On the design of The Guide’s Pack

Tom on the design of the Guide's Pack

Like lots of good stuff, it all started in a garage.

Tom on the design of the Guide's Pack

Better than leather: heavy-duty synthetic felt and nylon webbing combine in the Double Accessory Strap Holder.

Tom on the design of the Guide's Pack

#00 spur grommets, made for us in the UK. Yes, we took every detail quite seriously.

Tom on the design of the Guide's Pack

The internal frame . . .

Tom on the design of the Guide's Pack

. . . is removable.

Tom on the design of the Guide's Pack

Two pie-slice cut-outs on each edge allow the frame sheet to flex in use.

Tom on the design of the Guide's Pack

The 6061 Aluminum stay is removable. Soft plastic caps insure the rest of the pack can’t be damaged by the stay.

Tom on the design of the Guide's Pack

We pre-bend the stay to a gentle S-curve to approximate the average spinal curve.

Tom on the design of the Guide's Pack

Carefully bending the frame sheet and stay over your knee (or knees for a gentler curve), you can adjust the curve if you so desire (though you needn’t remove the frame from the pack).

Tom on the design of the Guide's Pack

The back and bottom of the Guide’s Pack are fully padded with .25″ / 6mm closed-cell foam.

Tom on the design of the Guide's Pack

Six flat pockets on the interior back panel accept the six “fins” of the frame sheet . . .

Tom on the design of the Guide's Pack

. . . firmly holding it in place against your back.

Tom on the design of the Guide's Pack

Curved, thermo-formed, die-cut, padded shoulder straps: we just didn’t have the technology to make these 40 years ago.

Tom on the design of the Guide's Pack

And who woulda thunk it: pockets for a cell phone and a GPS.

Tom on the design of The Guide's Pack

But then again, the best things in life really haven’t changed.

On the design of the Founder’s Briefcase

Tom on the design of the Founder's Briefcase

Thick synthetic felt reinforces the handle attachment points.

Tom on the design of the Founder's Briefcase

A pleated, 3D mesh pouch is divided in to three separate spaces . . .

Tom on the design of the Founder's Briefcase

By moving the two zipper sliders to be over the one you want to access, the other remain securely zipped shut.

Tom on the design of the Founder's Briefcase

Great for cables, power supplies, point-and-shoot cameras.

Tom on the design of the Founder's Briefcase

The handles are designed to naturally meet top dead center.

Tom on the design of the Founder's Briefcase

Our signature, super-tough hardware facilitates attachment of a shoulder strap.

Tom on the design of the Founder's Briefcase

Heavy-duty, 1050d ballistic piping adds shape and color.

Tom on the design of the Founder's Briefcase

The Founder’s Briefcase has many graceful yet subtle curves: a straight line may be the shortest path, but seldom the most interesting.

On Internal Frames and Frame Sheets

Tom on the design of the Guide's Pack

I’ve always tended to keep my designs as simple as possible and eschew adding features just for the sake of, well, just because we could. So, it should be no surprise that the first iterations of The Guide’s Pack had no internal frame, just a padded back panel. The idea has always been to rely on careful packing to supply the bag with form and the user with comfort. I still think there is great value in learning the artful arrangement of a bag’s contents to optimize weight distribution and therefore carrying comfort; however, as soon as I began using The Guide’s Pack with my beta version of its internal frame and frame sheet, I started to see the light.

At 35 liters (when you include the side pockets), The Guide’s Pack can definitely become somewhat heavy when fully loaded, and though not intended as a backpacking pack, it can certainly handle all you need for a very long day out (or maybe an overnight). Bending its single aluminum stay to roughly parallel my spine, I was able to comfortably lift some of the pack’s weight off my shoulders and onto my hips (yeah, with just a 1″ webbing waist belt). Combined with the HDPE frame sheet, the internal frame helps maintain the bag’s profile (read: keeps it from beer-barreling when overstuffed) and also allows one to have a somewhat cavalier attitude when packing hard objects such as a DSLR camera or a thermos: basically, I no longer need to wrap them in extra clothing or some kind of padding to ensure all-day comfort on the trail. After some further tweaks and some long hikes, I was a believer.

