Making An Improvised Backpack

An Improvised Backpack

On many of my hiking trips I’ve witnessed first-hand how reliant people have become on their gadgets and gear, to the point where they often carry things they are “supposed” to carry, but have little or no experience of how to properly use them. Of course this is not true of everyone or even most people (thank goodness), but I experience it often enough to be of concern.

Don’t get me wrong, I love gear as much as the next person, but I want to re-introduce the concept of learning and practicing core outdoor skills for simple tasks such as fire starting, knot tying, knife safety and other basic outdoor skills. I’m not getting all bushcrafty on you I promise (not yet), but the underlying premise of the growing bushcraft movement is the fundamental understanding of how to survive and even thrive in the outdoors with the most basic of gear, harnessing what nature has provided, and leveraging your skills – with an emphasis on developing your skills. After all, knowledge weighs nothing and you carry it with you wherever you go.

Ross Gilmore, of Wood Trekker, is one of my favorite outdoor bloggers. He is a perfect example of someone who takes great pride in practicing and fine-tuning his core outdoor skills and sharing them with us via his blog. If you’re not already subscribed to his blog you’re missing out on a treasure trove of outdoor information and knowledge. And if you like knives and axes then his blog is a must read!

Ross was kind enough to write a guest post for Brian’s Backpacking Blog to kick off the series that I am in the process of writing, focusing on developing outdoor skills and learning to improvise rather than a reliance on gear and gadgets. Carry less and do more – hmm, that sounds familiar.

What better piece of gear to start with than the trusty backpack. It is without a doubt one of the most important pieces of gear that we carry, and one of the big three. But what would you do if it got ripped or badly damaged while on the trail? Ross has the answer…

An Improvised Backpack by Ross Gilmore
Backpacking technology has come a very long way in a short period of time. It wasn’t too long ago that most of use were dragging around packs with frames made out of steel tubing and a main compartment made of 1/8 inch thick, just short of bullet-proof, material.

In a matter of a few decades, our packs have become exponentially lighter, allowing us to move faster, go deeper into the woods, and visit locations previously unthinkable.

So, you find yourself on one such adventure. For the past three days you have been pushing into the forest, with each day setting a new personal best for the number of miles traveled. The trail is becoming less and less noticeable with each mile traveled. And of course, that is when it happens; a rock gives way under your foot, you loose your balance, and tumble down the side of the road, right into a patch of huckleberry bushes. You get up and dust yourself off. Luckily you are just fine, but you can’t say the same for your pack. The bushes have ripped it to shreds; the contents of your pack littering the hill. For a moment you start to miss your pack from your glory days as a boy scout-the one with the triple reinforced external frame that weighed 8lb.

You quickly shake those thoughts out of your head. There is no need for such drastic measures. A little bit of improvisation will do just fine. After all, worse case scenario, you can just gather the contents of your pack into your poncho or tarp, and sling it over your shoulder. There is however a way that you can make the trip back home a little bit easier. With just some minimal effort, you can put together a very serviceable backpack for the trip home.

Gather three branches. They should be just thick enough so they don’t bend too easily. Arrange them in a triangle on the ground. The triangle should be large enough so that when the bottom side is placed at hip level, the top corner sticks just over your shoulders, and the remaining two corners protrude on either side of your hips.

An Improvised Backpack

Make some crude notches at the places where the branches meet.

An Improvised Backpack

Using some string, or even remains from your pack, lash the branches together. You should now have a strong triangular frame.

An Improvised Backpack

Take the shoulder straps from your, now retired, pack. If they are sawn together at a central point, do not try to separate them. If they are independent straps, tie them together. Place the tied shoulder straps over the top corner of the triangle.

An Improvised Backpack

Then wrap them around the two branches and pull them through the frame. That way they will hold the weight of the pack without you having to tie them individually to the frame. Then tie the bottom part of each strap to the corresponding corner of the frame.

An Improvised Backpack

The result is a pack frame, ready for use. This is a good time to adjust it for fit. Loosen and tighten the straps until they feel comfortable. Some basic knowledge of friction knots will go a long way here.

