A few weeks ago I was digging through the dusty archives of the BWCA.com message board and came across a thread on chest packs.
I never have been a fan of chest packs for canoe portaging. I’m more of a pack stacker. I stack one portage pack on top of another to keep a clear view of my feet and the trail ahead. Putting a pack on my chest always seemed like an invitation to misstep and end up face down on the trail.
I started to rethink this a little after Cristi and I did our big road trip out West. Most of our time on trail I carried a low-profile chest pack made by Hill People Gear. Intended as a conceal carry chest pack, it served as a convenient place to hang my bear spray and tuck my Tenkara gear. I really enjoyed wearing that pack. It kept all my necessities close at hand and didn’t do anything to obscure my view of the trail.
My experience with the Alaska Guide Creations binocular pack is similar. Handy access to binos and other small essentials. No problem with footwork.
With these experiences in mind I decided to try a different take on the chest pack on my next Boundary Waters trip. I wanted to pack my compact SLR and have it close at hand. My solution was an Ortlieb dry camera bag and a couple accessory clips that came with my Hill People pack. The clips attached to the shoulder straps on my Granite Gear Superior One and the pack rode securely on my chest.
This rig got a workout on a quick weekend trip in the BWCA this fall. I was making a run up to visit livery accounts as part of my new job at Wenonah Canoe. The trip left me a sub-48 hour window to squeeze in a little trip.
When I looked at the permit website, there wasn’t much available. It was September, and I hadn’t expected permits to be sold out, but the COVID -19 outbreak had driven people to the Boundary Waters in droves. Outfitters who would normally be shutting down still had their full fleets in the field. Permit pickings were slim.
But even when the pickings are slim there are usually a few guaranteed entry points. The ones that start with a 600-700 rod portage aren’t very popular. I picked an old favorite: The Angleworm. 750 rods more or less, depending on whether you make a wrong turn as the trail drops down to the lake. That’s enough to keep the crowds away.
Time was short and the portage was long. I would go in on Friday afternoon and come out by mid-day on Sunday so I could get back to Ely, pick up my trailer and head over to the North Shore to visit accounts on the Gunflint trail.
Given the situation I decided to single-carry the portage. I had a light canoe and could keep my pack weight down. It would have taken several hours to double carry the portage. I decided to take my large Granite Gear Superior One portage pack, a daypack with my everyday essentials that could be tucked under the top flap and the camera bag on my chest.
The verdict? Well, the Angleworm was long and hilly as usual, but the camera bag didn’t give me any trouble. In fact, I liked the chest rig for my camera enough that I started to wonder if I might be able to replace my day pack with a small chest pack and downsize my portage pack from Superior One to a Quetico. Granite Gear used to make some chest packs. Maybe I could find one used on eBay.
Which brings me back to the dusty pages of BWCA.com.
I didn’t find any Granite Gear chest packs on eBay. The closest I came was this thread discussing the pros and cons of different packs:
The more I looked at those packs, the more I was reminded of a Mountainsmith Day Pack: a classic lumbar design that dates back to the 1990’s
The Day Pack is big enough to hold everyday essentials. Rain gear, possibles pouch, small Plano box, water bottle, etc. It’s small enough that it won’t obscure your view of the trail if you rig it as a chest pack. What’s more, the Day Pack has a stout waist strap that allows you to securely snug it into the small of your back when it isn’t mounted to the front of your portage pack.
Unlike most lumbar packs, the Omni Belt on the Day tucks out of the way when not in use, hiding inside a velcro panel on the back of the pack. This means when you rig it up as a chest pack you won’t have a bunch of straps flapping around as you walk down the trail.
If you want to use the lumbar pack on a day trip when your portage pack is left in camp just pull out the waist belt. The Omni Belt is more secure than a conventional waist belt. Two Delta Straps attach the belt to the sides of the pack. When you cinch down the Delta Straps the Day Pack locks into your lumbar region. The pack rides securely enough that you can hoist a canoe over your head and hit the trail in comfort.
Day Packs come with a shoulder strap. This is key to the chest pack setup. The shoulder strap is fitted to the pack with nylon ladder lock buckles (older versions) or side release buckles (newer versions). If you remove the shoulder strap, these buckles are the perfect place to attach a couple short webbing straps that allow you to clip the pack to the front of your portage pack.
I use the Day pack as my everyday hiking pack around home. Mine is a newer version with a bulkier waistbelt. The original Day and Tour Packs used a minimalist fabric Omni Belt with no paddling. I decided that an older version of the pack would do a better job as a chest pack, so I stalked eBay for a few weeks. In the end I nabbed one for under $30 delivered.
What happened next was the world’s easiest DIY project. It goes something like this:
Dig around in the sewing bin until you find a couple plastic clips, two nylon triglides and a section of 1″ flat webbing.
Cut the webbing to length. Melt the ends and sew a tab on the end of the strap so it won’t slide out of the buckles on the pack when loose.
Attach the plastic clips to the other end of the strap using the triglides.
Attach the loose ends of the strap to the buckles at the top of the Day Pack.
My sewing machine was giving me some trouble as I sewed the tabs on the end of the straps, so I didn’t even try to sew the plastic clips in place. It would be easy to do this instead of using triglides and I may do this once I get my machine back up and running.
If you don’t have a sewing machine you can probably find an old shoulder strap made from 1″ webbing with tabs sewn into the ends already. If you cut both ends off the strap you can assemble the works without sewing. I did this for the second set of straps I made when I found a couple extra clips in the gear closet.
The plastic clips snap onto the D-rings on the shoulder straps of Granite Gear portage packs. If you don’t have D-rings on your portage pack you can likely rig up an attachment point using paracord or accessory cord.
You adjust the height of the pack to set where it rides on your chest by tightening or loosening the straps at the top of the Day Pack. Once you have it set you can easily clip it on or off. With newer versions of the Day Pack that use side release buckles you can leave the plastic clips attached to the pack straps and detach the buckles at the pack. With an older style Day Pack you’ll need to detach the plastic clips from D-rings on the pack. Not quite as slick but easy enough.
Granite Gear portage packs have a couple D-rings mounted on the top flap of the pack as well. If you like the idea of using a Day Pack as your canoe country travel bag, but can’t stand the idea of a chest pack, you can clip the bag onto the back of the portage pack instead. I do think it rides better up front than hanging off the back of the pack, but it does eliminate any worry about footwork.
In the canoe you can convert the Day Pack into a thwart bag by clipping the plastic snaps over the thwart and back onto the carry handle sewn into the top of the pack. Depending on the depth of the canoe this will help to keep the pack out of any water that gathers in the bottom of the boat.
Canoe chest packs certainly aren’t the most mainstream piece of backcountry gear out there. They are just the sort of esoteric item that I can get into. If you’re thinking about giving a chest pack a try the easiest way to do it is by converting an old Mountainsmith lumbar pack. With less than ten bucks worth of parts and twenty minutes or so you can rig a Day Pack into a trail worthy canoe country companion.
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