The Guide’s Pack’s internal frame consists of a unique, die-cut frame sheet of .060″ high density polyethylene (HDPE) and a single stay of 1″ / 25 mm wide 6061 aluminum. The stay is held in place by a strip of 2″ wide nylon webbing sewn down the center of the frame sheet; you can remove the stay if, for some reason, you want a frame sheet but no frame.

You can also remove the entire affair: six flat “pockets” on the inside back of The Guide’s Pack are designed to retain the six lobes (or fins) of the frame sheet. These lobes are engineered to relieve the torsional stresses of the pack flexing as you walk; they also facilitate the design that allows the frame sheet to be easily removed from the pack.

The aluminum stay comes to you pre-bent to approximate a generic spinal curve. If you find The Guide’s Pack comfortable out of the gate, as most folks will, you’re good. But if you need to adjust that curve, it’s easy to do — and you needn’t remove the stay or frame sheet from the pack to do it (we’re working on a video that’ll show you how — stay tuned).


Bags available for order in 420d HT nylon Classic Parapack

3D Fabric Cube in Olive 420d HT ParapackA close-up view of the 3D Fabric Organizer Cube in Olive 420d HT Parapack. Note the slightly heathered appearance of the high tenacity yarns, as described in Tom’s post on 420d.

Synapse 19 (420d HT Parapack exterior/200d Dyneema/nylon lining)
In stock: Navy 420d/Ultraviolet, Navy 420d/Solar, Olive 420d/Steel, Steel 420d/Solar
On Backorder: Navy 420d/Iberian, Black 420d/Steel, Black 420d/Wasabi, Black 420d/Iberian

Synapse 25 (420d HT Parapack exterior/200d Dyneema/nylon lining)
Available for backorder, ships by early December: Olive/Steel, Black/Steel, Black/Iberian, Black/Wasabi, Navy/Solar, and Navy/Iberian

Small Cafe Bag (420d HT Parapack exterior/200d Dyneema/nylon lining or 420d HT Parapack exterior/lining)
In stock: Olive/Wasabi Dyneema, Steel/Iberian Dyneema, Navy/Ultraviolet Dyneema, Black/Solar Dyneema, Olive/Steel, Steel/Steel, Black/Steel, and Navy/Navy

Medium Cafe Bag (420d HT Parapack exterior/200d Dyneema/nylon lining or 420d HT Parapack exterior/lining)
In stock: Olive/Wasabi Dyneema, Steel/Iberian Dyneema, Navy/Ultraviolet Dyneema, Black/Solar Dyneema, and Olive/Steel, Steel/Steel, Navy/Navy and Black/Steel

Large Cafe Bag (420d HT Parapack exterior/200d Dyneema/nylon lining or 420d HT Parapack exterior/lining)
In stock: Olive/Wasabi Dyneema, Steel/Iberian Dyneema, Navy/Ultraviolet Dyneema, Black/Solar Dyneema, and Olive/Steel, Steel/Steel, and Black/Steel

3D Fabric Organizer Cube
In stock: Navy, Olive, Black, Steel

3D Mesh Organizer Cube
In stock: Olive, Black, Navy

The Guide’s Pack (420d HT Parapack exterior/lining)
In stock: Olive/Steel, Navy/Steel, Black/Steel, Steel/Steel

Founder’s Briefcase (420d HT Parapack exterior/lining)
Pre-order, ships by mid-December: Olive/Steel, Navy/Steel, Black/Steel, Steel/Steel

The Story behind 420 Denier High Tenacity “Parapack” Pack Fabric

Our 420d HT nylon Classic Parapack in OliveOur 420d HT nylon Classic Parapack in Olive.

