The Practical Paddler
Making a New-Fashioned Tumpline
By Tamia Nelson
November 23, 2004
My Grandad had a nine-to-five job, but the job
he liked best was the one he did on his own time: guiding fishermen
and hunters in the Adirondacks. And when he wasn't showing his "sports"
where to find the big ones, he was exploring the nearby woods and waters on
his own. Like many backcountry guides of the time, he had a string of
temporary camps a day's hike from his home. These were usually located near a
stream, pond, or lake, where Grandad often cached a
canoe or rowboat. He also built a fireplace, a plank table, and a
washstand, and he rigged a ridgepole for a tarp. A tin
cup always hung on a branch close to the water, and Grandad buried a large
tinplate box somewhere nearby. Proof against the efforts of hungry mice and
locked against the depredations of two-legged borrowers, this box held all the
staples of a balanced north country diet: canned bacon, beans, coffee,
condensed milk, sugar, and flour.
Hauling canned goods into the backcountry wasn't easy, of course. Grandad
used a pack basket. Although these are still popular with many trappers and
ice-fishing enthusiasts, they aren't as common as they once were. Here's what
one looks like.
The green straps are part of the pack's nylon webbing suspension system.
(Grandad's pack baskets had leather slings.) The shoulder straps are on the
other side, and the top of the basket is open. An ash grab loop helps in
lifting the pack up to your shoulders. It's needed. While most pack baskets
are about the size of a squat canoe pack, their rigidity makes them perfect
for hauling awkward, heavy, sharp-edged things like canned food, axes, and cast-iron
skillets not to mention chainsaws, ice augers, and tip-ups. A
loaded pack basket is seldom light, and Grandad's certainly wasn't. At first
he slung it from the shoulder straps. But his back soon protested. Then he saw
a rival guide carrying a heavy pack with a tumpline,
and Grandad decided he'd give tumping a try. But he never bought anything that
he could make for himself. So he crafted a tumpline out of scrap leather.
It was as simple as a tumpline could be just a headband with two
long tails and it worked. After he'd used it a couple of times,
however, he got tired of lashing the tumpline to the pack at the start of
every trip. Instead, he fastened the two tails together with copper rivets,
making a large loop, and slipped the loop between the wood runners on the pack
basket's bottom, threading it under the harness. That put an end to the need
for lashing the tumpline. Now only one thing remained for him to do. As
hard-headed as Grandad was, he saw no point in suffering needlessly, so he
placed a folded towel under the headband. It was the final touch. All in all,
Grandad's tumpline wasn't much different from those used by the voyageurs,
though they toted bales of fur and kegs of brandy instead of Adirondack pack
baskets, and they didn't often attach a tumpline permanently to any load. But
Grandad was happy to sacrifice versatility for convenience.
Are you hankering to give a tumpline a try? If your neck's up to the job,
there's no reason why you shouldn't. In fact, you can buy a canoe pack with a
headband already attached. But what if you've already got a pack, or if you
want to tote a large dry box or big duffle across a portage? Then you'll
probably have to make your own tumpline. The good news? It's not hard to do.
Eight to ten feet of flat nylon webbing or leather strapping, if you
can find a long enough piece should be enough to do the job. Just knot
it to length and pad it where it goes over your head. Knots not your thing? No
problem. Simply make a loose overhand knot at the end of one tail. Then thread
the second tail through the formed loop from the other direction and pull
taut. Be warned, though: while the resulting knot is secure, it will also have
an annoying tendency to jam. (You'll find more about knots in "Knots to
Know!" and "Second
Want something a little more sophisticated? A new-fashioned tumpline isn't
much harder to make than a simple strap. Here's what you'll need:
- 10' of 1" flat nylon webbing
- 18" of 2-3" seat-belt webbing, leather, or heavy-duty nylon packcloth.
(Seat-belt webbing and packcloth are stronger, but leather is less slippery.
For the best of both worlds, line seat-belt webbing with leather.)
- 1" Ladderlock buckle (or equivalent)
- Heavy waxed-nylon thread. (You can substitute copper rivets and washers if
you'll be joining webbing to leather. You'll want 6-8 of each.)
If you know someone with a commercial sewing-machine, you're ready to
begin. If not, a sailmaker's
needles and palm will do the trick. (You'll need a hammer and awl, as
well, if you're setting rivets in leather.) A Speedy Stitcher will also do the
work of palm and needles. I own one, and I use it for big projects. It's a bit
fussy for small jobs, though. For those, I use my palm.
Ready? Good. Using a hot knife or sharp scissors, cut an 8-10 inch
length of 1-inch webbing. (If you cut the webbing with scissors, heat-seal the
cut edges so they won't unravel.) Now sew or rivet the webbing to the
headband. Allow at least a 2-inch overlap. If you're riveting webbing to
leather, melt undersize holes for the rivets in the webbing with a hot awl and
back up the rivets with copper washers. Now sew the Ladderlock buckle onto the
other end of the short length of webbing.
Next, fasten the long length of webbing to the opposite end of the
headband, once again overlapping by at least 2 inches. Finally, thread the bitter end
of the 1-inch webbing through the Ladderlock buckle, making a large closed
sling. Congratulations! You're now the proud owner of a new-fashioned
Get the picture? This ought to help.