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Duluth style packs

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If I may make one aesthetic comment, a green or brown canvas pack, even if beat up, would look traditionally better to me than blue plastic in that beautiful wood interior with the wood paddles.

Okay, so I've now been obsessing about Glenn's remark about the appropriateness of a Duluth style pack for close to a week. COB that I am (that's cheap old bastard for those not in the know), I find it really hard to part with hundreds of dollars for a pack which is pretty unsophisticated. My experience with mountaineering/climbing/backpacking packs is that over the last several decades designers have made great leaps forward in both load-carrying and fabric improvements while Duluth style packs haven't changed for a hundred years! Then, on the other hand, maybe there's a good reason for this; maybe they're perfect as is....

Anyway, I'm now seriously contemplating making my own Duluth style pack. I'm a pretty good at sewing, and have Amish saddle and tack shops nearby for sourcing leather, and my brother has an industrial Juki sewing machine. Just like in my working career, I am able to 'see' the finished product in my mind, then dissect it into it's parts and fabrication steps. If I do this I'll probably use waxed canvas.

Lastly, I'll put this question out there for the regular users of these packs: What capacity/size is most useful? I've been thinking of making a large, box-style like Duluth's Paul Bunyan pack- 70+ liters capacity since I like to have everything inside the pack rather than strapped or hanging from the outside. Your thoughts?
 
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Patrick,
IMO, 5000 cu. In. (About 80 liters) is a good all rounder size. But I travel with a dog and typically bring a larger tent that I wouldn’t typically back pack with. I also have a lot of bedding like two exped down mats, two exped multi pads on the tent floor, wool blankets to cover the mats, and a sleeping bag for each of us. So my main pack is a larger frost river Lewis & Clark (128l) It’s big and I can always fit one more thing in, it’s like a never ending expanding balloon.

I suspect if your using the mountaineering gear you already have you could go smaller. If you use a bear vault and carry it in the same pack that may impact things. I usually carry a 30 liter barrel inside my Isle Royal pack.

Maybe go by one of your technical packs that you use now and know that you will be able to cram more stuff in it than you think.

Good luck with the build!

Barry
 
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My main paddling partner and I use a #4 Duluth pack and a #3. The #4 is our personal pack and carries the tents, sleeping bags/pads and our clothing bags/dry shoes. The #3 is our equipment pack with the stove/fuel, tarps, extra line, camp chairs, ax/saw, water filter/bags and all other general camp equipment. Food goes in barrel(s). We have used this setup on up to 3 week trips in a 16' canoe. Shorter trips require only one food barrel, either 30 or 60L. We are older and require/desire a few more items for comfort in camp which others who would be more weight conscious would skip.

I own a number of Duluth packs dating back to the early 1970's. While I have used various Ostrom packs and really like them, at age 75 I am not going to make the investment in new packs that I may not be using much longer.
 

Glenn MacGrady

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Okay, so I've now been obsessing about Glenn's remark about the appropriateness of a Duluth style pack for close to a week. COB that I am (that's cheap old bastard for those not in the know), I find it really hard to part with hundreds of dollars for a pack which is pretty unsophisticated.

My comment was purely an aesthetic one—namely, that traditional canvas, leather and brass buckle packs look better to me in traditional wood and canvas canoes.

On the other hand, as far as cost and effectiveness go, there is no doubt that commercial canvas packs like Duluth are now way overpriced for my wallet, and I think there is little doubt that these old time packs are less sophisticated functionally than modern mountaineering and hiking backpacks.

However, if one could MAKE them inexpensively . . . !!!

I have two Duluth packs, one an Original envelope style, which is just a no-pocket sack, and the other a Combo Cruiser, which was made to fit an accompanying pack basket and which also has two flapped and roller-buckled side pockets. I have always used the Combo Cruiser because of the pockets, which my old posts say is 95 liters (5800 cubic inches). In that pack I use a waterproof eVent pack liner.

I also take an inexpensive 29 liter (1750 cubic inches) roll-top waterproof day pack, which is not canvas. Duluth used to make a front-carry canvas day pack. Those two packs carry everything for me, including all food and kitchen stuff, plus my spacious three person Losi tent. Unless I bring my 9 lb., full-size bag chair, which I have to carry separately.

I must say, based on my general memory and my pack postings from years ago, I'm confused by the volume measurements on the current Duluth website. Although they no longer make the Combo Cruiser, the volume measurements on their packs generally seem different (lower) than they used to be.
 
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I got started with used #4 kondos Duluth style packs - about $60 each - and stuff divided just like waterdog: "tent" pack with tent and everything that ends up in tent; "camp" pack with all the kitchen and campfire ring gear: and a food pack (hanger). Have upgraded two of them with CCS packs. 3 packs and a canoe - 2 people - double portage.

