for the Ultimate Canoe Pack by
OK, I admit it, I'm a gear junkie. I drool over outdoor store goodies
and spend hours pondering subtleties of gear design. So when asked to
write about canoe packs it was definitely a great excuse to talk with
pack makers and find out what's new in the canoe pack business.
Now, I won't tell you exactly which pack to buy. There is no ''best''
pack for everyone. Your choice depends on the type of trip you take, the
quantity of gear you tote, and what you're willing to pay. Besides, at
least one pack from each of the pack makers I interviewed had me
wondering if I could handle just a little more on my credit card. And
even I wouldn't trust the opinion of a confirmed gear addict like
I talked with five pack makers, as I tried to cover the field from
traditional to high tech, including one whose pack doubles as a carrying
frame for the canoe. But there are lots of other pack makers. So don't
limit your search for the ''perfect'' pack only to the group I chose.
What About Hiking Packs?
Now you may be thinking, ''Heck, I don't need a canoe pack, I'll just
drag out my old hiking pack, dump in some gear and head for the Canoe
Country.'' This is not the best plan. Canoe packs spend most of their
lives nestled in the curved bottom of a canoe, and how the packs mesh
with your canoe is paramount.
Backpacking packs are tall and usually have rigid frames inside or
outside of the pack itself. This means they sit tall, raising the center
of gravity and making the canoe less stable, especially in the wind. If
you lay them flat to lower the center of gravity, the straps and back
are soaked with bilge water and the rigid frame prevents them from
nestling to the contours of the canoe. If you lay them frame-side up,
water tends to find its way under the flaps and into the pack.
Hiking packs also have lots of pockets and webbing loops to snag the
canoe, your fishing gear, or anything else in the vicinity as you're
loading and unloading at a portage. This is a headache you can do
without, trust me. A lso, the many separate pockets of a traditional
frame pack are difficult to waterproof adequately.
Canoe Pack Features
On the other hand, canoe packs usually have more volume to
accommodate the bulky gear often taken on canoe trips. And they're short
and squat so they sit low in the canoe; for the same reason you slip off
the seat and kneel in the bottom of your canoe when the waves start
running. They are also unstructured, allowing them to conform to the
rounded contours of the bilge, whether you set them bottom-side-down or
squeeze them beneath the thwarts to get an even lower center of gravity.
Canoe packs often have just one cavernous compartment that can be
lined with heavy-duty plastic bags to keep everything dry, and they sit
low on your back so you can wear the pack while carrying a canoe.
While these features make them great for canoes, they're not always
endearing ones when you're slogging a portage. So pack makers have spent
considerable time devising ways to make them more comfortable, while
retaining all those qualities that allow them to ride the waves with
Still, it's important to remember that while you do walk the
portages, you're not under the pack straps for hours. The Boundary
Water's longest portage is only about 1-3/4 miles and most are a
quarter-mile to a half-mile long. So a pack's performance on the water,
and in your canoe, comes first.
OK, let's visit some pack makers and see how they tackled some of
these design tradeoffs.
DULUTH PACK (www.duluthpack.com)
start with Duluth Pack. This seminal canoe pack began life in 1882, when
French-Canadian Camille Poirer filed a patent for a new kind of pack
sack. It included lots of new ideas; shoulder straps, sternum strap, and
even an umbrella holder. In 1911, he sold the pack business to Duluth
Tent and Awning Company which has been making Duluth Packs in Duluth
Minnesota ever since.
The #2 Duluth Pack, with its copper rivets, leather straps, envelope
shape, and 15-ounce canvas hasn't changed much from Poirer's original
design for one simple reason; it works.
The old Poirer packs featured a copper or brass stamp on the middle
strap and ''we still get some of those coming in, not necessarily to be
repaired, but to trade out,'' says Mark ''Sparky'' Stensaas, buyer and
marketing director for Duluth Pack.
Duluth Packs, with their olive-drab canvas, leather straps and solid,
organic feel harken to the days of hobnail boots and plaid wool jackets.
And they look terrific in photos.
While holding firmly to its past, Duluth Pack continues to develop
packs for different needs. A good example is the Rutstrum Gear Cruiser
that is built around a sturdy woven basket. The basket fits inside a
canvas pack that includes side pockets and is designed for hauling
awkward or fragile gear.
The company's Monarch pack includes a waist belt because many
customers asked for a belt to help transfer part of the load to their
hips. While waist belts are available on some other Duluth Packs, ''we
have a different way of keeping weight off your shoulders,'' Sparky
explains. ''We use a tumpline. Almost all of our packs have a tumpline.''
