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 A reminder that although the external frame backpack was superseded by the internal frame almost 30 years ago, it is still a very functional piece of equipment and has an ancient history to prove it.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 поняга 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 called a 지게.
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.
Via Ambra and Chem Laco Kulanga a record holding Nosicz with a record 207.5 kg load.
Via vysoketatry and Czubaka MTB
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.
Via American Museum of Natural History
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
Reblogged this on Paleotool's Weblog and commented:
I hope its not TOO lame reblogging other people’s posts but this is just too ON TARGET. Check out his blogs.
Just as long as you keep up your good posts.
I use my external frame for summer, which is much cooler due to better air circulation, and heavy loads, relegating the internal frame for ski touring where stability of center of gravity must be carefully controlled or the light local daypack to fit in a locker. It almost always pays to see previous solutions to problems and see how and why they worked, as well as why later changes, i.e. to get a patent to insure profit from a novelty or a real benefit.
I agree that internal frame backpacks are better for situations that require more agility. But given that over 95% of new backpacks are internal frame, I also wonder how many 50-70lt internal frame backpacks are used for dynamic outdoor activities and how many are used for simple trail hiking? Could regular trail hikers benefit more from an external frame backpack? I think they could if only there was an updated external frame pack design that looked as technical and compelling as existing internal frame packs.
Reblogged this on Elen Sentier and commented:
Fabulous old external frame backpacks … giving me ideas 🙂
If I might make a suggestion though, the Kifaru Duplex Frames (the original – http://www.kifaru.net/tactical_haulers.html ) (and the new, lighterweight Bikini – http://www.kifaru.net/bikiniframe.html ) are an great hybrid between an external frame pack and an internal frame pack. While it can be worn with the designed bags inside the bags, they can be easily removed and almost anything conceivable (injured people, barrels, quartered elk, outboard motors, dry bags, etc.) lashed on.
Thanks for the very interesting designs. The tactical Haulers remind me of the Dana X-Racer design, but I don’t know which came first. Nowadays there are many canoe portage/barrel packs with a similar design http://blog.portageur.ca/tag/canoe-barrels. The Bikini frame looks very minimal!
Dana Designs (the Dana is now the man behind Mystery Ranch) and MountainSmith (the Smith is now the man behind Kifaru) are from a similar era and approach. But I’m not sure which design came first. Both are still committed to building high quality packs in the USA, among the few that still do.
The Bikini frame can carry the same loads as the earlier iteration, but shaves a considerable amount of weight off.
Having carried two different barrel portage packs, I can attest very vociferously that there was no comparison to the Kifaru frame. Both the barrel carriers were about the same level of technological development as a book bag. All the weight was carried on the shoulders. There was no load transfer to the hips. Brutal experiences.
I’ve used an aluminum frame I bought at the thrift store for a couple of trips. I change out the straps and a few pins and it worked just fine. I used it to haul firewood to camp which was much appreciated by those I was hiking with.
I can relate, the external frame is very underrated. The same thing happened to me when planning for a long trip to Central America. I wanted a pack that I could easily fix, that was waterproof and that was as versatile as my 4×4 truck. As an experiment I bought a very nicely welded frame at Goodwill for $ 2, I found a well padded Arcteryx hip belt at an outdoor store and replaced the bag with a 60L dry bag to protect from the tropical rains. Despite the lack of lateral pockets my fully loaded rebuilt external pack was the most comfortable I had worn. It also kept my back ventilated and the contents mostly dry (given the high humidity the dry bag didn’t let the damp clothes and hammock inside it dry). But that will be my next backpack experiment.
The Best documentation of early packs anywhere
Thanks, your compliment is much appreciated.
I’m 89 now and have owned many rucsacs in my life.The favourite is stil a 1930’s Bergans ski pack with a little wheel controlling the leather straps.Just a gimmick probably,but it sure was a capacious and super comfortable pack.This site is most interesting and informative.Thank you
Thanks Ken. I’m curious as to how your 1930’s Bergans ski pack held up over the years? I will certainly appreciate any new gear that I still own and can use 50 years from now.
