Thursday, June 12, 2008

Perfect Pack Pockets.

Pouches, hidey-holes, tuckaways, pockets.

You find them all over, on all continents. Pocket gophers, kangaroos, hamsters and more all have some place to keep their valuables. Backpackers need them too.

Take a look at some climbing packs. Smooth, slim, sleek and clean. No external pockets. If there is any external cargo space it's usually a closed container, not something open ended as you'd find on a hiking pack. Climbers have their reasons.

First, they don't want things falling out. Things that climbers bring along tend to be high-value and irreplaceable, like the pieces of expensive, specialized equipment they need. Even if it's "only" food, climbers can't afford to lose it. They go to dangerous places in dangerous ways at dangerous times and need to guard against loss. Of food, of tools, of life. So they like slim, tight, sleek packs that let them move freely and do not catch on rock and do not spill.

OK for them. Backpackers are different. Not hikers but backpackers. If we can use the term "hiker" to mean the same as "day hiker" then we can cut to the chase and say that hikers don't count. Not that hiking or day hiking isn't good enough but that if you are out for a day (which is most of my hiking as well as yours) you (and I) don't have to be all that fussy. After all a day hike is a hike during the day, a few hours only and pretty much any pack that holds together will do.

So we'll let day our day hiker selves stand aside for the moment and watch.

Now let's talk about backpacking needs. Backpackers need pockets. A backpacker is someone who is out on the trail for days on end, maybe weeks, maybe months. I didn't make it to the big time. My longest trip was two weeks, but solo and unsupported (no resupply) as it was, there were plenty of issues to deal with.

Pockets help a lot.

The right pockets can make a huge difference. The right number of pockets, of the right size and shape, configured the right way, in the right places, with the right closures. In a way backpacking is all about pockets.

If you have a shop in the garage you know all about hanging your tools within careful outlines on pegboard and keeping all your screws and nails and washers in little labeled drawers. If you cook you do the same, but without the screws and washers and nails. You have spice racks and shelves and knives and pans, and spoons and forks, each in its own place, close to hand.

Pockets on a pack provide a major convenience factor. Efficiency doesn't matter much if you're walking five miles a day and can bail out at any time. It does matter if you're walking 20 or 25 miles a day and might be 10 or 20 miles from the nearest road. Pockets help you load up in the morning. They keep everything important handy all day, and they help you unload at night.

When you use pockets the right way you are organized. Pockets are organizers.

When I stop on the trail for either a short rest or for lunch I want at hand all those things I'll need but no more. Pockets do that. There is no need to rip open my pack and make it vomit its contents across the landscape. If I have the right pockets.

When I need to tank up on water at the end of the day I want to pull out my water bladders, fill them, drop them back into my pockets, and walk. When I need a wind shirt or an aspirin during the day I want it right there, right now. Pockets do that.

I've even been thinking for a couple of years about how I'd design a pack that was all pockets. No big bag to stuff full, just separate pockets, all out in the open, easily accessible, organized. Might not be possible but it may be worth another season's thought. Something to do. Thinking about gear design gives me something to do while I hike.

Pockets have two fabric types, mesh and solid.

Mesh pockets let you see what's inside them. Some say they stuff in wet gear and let it dry while they hike. If you can do this, please come and show me how, because I've never seen a folded wet wad dry out, but that's what they say. Anyway, a wet wad is better in a mesh pocket than inside the pack. Mesh pockets also snag if you aren't careful, and can tear easily. Really strong mesh makes a sturdy pocket but is heavier than solid fabric (surprising but true). Solid fabric is extremely strong and also smooth and slippery.

With mesh you also have the possibility of a small item tearing its way out through the mesh and disappearing behind you.

But solid fabric is opaque and leaves you groping blindly inside a pocket for the one item you need. I always try to put the same things in the same place every day but almost always end up swearing at myself for getting it wrong. I'm like that. A lot like that. You are probably a lot smarter. I want to be like you when I grow up. Send help.

Pockets are attached in different ways.

Most are sewn to the pack bag. This is good. It's a solid, secure and firm way of keeping the pack and the pocket together. And wouldn't you guess, it has a downside too. If the bottom of the pocket is sewn flat against the pack (even if it's pleated) you have a lot less room there. The pocket's volume shrinks from the top down like a funnel, and this makes the pocket less useful. But if the pocket has a cleverly designed box shape at the bottom then you have a big floppy pocket that sticks out and wobbles around and is more likely to get into trouble.

Some pockets are built into hip belts or attach to them. I don't have any experience with them really. Some hikers like them for cameras and small things. They add a lot of weight and probably add a lot of expense to packs because they're complex little buggers. The removable pockets are fine until you discover that one decided to stay in camp when you left.

They are small too, and if I want a small pocket for maps or pills or sunscreen it's easy to whip one out with a sewing machine and tack on a bit of velcro. Weight: about a quarter ounce.

I prefer to carry my camera in a small case on a webbing strap hung around my neck. Keeps the awkward weight off the hip belt, is handy to carry around without the pack, and I can still lose it whenever I want.

