Wednesday, September 17, 2014

When Jam Goes Bad

Frustration in a bag.

Last fall when I moved out of the U.S., I cut hard into my possessions.

I threw out clothing and gave things away, dumped my backpacking hammock, and my self-designed backpack, the best one I've ever had. Now I'm sorry about that. Sorry about losing both of those things.

Neither would have been useful in Ecuador, and weren't missed over the winter, but now that I'm back in the U.S. and trying to rebuild my backpacking life, I miss them. I now have a crude hammock setup but it sucks. I'm working on it, but it sucks. It will be a while yet.

Until things are worked out I can use what I have, or sleep on the ground. Why anyone would sleep on the ground when they don't have to, I don't know. But I can do it if I need to.

As for packs, it will be a while. I'm not settled yet. I've had an apartment for several months but I'm leaving it, going homeless again, for a while, for only a little while I hope, but who knows? Until life calms down again I won't have a decent pack.

Meanwhile, I have a pack, but not a decent one. It's a GoLite 50-liter Jam. I hate it.

What's Good

  • It's made well.
  • It carries well.

What's Not Good

  • It's poorly designed.
  • Padding is an afterthought.
  • It's a top-loader.
  • It's basically a stupid bag with shoulder straps.

GoLite definitely can make packs better than I can. Their business depends on it, and they do the job professionally. I can do what I need to get something functional, but my sewing is pathological and frightening. It makes children cry and decent people shy away.

So score one for GoLite.

And the GoLite pack, if carefully loaded and adjusted, feels just right. For a while.

Poorly Designed

Ever try to put something into one of those painted-on spandex pockets? Or get something out again? Fail.

The Jam has one pocket on each side, there for show as far as I can tell, because they're useless as pockets — small, short, and tight. Both together cannot even hold one quiet fart.

There is another pocket on the front. Finally, you think, a real pocket. This pocket has a long zipper arcing across its top. It looks promising.

But that's about all you can say. It promises. Promises the world, and more, but doesn't put out. Stick your hand in there and it'll be trapped — you'll need two friends and a farm tractor to get your hand out again. The "pocket" is more like a small bear trap than any other pocket ever made.

The pack I made had two side pockets as well — two ginormous, permanently-attached side pockets. Each was big enough to hold a Platypus 2L bottle. Full. Of water, with room to spare for my wind shell, maps, gloves, GoreTex booties, stove fuel, wading shoes, and all sorts of other useful trail cruft.

And I had a third pocket, a detachable one hanging from the pack's front. It held the day's food and my cook set.

All these pockets were actually useful. Take that, GoLite.

Padding Is An Afterthought

I realized this around Day Two. After deciding on Day One that this pack was the Real Deal. My version of a Las Vegas wedding — love at first sight followed by disorientation, loathing, and pain.

My affection faded fast when the pack began to eat my shoulders. The padding is too thin, around three-eights inch thick or so (9.5 mm), and far too soft. Soft padding is like a wet dream — never the real thing, and always leaving you feeling a nagging unease, and somehow guilty. At best.

My self-designed padding was some kind of miracle anonymous mutant discarded closed cell foam that I got at an odd little outlet store. Squeezing it between my fingers, hard, barely left a dent in it. It was almost like trying to compress a pine board.

It didn't collapse into insignificance, but I had doubts until I actually began using it.

In use, it grudgingly conformed itself to my body's lumps, bumps, and nubbins, but never forgot its heritage as a proud, smooth, almost painfully hard sheet, but did the job wonderfully. If left alone for a half hour, it always returned to its original shape, ready for more.

In other words, it reliably worked as padding, which GoLite's mooshable foam doesn't.

Top Loader

Most packs are top loaders. I can't figure this out. It's about the worst way possible to load a pack.

Packs might as well be vampires, or pack designers. One gets bit, then passes it on. Every pack design degrades into a copy of the previous one. One that didn't really work either.

Try to fill a top loader and you're stuck hiking with the results of a random shoving contest on your back. The pack always wins. You want is order but what you get is a mess, an unbalanced mess.

It's true that some packs are panel loaders, but they generally aren't well-designed either. I'm not inspired.

My first dim glimmerings of intelligence came from experiencing a Moonbow Gear Gearskin. (Look it up.) For a hammock user who has nothing even remotely solid enough to serve as a fake frame the way a rolled-up sleeping pad does, cylinder-wise, in some frameless packs, the Gearskin idea had promise, but required at least three hands to load. Especially on sloping ground, when it might take two people and a trained sheepdog to keep all the goods from escaping until the pack finally got cinched down.

After some fumbling I had a better idea. A pack closed at the top, but with no front. Instead, there is a curtain on that fourth side of the pack, and where the curtain's two flaps overlap, well that's how you get inside. During loading, every item added to the pack gets shoved in through the curtain's opening and stays in, because there's no way for it to come back out.

Lay the pack flat on the ground, on its back, carefully push things into it through the slit in the front, arrange them neatly in flat layers from the back of the back toward the front, fill the corners, make sure it's all properly arranged, and then pull the pack together using compression straps that close up the slit and turn this simple fabric bag into a tight, small, firm solid wad that requires no frame and minds its manners.

It worked.

It's Basically Stupid

It's a fancy kind of rucksack ("A cloth sack carried on one's back and secured with two straps that go over the shoulders.")

The GoLite does have a light-duty flexible plastic framesheet, about a quarter-inch thick (6.4 mm).


It helps a little, but if the pack was designed better, it wouldn't need anything like that, and what it framliness it has does less to give the pack support than to provide a smooth surface against the wearer's back.

There are two straps on each side of the pack, for compression I guess, but there are only two, and they aren't muscular enough to help much.

A day or two spent backpacking with a Jam illustrates how old-school this pack is, aside from its modern fabric and annoying colors. The Jam is wide at the bottom and narrow at the top. It bulges out away from the hiker's back. In use it is a big lump of a thing, despite the company's trim-looking catalog photos.

Try to carry your heavy lump of food up high and the pack is tippy. Place your food lower and you have other problems. I tried having my food run vertically along my spine, but then everything else in the pack got displaced, and since the food was hanging too far toward the front of the pack it was too far behind me, and kept trying to tip me over backward.

The only reasonable way I found to carry my food was to put it in the bottom of the pack, where it nestled in the small of my back. But it still hung too far behind me. Just like a century-old rucksack, which it really is.

The Best News

(If you can call it that.)

Is that GoLite is selling these for $109.99, which is really pretty cheap. Though buying a pack on price is something like getting vaccinated so you can go out and get bit by rabid critters. Daily. That's not why I go backpacking.

I can't wait until my next pack is done. Really. Can't wait.

I'm foaming at the mouth just thinking about it.


Jam 50L Pack (Unisex)


No Pack Is Made For Me