In the early 20th century, long before carbon fiber and nylon, Vince "Trapper" Nelson designed and patented a pack board / backpack system inspired by Native American examples. The design was adopted by the US Forest Service, Department of the Interior, the Boy Scouts and countless sportsmen. I suspect it also served as inspiration for the ALICE pack system.
There are two principal parts: the pack board and the pack sack. The board is used to carry heavy loads such as gear, game or even five gallon buckets. The sack portion is used to stow gear and attaches to the board using a series of grommets and eye hooks.
I'm not shy about making my own equipment but packs have always seemed so complicated I had not considered it. The Trapper Nelson looked simple enough I couldn't resist.
Dave Canterbury has a video series describing the Trapper Nelson and methods for recreating it. In his three videos he uses original examples as a pattern and builds his with arched oak cross bars for a faithful recreation.
In my research online, I found there were many variations in what wood was used, strap styles and attachment methods.
Eventually I discovered an article from a 1984 issue of Mother Earth News that gave a (rough) pattern to work from. I say rough because, well, it leaves much to the imagination about the final touches. The primary difference between the Alaska Packboard and the Trapper Nelson is the packboard uses the width of the sides instead of arched wood to provide a void for the canvas back support.
- 2 yards of 9.3 ozduck canvas, $12.66
- Canvas wax, $12
- 10 yards of 1.5" canvas strapping, $13
- 2 D rings, $1.50
- Pack of 24 0.5" grommets, $3.50
- 12 feet of 1x3 oak, $4.20
- 3 packs of #210 eye screws, $3
- 50 pack 1.5" brass wood screws, $12.60
- General purpose thread, $3.50
- 100 feet gray paracord, $10
- Misc. leather scraps, rivets and finish, ~$4
Estimated materials cost: $80
It's worth noting that there is enough surplus material from this list that a second pack would only cost about $20.
I played fast and lose with the Mother Earth News design, but I did use the pack sack pattern. Since I had little faith in my sewing abilities, I tackled it first so I could reverse engineer the correct dimensions for my pack board.
The most important note is that the sewing pattern needs to have another 0.5" added for seam allowance for when you hem it. Once I had the final dimensions I laid it out on the canvas using a chalk marker and cut out the parts. As best I could, I double stitched everything on the pack for strength.
The step that isn't obvious from the magazine instructions is that there's an additional seam roughly two inches from the edge of the assembled bag where the grommets will go. You might be able to skip this step, but I imagine it relieves stress on the body of the bag.
To install the grommets, I used the same grommet setter that Dave used in his videos. I'm not sure there's a rule for how many eye screws to use, but I would hesitate to use fewer than four.
With the pack sewn, I compared the bag dimensions to the magazine dimensions and cut my pack board pieces. I added a third cross bar so bulky loads wouldn't poke through and hit my back while hiking.
I certainly could have sped the process along with a band saw, but the design was simple enough I tried to do it with a Japanese pull saw and chisels. Let's leave it at I learned several lessons on blowing out unsupported edges and proper application of wood filler.
I assembled the frame with brass screws since I was going for a vintage look. Steel screws would certainly work but I like the look of brass fasteners. When sanding I paid particular attention to rounding the interior edges that would possibly come in contact with my back.
To finish it I applied several layers of boiled linseed oil. It takes days to dry between coats, but the natural oak color is very attractive.
After the pack frame was built I could measure out and sew the back corset (as I call it). Like the pack, I added a half inch seam allowance and double stitched the edges. The straps need to come through it, so I cut a hole near the top.
With so much scrap leather on hand I decided to reinforce the edges with riveted leather trim, Double stitching the edge or sewing a second layer of canvas would have worked as well. Since there is lateral stress I'd be hesitant to leave it unfinished.
For the lacing I settled on gray 550 cord. The originals and Dave Canterbury's use a cotton rope, but the paracord is more versatile and less prone to rotting.
With the soft materials complete I moved on to waterproofing. For reference, I found a great article on the Art of Manliness about the history and process of waterproofing with wax. Generally speaking you rub wax (a mix of beeswax and paraffin) on the soft goods and melt it into the fiber using a heat gun or hair dryer.
I found it easiest to put a wooden board in the pack, turn on Netflix and rub a layer on a surface. Between Supernatural episodes I would melt it into the canvas using a heat gun. There does not seem to be a trick to it, only elbow grease.
Surprisingly, the wax does not affect the color or look of the canvas. Only spots of with heavy speckles of wax look like light weathering.
To attach the pack, I ran two lines of paracord through the eye screws and anchored to the bottom eye screw with a bowline knot. These can double as draw strings for the top of the pack and, again, are more versatile than wire rods.
I certainly thought the final pack would be heavy yet rugged. Surprisingly, it only weighs 6.72 pounds. For comparison, my aluminum framed ALICE pack is 6.00 pounds and my REI Mars pack weights 6.03 pounds. Wearing it the stretched canvas is comfortable, but I have yet to load it with significant weight and hike around. There is a trip to the Appalachian Trail coming up in May, so we will see.
Update 31 May 2016
I took an overnight trip on the AT with a few of my friends between Connecticut and Massachusetts while wearing this pack. We covered about 23 miles in two days over three mountain tops. A few things I noticed an will have to revise before the next trip.
- The bottom most back pad adjustment needed better tightening than a simple knot. We improvised a stick that when turned tightens the rope and that worked very well. I feel like a short dowel and a small eye hook might do the trick.
- The straps are inadequate. The thickness is not as bad as the lack of padding. Being summer, I hiked wearing only a shirt and it took some time before I got used to it. I'm considering sewing some pads that just slip through the straps to wear when I'm not wearing bulkier clothing.
- The D-rings, while simple and durable, slip too much. I could put eyelets in the straps and covert it into a belt, but I think I'm just going to use plastic snap buckles.
While this isn't the best pack I've worn, it is far from the worst. The canvas back, once properly adjusted, was surprisingly comfortable. I did not find the lack of internal compartments a problem since I sub-organized with nylon draw-string bags. With the tweaks to the straps I think it's very usable for even longer trips.