Top-Loader Backpacks: a Blast From the Past

Any sort of bag or backpack that needs to get closed up tight requires, well . . . a closure. It’s likely that the very earliest closure used was a draw cord threaded through holes punched in the top edge of the bag’s material (which was likely animal skin), then pulled tight by the user and tied shut. If Ötzi had carried a backpack, it likely would have utilized a drawcord closure. Things bumped along this way for thousands of years; somewhere along the line some clever person added a flap over the opening to keep the contents of the bag from being exposed to weather – making this flap into a pocket was an obvious next step.

Fast forward to the late the 19th / early 20th centuries, and zippers are invented (finally). Zippers have made their way onto bags and backpacks in the decades since, and mostly we’re all pretty happy about that: zippers provide a secure and convenient closure, and it’s hard to imagine a backpack entirely without them. (We use the very best quality YKK zippers out there, and that means that with appropriate use and care they’ll last a long time. Don’t use a zipper to compress the load, and if something gets jammed in the slider, don’t just yank it harder. Many of the packs I made back in the 1970’s still have functioning zippers, though some are stiff and cranky . . . a bit like me.)

When we set off to design The Guide’s Pack, we were inspired by the simplicity and elegance of backpacks that were made in the mid-20th century; most of these utilized zippers only for their pockets, and relied upon the (even then) very old school technology of a drawcord closure for their main compartment. I started making backpacks long before drawcord closures were “retro”, and appreciate from experience how completely bombproof the system is: not only is it almost impossible to break a drawcord closure, the very act of loading the bag and cinching the cord can be a great way to compress the bulkiness of your load. Packing one of our top loading backpack feels less finicky too: you can stuff away to your heart’s content without fear of buggering a zipper; since it’s not humanly possible to blow out the side seams, have at it.

Now we’ve added a second drawcord closure, top-loader pack to our line-up: the Shadow Guide. It’s a further riff on the simplicity of the drawcord design, plus it’s the only pack in our line-up with Cache loops to accommodate even the largest 17” laptops.

Top loaders aren’t for everyone. Some folks will always prefer the greater access that a well-designed zippered closure can give. It’s sort of like choosing to drive manual over automatic. For those who do appreciate top loaders, here’s some tips on packing a top loader like The Guide’s Pack or the Shadow Guide:

— Stuff the stuff that you may not need access to in the bottom main compartment of the pack. (Perhaps your rain shell or warm extra layer, depending on where you live.)

— Above or on top of that, your lunch and water bottle.

— Laptop (if carrying) against the back of the pack.

— Quick access items in the mesh pockets on the underside of the top hatch: keys, phone, wallet, etc.

— And in the top hatch pocket itself: first aid kit, flashlight, other EDC items, pouch of cords and dongles.

Tom Bihn

Tom just finished reading American Serengeti: The Last Big Animals of the Great Plains by Dan Flores.


  1. Roger S on 13 December 2018 11:37 am at 11:37 am

    I’ve always been on the fence on top-loader backpacks. I want to like them, I really do, but lack of convenience and quick access always ends up being a deal-breaker. I do like the simplicity but hate the idea of having to burrow through a dark bucket of gear soup just to get to something. The only thing that would finally convert me is if there were quick access pockets on the exterior for smaller and more frequently used items and also a waterproof zipper on the outside so you can get to the bottom of the pack quickly without having to be elbow deep into your pack having to root out your gear with a headlamp.

    • Jose de Munck on 13 February 2019 1:45 pm at 1:45 pm

      Dude, using several smaller and not bulky packs is convenient for this, and locating them always in the same side. My laptop almost falls down because of a zipper failure in my +6 years old swiss army backpack. It would have been a disaster and caused me severe injuries, as I was riding in my motorcycle in the middle of rain and heavy traffic. Therefore, no more zippered backpacks for me.

      Top -loaders for ever.

  2. Sue on 13 December 2018 12:00 pm at 12:00 pm

    They’re great for grocery shopping or other activities where everything gets unloaded at the end of the schlep. Agree with Roger that it’s still useful to have a small, quick access, exterior pocket (for wallet, keys, cell, ID).

  3. Job Espejel Tafoya on 13 December 2018 2:20 pm at 2:20 pm

    opens flat please

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