420 denier, high tenacity, type 6.6 nylon fabric was originally developed for the military for use in parachute backpacks — the thing on the guy’s back that holds the parachute. Paratroopers needed a fabric that was smooth so as not to hang up on anything as a jumper left the plane; it had to be light (obviously); and it needed to be strong so as not to be easily punctured or abraded. These same qualities gave it great appeal in the blossoming outdoor-recreation industry; 420d HT nylon became the staple backpack fabric in the early 1960s, almost entirely replacing cotton canvas. At one time, virtually all high-end backpacks were made of 420d HT “Parapack” (short for parachute-backpack) fabric.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a renewed interest in health, nature, and the environment coevolved with an interest in self-propelled outdoor recreation: hiking, backpacking, cross-country skiing, even mountaineering, became mainstream pursuits. And pretty quickly folks realized that all their new, light, and durable outdoor equipment functioned just as well back in town as it did in the wilderness. Quilted jackets made of ripstop nylon and filled with goose down appeared on city streets, and small backpacks designed for day hiking became de rigueur on campus. Of course, it wasn’t long before large, corporate (or soon-to-be large and corporate) interests saw the potential in this new market. I’m going somewhere with this, so hang tight.

I’ve already mentioned that 420d HT nylon is light, strong, and smooth, but I didn’t mention what it’s not: neither easy to dye, nor cheap. Just like our 1050 denier, high tenacity, type 6.6 ballistic cloth, 420d HT does not take dye as readily as type 6 (or “regular”) nylon. It dyes somewhat inconsistently and often ends up with a slightly heathery appearance (which I’ve grown to really like but can drive our fabric inspectors a bit nuts because it’s not consistent). Lots and lots of daypacks made of 420d HT were sold, and the sellers pushed the fabric mills for something cheaper. Some technically driven, small-time manufacturers wanted quality; some larger companies wanted low cost. Enter 430 denier (type 6 nylon) pack cloth: it was smooth, it was light, it was easy to dye consistently and evenly, and it was considerably less expensive. It was less densely woven, not as strong or abrasion resistant, but price, not quality, was now in the driver’s seat.

At about the same time as all that, texturized nylon fabrics (like 1000d Cordura®) were developed as alternatives to both smooth nylon pack cloth and cotton canvas. Their texturized look and feel made them plausible alternatives to cotton canvas, but they were lighter and more durable. The market share for 420d HT Parapack fabric continued to shrink and the mills ran less and less of it, resulting in it being difficult to obtain. Eventually, even high-end manufacturers abandoned 420d HT Parapack.

By the late 1980s, most backpacks were manufactured offshore, and Southeast Asia was making their own Parapack simulacra, with nominal deniers ranging from 400 to 430. Most of it was low quality, none of it high tenacity, but it was cheaper than U.S. made 420d HT. By the 1990s, with U.S. made 420d HT fabric nowhere to be seen, smooth nylon pack cloth became generally equated with low quality products, and understandably so.

Fast forward to 2013: when we went down this nostalgic rabbit hole, looking for fabrics from which to build the new Guide’s Pack and the Founder’s Briefcase, we were delighted to find some undyed, unfinished 420d HT nylon in a warehouse on the East Coast. We had it dyed to our own colors and we’ve pretty much fallen head over heels with it. The mill says they can weave more for us and we hope to add another color or two early in 2014. In addition to our 420d HT nylon Classic Parapack simply being a beautiful, densely woven, tough-as-nails fabric, its smooth surface entirely lacks an affinity for pet hair, lint, sweater fuzz, and snow. Combined with our 1050d HT ballistic fabric in high-wear areas, it makes The Guide’s Pack an amazing bag of which we are particularly proud.

And the revival of 420d HT Parapack continues: we’ve made our Small, Medium, and Large Café Bags, Synapse 19, Synapse 25, 3D Fabric Organizer Cube, and 3D Mesh Organizer Cube available in 420d HT Parapack.