An Improvised Backpack

An Improvised Backpack

Now that the frame is ready, we can start working on the pack itself. Pull out your poncho or tarp, and place it on the ground. Arrange your gear on top of the poncho.

An Improvised Backpack

Now, fold the bottom of the poncho over the gear.

An Improvised Backpack

Then fold the sides, and then the top. We are now ready to connect the pack to the frame.

An Improvised Backpack

For a small pack, one that is going to be somewhat smaller than the frame, I like to create a net on the frame so the pack is supported. To do that I simply tie a rope in the center of the bottom branch, and then do a cris-cross pattern going up the frame. The exact design, or for that matter how you tie it makes no difference. As long as there are ropes going back and forth, it will work just fine.

An Improvised Backpack

Then place the pack on the frame and repeat the same tying process over the pack, lashing it to the frame. Again, the exact pattern does not matter.

An Improvised Backpack

The one thing I like to do is to not tie the top of the pack, but rather simply tuck in the top flap under some of the ropes. That will allow the pack to be opened so you can get to the contents while you are making your way back home.

An Improvised Backpack

And here is the finished pack.

An Improvised Backpack

If you take some time and adjust the straps, it will be about as comfortable as an old ALICE pack.

As they say, knowledge weighs nothing, but a pack with a steel frame weights 8lb. Well, they don’t say that, but they should. Some know how and improvisation can allow you to leave the weight of that bomb-proof pack behind, and trust that on the rare occasion where the need arose, you would be equal to the task.

Thanks again to Ross for writing this guest post to kick of my series focusing on developing skills. Be sure to check out Ross’ Wood Trekker blog for lots of other great outdoor blog posts and a wealth of bushcraft information.

Be Sociable, Share!
  • Ross Gilmore

    Thanks Brian.

    • http://www.briangreen.net Brian Green

      Hey no, thank you. It’s a great post and really nicely positions my thought around using skills and improvisation instead of relying too heavily on gear. Great photos too!

  • Ross Gilmore

    Thanks Brian.

  • http://thehikehouse.com/sedona-trail-finder Kate Latierra

    That was an amazing post. So agree. We’re all so used to our gadgets and thingies we forget the core outdoor skills. Make use of what nature has available–and I think there’s a lot we can use. We just have to use it with our brain–creative sense and common sense . Not it’s time I look around my Sedona trail and practice this. Thanks again for sharing.

  • http://listeningtothewinds.blogspot.com/ Brad Neal

    You’re right, people do become overly dependent of their gear. I really think this is due to society saying “when all else fails, our product wont.” I believe this started happening on the mass after WWII, but what am I to say. I am just starting out in backpacking, but see this same thing every where..

    • http://www.briangreen.net Brian Green

      I don’t know when or how it happened, but I’ve seen it first-hand and it bothers me enough to try and address it here. I’ve even seen people who (believe it or not) don’t know how to properly strike a match. I might actually write a post about that.

      Whatever the cause, I’d like to encourage everyone who spends time outdoors, whether they are a complete beginner or hardened expert, to learn core skills, practice them on a regular basis so that they become second-nature, and share them with others when appropriate.

      I also strongly believe that a lot of these types of skills are just as applicable in an urban environment as they are on the trail or in the backcountry.

      • Ross Gilmore

        For some reason people have become very polarized over the issue of skill vs. technology. One camp seems to take pride in not knowing skills like fire lighting because their gear makes it unnecessary, while the other camp insists that any gear that is made in the past three decades is not worth carrying. I think the two sides are complementary. There is no reason why I should not take advantage of modern technology, and there is no reason I shouldn’t know what to do if it fails. That is why I like this blog so much. It seems to breach the gap between the two opposing views.

        • http://listeningtothewinds.blogspot.com/ Brad Neal

          I noticed last year, alot of people cant even stand to be out for more than just a few days before arguing with each other. Let alone even attempt to tune up those skills that they may need out there. I mean, I was teaching my daughter and my girlfriend’s son how to start the fire with a flint and steel kit, but you dont see things like that too often..

  • Brad’s Web Designs

    You’re right, people do become overly dependent of their gear. I really think this is due to society saying “when all else fails, our product wont.” I believe this started happening on the mass after WWII, but what am I to say. I am just starting out in backpacking, but see this same thing every where..

