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Boundary Waters named by USA Today as one of the Top Ten Places to Extend the Summer

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Boundary Waters

Searching for the Ultimate Canoe Pack by Ed Stiles

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 myself.

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 aplomb.

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.


[IMAGE: Three Duluth packs]We'll 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.


[IMAGE: Kondos Outfitter Special pack (front ad back)]Dan 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 living.

''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 Waters.

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 something.

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.


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 design engineer.

''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 canoe.''

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 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 carry gear.

''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 comfortably.''

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.


''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 spine.''

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.

More Packs

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 just one.

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 here.)


--article courtesy of

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