Gear Features: We’ve got your back(straps)!

At Portage North and Sundog Sport, we sell gear that we would want to use and that we can trust. In that pursuit, we are constantly improving our gear so that it can be more enjoyable to use, more trustworthy, and easier to make to a high standard. Much has changed since Portage North and Sundog Sport first opened our doors as Kondos Outdoors in 1980. We are consistently looking for ways to improve our products from the way they are designed, to the way the material is cut, and to the way that the products are sewn. Our gear is in a constant state of improvement. As we hear back from customers and continue testing gear ourselves, sometimes we discover new and better ways of making our gear and so we change things. One of our favorite improvements is in the way the back straps are now attached to our portage packs. If you were to take one of our Kondos packs even from five years ago and compare it to a brand new pack in our store today, you would notice a dramatic change to the way the shoulder straps are attached to the body. This change will help our packs to be even more reliable than they were before in allowing our customers to trust the gear they use to portage.


The word “portage” has its roots in old French who, in turn, drew from the medieval latin word “portaticum” and the latin word “portare” which meant “to carry.” When the french voyageurs arrived on the western shores of “le lac Superior” with the intent to harvest furs and trade with the local tribes, they brought with them the word portage. And as their heavy trade goods necessitated a means by which to haul cargo overland whenever the waterways ran out or the rapids forced them around, the portage pack was born.


Initially, the portage pack was simply a bundle of furs weighing 90 pounds or more. They employed the use of tumplines which is a strap attached to the upper part of the bundle and then to foreheads of the voyageurs who carry them, Tumplines could routinely be found on portage packs well into the 1950s and some even later as an alternate method for helping bear the weight of the portage pack.


As the age of the fur trade died and loggers, miners, and later recreationalists moved into the area that’s now the BWCA, portage packs took on a different form entirely. As leather shoulder straps and canvas gradually replaced tumplines and rawhide, the packs began to more closely resemble those we are familiar with today. The backstraps themselves have changed substantially since the earliest examples, and the methods by which they are attached to the pack have been improved alongside. On the early leather and canvas packs we are all familiar with, the straps are attached using rivets with a “sandwich” of leather or canvas on either side of the straps to add support. Sometimes, these rivets are further reinforced by adding stitching around the leather. This design was carried on as modern packs began replacing canvas and leather with nylon and nylon webbing. Instead of using two pieces of leather and a collection of rivets to attach the straps, they used various designs of nylon. As seen in the collage above, the designs could be pretty creative from simple small pieces of fabric with lots of complicated stitching, “seat-belt” webbing across the top seam, and even designs that used what appears to be a “tank-top” extending from the pack to the straps. The purpose of these designs going all the way back to the original is simple: back straps are the part of the bag under the greatest stress and they are one of the parts of the bag you least want to break. One only has to take a portage once with their arms wrapped in a bear hug around a strapless pack to know that it is an experience never to be repeated!


At Portage North, ever since the last packs went out the door with leather straps, we have been using our own methods of attaching nylon-reinforced backstraps to the pack. Our latest design removed the outside counter material entirely and instead sewed the backstraps directly into the top seam. The effect this creates is multi-faceted. First off, gear that is well-built and simple is the gear that lasts the longest. Simplifying the design allows the pack to be less vulnerable to something breaking and also allows us to consistently make the same high-quality pack again and again. Those of us working at Portage North have worked as guides and outfitters as well as having spent countless hours canoeing and portaging on our own. In that time we have used nearly every sort and shape of portage pack out there (and fixed a lot of them besides.) Reducing the complexity of the shoulder strap attachment is a reduction in the risk poised by an exposed seam which can catch and eventually wear out over time.


As Michael, owner and chief product designer of Portage North and Sundog Sports puts it when asked about the updating the design “Simplify the design. Generally, a simpler design makes for a better, stronger product. With the old design, it was difficult to have a consistently high quality product because the way the back straps were attached allowed a lot of room for variability. Now, we are able to put our attention solely on the attachment and function of the backstrap.”
What do you think was your greatest improvement in the design? Michael: “Eliminating the the extra pieces of material meant there were fewer pieces to fail. It’s achieving more of the one-piece construction. We achieved the same amount of material in the back straps through a fold in the pack body material, while simplifying the pack from the outside and eliminating the extra piece.


But Michael, when I look at my pack now, I see way less stitching then before. Doesn’t that mean that my backstraps are weaker? Michael: “In fact, it’s the opposite. Much of the stitching you see on our older packs was simply in place to hold the counter material onto the pack body. In eliminating the counter, we have simplified the need for the extra stitching and, with an effective use of backtacking, we have actually increased the strength and support of each backstrap. “
As we look at the changes made to our backstrap attachments, it is a reminder to us to continue to improve our gear. We are proud of the products we make today, but we also know that, as we look to the future, we will continue to improve upon our design to better serve our customers and to better represent our company. The shoulder straps are one piece of the whole whose improvement helps better our customer’s experience so our gear can keep going on adventure after adventure for many years to come.

Author Bio:

Riley Smith

Riley is the Director of Community Engagement and Public Relations for Portage North and Sundog Sport. He comes from a background in wilderness programing and environmental education with four years of BWCA outfitting and guiding before taking this role. In his free time, he can be found out canoeing, hiking, snowshoeing, capturing photography, and writing.
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