  • anhurset

    In the primitive camping circles this frame is referred to as the Roycroft pack frame and the “pack” is usually made from a blanket. This version however looks much lighter and far more comfortable.

    • http://www.briangreen.net Brian Green

      I was not familiar with that particular name, so thanks for sharing. I found a link to the Roycroft pack here. I could see this working with a blanket or tarp if you are carrying one.

      • Matthew Pittman

        It would work better using a blanket, as that would be one of the last things you need at camp, while the poncho might be needed on the trail, leaving you to hurriedly re-wrap your gear while you and it get soaked.

        • http://www.briangreen.net Brian Green

          That’s true, but this was just one example. Using a blanket or tarp, depending on what you are carrying, would be a good choice. I don’t ever carry a blanket.

  • anhurset

    In the primitive camping circles this frame is referred to as the Roycroft pack frame and the “pack” is usually made from a blanket. This version however looks much lighter and far more comfortable.

  • http://www.briangreen.net/ Brian Green

    Hey no, thank you. It’s a great post and really nicely positions my thought around using skills and improvisation instead of relying too heavily on gear. Great photos too!

  • http://www.briangreen.net/ Brian Green

    I don’t know when or how it happened, but I’ve seen it first-hand and it bothers me enough to try and address it here. I’ve even seen people who (believe it or not) don’t know how to properly strike a match. I might actually write a post about that.

    Whatever the cause, I’d like to encourage everyone who spends time outdoors, whether they are a complete beginner or hardened expert, to learn core skills, practice them on a regular basis so that they become second-nature, and share them with others when appropriate.

    I also strongly believe that a lot of these types of skills are just as applicable in an urban environment as they are on the trail or in the backcountry.

  • http://www.briangreen.net/ Brian Green

    I was not familiar with that particular name, so thanks for sharing. I found a link to the Roycroft pack here. I could see this working with a blanket or tarp if you are carrying one.

  • Ross Gilmore

    For some reason people have become very polarized over the issue of skill vs. technology. One camp seems to take pride in not knowing skills like fire lighting because their gear makes it unnecessary, while the other camp insists that any gear that is made in the past three decades is not worth carrying. I think the two sides are complementary. There is no reason why I should not take advantage of modern technology, and there is no reason I shouldn’t know what to do if it fails. That is why I like this blog so much. It seems to breach the gap between the two opposing views.

  • whysprs

    I noticed last year, alot of people cant even stand to be out for more than just a few days before arguing with each other. Let alone even attempt to tune up those skills that they may need out there. I mean, I was teaching my daughter and my girlfriend’s son how to start the fire with a flint and steel kit, but you dont see things like that too often..

  • Matthew Pittman

    It would work better using a blanket, as that would be one of the last things you need at camp, while the poncho might be needed on the trail, leaving you to hurriedly re-wrap your gear while you and it get soaked.

  • Brandon Reed

    Never seem this before…that’s not saying much, but good to know. Thanks for posting!

    • http://www.briangreen.net Brian Green

      Yeah it’s kind new to me too, or at least I didn’t know it had a particular name and was a well-known technique. Ross has a lot of great information about this stuff.

  • Brandon Reed

    Never seem this before…that’s not saying much, but good to know. Thanks for posting!

  • http://www.indianbackpacker.com Manu

    Pretty Interesting concept for backpacking !!

    • http://www.briangreen.net Brian Green

      Which? The making of an improvised backpack, or my plan to reintroduce the learning of core skills over reliance on gear?

      • Manu

        The improvised backpack

  • http://www.indianbackpacker.com/ Manu

    Pretty Interesting concept for backpacking !!

  • http://www.briangreen.net/ Brian Green

    That’s true, but this was just one example. Using a blanket or tarp, depending on what you are carrying, would be a good choice. I don’t ever carry a blanket.

  • http://www.briangreen.net/ Brian Green

    Which? The making of an improvised backpack, or my plan to reintroduce the learning of core skills over reliance on gear?

  • http://www.briangreen.net/ Brian Green

    Yeah it’s kind new to me too, or at least I didn’t know it had a particular name and was a well-known technique. Ross has a lot of great information about this stuff.