But the classic waxed canvas and leather would look awesome!
 
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I won a Duluth pack in one of the fund raiser lotteries. I was happy to be able to give it back when Robin posted about wanting one. I couldn’t think of a circumstance where I’d want to use the Duluth pack rather than my big dry bag with shoulder straps.

They are both big bags with shoulder straps, but one can be rolled up and watertight, while rain or dunking will surely wet the gear in the Duluth pack. I understand people love them, but personally, I don’t get the attraction. We’re all different, and if a Duluth pack works for you, that‘s great.
 

Glenn MacGrady

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rain or dunking will surely wet the gear in the Duluth pack

Duluth canvas packs are of course not waterproof. Nor is a hiking backpack. You must use a waterproof interior liner, which will also provide air pocket flotation for the pack. Most people use a tough, clear plastic liner, such as the ones Duluth itself sells, or a more expensive breathable liner such as the Granite Gear eVent liners I use.

Here is a video of how to pack a Duluth and, at the end, how close the top of a poly liner. You can also twist the top of the liner together (instead of rolling it), fold the twisted part over, and cinch the fold with very strong rubber bands or bicycle tube.

 
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I can layout and measure my Duluth pack and measure it for you locating all the leather attachment points if you want. I can do it after Thanksgiving over the weekend. It’s an old one from the late sixty’s early seventies.
Jim
 
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Hey Patrick, it's good to see an OB trying something new, especially a COB. I would do it for all of the right reasons though. Like, easier to carry (I think the tump, is better than a waist belt for getting the load off your shoulders.) It's easier to pack, and being more spacious, it lessens the need to hand carry stuff, and it's easy to get to items you may need while underway like rain gear or water bottle, if you pack right. It's more versatile, I've used mine to make a windbreak for the fire and as a "welcome mat" in my vestibule so I can take my boots off on it and it keeps my knees off the dirt when entering and exiting the tent. Lastly it is more pleasing to the eye, especially in a w/c boat.

Unlike the girl in the above video I never keep my tent or tarp in the waterproof section of my pack. I would keep mine on top of the plastic liner. That way I never have to mix my "never get wet" stuff with potentially wet stuff in the same bag. Also, I wouldn't want to have to dig to the bottom of all my stuff to get to my tent during a rainstorm. I can have my tent and tarp set up before exposing my sleeping bag and clothes.

I only use the liner bag when I'm going tandem, it's too big for just my stuff. When tandem it contains sleeping bags, extra clothes and pads only and never needs to be opened while underway. On solo trips I keep my sleeping bag in a separate roll top dry bag, extra clothes and pad in another. In a third roll top I keep personal stuff like an extra layer, toiletries, first aid kit, sunglasses and such, and keep this easily accessible. I keep food in another one. Pot, pan, utensils,saw, axe, fishing stuff and tent gets stuck in somewhere not waterproofed.

There is a learning curve to packing and carrying the pack so that it is comfortable. I hated mine the first time out. I would experiment at home before heading out on a trip. Having the tump not adjusted right can lead to a pain in the neck, so you want to avoid that.

Good luck.
 
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IIRC my 2 canvas canoe packs are around 100L each. It's a challenge to fill them much less overfill them. But Lord knows we've tried.
We could all dive down that COB rabbit hole, old canvas portage packs vs new nylon/butyl/poly portage packs. Each material and design have merits and disadvantages. But in the end, it's up to the individual to decide which is preferable. I actually like 'em all for their differences.
Canvas feels great with light to moderate loads (without suspension. ie. A bag with shoulder straps.) right against my back. Tump if the load is greater and adjust accordingly to ride properly, but these days I prefer the lighter pack weight. I dislike wet gear, so I line these packs with a heavy-duty plastic bag. Simplicity. Unfortunately, the leather is nearly shot so I'm at a crossroads in deciding what to do next. Fix 'em/sell 'em or replace ALL my packs with new canvas ones?
Dry packs (with suspension & hip belt) are wonderfully trouble-free especially under heavy loads in wet conditions. Both me and my wife (we both are "height-challenged") feel the weight disappear once we're harnessed up under the 115L monster. We have tripped in trying conditions and enjoyed dry comfort thanks to the butyl bags. Ugly yes, performance yes. However, I find all that harness strapping and padded hip belt a PITA when loading/unloading the canoe. A matter of temporary inconvenience.
I've let the nylon and poly packs go over the years. Backpacking in any form doesn't appear to be in our future.
I'm even the embarrassed owner of barrels. An ugly good performer with equal emphasis on a) ugly and b) performer.
Patrick, I say go for it! Your trip thru design and build will likely result in a custom canvas portage pack you'll be proud of.
 

Glenn MacGrady

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I never keep my tent or tarp in the waterproof section of my pack. I would keep mine on top of the plastic liner.