A tumpline is a strap that extends from the sides of the pack around
the top of the head. ''We recommend that people portage with the pack on
their shoulders,'' Stensaas says. ''After they start to fatigue, they
should put the tumpline on top of their head. It's a different way of
tackling the same problem''; getting the weight off your shoulders.
But don't put the tumpline on your forehead. It should go on top of
your head, in the slight depression behind the forehead. The length of
the tumpline is adjusted so the weight comes only slightly off your
shoulders. The strap should still slide easily on and off your head.
KONDOS OUTDOORS (www.kondosoutdoors.com)
and Vicki Kondos started Kondos Outdoors in the early 1980's after Dan
was laid off from Reserve Mining in Babbitt, Minn. They hoped to stay in
their home on the edge of the BWCA and were seeking a way to earn a
''My wife was doing some sewing at the time and we were approached by
different outfitters to make their packs after I was laid off,'' Kondos
says. The business grew from there and now employs seven people at its
headquarters about six miles outside of Ely. Kondos supplies packs to
many of the outfitters on the Ely and Crane Lake sides of the Boundary
The company produces a variety of packs, from traditional
Duluth-style packs to high-end designs. Like the majority of today's
canoe packs, they're made from nylon. Leather straps are available on
some packs by special order, but they do require some maintenance, while
the padded nylon straps are maintenance-free.
The Kondos Duluth-style packs come both in the original envelope and
rectangular shapes. The envelope style assumes a large pillow shape when
loaded, which makes it sit closer to your back for easier carrying. An
envelope pack also will hug the bottom of the canoe, making for a low
center of gravity. But they won't sit up on their own. The rectangular
packs have flat sides and bottoms and usually will stand up when loaded.
Rectangular packs often are used as food packs because bulky items fit
more easily and you can stand them up while digging down to find
Kondo's high-end Outfitter Series features a detachable waist belt.
''I stay away from tumplines,'' Kondos says. ''I worry about neck
injuries. We have gone to a sternum strap and cinch straps that suck the
pack up on your back.'' Backpackers will know these cinch straps as
''load lifter straps.''
The Outfitter series also features compression straps, side handles,
inside foam pockets, and an extension collar with a drawstring that can
be used to increase the load carrying capacity.
COOKE CUSTOM SEWING (CCS) (www.cookeCustomSewing.com)
Dan and Karen Cooke started making canoe packs when they were working
at a Boundary Waters church camp that couldn't afford commercial gear.
For the past 17 years, they have been designing and sewing packs, based
on their experience, input from customers, and Dan's engineering
expertise. When he's not making packs, Dan Cooke works as a mechanical
''Our packs do not have unnecessary bells and whistles,'' Dan Cooke
says. ''I like packs that don't have a lot of things hanging on the
outside to catch on the gunwales as you're lifting the pack out of the
CCS offers traditional box-shaped, Duluth-style packs, a high-tech
Hybrid series, and the CCS Food Pack System. The CCS Traditional series
packs are used by outfitters in the BWCA, Quetico, and Alaska and are
made of rugged cordura nylon.
The CCS #3-1/2 canoe pack has a little more volume than a traditional
#3 and is a combination envelope and box style. It's similar to an
envelope pack on top but has a 6-inch-deep box shape on the bottom.
''It's a taller pack with a bottom, but without the width of the
traditional #4 pack, which can be awkward to carry,'' Cooke says.
Although the pack numbering system originated with Duluth Pack, many
pack makers now use it to describe their traditional-style packs. The #4
packs are huge; generally around 5,000 to 7,500 cubic inches. The
numbering system is not exact and the volume of one company's #3 pack
might be closer to another company's #2, for instance.
The #4 pack is so wide that your hips pronate and you start walking
with a waddling motion, Cooke says. ''It's like walking with a
two-by-four on your hips; the ends move dramatically. You don't need
that width unless you have a large, bulky thing to carry.''
Cooke notes that you need a pack sized for your equipment, and the
#3-1/2 at 3,450 cubic inches is large enough for most paddlers, provided
they take only what they really need.
''If you buy the biggest pack, you will fill it up,'' he says.
''That's fine if you want to fill up packs. But if you want to enjoy the
experience, you should take what will enhance the experience and leave
the rest. You have to make a conscious decision about what contributes
to the experience and what doesn't.''
The CCS Hybrid Series has side panels cut on a contour for a
comfortable fit, padded hip belt. and three side-compression straps. The
company's Food Pack System features a box-shaped pack lined with
3/8-inch closed cell foam to insulate food. The insulation also helps
the pack to stand up, making it easier to pack.
