When designing our Assynt Backpack, we weren't trying to hide its influences. With some of the most iconic alpine and mountaineering backpacks at the forefront of our minds, we set about creating something that was at once a homage to those classic designs, while also making sure it innovated on them enough to create a true all-rounder - a modern alpine backpack equally at home in the city as well as in the hills.
The design process got us to thinking about those classic packs, though. Designed by iconic figures such as Dana Gleason and Yvon Chouinard, these packs were part of historic first ascents, well before textile innovations of the present day. Hand cut and hand stitched, they were true "built to last" items.
To celebrate their role in the history of mountaneering and alpinism, we've gathereed a list of five we count among the best. Though no longer availabe for purchase, that doesn't mean you won't still be seeing them out and about - many of the originals are still in use today!
1. The Jensen Backpack - Rivendell Mountain Works
Necessity is the mother of invention, and that's precisely why Don Jensen started designing and hand-making his own mountaneering equipment - because he couldn't afford anything else. Little did he know that the curious shape and design of the Jensen backpack - a frameless cloth backpack, frequently described as a bumbag stitched to twin scuba canisters - would go on to become one of the most iconic designs in backpack history. Rivendell Mountain Works - the company he founded in 1970 with Larry Horton - sold some thousand packs before Rivendell folded in 1981. Unfortunately, Don himself didn't live to see the legacy of his pack, being killed in a cycling accident in Scotland in 1973. In honour of the design, Eric Hardee still makes bespoke Jensen's to order, hand made in his off-the-grid workshop.
2. Karrimor K100 Whillans Alpiniste
Don Whillans was a legend of alpinism, with many (potentially apocryphal) stories attributed to his name (on meeting some ill equipped climbers on an ascent, he famously quipped "You may be going a lot higher than you think!"). On visiting Mike Parsons of Karrimor to request a bespoke backpack for his own ascents, one of the most important alpine backpacks of all time was created. With minimal input on the design from Whillans, the bag was the result of Parsons' profound skill in design. The K100 Whillans Alpiniste quickly became a benchmark in alpine gear, and is still revered today.
3. Chouinard Equipment backpack
Chouinard equipment - the company that became Black Diamond in 1989 - wasn't just an equipment company, It was the creative outlet for one of Climbing's most pioneering figures, Yvon Chouinard. Whether he was inventing the sport of ice climbing, or laying the groundwork for modern sport climbing, Chouinard wasn't just pushing boundaries, he was creating whole new paradigms. The Chouinard catalogue of the time was the go-to publication to source alpine and climbing gear, and it was healthily populated by some of Chouinard's own creations - including, in 1972, a small range of his own soft packs. While more than just a single pack, the likes of the Creag a Dubh and Fish Pack take their rightful place in the history of alpine equipment.
4. Swiss Army Backpack
The quintessential bit of Military carry, The Swiss Army Salt & Pepper backpack isn't just a classic, it's been reinvented and revisited so often that the same design is still with us today. Even the material itself has an amazing story - created from a blend of nettle and cotton fibres, it was an effort to conserve their limited cotton supply during WWII. In fact, we loved the story so much we used it as the basis for our Bannoch Backpack and Bannoch Messenger - both made from a modern re-engineering of the same nettle blend fabric, and both paying subtle homage to the timeless design.
5. Kletterwerks Terraplane - Dana Gleason
Well before Dana Gleason founded Mystery Ranch - makers of world-famous military, industrial, and consumer packs - there was an original company. Founded in the 1970s, Kletterworks - a crude translation of "climbing factory" - was Gleason's first outlet for an almost unparalleled eye for pack design. The Terraplane was the company jewel. Even after decades of design work, Gleason is still on record as saying the original Terraplane as his favourite item he's worked on.