium external frame backpack went on to be used not only for light civilian use, but also for important and challenging expeditions like the 1963 Mt. Everest ascent by the U.S team lead by Norman Dyrenfurth.
Since then due to the success of internal frame backpack, only a few companies have attempted to innovate and evolve the external frame backpack.
Today the modular nature of external frame is still preferred for hunting as a haul pack for game.
The U.S Army developed the riveted A.L.I.C.E ( All-Purpose Lightweight Individual Carrying Equipment) Frame pack and later various versions of the M.O.L.L.E Frame (Modular Lightweight Load-carrying Equipment) made from injected plastic.
For leisure use the most notable external frame design innovations have probably come from Dana Gleason of Dana Designs with the Racer X design.
Via Zeno Marx
and later the Mystery Ranch NICE Frame, which is considered by many to be an external and internal hybrid.
The visually similar Mac M.O.L.L.E Pack frame which is lined with P.A.L.S (Pouch Attachment Ladder System) webbing straps allows you to fasten individual items to it as necessary.
And the Kuiu Icon offers a Carbon Fibre external frame which was covered in a previous post titled KUIU Icon Backpack – Redefining the External Frame Backpack.
The external frame has also been re-introduced in the recent retro fashion wave by JanSport with the Urban Framework pack,
the JanSport D2 and by VISVIM with the Conquest External Frame backpack.
External frame packs are also being batch produced in niche markets for light weight backpacking consumers. Like this ZPacks™ “Exo” Backpack, which also allows you to fit the sleeping pad between the frame.
And customized, or up-cycled like this old quality welded Aluminium frame with added new hip belt and a dry bag. The blue webbing doubles up as camping hammock tree straps.
What the External Frame Back pack will look like and function in years to come is an interesting question. Maybe it will continue to look like a throwback from the 1970’s, maybe it will become forgotten and disappear. However I believe that the external frame is a superior load carrying design for trail use, which also provides much valuable ventilation to the back. As such it deserves to be innovated and not relegated.
Nowadays we’re surrounded by countless new technologies, which do we really need and which are redundant to our personal use? Are there old and forgotten technologies that can be more useful to us than new ones?
For certain the old External Frame Back has plenty of potential left.
Applying the Old Ways to the New Journeys – The Marked Tree Blog.
P.S. I chose not to include 4 important historical backpack styles to this article, mainly because they included no external frame. The Double Bag Knapsack also used in the American Civil War, the Yukon Pack used during the Gold Rush and Basket Packs which although have been around as long as external frames and are still used today also have no external frame and many have a Tumpline instead of shoulder straps. For anyone interested there is a long list of Basket Packs from the Adirondack Basket in the USA, to the Kontti in Finland, the Pasiking in the Philippines, the Katu Woven Pack from Laos and the Sherpa Basket in Nepal. You can also easily buy a woven Fruit Picking Pack online for about $100.
Pre-hispanic cultures such as the Aztecs also used external frames called Cacaxtli, but with Mecapal Straps (tumpline).
For further reading I have since written a short post on woven Basket Packs titled “Woven Backpacks – Design Rooted in History and Tradition”. To read it click HERE