  • http://bloggen.nordicbushcraft.com/ Johan Forsberg

    I have taught making this frame for a few years and can add a few extra tips and some more info about it. It origins from Korea, Tom Roycroft (Canadian Survival Instructor) was stationed there during the war and saw this that was a lot larger and brought the idea home and made it suit us better.

    To get the lengths right, the 2 long pieces should be about as long as from your armpit to your fingertips and the shorter one as long as from your elbow to your fingertips.

    When putting it together lash it so the long pieces go the wrong way (like this _/ ) that will bring tighten the knots extra hard and you only need to lash it in the top a few times around it. The string can easily be replaced by using roots, nettle cordage and similar if you are after a more “natural look”.

    The shoulder straps can be made of a lot of different materials, seatbelts or other longer straps, socks, sleeping pads, ropes arms on a sweater or for short term willow bark, your imagination is the limit.

    When it comes to what to use as a bag there is no limits there either, old rucksack, sweater, poncho, blanket, tarp, board or maybe you just want to carry home that deer you shot far from home. I have attached 3 pieces of string on mine that from 3 large loops that makes it easier and quicker to attach and lash it all together.

    Just a few extra tips to a brilliant post =)

    • http://www.briangreen.net Brian Green

      Wow thanks for the additional information Johan! As I said, I’m not that familiar with this setup, but from what Ross explained and the other comments it makes great sense and is a good piece of knowledge to know.

      I also was just checking out your own Bushcraft blog which is amazing! You have some really good information there too, so if you don’t mind I’m going to add a direct link here as well.

      Check out Johan’s Nordic Bushcraft blog for some great posts!

      Thanks again Johan.

    • Ross Gilmore

      Thanks for all the extra info Johan. I didn’t know that using your arm was a good way to measure the length. I’ll give it a try next time.

  • http://bloggen.nordicbushcraft.com/ Johan Forsberg

    I have taught making this frame for a few years and can add a few extra tips and some more info about it. It origins from Korea, Tom Roycroft (Canadian Survival Instructor) was stationed there during the war and saw this that was a lot larger and brought the idea home and made it suit us better.

    To get the lengths right, the 2 long pieces should be about as long as from your armpit to your fingertips and the shorter one as long as from your elbow to your fingertips.

    When putting it together lash it so the long pieces go the wrong way (like this \_/ ) that will bring tighten the knots extra hard and you only need to lash it in the top a few times around it. The string can easily be replaced by using roots, nettle cordage and similar if you are after a more “natural look”.

    The shoulder straps can be made of a lot of different materials, seatbelts or other longer straps, socks, sleeping pads, ropes arms on a sweater or for short term willow bark, your imagination is the limit.

    When it comes to what to use as a bag there is no limits there either, old rucksack, sweater, poncho, blanket, tarp, board or maybe you just want to carry home that deer you shot far from home. I have attached 3 pieces of string on mine that from 3 large loops that makes it easier and quicker to attach and lash it all together.

    Just a few extra tips to a brilliant post =)

  • http://www.briangreen.net/ Brian Green

    Wow thanks for the additional information Johan! As I said, I’m not that familiar with this setup, but from what Ross explained and the other comments it makes great sense and is a good piece of knowledge to know.

    I also was just checking out your own Bushcraft blog which is amazing! You have some really good information there too, so if you don’t mind I’m going to add a direct link here as well.

    Check out Johan’s Nordic Bushcraft blog for some great posts!

    Thanks again Johan.

  • Ross Gilmore

    Thanks for all the extra info Johan. I didn’t know that using your arm was a good way to measure the length. I’ll give it a try next time.

  • http://blog.makais.com Todd

    awesome pack, but does not look too comfortable. would definitely work in a pinch!

    • Chris Anderson

      They are actually surprisingly comfortable.  I’ve used them a few times in the courses I teach.

      • http://www.briangreen.net Brian Green

        It looks like it would be comfortable, but that doesn’t always mean that they are in reality – so good to hear. Do you teach how to make these and does your technique differ in any way?

  • http://blog.makais.com/ Todd

    awesome pack, but does not look too comfortable. would definitely work in a pinch!

