Today’s Backpack Design and Utility: A Review

I started backpacking when I was 16 years old.  My first backpack was an external frame Jansport pack and until just recently I have used the same basic pack on every trip I have taken.  My latest is a Jansport Carson (62 ounces plus a 6 ounce rain cover).  The design is basically the same as my very first pack.  Recently, I have sought out a lighter pack and through my search I have discovered that the basic design of today’s packs has not evolved.  In fact, in many ways I think it has gone backwards.  That being said I will carry a Zpacks Arc Haul Zip (27.5 ounces according to Zpacks) on my AT thru, even though it has a couple of limitations.  I still prefer the basic Jansport or Kelty design for one main reason – organization.

Organization – External vs Internal Frame (or Frame-less) Pack

The basic design of the old external frame packs made packing your pack, and more importantly, finding your gear simple.  Strapped to the top was your tent and strapped to the bottom was your sleeping bag.  The two big side pockets had individual purposes; one for first aid, toiletries, flash light or headlamp and the other for kitchen gear, knife, cord, and other miscellaneous items.  There were two open mesh bottom pockets for water bottles.  The main compartment was accessed with a zipper and it had a shelf (piece of material) in the middle to break it into two compartments.  On the bottom, camp shoes, clothing, pillow, sleepwear.  In the upper, fuel, stove, food and any other miscellaneous camp gear or crew gear if out with a group.  With the zipper I could access any part of the internal compartment without having to disturb the gear around what I was after.

Today’s packs are almost always top loading.  This eliminates the zipper, which I think most consider an advantage.  The zipper adds weight, is something that can break, and water can potentially seep into the pack through the zipper.  Further, since most are top loading the internal shelf had to be eliminated, again a weight saving feature, but it creates one giant black hole.  A lot (most) of the packs have also eliminated outer pockets, with the exception of the two lower pouches for water bottles.  I am unsure as to the reason for this, but I find it to be unfortunate from an organization standpoint.

A view of these differences from the trail….

A couple of years ago I spent a week at Philmont Scout Ranch with a group of adults and youth.  For most of them it was their first longer term backpacking trip (10 days).  One of my best friends could never really figure out his pack.  He never quite knew where his gear was.  Another adult leader had to constantly explode her pack in order to find anything.  Her trail name was Sister Gadget, but that is another story.  The youth all had difficulty knowing where anything was.  Something as quick as grabbing a rain jacket would become a 20 minute pack off break as each of them in turn decided they needed to remove their pack for whatever reason.

Today’s packs remind me of the dry bags we use on Boundary Water canoe trips—one big black hole, everything goes in and you pretty much have to completely empty it to find what you want.  By comparison, my old Jansport external frame made finding any item simple and easy.  My best friend was amazed that could pack my pack in moments and I knew exactly where everything was.  The design of the external frame pack made it easy.

The Focus on Weight

I believe one of the main reasons for the internal frame pack was the focus on weight.  The weight of the external frame put these packs upwards of five pounds.  The internal frame presents some advantages and some issues.  A internal frame or frame-less pack is the only way to carry your gear if you go ultralight.  It is more comfortable as the pack rests close to your body and does not disturb your center of gravity.  The lack of the frame in today’s packs does not matter a great deal with ultralight or very light loads.  The weight can be carried comfortably between your shoulders and hips.  This will allow you to move like a gazelle down the trail.

However, if you are low to mid 20 pounds base weight, then the weight starts to become uncomfortable once loaded with food and water, causing shoulder and neck pain in a lot of cases.  The three main purposes of the external frame were to:  1)support the pack, 2)keep the pack off of your back to provide air flow and 3)to put the weight of the pack on the hip belt and ultimately on your hips, instead of your shoulders.  Further, most internal frames rest tight up against your back.  This makes them feel better from a weight distribution standpoint as they move with you.  Scrambling up a rock face is a lot nicer with an internal frame pack held tight against your body.  The downside to this is that they are hot.  For someone that sweats lot that is a huge issue.  I need the airflow.

The focus on weight has done a disservice to pack design.  I believe you could still have a fairly lightweight pack and maintain most of the convenience and functionality, or utility, of the older design.  Today, it is difficult to find an external frame pack for a long distance hiking (external frame pack with a focus on lightweight materials).

Zpacks Arc Haul Zip Design

My search led me to settle in on the Zpacks Arc Haul Zip.  The main reason I chose this pack is that it has a zipper so I easily access any part of the interior compartment.  Utility and organization.  However, I do miss the sewed on, sealed upper pockets and the interior shelf.  I have solved the external pockets by using stuff sacks equal to the size of the add-on upper pockets.  I have not solved the interior shelf as I don’t have the time to invest in attempting a modification to the pack by adding a compartment divider.  The added weight to the pack would be negligible, if the manufacturer had solved both design issues.

The frame is not as sturdy as the old external frames, but that gives a very nice weight savings.  However, the frame is sufficient for two purposes:  1)it keeps the pack’s weight on my hips and 2)the arc in the frame keeps the pack off my back creating airflow.  The design of the frame does not support the pack as much as the old external frames, but with the significant weight savings, I think it will work for me.

All told I think that Zpacks Arc Haul Zip design is almost perfect.  Sure, I would tweak a couple of things and unfortunately when I asked about modifications, they were unable to do so.  I am looking forward to giving this pack a more complete test on the trail and hope that it meets all my expectations.

The other day I ran into a review of this pack by the co-designer of the pack.  For those you interested in a more detailed explanation of the design of the pack, it is an interesting read.

ZPacks “Arc Zip” Backpack

What are your pack thoughts?

-Scott

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Comments 5

  • Chili : Apr 11th

    Modern UL packs just take a different approach to packing. I think to get the most out of UL packs, nothing you need during the day should go inside the pack. You can fit a lot of gear & food in a mesh front pocket for easy access during the day, and the gear inside that needs to stay dry won’t be exposed to rain if you never need to open your pack. Of course, if that’s not your style, do what works for you!

    Reply
  • Dylan : Apr 12th

    I own two packs that I reach for mainly depending on the trip. One is a Zpacks Zero that has 3 outside pockets, a main compartment, and a top strap. I love it for lightweight trips, and for me it’s very easy to organize my gear. I just have to pack it a certain way. My other pack though is a Field and Stream external frame that I got on sale for 50 bucks. It weighs 2.5 lb and even with that I can still keep an ultralight load, but I mainly use it for group trips and kayaking when I want to use a lot of gear. I agree with you in that I love the organization that it gives me. However, I think you should give some of the more ultralight packs a chance. You can pack them to where they are very well organized and you don’t need to throw all your gear out to find something. Happy hiking bud.

    Reply
  • Mark Stanavage : Apr 14th

    I started out with an external frame, and I will die with it. I’ve tried internal frames and am unimpressed. For all the reasons you give, especially air flow and weight distribution. These days, carrying an external frame makes you part of a select fraternity…hard core old school. Some day the internal frame fad will fade and what is old will be new again.

    Reply
  • Matt : Apr 19th

    I was a ranger at Philmont last summer and am thru hiking this summer. Hope to see ya on the trail!

    Reply
    • Scott Edwards : Apr 19th

      Matt, when will you be starting? I am starting April 29th from Springer. Hope to be to Harpers Ferry by July 10th at the latest, otherwise will likely flip to Katahdin and hike back to Harpers Ferry.

      Reply

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