GRANITE GEAR (www.granitegear.com)
Granite Gear started 15 years ago when Jeff Knight and Dan Cruikshank
were on a Boundary Waters canoe trip. Long portages often lead to
contemplation and they decided there had to be a more comfortable way to
''They thought, let's incorporate some of the thinking from
backpacking packs on how to comfortably carry a load and put that into a
portage pack,'' says John Cron, sales manager for Granite Gear.
''The typical response from a person who uses our packs for the first
time is basically, ''Why have I been putting up with all this pain and
suffering all these years?,'' Cron says. ''Most people take seven days
of vacation a year, and once they are there, comfort is king for a lot
of people. We have found from years of building packs, whether for
Quetico or to climb Mt. Everest, that there are definite design
philosophies and principles of physics that allow a pack to carry more
Still, he adds, if you're taking a trip that involves a few short
portages or no portages, a high-end pack probably is overkill. ''There
is room for both types of packs, but I do think that if someone is doing
extended portaging, they are going to be much more comfortable in the
long run with our packs,'' he says.
Company-wide, the target customer is the serious enthusiast, and the
company's high-end packs reflect this in their quality and price.
However, Granite Gear's traditional packs, which come with padded hip
belts, are competitively priced with similar packs from other companies.
The suspension system in Granite Gear's top-of-the-line
Nimbus Great Northern pack originally was designed for backpackers and features an
advanced composite frame sheet and ergonomic harness system. But the
pack bag is designed for canoe travel. In fact, the frame and suspension
are interchangeable with other Nimbus pack bodies, which means that one
frame sheet and harness system can be used for both your trail pack bag
and canoe pack, resulting in significant savings over buying separate
packs for hiking and canoeing.
KNUDSEN INTEGRATED PORTAGING SYSTEMS (www.knupac.com)
''We have a simple mission in life,'' says Eric Knudsen. ''To change
the way the world carries boats.'' Knudsen is owner of Knudsen
Integrated Portaging Systems of Lee, Mass. The company makes the Knu-Pac,
which is designed to carry both your gear and your canoe or kayak.
The system is based on an external pack frame with hip belt. A
totally waterproof bag attaches to the frame and your canoe's thwart or
yoke bar rests in two cradles at the top of the frame and is free to
pivot. To control the canoe's inclination, you tug on a cord that is
tied to the bow and stern. With your arms at your sides and only one
hand on the control cord, your other hand is free to swat mosquitoes or
to use a paddle as a walking stick on slippery stretches of trail.
''The truth is that there is no shoulder yoke that has been invented
or will be invented, no matter how well padded or shaped, that doesn't
have two fundamental problems,'' Knudsen says. ''It compresses the spine
and will strain your lower back because you have to lean forward with
the canoe to balance. The Knu-Pac is the only way to carry so the
posture is upright and almost all the weight is at the base of the
This is a big advantage for people whose shoulders scream after a day
of portaging or for those nursing old shoulder injuries that are
aggravated by supporting the canoe for long periods with their hands
above their heads.
But what about that external pack frame? Almost everything written
about canoe packs warns against using an external frame backpack.
The problem isn't with the frames themselves, but with conventional
pack bags designed for hiking, Knudsen says. To keep your gear dry, you
have to put the hiking pack frame-side-down. But the Knu-Pac has a 100
percent waterproof body that allows the pack to be placed in the canoe
frame-side-up and still keep your gear dry.
''The frame is up and out of the way, and you have a lot of grab
holds for lifting your gear into and out of the boat,'' he says.
Knudsen got the idea for the Knu-Pac after he pinched a nerve in his
neck during an Adirondack canoe trip. ''I couldn't move my head. It
numbed out my neck and shoulders, and I said, 'There has got to be a
better way to do this.' ''
The Knu-Pac has allowed many of his customers to go from double
carries to single portaging (carrying both the canoe and pack across on
a single pass). ''This can gain you a full day, even on a five-day
trip,'' he says. ''Say you have three portages in a day and you will
take 20 minutes to walk each one. With a single carry, you're off the
water for an hour. With a double carry, it's three hours.''
The Knu-Pac features a bag with electronically welded seams made of
either vinyl or Expedition nylon. The bag can be easily removed from the
frame for those who want to double portage. If you double portage, the
frame is used alone to bring the canoe across and then the pack bag is
attached to the frame for the second carry.
Where you go from here depends on what you want your canoe pack to do
and how much money you have to spend. Two people often carry three packs
on a trip, so you may be talking about buying two or three packs, not
Here are a few other links to canoe pack makers. And if you're a gear
freak like I am, you'll undoubtedly type ''canoe packs'' into your
search engine and spend some time comparing the nuances of pack design
and function across the web. Happy pack hunting.
(For more on using tumplines, click