Same. I put my tent in a waterproof roll top bag, which I put on top of the pack's liner and under the canvas flap. This allows me to get the tent out first without opening the pack, and to put in back on last when breaking camp. The detriment is that it puts perhaps the heaviest item (tent) on top of the pack, whereas general packing theory is usually to put the heaviest item at the bottom of the pack.

I like having the two exterior pockets on my Combo Cruiser. In one, I carry my gravity water filter bag system. In the other, I carry a 10'x12' silnylon tarp. My folding saw also goes into or is attached to one of the exterior pockets. All these things are items I might need to get to without the need to open my main pack and fumble around inside the big waterproof liner. In short, I'm an advocate of exterior pockets rather than having everything stuffed into one giant envelope.
 
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Okay, so I've now been obsessing about Glenn's remark about the appropriateness of a Duluth style pack for close to a week. COB that I am (that's cheap old bastard for those not in the know), I find it really hard to part with hundreds of dollars for a pack which is pretty unsophisticated. My experience with mountaineering/climbing/backpacking packs is that over the last several decades designers have made great leaps forward in both load-carrying and fabric improvements while Duluth style packs haven't changed for a hundred years! Then, on the other hand, maybe there's a good reason for this; maybe they're perfect as is....

Anyway, I'm now seriously contemplating making my own Duluth style pack. I'm a pretty good at sewing, and have Amish saddle and tack shops nearby for sourcing leather, and my brother has an industrial Juki sewing machine. Just like in my working career, I am able to 'see' the finished product in my mind, then dissect it into it's parts and fabrication steps. If I do this I'll probably use waxed canvas.

Lastly, I'll put this question out there for the regular users of these packs: What capacity/size is most useful? I've been thinking of making a large, box-style like Duluth's Paul Bunyan pack- 70+ liters capacity since I like to have everything inside the pack rather than strapped or hanging from the outside. Your thoughts?
I certainly don't wish to discourage you from making your own pack if that's what you want to do and have the necessary tools and know how, and I understand the satisfaction that comes from using something you made with your own hands. But if economy is a consideration, I rather expect that you can buy a new pack that would be more practical than a Duluth style pack for less money than you will spend making your own.

While I can appreciate the nostalgic appeal of the cosmetics of the old canvas and leather Duluth style packs, I really don't find them all that practical. I still own four of them, a number 2 camp cruiser with a pack basket, two number 3 envelope style packs, one of which is very beat up I bought from a Minnesota outfitter for about $10 right before a two week trip my wife and I did in Quetico years ago, and a large camp kitchen I bought used from a friend. Of these, the only one I use is the cruiser combo and that only for car camping activities. I do not find the thick leather straps comfortable. I don't use tump lines and find the lack of a suspension belt a drawback. Nonwaxed canvas gets quite heavy when wet and takes a long time to dry out. I don't find the envelope style #3 packs as efficient as a rectangular pack body. Years ago Duluth packs were an economical option but those days are long gone.

If you like the design of Duluth packs you might take a brief look at Granite Gear's traditional style packs. They go in and out of the boat every bit as easily as a Duluth pack but the Cordura material is lighter in weight and sheds water better than unwaxed canvas, the shoulder straps are more comfortable and do not mildew like Duluth pack leather straps, they have a drawstring tunnel at the top of the pack body to help shelter the pack contents, and they include a suspension belt. They are also much less expensive.
I have both the GG Traditional #3.5 and the Traditional #4 pack. The #3.5 is rated at 57 liters capacity and Granite Gear currently has it on sale for $125.97. The Traditional #4 is rated at 98 liters and is currently going for $132.97. Granite Gear also has heavy-duty plastic pack liners, big enough for the Traditional #4, on sale for $6.30 each.

 
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Glenn, I don't think it hurts to have your tent up high as long as it's tight against your back. It shouldn't pull back because of the tumpline, and the friction of the pack on your back relieves weight from the tump and shoulder straps, especially when you lean over.

Pblanc, I never had an issue with wet packs, they don't seem to absorb much water. But you are right, they aren't for everybody, nothing is.
 
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IMO there’s no better canoe pack than a Duluth. We‘ve been using a couple of Northwoods for the past 25 years. I like them because they can be packed relatively short and fat, which makes carrying multiple packs at once stacked, easy and comfortable. You cant beat their durability.
The tump line is key to their comfort as well as packing them properly. I like to use a folding stadium seat or a z lite sleeping pad as back padding.
 
