The Things We Carry
The Rucksack That Came in from the Cold War
By Tamia Nelson
January 15, 2002
Most paddlers are pack rats. Few of us will
turn down a chance to acquire a new piece of gear, and even fewer can
bring themselves to discard an old one, however little-used or worn. I'm
no exception to this rule. Fittingly, pack rat that I am, packs are high
on my list of collectible gear. A quick look around the tottering shack
that we call our "boat-shed" proves this beyond any hope of appeal.
First off, though, honesty compels me to admit that there are no boats
in the boat-shed at present. The two kayaks that used to hang from the
ceiling in webbing slings are gone. (Even pack rats have to work within
constraints of space and budget, after all.) Their place has been taken
by two pack canoes, but in deference to an unusually mild winter, these
delightful little boats are still sitting on an outside rack, under a
white pine, waiting their chance to explore any lead that might open in
the new ice. In the meantime, they serve as a food dump for the Red Guard
(Farwell's name for the resident red
squirrels). There's also a twenty-foot freight canoe resting on a
rack attached to the shed, however, so it's still a boat-shed in fact as
well as in name, at least by association.
Back to packs. They take up most of the space in the shed. And we've
got all kinds, from my old internal-frame climbing pack, studded with
zippers and lashing-points, to the battered aluminum pack-frame we use to
bring 5-gallon cans of K-1 kerosene home from the little Ser-Sta-Gro in
town. Not surprisingly, we also have three Adirondack pack-baskets, a
harlequin wardrobe of waterproof bagsnearly all of them better at
holding water in than keeping it out, unfortunatelyand a
dozen of the big, heavy canvas envelopes known as Duluth sacks.
Now Duluth sacks and pack-baskets are wonderful things, and it's hard
to imagine embarking on a canoe trip of any length without bringing at
least one of each. We've even used Duluth sacks on kayak excursions. But
the pack that I use most often, and the one I'd be least happy to part
with, isn't a Duluth sack. It isn't in the boat-shed, either. It's in the
house, hanging from a hook near the door, ready to go at a moment's
What is it? Just an old German canvas rucksack, of a type long
discarded by the Bundeswehr (the post-war German Army). I found it many
years ago in an Army-Navy store in Glens Falls, New York, and it was love
at first sight. Farwell was very understanding. In fact, he was so taken
with my new companion that he went looking for one of his own, and in
time his search was rewarded. Now we're a contented ménage à
I'll be the first to admit, however, that my old rucksack really
wasn't much to look at, even when I first saw it on the shelf. The
original ownerhis initials, "A.W.," can be found on the back panel,
carefully executed in indelible red inkobviously wasn't one to baby
his gear. When I took his old rucksack home with me, the canvas had
already faded to a dull grey-green. It also had suffered a few wounds in
action. Each tear had been tidily patched, however.
This was more than a decade ago. Today the rucksack has been bleached
by sun, wind, and water until it's almost white. And it's sustained a few
more wounds, I'm afraid, though none has yet proved mortal. I've tried to
copy A.W.'s neat repairs, and I've mostly succeeded. So even if my
rucksack is in its dotage, it's still got a couple of years to go.
That's a good thing, too. Surplus rucksacks like mine have just about
disappeared, along with many of the Army-Navy stores that sold them.
Armies all over the world have now embraced nylon to the exclusion of all
other materials. Cotton canvas is hopelessly passé, and in any case
no warrior worth his MREs would be seen carrying a frameless rucksack
My requirements are different, however. And my rucksack meets my needs
to perfection. A three-hour walk in the woods? I grab the pack as I head
out the door, and I'm ready to go. An overnight paddle to a nearby
beaver-pond? Same thing, with just one more stop in the boat-shed to pick
up paddles, life-vest, and sleeping bag. Then I'm on my way. Elapsed
time? Five minutes, tops. Planning doesn't get any easier.
What the secret? Nothing exotic. I just follow the advice of the Sage
of Walden: "Simplify, simplify." And that's that.
Like my rucksack. It has no frame. It doesn't need one. Even with 25
pounds in it, the bag carries effortlessly. It has two outside pockets,
each one large enough for a one-quart water bottle. There are NO ZIPPERS
to jam or break. Anywhere. As for the pack itself, it's a single
one-cubic-foot sack with a draw-string closure. (Actually, there's an
inside pocket against the back. It was intended for a radio, I think, but
I put my poncho in it.) The sack has a double bottom to resist wear and
damp. That's a very good idea. I've yet to paddle any boat that didn't
have a bit of water sloshing about in the bilges sooner or later. And the
pack opens exactly where it ought to: at the top. No zippered panels for
me, thanks! Yet the sack's gaping maw closes up tight, and is covered by
a large flap. The flap, in turn, is lined with heavy vinyl to protect the
pack's contents from rain. It's held down with two sturdy leather straps,
each fastened by a simple tongue-and-eyelet buckle. The shoulder straps?
Heavy cotton webbing. Unlike nylon, they don't slide off my shoulders.
Unlike leather, they don't become sodden and stretch in the rain. Unlike
lighter webbing, they don't curl up and gall me.
Perfection? I think so. The rucksack's not waterproof, of course,
although the canvas resists light rain and spray surprisingly well.
Still, anything that will be damaged by water goes into a waterproof sack
or envelope. For most things, doubled plastic bags are all that's needed.
Is that it? Not quite. I use my rucksack so often because it's easy to
keep ready. The contents change with the seasons, but they don't change
very much. I've just dumped them out on the floor beside my desk. Here's
what I've found: A poncho. (Not the best raingear for a boat, I admit,
but a first-rate shelter in camp, particularly when it's paired with
Farwell's.) Spare pair of socks. Bandanna. Balaklava (even in summer). A
pair of mittens (I substitute gloves in summer). A down vest. A small,
covered aluminum billy, packed with enough food for 3-4 meals. A big
steel cup. Steel spoon. Water-bottle. A sturdy sheath knife. Match-safe.
Candle stub. My Silva Ranger compass. A mini-Maglite. A first-aid kit
(ACE bandage, bulky gauze compress, adhesive tape, aspirin). A tiny
bottle of water-purification tablets. Toilet paper. Tampons. (You'll know
if you need 'em!) Nylon cord. Needle and thread. A compact pair of 7x26
binoculars. A notebook and pencil.
Anything else? Yes. I add a mosquito headnet in summer and a light
sleeping bag on overnight trips. (The bag is lashed to four D-rings on
the flap.) I also tuck a mapin a waterproof envelopeunder the
pack-flap whenever I'm venturing beyond my home waters. And that's all.
It's a spartan kit, to be sure, but it's more than enough to navigate
safely and live comfortably, even for a couple of days. And I can carry
bag and baggage right along with my canoe over even the roughest portage.
That's quite a lot to ask of a faded canvas rucksackan aging
warrior who came in from the Cold War. No matter, though. He's still up
to his job, and I hope he will be for a long time to come. One thing's
for sure: when this old soldier finally fades away, I'll certainly miss
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