  • http://listeningtothewinds.blogspot.com/ Brad Neal

    heres some other ideas as well written about back in 1954 in the book wild wood wisdom called a “slack pack” made from a pair of pants.. just a thought 
    http://books.google.com/books?id=jE3SMChsaFkC&pg=PA63&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=4#v=onepage&q&f=false

  • http://listeningtothewinds.blogspot.com/ Brad Neal

    heres some other ideas as well written about back in 1954 in the book wild wood wisdom called a “slack pack” made from a pair of pants.. just a thought 
    http://books.google.com/books?id=jE3SMChsaFkC&pg=PA63&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=4#v=onepage&q&f=false

  • Steve Bunker

    Thanks for the post. I feel that there is no better way to understand than making or doing something. Unfortunately learning by making and doing seems to be too old school for many.

    Just today I was helping some scouts make rope using a simple rope spinner — a pomo rope maker to be more specific. The spectrum of interest ranged from involved to inderferent. A passerby asked me why we were not using a power drill. “It would be easier and faster.” he quipped. “Why make the scouts do all the manual labor?” I explained that I didn’t want to bother with a power cord and drill. He responded, “Use a cordless drill.” Initially I thought he was just being cheeky but I sensed he was honestly questioning why not do it the easiest way.

    I guess for me there is a difference in doing something simply and doing something easily.

    • http://www.briangreen.net Brian Green

      Steve, you’ve summed it up perfectly. I have experienced the same thing to the point where I ask myself why I am trying so hard to share this if no one really cares. It’s a bummer for sure, not sure what the answer is :(

  • Steve Bunker

    Thanks for the post. I feel that there is no better way to understand than making or doing something. Unfortunately learning by making and doing seems to be too old school for many.

    Just today I was helping some scouts make rope using a simple rope spinner — a pomo rope maker to be more specific. The spectrum of interest ranged from involved to inderferent. A passerby asked me why we were not using a power drill. “It would be easier and faster.” he quipped. “Why make the scouts do all the manual labor?” I explained that I didn’t want to bother with a power cord and drill. He responded, “Use a cordless drill.” Initially I thought he was just being cheeky but I sensed he was honestly questioning why not do it the easiest way.

    I guess for me there is a difference in doing something simply and doing something easily.

  • http://www.briangreen.net/ Brian Green

    Steve, you’ve summed it up perfectly. I have experienced the same thing to the point where I ask myself why I am trying so hard to share this if no one really cares. It’s a bummer for sure, not sure what the answer is :(

  • Chris Anderson

    They are actually surprisingly comfortable.  I’ve used them a few times in the courses I teach.

  • http://www.briangreen.net/ Brian Green

    It looks like it would be comfortable, but that doesn’t always mean that they are in reality – so good to hear. Do you teach how to make these and does your technique differ in any way?

  • Ssearnest

    Brian, I’ve been camping/hiking for years, first with the Boy Scouts and later on my own.  I sincerely applaud your effort to promote the use of woods craft skills to make ourselves less dependent on gear.  I look forward to your series.  Great work!

    • http://www.briangreen.net Brian Green

      Thanks, it’s something I am very passionate about and I feel is missing with a lot of other blogs that promote gear and gadgets over core outdoor and woodcraft skills. I’ll be adding more to the series shortly, are there any topics that you would like to see covered in particular?

  • Ssearnest

    Brian, I’ve been camping/hiking for years, first with the Boy Scouts and later on my own.  I sincerely applaud your effort to promote the use of woods craft skills to make ourselves less dependent on gear.  I look forward to your series.  Great work!

  • http://www.briangreen.net/ Brian Green

    Thanks, it’s something I am very passionate about and I feel is missing with a lot of other blogs that promote gear and gadgets over core outdoor and woodcraft skills. I’ll be adding more to the series shortly, are there any topics that you would like to see covered in particular?

  • http://www.kq7a.com Jack Woods

    Hmm, could this be built with just a safety razor blade? It looks like it’d be a small knife at the minimum. (Making reference to the post on substituting a razor blade for a knife)

    • http://www.briangreen.net Brian Green

      I highly doubt it Jack! There’s very little chance that a flimsy razor blade would let you make anything like this unless you take several hours for each cut of the wood. It’s not viable.