The last category of pocket attachments is the buckle-on or strap on pocket. These have been around for a long time. You generally find them in a bin at the outdoor shop. They are usually of fabric heavy enough to stop small arms fire, and a couple of them may weigh more than a whole ultralight pack. I think I have three, bought when I was lugging around a medium format camera and needed places for rolls of film or a spot meter, or just a bottle of water carried far away from my $5000 of camera equipment (since sold off at a big loss, but before film became totally irrelevant).

The strap-on pocket is basically a good idea but you pretty well have to make your own. If not, then you get something heavy, clunky, and huge, but they do have the advantage that they can be added or removed in minutes. I'm working now on a personal pack project that will have several of these, but designed and made by me for a pack I design and make myself. Me, myself, and I. We usually work well together.

Coming right down to it, pocket closure is really the big item. Hard to believe, but what a pocket is made of or exactly how it attaches to the pack is less important than how the pocket closes up.

This sounds nuts but it's true.

Most pockets these days, the ones on lightweight and ultralight packs, are made of mesh, and they lie flat against the pack when empty. They also have an elastic band at the top. In the store this looks really cool, and it is really cool if you carry nothing in them. Or only smallish, light, and flat items. Like a featherweight wind shell, or a ziplock bag containing a couple of maps.

The elastic eventually ages and sags out, but it's easy to fix. The main problem with these pockets is that they have no room to carry anything. Like a two liter water bladder or a full rain suit, or a day's food (all three meals), and your fuel, and stove, and cook set. When you are doing serious backpacking you need some serious external storage, and these flat tight pockets don't do it.

Besides being too tight the elastic isn't secure. It's fine if you tuck in a cap and a pair of fleece gloves, but two liters of water weigh four pounds. The mesh strains. Severely. You worry. Toss in a few small items and you're never sure you'll still find them with you at the end of the day. Because there is no way to close this kind of pocket securely.

Zippers are pretty well out. You will find zippers on heavyweight packs but even heavy zippers can break or jam. A heavy zipper used with light fabric is not a good match, and light zippers are useless all around. You can't depend on zippers.

Instead of using elastic or zippers to close pockets you can use a drawstring, especially if you make your own pack. A drawstring is a secure and solid closure if used with a decent cord lock. You can pucker the pocket as much or as little as you want, and a drawstring never gets old and sags. It is a truly positive closure. The downsides are that you probably will have to make your own, and you will have to manually adjust it each and every time you deal with the pocket.

Another problem is that if you stuff the pocket until its eyeballs bug out it will still stick out and flop around.

Pockets that close with a flap at the top are basically in the same category as those with zippers. These pockets are really for small and light items, and are not secure. I made a crude little map/pill/sunscreen pocket about five years ago. It works fine. Besides the velcro attachment I also have a safety pin holding it in place, just in case.

But I carry it high, on a shoulder strap, and can always glance right down at it. Even if it fell off I'd probably see, and would be able to rescue it. Not so if it was a big pocket on the back somewhere, and the top flap secretly came open.

This sort of flap can close with a secure buckle of some kind, but then again there would be the same problem as at the bottom of the pocket, only doubled now. The flap flattens the pocket and reduces the volume, so a pocket made this way would lie flat against the pack at both its top and its bottom end, and hold much less.

The last way, the one I'm tending toward, is a regular sewn-in, pleated pocket of solid fabric with either a drawstring or elastic closure at the top, but with one other feature: a vertical tensioning strap attached at the pocket's top.

The strap attaches at the pocket's top edge giving an upward pull to the fabric, and then locks into a buckle anchored on the pack bag. When the pocket is stuffed full and overloaded you can cinch the strap tight and put tension on the fabric. This squeezes the whole pocket closer to the pack bag and makes it flatter, but the squeeze comes only after you've loaded the pocket, and you also have control over the tension.

This sort of strap also spreads the weight, and the stresses. The pocket's bottom normally holds most of the weight, with the pocket's side seams assisting. A strap adds support at top, and is anchored either at a point on the pack bag or at one of the pack's strong top seams, taking a lot of strain off the pocket's seams.

This sort of strap can release in a second but not until you say so. Again there are tradeoffs. Straps and buckles add weight and complexity. Straps are more likely to catch on brush or rocks. They are one more thing to fuss with. A really smart buckle can find some way to get itself lost, without your permission.

I'm really sorry to say this but I'm afraid there is no perfect answer.

Every time I come up with another great idea I see the same set of constraints. Either you make something dead simple, light, with no options or you make something customizable, flexible, adaptable, complex and heavy. And more expensive.

Probably the best approach is to have at least two packs, a simpler, lighter and less flexible one for short trips and a more complex and heavier but customizable one for longer trips, where weight isn't as big an issue but flexibility of configuration is.

Anyway, it's nice to have problems like these. They give me something to think about while I'm trudging away. My mind really needs the exercise.

References:

BackpackGearTest.
Gossamergear.
LuxuryLite Modular Frame Pack.
REI.
Six Moon Designs.
ULA Equipment.


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