I’ve gotten a lot of questions about my backpack, mostly because people don’t recognize it and are curious as to where it came from. The reason they don’t recognize it, of course, is because I made it! However, I didn’t design it. That credit goes to Ray Jardine, an aerospace engineer turned rock climber, thru-hiker, and general outdoor adventurer. He designed the pack and sells the instructions along with the necessary materials. He’s a controversial figure in the backpacking world for a variety of reasons I won’t get into here, but his contributions to ultralight backpacking can’t be understated, and his kits are a great resource for anyone interested in venturing into making their own gear.
There is no better test for a backpack than a thru-hike. I wore it nearly every day for five months. It’s been through sun, rain, and snow. It’s been thrown on the ground, brushed against overgrown trees, and even used as a seat. It’s been stuffed to the brim and overloaded. It’s been spilled on and spilled in.
It’s important to note that this pack an ultralight pack, and as such it is frameless and has no hip belt. Why would anyone ditch the frame and hip belt? Because if you do it right, it’s more comfortable. However, there is a learning curve. Your pack weight must be low enough that the suspension system isn’t necessary. Additionally, you must learn how to properly pack your pack, both for weight distribution and also so nothing rigid is poking you in the back while you hike. Get these two things wrong and the pack will not be comfortable. I’d recommend a base weight of no more than 12 pounds, but I really think it would be better get under 10 pounds to try this pack.
With a low pack weight and properly packed bag, the frameless, hip belt-less system is far more comfortable than the best framed pack out there. It allows for greater range of motion and a more natural stride. It’s easier to take the pack on and off.
Yes, my shoulders did hurt a little more initially, but this was balanced by not having bruised hips, and the ability to easily set the pack down at breaks. When we had to carry heavier loads through the Sierra, I decided to swap back to my framed pack and I hated every minute of it. I felt like I was strapped to the pack and not vice versa, and my legs were sore from using different muscles as a result of the limited range of motion. I found I’d rather deal with the heavier load on my shoulders for a few days than deal with the cumbersome framed pack. I went back to the Ray-Way and never looked back.
Unlike most ultralight packs out there, the shoulder straps on this pack are attached slightly lower on the pack, bringing the center of weight slightly higher on the body. It seems to me this weight distribution is a little easier on the shoulders and engages the core, rather than trying to transfer the weight to the hips, which is pointless in a frameless pack.
My biggest concern with having a homemade pack was the durability, and this pack excels in every way. A lot of this has to do with the durable thread I used, but more credit goes to the pack design. The shoulder straps especially are very reinforced, and have proven to last even when carrying heavier loads than typical. I’ve seen many ultralight packs that are professionally made, very expensive, and rip and tear where the shoulder straps are attached, even with moderate loads. I had no such issues whatsoever. The mesh pockets also proved to be very durable. So many packs now use flimsy mesh for the external pockets, and when the mesh catches on tree branches or rocks it rips very easily. This pack has very durable mesh and I did not have a single rip or tear through the entire hike. In fact, my pack is still in good enough shape to do another long hike.
The only downside durability-wise is the padding inside the shoulder straps, which did get worn down over the course of the hike (but still functional). This was the only major wear and tear I experienced with the pack.
The Ray-Way pack design is the basis of most ultralight packs currently on the market. It has a top closure with a cinch strap over the top. It has three external pockets with plenty of room. Some people like more pockets, but I personally feel it just leeds to more disorganization and encourages carrying extra unnecessary gear. The three external pockets hold my water bottles, water filter, and any extra layers I might be adding or removing throughout the day. The shoulder straps are made with a daisy chain, which makes it simple to add a sternum strap, pockets on the shoulder strap, to add some ties to hold a water bottle, or even to rig a hands-free system to hold my umbrella. The pockets are deep enough to hold a lot of gear, but they are high enough on the pack that they don’t scrape against the ground when you set the pack down (which can lead to ripped pockets very fast). Both sides of the pack feature 2 webbing straps above the side pockets which can be used to hold large gear sticking out of the pockets in place (such as a trekking pole or umbrella) or it could be used as a line to dry some laundry on the outside of the pack (mostly socks) or other gear such as a bandana.
There were two features I didn’t love about the pack. First, the design has a drawstring top closure. I found when the pack wasn’t full (and it was never truly full due to the very generous extension collar), there was too much excess fabric just hanging there. I decided to modify the top and make it a roll-top closure instead, which I felt worked much better. Secondly, the strap and buckle that goes over the top of the closure to cinch the load down didn’t hold as tightly as it should, because the buckle was slipping on the webbing when it was pulled tight. This could be modified with a different webbing and buckle combo, but I didn’t notice it until later in the hike, because it only happened when my pack wasn’t very full and therefore pretty light. In other words, it didn’t seem to affect the performance of the pack, but it still annoyed me and I would change it in the future.
One minor downside to the kit is it doesn’t come with instructions to add loops for an ice axe. I was able to add some easily after I finished the pack, but I still think it should include instructions to add the loops as an option.
I also wish the top closure system included a modification to easily strap a bear canister to the top of the pack. As it were, I carried mine in the inside of the pack, but anyone who has done that in just about any pack knows it is still a pain. I’m not sure what the right modification would be to strap the can on the top securely, but I’m also not sure there is any good solution for carrying the bear can, it’s just something we all have to deal with. Added note: I bought the middle size pack (about 42 liters) because it claimed to hold a bear can horizontally. It did not. I made it work just fine vertically, but it’s worth noting.
The kit cost me around $80. This is cheaper than even the cheapest of ultralight packs. Cottage manufacturers typically charge $150-300 for a pack. Go to REI and it might be hard to find one under $200. If I were to simply make a pack of my own design, the materials would probably be more like $30, so you’re really paying for the design and instructions, and avoiding the research needed to find all the right fabrics. Just choose your colors and go. I bought the recommended thread for another $8 or so, and it was plenty to make the pack with leftover. I brought the leftover thread as my repair thread on trail because it is so durable.
Would I Use it Again?
Absolutely! In fact, I plan to make another one for the CDT. The difference for this one is that I will be making the smaller size pack. I found the pack was usually a little larger than I needed, and almost never needed the extension collar. For the CDT I will be trying the small size (about 36 liters), which I think will be a better fit for my gear.