Also written by Steve Watts
Necessity is the mother of invention, and very often comfort is the driving necessity that makes us invent. At least that was how it was for one Lloyd Nelson, who, in 1920, when struggling with the discomfort of an improvised Alaskan pack frame made from willow and sealskin, came up with a totally unique way to carry heavy loads in relative comfort.
In 1924 Nelson patented his idea and started commercially manufacturing his rigid pack boards with removable pack sacks. Prior to his design, there was a distinction between the pack sack and the frame: You either bought a sack to put your load in or a frame to lash your load on. Nelson’s design became the first external frame pack that wedded the pack sack to the frame in a way that had never been done before. The Trapper Nelson Indian Pack Board was born. It was not only the first, but it is perhaps the longest continuously manufactured pack of its kind.
Prior to the Industrial Revolution in America, most items were handcrafted in the home workshop. Crafting was a cottage industry on a national scale that rivaled, in both quality and quantity, what was then being produced in factories. The home-crafting of camp and trail gear was no exception. If you could afford to get it, you might buy a piece of equipment, otherwise it was “make it yourself or do without.” The pack was one piece of equipment that underwent generations of home improvement, evolving along- side or improving upon commercial designs.
Among those pieces of gear manufactured at the setting of the “Golden Age” and the rise of the modern age, the Trapper Nelson is still recognized as an icon of the “old days.” The Trapper Nelson was a pack board, not a backpack. In fact, the compound word didn’t show up in the literature until the late 1940s and wasn’t commonly used until the late ’50s and ’60s.
The classic style of tramping was with a canvas ruck- sack or canvas duffel lashed with a leather strap system or tumpline. Manufactured frames and rigid boards were still a ways off, although traditional woodcraft inventions had been used by woodsmen for generations. Then Mr. Nelson created his design from one of these woodcraft models, and it remained in popular use for decades. The Trapper Nelson is truly a holdover from the classic times.
In 1929 Nelson sold his company to the Trager family of Seattle, Washington, and an arrangement was later made for Jones Tent and Awning of Vancouver to make their Pioneer Brand of pack. The packs became popular among commercial users like the Forest Service and the Boy Scouts. Even though it’s not commonly seen in the classic catalogs or the writings of the day, its arrival in the last days of the Golden Age make it an item that we can still touch, thus allowing us a connection to the roots of classic style.
- Tapered counter sink
- 1⁄2-inch Forsner bit
- Machine screws
- Lock nuts
- Sheet metal
- Round rod (1/8 inch)
- Grommet setting tool
- Ball-peen hammer
- Rivet setting tool
- Eye screws (1 3/8 or 1 3/16)
- 1x stock
- Plywood (1⁄4 inch)
- Grommets (1⁄4 inch and 1⁄2 inch)
- Size 9 rivets and washers
- Edge binding
- Pattern paper
- Strap webbing
- Copper rivets
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A workshop sponsored by Frost River Packs of Duluth, Minnesota, was held in Idaho at Woodsmoke in 2012 where we measured and replicated a vintage Trapper Nelson pack—a Trager #2. We cut 12 complete packs from a roll of Frost River’s amazing Martexin waxed canvas that they donated for the project. A measured pattern was made from the original Trager, making allowances for seams and grommet edges. We chose the #2 because the pattern had only one pocket flap and two side panels that could be made with as few seams as possible.
The bags were sewn on a commercial sewing machine brought to the camp by Teckla Hemsley, a local seamstress who teaches with us. This takes a special talent, so have it done professionally if possible. A local upholstery shop has the tools needed to do the job. At Woodsmoke, a few people had the skills to help with the sewing, while most started to construct their frames once their pack parts were cut out. We have since seen several beautiful packs made on home machines from 10-ounce canvas and then hot waxed.
Once the sewing was underway, we turned our attention to the frames. We milled two 4/4 uprights from fir 2×4 stock, and the three 2 1⁄2-inch cross pieces from 1⁄4-inch bamboo plywood we had on hand from a kayak workshop. After examining dozens of packs, we have found that even though these packs were commercially manufactured, there is no standard size or material from lot to lot. The exact dimensions vary from pack to pack. The pack we chose had the following dimensions:
• (2) Uprights: 1 by 11⁄2 by 29 inches
• (3) Cross pieces: 3 by 16 inches
• Finished frame: 141⁄4 by 29 inches
After milling, all the wood was sanded and its sharp edges removed. The uprights were marked for the location of the joint notch for the cross pieces—approximately 3 1⁄2 inches from top and bottom and the third one evenly spaced in between. This was done to allow the cross pieces to sit flush with the uprights. Once again, the quality and craftsmanship of the originals varies widely from pack to pack. The slots were cut and chiseled by hand. Pilot holes were drilled through the uprights and cross pieces—holes were counter sunk, allowing the washers and lock nuts to be recessed.
The cross pieces were soaked in hot water for about a half hour (or until they became flexible) and clamped into a makeshift jig and left to dry, creating a permanent bend. This allows the frame to ride well away from back of the person carrying the pack. The back stretcher helps do this, but the curve is an essential part of the comfortable frame.
Put It Together
When the slats were bent, assembly began. The uprights and cross pieces were bolted together using 1-inch 10-32 machine screws, washers and lock nuts. We have seen no evidence of glue in these joints; most originals used copper rivets to fasten them together. Protective caps were cut from sheet metal— again, there is a lot of variety on how the originals were done— and tacked in place to protect the uprights from abrasion and wear. The webbing for the straps was wound once around the top cross piece and tacked in place. We used an anvil to clinch the nails over.
The back piece has grommets set at about 3 inches apart using 1⁄4-inch grommets and a setting tool. When they are in place, pull the shoulder straps through the slot and stretch the band around the frame using 1⁄4-inch cotton sash cord.
Next attach the pack sack. Four 1⁄2-inch grommets are set in both sides of the pack sack. Depending on how wide you make your pattern, the pack can be attached with 1 3/8-inch or 1 3/16-inch eye screws on either the front or the sides of the uprights. We have seen them done both ways. The front is more common, but the side mount is more secure. The screws go right through the canvas stretcher band and into the uprights. They are placed to correspond with the location of grommets set into the side seams of the pack sack.
Measure carefully so they line up. A 1/8-inch rod of mild steel is scrolled at the end and slid through the eye screws to hold the pack sack in place. Secure the strap ends to the bottom of the uprights with D-rings and adjust- able buckles using size 9 copper rivets. Now the pack is complete. Of course, there is still plenty of room for personal touches, but this is the essence of the classic Trapper Nelson Pack Board.
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Editor’s note: The re-release of Camping In The Old Style by David Wescott with a forward and contributions by Steve Watts is available from Gibbs Smith Publishing (gibbs-smith.com).
This article was originally published in the AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN ™ 2015 issue #174. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.