The Things We Carry
Frame of Reference: The Freighter Packframe
By Tamia Nelson
December 14, 2004
Sometimes nothing does the job of hauling gear
better than a packframe not a frame pack, but the frame alone. It took me a
long time to realize this. Like many other folks who read Colin Fletcher's The
Complete Walker, I was seduced by the peripatetic author's far from pedestrian
prose. Before I'd turned the final page, I was already making plans to take to the
hills with a home on my back. And when I went shopping for the pack to haul it
all, it was an external frame pack I was looking for, because that's what Colin
My new pack was the hottest thing then on the market, a dark green Kelty Tioga.
The nylon bag had it all: two main compartments, four pockets, and enough slotted
leather tie-downs and webbing loops to carry a full complement of climbing tools,
from crampons to carabiners to a 165-foot-long coil of rope. There was just one
thing it didn't have room inside for my sleeping bag. No matter. The stuff
sack could be strapped onto the frame in the space below the packbag, and a
generously proportioned flap covered the whole shebang. When I loaded my new Tioga
up, I thought I was ready for whatever the high country could throw at me.
Everything looked possible. Not even the summit of Denali seemed out of reach.
But I couldn't make it to Denali on the weekends I had off from work, so I
settled for short trips in the nearby Adirondack hills instead. The Tioga went
with me, and it proved equal to every challenge. Until I got my first canoe,
that is. Once I'd traded my ice ax for a paddle, I quickly decided that canoes and
frame packs were not natural partners. Loading and unloading the boat at
portages was a source of endless frustration, with the packframe reaching out to
snag every thwart and seat. From time to time, my grandfather
would watch me struggle at the head of a portage trail. He never said a word, but
the easy grace with which he lifted his pack basket in
and out of his battered Grumman spoke volumes.
That was a language I understood. Soon I had a pack basket and a canvas canoe
pack of my own, and stowing my stuff got
a whole lot easier. The pack basket had a certain rustic charm, but the canoe
pack was the real workhorse. It was as simple as a pack could be, little more than
a canvas envelope with shoulder straps. I added a tumpline to
make the portages go easier, and that was that. The pack slipped in and out of my
canoe in seconds, yet it carried everything I needed for a weekend trip. I thought
I'd found The Answer.
Then I got a kayak, and my
handy canoe pack suddenly seemed impossibly clumsy. It was just too big. I needed
skinnier bags to go with my skinny boat. And the bags also had to be waterproof.
Really waterproof. "Waterproofed" canvas simply wasn't enough to keep gear dry
below decks. It was time for what historians call a paradigm shift. Kayak camping,
like bicycle trekking
and backpacking, forces you to concentrate on essentials. My bloated canoe-camping
checklist got a
radical make-over. There was no place in my kayak for dead weight. The thick foam
pad and dutch oven got
left behind. So did the tinned peaches. Canned goods of any sort were out. Staples
like rice and couscous and raisins were in
a sort of lean cuisine, to go.
Problem solved? Not quite. My kayaking gear might have been lean, but I still
had to bag it. Soon I had a trunk full of vinyl-coated roll-top dry bags, all of
them small enough to fit through my cockpit and behind my seat, even when stuffed
full. One difficulty remained, though: how was I going to portage all those bags?
I didn't fancy juggling my way down the trail. Coastal kayakers can often toss
their bags up the beach to
their campsite, but many inland waters are a cache-and-carry proposition. It's
hard enough to get across a one-mile portage with a couple of big packs, but I now
had ten or more small bags to move, and nothing to haul them in but my hands. It
wasn't an attractive proposition.
I tried stuffing my empty canvas canoe pack below decks, thinking I could load
it up at each portage. No go. Too bulky. Then I tried lashing it on the rear deck.
Again, no go. It was soaked by waves and paddle
splash before I'd reached the first take-out. Worse yet, I still had to
double-carry the portages, despite my slimmed-down kit. The combination of canoe
pack and kayak was impossibly awkward to manage together. Then I got a bright
idea. I tried the newest addition to my outdoor "wardrobe" an internal
frame climbing pack. But it also failed to make the cut. Too big to stow below
decks, and too narrow to hold the larger waterproof bags. Two strikes were enough.
I didn't need to wait for the third. The climbing pack was out of the game.
Finally, just when learning to juggle was starting to seem like the only
option, I had a eureka moment. What about using a packframe to carry the
freight? I asked myself. Way to go! I replied. Unfortunately, my Tioga
was long gone. Its place had been taken by the climbing pack. But I found the Camp
Trails Freighter Frame in a catalog, and it looked like a promising
substitute. Welded aluminum frame, padded hip belt, extension bar, and removable
shelf it was the backcountry equivalent of a pickup truck's cargo bed. A
frame pack without the pack. So I bought one. First, the shelf came off. (I still
use it for hauling bulky loads, from yule logs to jerry cans.) Next, my
kayak-camping gear went on, still in its waterproof bags, lashed in place with the
sturdy rubber rope I used for deck rigging the same rubber rope that
truckers use to hold tarps down at freeway speeds.
That took care of the gear, but I was still left with a double carry. Or was I?
Nope. I'd thought the problem through in advance. The packframe extension was just
narrow enough to fit into the kayak cockpit. I glued a chock to
the bottom of my boat and wrapped a couple of closed-cell foam pads around the
packframe uprights to minimize chafe. Then I took off down the trail, gear on my
back and paddle in hand, while my boat rode effortlessly over my head. Piece of
Well, OK. Nothing's this easy, is it? No portage is ever effortless, and a
60-pound poly touring boat will be a bigger burden than my 35-pound Kevlar®
kayak. Moreover, a kayak perched on a packframe sits high so high that it
dips and bobs with each step, threatening to bring you to a sudden, unplanned
stop. But this failing is easily remedied. If your boat's in balance, a pair of
light lines to bow and stern is all it takes to rein it in. (If the boat's not
well balanced, you'll need to stuff a trimming weight into the light end. A life
jacket works fine, as does a filled water bottle.) Once you've put the portage
behind you, just unload your gear, stow it, and lash the empty frame on the rear
deck. It's not as easy as dropping a canoe pack into a Grumman, I admit, but at
least you didn't have to double the carry, did you? The Freighter may not have the
elegant lines of the latest expedition pack, or the beauty of a hand-crafted pack
basket, but this is one place where form follows function. And the Freighter
Of course, the perfect pack doesn't exist. That's why I now own cotton canvas
canoe packs, waterproof dry bags, an internal frame climbing pack, and a couple of
canvas rucksacks, in addition to a brace of pack baskets and a set of bicycle
panniers, not to mention ammo cans and
stuff sacks in sizes from lilliputian to very, very large. No pack does everything
well, and sometimes the right pack for the job is no pack at all. For times like
those, you can't beat the Freighter Frame. You could say it's become my
frame of reference.
Copyright © 2004 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights