For as long as I can remember, Duluth Packs have been synonymous with canoe camping. Canoe packs require different features than a day pack or multi-day pack and Duluth has always been king. They have been famous for their durability and their classic look. They were always the benchmark that everything else was always measured up against. If you haven’t been paying attention to them, they are also making lots of other cool packs. Today, I will be reviewing the Duluth Bushcrafter Pack.
The Bushcrafter pack was designed by Mike Lummio of Bushcraft Northwest. Mike is the founder and head instructor at Bushcraft Northwest, a school that provides quality traditional wilderness and survival training. Mike has some videos available on his website, and through watching them you quickly realize that he uses a very lightweight, very simple, almost elegant system for sleeping out in the woods. To compliment that style, Mike designed this pack to meet his needs.
Visually, the pack is stunning. For me anyway, there is just something exciting about canvas and leather. It makes me think of woodsman from generations ago. It conjures up images of dependability, durability and longevity for quality crafted goods that seem to be going extinct in our disposable world. It takes my mind to a world where things were not as complicated, and simple things were appreciated. Like a good canvas pack.
As typical with my reviews, I will cover the features of the pack first, and then see how they actually work when put to use. The pack is made from 15-ounce canvas. It has padded leather and canvas shoulder straps with an adjustable sternum strap. It also has an adjustable and removable waist strap made from padded canvas. Each side has three nylon webbing compression straps, which are an absolute necessity on a pack like this.
The pack has a large main compartment with a drawstring closure. The dimensions for this pack given on the Duluth Pack website are 25” high, 14.5” wide, and 10” deep. Based on those measurements, a quick volume calculation comes up approximately 60 liters. That main compartment is covered by a large flap that has a zippered pocket underneath and is secured by two leather straps and buckles. The exterior of the pack is pretty simple and has two large pockets on the face. Each pocket also has a leather strap and buckle. The pockets are fairly large, and also have a sleeve behind them for extra storage. Between those two pockets is a sleeve that is open at both top and bottom, intended for an axe.
The intention of the two outside pockets was to be able to hold enough easy access things, without opening your pack. A good example is a tarp. If it is raining, you want access to your tarp to be fast and easy. You also don’t want to expose the inside of your pack to the rain. With a tarp stuffed into one of these large outside pockets, the problem is solved. The next idea Mike had when designing this pack was to keep these pockets on the face, so that the side of the pack would remain obstruction free, and allow easy movement through brush and other cover. We will come back to the actual performance as the review goes on.
A couple more things to note about this pack are that it is made in the USA and is guaranteed for life! The construction is top notch. The quality of the leather, the buckles and how things get attached is impressive. It is no wonder Duluth is able to provide a lifetime guarantee. This pack is available both through Duluth Pack and through Dave Canterbury’s Pathfinder store. If ordered through the latter, you can get it with the Pathfinder logo leather patch instead of the Duluth leather logo patch seen on my bag for review.
Now for the use part of the review. Initially, I spent quite a bit of time at home packing and re-packing, working with the compression straps and wearing it around for short distances. I will be the first to admit that I am not the most experienced with frameless packs, and I had a couple things to learn, which I will share later. My next step was to take this camping, and more importantly to put some miles on it. Any pack is comfortable and works when you put it in your car, and plop it out on the camp site. Or do a short mile or two trek through the woods. When you have one on all day, over great distance, and over varying terrain, you will soon discover the things you love, the things you need to change, and the things that just aren’t working. That is what I am on a mission to find out.
My first trip with this pack came at the very tail end of winter. The amount of snow on the ground did not justify it in my mind as “winter camping” but the below freezing temperatures did. So technically, I took it winter camping as its first outing.
There was not enough snow to justify snow shoeing, so it was more like hiking in cold weather. I wore the pack for about 4 hours, and got my first good feel of how the pack was going to work, and how I was going to make minor tweaks to how I packed and used it. Next, I took this pack on a different style of trip. I made a commitment to go from Michigan where I live to Practice What You Preach (PWYP) in North Carolina last April, and went on my motorcycle. The Bushcrafter pack rode where the passenger would, with one paracord tie down, and the waist belt strapped around the luggage rack on the tail of the bike. I switched out the axe for a machete and most of everything I needed for the trip in the pack, with the exception of motorcycle gear. I did do some hiking with this pack while there, although this isn’t the real mainstream use for this pack. However, it did give me a great opportunity to pack it and carry it with stuff that I would not normally do on an “on foot” adventure. I definitely learned some stuff about the use of this pack.
My next venture with this pack was very much a small scale outing. I took my boys out for a day in the woods. Yes, a day, not overnight. This is a BIG pack for a day bag. While it was overkill, not necessary, and possibly not even optimum, I wanted to continue to use this pack every opportunity I had. And learn stuff I did. This particular day, the weather was hit and miss, and we got hit with some good rain. Use in wet weather was checked, we made use of the tarp, tested locations of stuff in the pack, and also how I could use it with MUCH less stuff than an overnight requires, and how you can still pull it off.