Accessory Strap Holders: Return of an Icon

Tom on the design of the Guide's Pack

Accessory strap holders were originally designed as a means to allow the user to add lash straps to a backpack to secure either items that were oddly shaped (such as ice axes or skis) or to extend the capacity of the pack (by adding a sleeping bag in its stuff sack or perhaps a rolled-up ground pad). Eventually, these usually diamond-shaped patches became emblematic, symbolizing that a pack was a real outdoor pack. Of course some manufacturers then sewed them on pretty much every pack they made, even school/book bags; most people had no idea what they were for and even if they did, well, few students carried ice axes anyway (probably for the best).

The earliest versions of these patches were made from thick, full-grain leather: they were often stiff and hard to use, especially when soaking wet and/or frozen (by that point, the user’s fingers were usually wet and/or frozen too — what fun). While leather is quite abrasion resistant, it doesn’t have much tear strength, so even the heaviest leather couldn’t support much weight. As accessory strap holders filtered down from genuine outdoor gear to mass-market consumer goods, the quality of the leather used declined as well. And unless regularly treated with leather conditioner, even the high-end, full-grain leather patches would become brittle over time.

In the 1980s, many manufacturers began switching to simply using a short piece of nylon webbing sewn down to the pack fabric (both ends were tacked down or included in a seam) as a replacement for leather patches. Though the stitching was often an area of acute stress, this solution was still stronger than the old leather patches, and usually easier to thread the lash strap through as well. These loops of nylon webbing, or sometimes a full daisy chain of loops in webbing, have now become the industry standard, and they work pretty well.

(There was a brief period — very dark times indeed — when black plastic strap holders, molded to look vaguely like the leather patches they replaced, made an appearance. They typically would fail after a few seasons’ use, plus they were . . . less than attractive.)

When we first considered revisiting some of the old designs, I became obsessed with developing a new version of the once-iconic, diamond-shaped accessory strap holder. I wanted to make something that spoke to the aesthetic of that era, but was more useful, stronger, and didn’t tend to absorb water. After a lengthy search for the right material and endless iterations of the shape, size, and sewing pattern, I think we’ve nailed it.

My final design is composed of a short length of nylon webbing, sewn (with substantial bar tacks) onto the fabric at the same time as a die-cut patch of synthetic felt. The synthetic felt is evocative of heavy leather, and though it’s quite strong, it bears none of the load: the nylon webbing provides all the strength. The synthetic felt provides reinforcement at the area of stress — at the stitching — and nicely covers the hot-cut ends of the webbing. I designed both a single version (the common diamond shape) and a double version. Double accessory strap holders are useful for lashing skis or a yoga mat onto the side of The Guide’s Pack; they also provide the optional/removable side pockets with a sweet spot to secure to the pack (via the Annex Clips included with the pockets).

Optional Accessory Straps are available in matching coyote brown: choose from a pair of 24″ straps (used to secure a small sleeping bag or mat) and a 10″ strap (to secure an ice axe), both made from 1″ wide nylon webbing.


On Shoulder Straps

Tom on the design of the Guide's Pack

In the über-cush world we find ourselves in, we may sometimes like to imagine that a heavy backpack can be worn over many hours and many trail miles with no discomfort. As some of the techies and engineers who design this stuff (not to mention that we test our packs out in the wild, often with quite heavy loads, and like comfort as much as the next guy) we often hold that up as our Holy Grail: a pack that carries as comfortably as nothing at all. In the not-too-distant past the world had porters (some places still do) and the future may offer anti-gravitation technology (other planets may have this already), but for now we just try to make the shoulder straps on our backpacks as comfortable as possible.