Thank you for this, it is the best article on this subject I have seen and I am tempted to make one of the older versions myself as a project.
Thanks! When you can make your own gear, to learn how it works, so you can improve it and develop your resourceful abilities.
What a fantastic overview!
Guess that took a while to collect and order.
Do I have your permission to reblog or link to this post on my blog? I’ll be doing a small bit on Scandinavian backpacks.
You can find a link to it under my name.
Thanks for the post!
Sure you can! Thanks for asking.
Just wondering if anybody knows of a source for replacement hip belts for an old (1972) external frame backpack. It would need to attach to the frame via clevis pins. Thanks…
There isn’t a big demand for replacement backpack parts, especially for external frame backpacks. Good army surplus stores usually sell basic black straps and belts for a decent price..whereas good outdoor and hunting stores tend to be a bit pricier. I think the cheapest and wisest option is to look for used external frame backpacks at your local thrift stores and salvage the parts.
Thanks! Good idea.
Great history of packs. I found this site when looking at Otzi’s pack and am impressed with the various cultures methods of carrying loads around. Thanks.
Just found my canoe chair/pack frame on your site……..Cool
I just found a really awesome wood framed pack at a thrift store. Yellow canvas, cord lacing up the back… it’s in near mint condition and has a tag that says “made in japan” and a leather “property of:” patch that says “no. 577 pack bag”. I’ve tried finding out who the make is through web research and have come up with nothing. Any ideas?
Sounds really cool! Post some photos of the pack online, to an image hosting site for example and send us the link so we can check it out.
Cool frame! I like the simple chord detail. Is anything written on the slat at he base of the frame?
Fascinating article! I’ve been doing some reading up, and most places I’ve run across have been extremely snobbish with regards to external frames. I guess I’m “counter-snobbish” – if it doesn’t have a frame, it’s just a fancy rucksack! 🙂 I’m half-way tempted to get some pictures of our two Goodwill finds – neither one over $8.00. One’s got a label that reads “Himalayan” (I’m guessing ’70’s era), the other is a lightweight canvas with a label that says “Bonanza” (’60’s?).
And that would be fine with me if products were sustainable. But although perceived innovation is important for a brand to stay competitive, it also encourages unnecessary consumption and pollution. If only the latest backpack technology, wasn’t an improved suspension system, but a more environmentally friendly solution. Be creative and choose what works best for the environment..If not for you, for your children and grandchildren.
My “ghetto pack” works great for me as external frame packs did for millions of people before me.
Don’t believe the hype, try things out for yourself.
Thanks for your great post!
Then there is this similar Korean frame design that I don’t know the name of.
it’s name is ‘jige’ …….korean name is ‘지게’
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One remark about “Ponyaga”.
“поняги” (it is sound like “ponyagi”)= several items. One item is “поняга” (ponyaga). Difference is in the ending of the word.
Thanks Anton, I try my best with only Google translate to help me..
Thanks! Sorry that all the photos are odd sizes..The format of the blog keeps changing and I can line the photos up at the same height one day and they will be different heights the next.
Thank you for an excellent and well researched .overview. I will admit I have never owned nor do I plan to own an internal frame backpack. Even on skis or snowshoes and pulling a pulk an external frame works for me. I hauled many an over sized load too many miles with an Alice Large after jumping in with it attached to my parachute harness and dropped on a 20 foot lowering line. Special Operations is not a user friendly line of work. One thing I have now acquired is a frame you did not mention the Coleman Extruded plastic X frame. I own two as thrift store finds. These frames can be modified to mount an Alice Large rucksack. A Google search will find a lot of discussion on the topic.
Our Company need to find a supplier manufacturing light alloy tubular Backpack frames with webbing.
this is an on-going requirement. Our normal supplier has just stopped manufacturing.
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