Pack Design: The Blood, Sweat, and Tears

Pack Design: The Blood, Sweat, and Tears

There's an untold story and life behind every product, big or small. A clean, shiny new widget is constructed by someone's passionate blood, sweat, and tears. In this case, it’s me. If you’re curious about the process, read on.

First, there’s the problem (stepping up onto the soapbox here): I was frustrated with the lack of simple sport-specific backpacks for people who want to move light and fast in the mountains. Most of what showed up in my constant searching sported like an inch back padding, 101 different bells and whistles, 102 seams, and weighed like 103 lbs. If you’re manufacturing in Asia, you can get away with the complexity; it’s still going to cost only a quarter of the price of something manufactured in the US. So the option to load the pack with features is appealing. But a pack with a feature for everyone loses its appeal as an athlete begins to progress and specialize in their sport (stepping off the soapbox).

Myself, halfway through a traverse of five peaks just west of Bend, OR. Pre-Free Range era: trying to use an adequately simple and light pack with an inadequate ski carry. Photo cred: Kevin Grove 

It takes a lot (or a little depending on how you look at it) to please the light and fast crowd. Besides maybe a lucky pig figurine or something, they’re not going to carry an ounce more than they need. And for a good reason. That shit adds up over 20 miles and 10,000 ft. of vert. If you are one of these so called light and fast athletes, you’re picky as hell about your gear and you know it. Well, thanks, you’ve given me a job. Enter Free Range Equipment: simple, sport-specific packs for light and fast adventure in the mountains. Made in the USA, built in Bend, Oregon.

Free Range Throwdown w/ Jigs & Reels rocking the party.

Says the Devil’s Advocate: Backpack business, eh? Real original.

Yeah, I know, not super original. It’s a crowded market but we’re aiming for a very specific niche. And hopefully you just found the sexiest of them.

Second, there’s the criteria: who is the pack for and what features does it absolutely need? For this blog entry, I’ll use the Raven as the example.

Who’s it for? Ski mountaineers who want to cover a lot of terrain and vertical. They are just as concerned about getting on top of something as they are getting down it, and they really aren’t carrying much because they don’t plan on standing around. It’s a committing way to experience the backcountry but so is hauling a 30lb pack.

Free Range girl and wild sister Zoe Roy exuding the Free Range ethos in the Alaska Range

What features does such a person absolutely need in a pack? A ski carry, a hydration system, easy access to food, ice axe loops, easy access into the pack while carrying skis, it needs to be stinking light, and it better look fantastic (to name a few).

Third, the pencil hits the paper for a concept drawing. The real trick here is balance. Balance between features, size, shape, manufacturing difficulty, and aesthetic. Once I’ve drawn the pack from a few different angles, I’ll start to sketch out what each panel looks like. I usually experience a pretty strong reality check here when I realize my concept drawing might as well be an M.C. Escher piece (impossible to manufacture). There’s some back and forth before I settle on something I think has a good shot.

Classic chicken scratch concept drawing. 

Fourth, make a pattern. I started making patterns with poster board, a pencil, square, compass, and a bendable ruler. I did that for about 2 years until I realized I was spending more time making things symmetric than I was actually drawing (no bueno). Prototyping was a massive PITA: miss a measurement by ¼” and it meant drawing an entirely new piece. So I started using Adobe Illustrator with a couple drafting plugins and am not quite sure how I managed without it. It doubles the speed and complexity of my design capabilities.

My second office at Strictly Organic 

I can measure the size of the project I’m working on by the number of curried chicken salads it takes me to complete it. If Hayduke needs 36 six-packs to drive to New York City, I need about 40 curried chicken salads to design a Raven. My next project should only take about 20, not so bad really.

The pattern wall. You're looking at a several hundred hours worth of production ready patterns 

Fifth, sew a shape prototype. I’ll print off the all the pattern pieces I need and cut out a prototype using the cheapest fabric I can get my hands on (usually a 210d nylon oxford packcloth) and sew it together. I pretty much have to assume that the shape isn’t going to look like it should. If I make that assumption from the start, it’s a lot less disappointing to find out that I have to head back to the drawing board. I seem to average five to fifteen different shape prototypes per design, depending on the number of parts of the pack I need to test. Hopefully that number will go down as I get better at this.

While relatively lack-luster looking in its current state, this is an example of a pretty promising shape proto of the Raven.

Sixth, sew up a usable prototype and test it out. I’ll start with one and see how bad it is. If it’s somewhat usable, I’ve gotten lucky and I’m off to a great start. If you’re sensing a theme here, you’d be right. Every part of the design process has to be started with the knowledge that the first, second, and third try are just not going to work. But you have to start somewhere and try something, at least then, you’ve got a baseline from which you can improve.

Jackson Knoll tests out an early prototype of the Five Peak Pack, one of the original Free Range packs, in the Southwest Couloir on the Middle Teton. 

When I’ve finally ironed out all the details, I’ll sew a test run and pawn them off on a small group of rope guns and shredders with strict instructions to beat the heck out of them in return for feedback. Everyone’s got their opinion, but if I'm finding consistency among them, then I’ll make any final changes before a full production run.

Stack cutting Dimension Polyant VX-21 RS fabric for a production run of Big Medicine packs.

Here’s the catch though. I can go through prototype after prototype and although I can get close, I’m never 100% happy with the design. This is a classic case of sandwich syndrome. Sandwiches made by yourself never seem quite as good as those made for you by someone else. I’m always my own hardest judge. This is one of the biggest reasons I chose to keep our manufacturing in-house. We can make our runs in small quantities and constantly innovate. A designer's heaven!

Last but definitely most important, I'll take a break from the curried chicken salads, and get out and shred with my new pack.

Avoiding spring sloughs on the east face of Middle Sister.

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