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I bought a Duluth #3 shortly after I got out of the military in the fall so 1968. It is still in regular use with some routine maintenance & cleaning with a stiff brush now and then and whatever boot grease I happen to be using on my leather boots. Not only used on canoe trips, but as a suit case, all through college and thirty nine year career with the State of Alaska Department of Fish & Game. It has endured being tossed into boats, rafts, bush planes, snow machines & dog sleds even used lashed down as a top pack under a manty, on a pack mule. Sunshine has turned its dark olive color to a lovely grayish patina. One closure strap broke but was easily replaced.
Works for me, not for a backpacking trip to be sure, but for short portages and thrashing around in thick brush on bush whacking fishing trip, it has stood the test of time.
I have lately obtained the now discontinued Duluth Pack version of a Woods Pack. Much bigger than a #3 to hold my bigger thicker sleeping pads, warmer sleeping bags and packable cot that my aging body body now seems to need in my dotage.
 
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We're visiting kids and grandkids this weekend so my online time is limited..... If you have any questions or comments I'll be glad to respond but it might be mid-week of next week before I get to it.


And if you'd like to give the 18 ounce canvas a shot I'll send you a hunk so you can see if you machine will sew it. I have a good 40 yards of it on hand that I got for a steal as it wasn't dyed the right shade of black (go figure?). I'd sell you what you need for $3/yd plus the shipping. It's 60" wide with at least 58" usable.

Lance
 
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Thanks Lance for your offer. I did read your post carefully for the creation of your pack. And thanks to all the others who have commented!

Here's my (minimal) research so far...
Some time ago I found a very simple, envelope-style backpack that belonged to my father. It has to be 1940's vintage.
A58A1307-42B6-426D-8992-8DE15344C0D6_1_201_a.jpegtempImagefBvwXF.png
It measures 27" square when laid out flat. No structure at all, the canvas was simply folded over, sewn closed on the bottom and one side. Very simple canvas straps with no adjustment sewn to the wearer's back side, and curiously, the right side strap has a hook & ring feature presumably to make it easier to put on and remove. There's no way to lock the attachment so it simply depends on gravity to keep it hooked.

I thought I would load this simple pack with my gear as a test to see what it would look like, and proceeded to load most of the gear I would carry for a typical Spring or Fall 3/4 day trip. I was astonished to discover that it all easily fits!

tempImageekRizb.pngtempImagex6kd63.png
In the above view, I have three big items stored vertically- tent (under white bag on left), food bag (black bag in center), sleeping bag (yellow dry bag). Against my back, a deflated,folded Thermarest inflatable pad. The white bag is my cook kit/stove arranged above the tent bag, and stuffed here & there randomly are poncho, 10x12 tarp & stakes/guylines, an inflatable pillow & additional travel pillow (because I'm a wimp for sleep comfort), and a few miscellaneous items. The only thing missing is an extra clothes stuff bag, but you can see that there's plenty of room for that and other sundries. I typically carry a clear Sealline dry bag for my phone, maps, Zoleo device, lunch, etc that I keep within reach of my paddling position. I usually lash that to the top of my big dry bag backpack, but I may start bringing along a small backpack just for carrying along with the canoe when I double carry.

This bag has no top flap which is something I would add if I make a pack, and also, I think I would add 4" side panels to make the main compartment rectangular rather than envelope shape. This would allow a little more latitude in packing and avoid the inevitable "sausage" shape which would result from over-stuffing the envelope shape. I tend to avoid overstuffing my backpacks for that reason because it creates a round surface against the wearer's back which then makes the pack unstable and wobbly.

Now, having said all that, I've been combing the internet selling sources- Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, etc- and have found a few nice packs that would make all this pack-making talk moot, but I still find it hard to part with big bucks, even medium bucks, when I think I can accomplish a reasonable DIY result. So, the thinking and planning goes on...
 
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I like the idea of making your own canvass pack if you have a decent sewing machine and the skill to use it. Sounds like you have both, I’m looking forward to seeing the end result.
I have 4 Duluth Packs, my first was a #3 pack which is sort of big but probably not as big as you have in mind. It’s has a patch or two, some heavy fading and the leather shoulder straps are very soft.
The rest of my DP packs are smaller than the #3, and are older versions of the Wanderer, Rambler and Day Pack, all before waxed canvas was an option. I prefer two smaller packs to one large one, and I prefer the look, feel and ruggedness of leather shoulder straps/closing straps, which I enjoy maintaining so I have never had an issue with mildew. I like the fact that Duluth Packs are made in USA vs made in China Cordura packs.

I won a Duluth pack in one of the fund raiser lotteries. I was happy to be able to give it back when Robin posted about wanting one.

I sure appreciated your generosity Chip, and I have used that pack on more than a few occasions since you sent it. (actually, it's not a Duluth Pack but a Canadian made Woods Pack).
I'm always amazed at how much you can carry in one of these old packs. This well-used pack is hauling a 7x6 canvas wall tent, a wood
stove, a metal tent frame 'angle kit" (not the poles), all the ropes, ax, pack saw, and a tarp.

woods pack.PNG
 
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