      That was kind of my point. Do you carry a tiny sharp blade that is good for only the most basic of lightweight cutting tasks like opening packets of food or cutting small cord, or do you carry something more substantial that you can perform more serious cutting tasks?

      Do you plan for just in case or not? I’m not advocating that people carry just a razor blade, I will openly admit that the smallest blade I will carry on a regular basis is my Leatherman Squirt PS4, but even that would probably not let me make the pack that Ross demonstrates here.

      I love my Mora, Helle, Spyderco, and Koster bushcraft knives, but my compromise is usually my trusty Spyderco Delica 4.

      What type of knife do you carry just out of interest?

  • http://twitter.com/leoland Leandro

    Great post. What bothers me about this though is the fact that such posts are needed. making a pack out of available materials SHOULD be common sense to anyone venturing out… it should not need to be a learned skill. 

  • http://twitter.com/leoland Leandro

    Great post. What bothers me about this though is the fact that such posts are needed. making a pack out of available materials SHOULD be common sense to anyone venturing out… it should not need to be a learned skill. 

  • http://blog.hiking-camping-world.com Jonsky

     My pack would have to be seriously shredded before I consider making one. I’d try wrapping my broken pack with duct tape if I’m feeling lazy. It’s a lot less work and faster.

    Still, this is a good post even though I can’t imagine making one myself ever. Looks like a lot of fun.

    • http://www.briangreen.net Brian Green

      Jonsky, I very much doubt and hope that any of us will realistically be put into this situation. You could say the same of most of the “what if” situations we prepare for with hiking, camping, and survival gear.

      At the very least this post gives you a fundamental understanding of the techniques used to make a pack from scratch. You could employ the same techniques to fix a broken pack just as easily.

      Make sure you’re carrying plenty of duct tape! :-)

  • Erik Schwarzenbach

    I wonder if anybody has tried using a curved stick at the bottom of the triangle.  It might hold the sack away from the body and reduce sweat/moisture.  Then increasing the stretched cord at the bottom of the frame so that the body’s interface to the frame is against the cord rather than rubbing against that bottom stick.

    • http://www.briangreen.net Brian Green

      Erik, that’s really simple and cool. It actually follows the design and evolution of many mass-produced backpacks on the market today. I haven’t tried but will ask Russ if he’s even given it a go.

      Thanks for sharing. If you try it yourself be sure to let us know how it goes.

  • Erik Schwarzenbach

    I wonder if anybody has tried using a curved stick at the bottom of the triangle.  It might hold the sack away from the body and reduce sweat/moisture.  Then increasing the stretched cord at the bottom of the frame so that the body’s interface to the frame is against the cord rather than rubbing against that bottom stick.

  • http://www.briangreen.net/ Brian Green

    Erik, that’s really simple and cool. It actually follows the design and evolution of many mass-produced backpacks on the market today. I haven’t tried but will ask Russ if he’s even given it a go.

    Thanks for sharing. If you try it yourself be sure to let us know how it goes.

  • Nick

    Do you know of any stories where someone had to improvise a pack in a survival situation?

    • http://www.briangreen.net Brian Green

      Yes hundreds.

  • http://www.facebook.com/john.longo.790 John Longo

    90% of life’s obstacles must be faced with what you got on you. I love the impro backpack, but I’d love to know Brian’s choice for handgun hiking carry and what tactical folders he likes.

  • Teaparty Ready

    My old boy scout manual (circa 1959) showed how to use a long sleeved shirt or a light jacked (aka “windbreaker”) as a pack, using the long sleeves as straps. I have lost that old manual and continue to look for a replacement. Worth it’s weight in gold.

    • http://www.briangreen.net Brian Green

      I’m pretty sure I’ve seen that before or had others show me how to do it. Have you tried searching on eBay for a replacement copy?

      • http://survivalknifeguide.net/ Survivalist

        I searched on eBay for something like that but I did not find it.
        But your article is impresive!

  • http://GreenGlobalTravel.com/ Green Global Travel

    Wow thanks for sharing. I never would have thought of doing this before but it seems like a easy and convenient way to backpack. Much better than lugging around a huge pack for sure!