We’ve been using die-cut, thermo-formed shoulder straps made of closed-cell EVA foam for a very long time. We’ve refined and further refined the shape of the curve, the width of the pad and thickness and type of foam. Over decades of theorizing, field testing and actual production, we’ve come to the conclusion that the shape of a shoulder strap is far more important than the thickness of the foam padding. In fact, in our humble opinion, a heavily padded strap can sometimes mask what is essentially an ill-fitting strap, the thickness of the padding essentially making up for a lack of nuance in the shape.

Here’s some of the hard-won trail wisdom from us life-long pack builders and users:
Adjust your straps to fit you, but also adjust them during the course of the day. You’ll want to distribute the weight of the pack over different muscles/soft tissue over time. Do this, of course, by small adjustments to the length of the lower strap. But use the sternum strap to fine tune and modify the fit over the course of the day as well: tightening the sternum strap will bring the shoulder straps closer together; loosen or unclip the sternum strap for a while so the shoulder straps can ride a bit further apart. Use the waist strap for a while, then loosen or unclip it for a different ride. If you watch closely, most experienced hikers are constantly performing these micro-adjustments as they walk — after a while the adjustments become as unconscious as shifting weight to one foot or another when standing for long periods or alternating reclining with sitting up straight while sitting for long periods.

Ballistic vs. Leather Pack Bottoms

The bottom of The Guide's Pack

For several decades, it seemed that any serious backpack for day hiking or climbing always had a leather bottom. The image of a hiker or climber scrambling over rough terrain, occasionally (or perhaps often) needing to drag their pack over rocks or through brambles, is quite romantic. And when you consider consequences of a catastrophic failure of the bottom of your bag, perhaps miles from the trailhead, it made the extra expense and weight of a heavy leather bottom seem reasonable.

Back when the bags themselves were made of cotton canvas, and there were no heavy-duty synthetic fabrics to offer a better alternative, this made some sense. With the advent of modern synthetic fabrics, however, I find a leather bottom is no longer the best way to make the base of a pack strong and abrasion resistant.

Having spent years repairing almost every type of worn-out and broken backpack you can name, I’ll tell you it was very, very rare to see a backpack made of nylon with a truly worn-out bottom. I’ve seen plenty of poorly constructed bags fail at their bottom seams, but that’s due either to inadequate stitching or to the unfinished cut edges of fabric fraying. If anything, a bag would more likely show signs of wearing out from the inside, particularly when it was used to carry climbing hardware or heavy books. Even that was pretty rare.

A leather bottom, in my humble opinion, doesn’t add significantly to the durability of a backpack, and in fact, it’s a liability in many conditions: the leather can absorb ambient moisture, at the very least wicking it to the inside of the bag, and at its worst, can then freeze in low temperatures.

That visual appeal of a leather bottom, however, is hard to beat. So on The Guide’s Pack we offer a tip of the hat to the old leather-bottom style: the exterior of the bottom is coyote brown 1050 denier HT ballistic cloth. But we don’t stop there: the bottom is lined with 420d HT Parapack, and the .25″ / 6 mm closed-cell foam that pads the back of the bag extends down into the bottom of The Guide’s Pack as well, sandwiched between the two layers of fabric. Of course, we double stitch the bottom seams and bar tack the heck out of stress areas, then cover all the cut fabric edges with binding tape. So, even if you’re carrying a climbing rack or other sharp, pointy stuff, you needn’t worry about the bottom of The Guide’s Pack wearing out. Ever.


News Briefs

We’re retiring our Road Buddy Duffel 36 and Road Buddy Duffel 60 to make way for new designs. If you’ve been thinking about a Road Buddy, you may want to order soon, as we won’t be making further production runs.

We’ve updated our Planet page with additional efforts: we’re operationally carbon neutral, members of 1% For The Planet, we offer a vegetarian company lunch, and over 80% of our materials are bluesign® and/or OEKO-TEX® certified.

Mark your calendars! Our Seattle Factory Showroom will be open the following Saturdays: Dec. 14th 2019 and, in 2020, March 21st, June 20th, and September 19th.

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