Back to Nature (Published on - Nov. 17, 2004)
Just basics … back to nature
The narrow mountain road ascended to the peak high campground we’d call our base camp for the next seven days. The twists and curves made for a slow journey. Underground streams trickled down the sides of the cliffs over sheer blasted stone from where this road had been carved leading us to wonder of these ancient paths diverted. A black bear and her cub sauntered onto the road, perused our dusty Jeep then gave us a gruff huff, turned and disappeared with her babe into the forest.

We’d planned this trip to the Georgia mountains for months, examining gear, sealing all seams, weighing in every ounce, as well as conducting additional testing on weekend jaunts. Here we were; the jeep, our packs stuffed full of gear, the wilderness and the occasional bear. Gone were the times when we loaded a beat up, old VW bus with our gear which consisted of a couple of 6-pound Coleman sleeping bags we had used since Scouts, the scratchy but everlasting, gray wool Army blanket, a rugged but ever so bulky used Army external frame backpack, a jar of Jiffy peanut butter and a loaf of Wonder Bread.

Remember those days? Remember how the gears grinded as you drove the bus beyond its limits on the punishing unpaved back roads. Maybe you’re too young to recall these romantic interludes and perhaps I’m showing my age but for those that do remember, today’s decisions for buying gear of the latest, most innovative, fluffy, lightweight, titanium, Polartec, water repellent, two-poled, extreme hike gear of today goes way beyond daunting. Last week we discussed, “tents.” If you missed it, I will be more than happy to e-mail that to you.


There are nine foremost important considerations: External or internal frame, weight, size (regular, medium, men’s or women’s frame), capacity (quoted in cubic inches), price (can vary from less than $100 to more than $500).

Another consideration is loading: Is there enough room for a long weekend’s worth of gear? How difficult is it to load and unload, trail convenience, compartment design, detachable top lids and fanny packs, pocket arrangement, lashing options, compression straps, adjustability and fit: Will custom-fitting this pack to your body require a toolbox or can average humans fine-tune fit on the trail? Does the pack have fit and size options for people of all shapes and sizes, or is it made for “Mr. Medium” only?

Consider comfort: How well will this pack bear up under a full load? Is the harness and hip belt supportive enough to carry the weight comfortably for days on end? Will the shoulder straps dig in or slip?

Load control: How much will this pack affect your freedom of movement? Does it work with you or against you, i.e., elbow clearance, and other ergonomic factors that effect balance and freedom of movement.

To assess durability, read reviews such as those at Did they rip, snap, unravel, or fall off?

Presently the “in” pack is the internal frame but it can be very expensive.

Advantages include:

1) Because it hugs your back it provides for increased stability if you are participating in steep climbing, river hopping or stalking glaciers;

2) This pack’s slimmer design and internal frame doesn’t get caught on branches along a tight trail.

Disadvantages include:

1) It is hot against your back with very little to no air movement;

2) The weight is not lifted off your shoulders as with the external frames.

The old fashioned external frame is not old fashioned anymore, with new materials, Velcro closures, lightweight frame and palatable pricing.

Advantages include:

1) This pack will allow you to carry more weight comfortably and lash things onto the frame;

2) It is designed away from the back and allows airflow so is a cooler pack.

Disadvantages include:

1) Because of the frame on the outside the load is not as stable and tilts you if you are leaning while negotiating on icy or slippery surfaces or dangling over precipices;

2) The external frame does get caught on low hanging branches on occasion. It is more comfortably used on wider trails and is great for Florida. My favorite is the Kelty Trekkor (around $130) and my husband’s favorite is the Kelty Tioga (around $180).

Back to Nature is offering this series of columns that gives a partial breakdown of what we’ve found in our research on outdoor gear today. In spite of the ever-changing specs, unending decisions and mounting confusion, let us return you to “just basics” and see if we can ease you off road and back to nature once again.

Karen can be reached at

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