Between the time I received the pack, and the article deadline, I was able to make one more trip with this pack, which was a solo weekend. I had used what I had learned on the previous three trips to use this pack more in the manner in which it was intended, at least in my mind. Now that you know how I gathered my information for the review, let’s take a look at what I learned, what I liked, what I loved, and perhaps if there was anything that didn’t work out so well.
Even the day pack that I have used for years has aluminum stays in it. Using this pack the way I did, watching Mike’s videos and talking to him over the phone, things were pretty easy to pick up. The first big deal with the pack is how you pack it. It is critical. Mike shows this in his videos as well. A great first step is using something to give the pack structure, like a bed mat. It allows the pack to stand up, opens up the interior, gives it a uniform shape, and can even provide padding where it rests on you. I think a common way for doing this is a closed cell foam mat, or a self-inflating style, like a Therm-a-Rest. The pad I used was an inflatable style, with insulation, and I put just a puff or two of breath into to give it some structure once in place and it worked great. The next big thing with this pack is actually how you pack the contents. Just like you would a large, internal framed multiday pack, you want to pack the light, and larger volume stuff toward the bottom, like your sleeping bag. Heavier stuff should be higher in the pack, and close to the spine, rather than way away from your body. While this is important in both types of packs, I think the structure of framed packs just makes errors more forgiving, although no less important. There is one more really big trick to using this bag, and the rest becomes my observations of strengths and weaknesses. That trick is planning the volume that the pack will end up when fully packed.
I mentioned earlier in the article that the compression straps on the side were a necessity and this is why. If you fill the pack to full volume, it is a no brainer. You just let out the compression straps, pack it full, and then cinch them down. While I did that in messing around with the pack, I never did it on a real trip. When you fill it up to less than full volume is when you have to plan. You want the pack filled evenly from bottom to top and make the reduction in volume by making it smaller in diameter. If you don’t, you will just end up with a lump of stuff sitting in the bottom of the pack, and it won’t carry well. This is not at all as difficult as I make it sound, but it is critical to getting great performance out of this pack. It simply involves tightening down the compression straps to a little bit larger than you need and then fill up the pack evenly from top to bottom, and then use the straps to compress everything nicely. It’s a wonderful design.
Another trick I used with this pack was for waterproofing. Most backpacks require extra protection of some sort and this one was seemed to be begging for a liner instead of a cover. Duluth Pack sells bag liners on their website in various sizes. They are 6 mil polyethylene are some really, really tough liners. For my outings, I used a 30 gallon, 3 mil industrial garbage bags. Mine are bright orange and could always be used as a multi-purpose poncho, make-shift shelter or signaling device.
My first thought when I saw this pack was that “leather straps cannot be comfortable.” Surprisingly, I had no issue with the straps at all. Once the pack is packed correctly, I carry the majority of the weight on my hips, and I was able to carry the pack for long distances in comfort. That is something I cannot even say about some smaller, modern material day packs.
The pockets on the outside carry plenty of volume. I like my tarps on the large side and I was able to stuff my 10’x10’ tarp into one of the pockets. In the other I had ropes, anchors, gloves and other kit that did not need to be on the outside of the pack. There was plenty of room in those pockets. The space behind the pockets is especially nice, and is much deeper than you would think. It was perfect for slipping a Bahco Laplander saw into and not worrying about where it the pack it was. I was also able to put a machete in those sleeves as well. Since these pockets are on the back, and not off to the sides, wearing this pack is where the difference is really noticeable.
With my build, the pack is about the same width as me. Height-wise, it is not really above my shoulders. When I carried the pack through brush, thickets and other tight stuff, it was not a hindrance at all. I could fit in tight spots without banging into stuff, and never got caught or hung up on stuff. That is quite impressive considering the large volume of this pack and I am more than happy with how well this pack does off trail.
As with all my reviews, I generally don’t keep everything all “puppies and ice cream” happy. If there is something non-positive worth noting, I note it. There is nothing like that at all with this pack, but there are a couple small things to consider, in case you want a pack like this. The first is more of a nitpick, and it is on the axe sleeve. If you are going to carry an axe, you probably are not going for long distance, all day hiking. Even so, the sleeve works fine, but is a considerable distance from your back. It tends to add weight where it isn’t optimum to add weight. I don’t have a good answer, but it would be nice to be able to get that sleeve closer to your body.
Next, is not even a complaint, it’s more of a caution. Since this is a big pack, doesn’t have a frame and load lifters and all the fancy things a modern pack does, you don’t want to overweight this pack. I found that I could “weight out” this pack long before I “volumed out” the pack, if that makes any sense. If you use this pack as intended, like a bushcrafter pack, you will love it. Sleeping bag, pot, tarp, hammock, it works out great. If you want to carry a three or four season tent, lots of cooking gear, water filter, all kinds of electronics, and treat it like I see most people do their backpacking, this may not be the pack for you. I would probably recommend something with an internal frame, load lifter straps and those types of features.
Again, not a bad thing, just something to know before you get into a pack like this. Personally, I love camping in the way this pack was purposely and thoughtfully designed for. It fills a big void for me personally and has gone to the very top of my list of gear that I would not want to part with. That list only contains three or four items, so that is impressive.
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