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Duluth Packs: specialized pack for canoe adventures...

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If you've been to Northern Tier, or done a trip on your own through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, Quetico Provincial Park, or Voyageurs National Park, you might have come across a very specialized kind of backpack called the "Duluth pack".

Here's a few observations that might help explain how a Duluth pack is different from the typical REI backpack...

  • Duluth packs are flatter, wider, and shorter than your typical backpack and they almost never have a frame. That's because they are specifically designed for long canoe trips.
  • Their odd geometry is designed to fit snugly in the bottom of a canoe, putting as much weight down and center as possible. A Duluth pack helps balance your canoe and stabilize it, while your typical backpack may be hard to fit in the craft and may put more weight higher than you'd like.
  • The Duluth pack is tough and weatherproof. It's not made of lightweight nylon because it doesn't need to lighten your load. But it does need to withstand getting splashed on all day, wacked by paddles, and mistreated during portages. 
  • The Duluth pack does not lend itself to distributing loads vertically. A typical backpack is high and may have straps so you can tie on sleeping bags or tents. The Duluth pack is meant to stay low --- typically at and below your shoulder height. This lets you strap the Duluth pack on your back even as you hoist a canoe overhead to traverse a portage. 

A Duluth pack is optimized to perform well on a canoe venture....but the very things that make it a great pack for canoe adventures make it terrible as your "default" packpack or as your backpacking pack. I can think of a couple obvious "cons" to these little gems...

  • The Duluth pack is heavy (even empty, it's made of thick canvas, has thick plastic linings to make it water resistant, and has leather straps). 
  • The Duluth pack is expensive. It will outlast your regular backpack by decades....but a small Duluth pack costs over $200 and the typical packs run more like $400.

Anybody else here ever use a Duluth pack?  What do you think about it?

BTW:  You can see what these look like here...



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These packs remind me of the school backpacks of the late 70s early 80s.

Closest I've had to these is a canvas European Rucksack and a canvas Yucca Ranger. Both packs  had the straps bust on them.  I use a medium A.L.I.C.E. pack for my canoeing and sailing adventures. Cheap, almost indestructible ( "If it is designed to survive combat, it may survive Boy Scouts."), attaches to thwarts easily, and can use it for backpacking by attaching it to a frame.

The A.L.I.C.E. pack was purchased used in 1988/89 and is still going. One repair, the flap pocket was redone, and updated the shoulder straps (still have the original ones as a backup still.



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You explained it pretty well. Duluth Packs are prefect for canoe trips with portaging. They are terrible for everything else. They could even carry the kitchen sink.

What makes the Duluth special for the portaging is they have the durability to load and unload a lot of heavy gear easier in unstable shorelines with slippery slimy rocks and shifting sand. One pack can hold the equivalent of 4 backpacks. Durability is important because they are pulled out of the canoes in one motion and tossed several feet to land. Because they hold so much gear, they get heavy quick and don't have the adjustability of backpacks for comfort. Using big Duluths are desired so that the crew reduces the number of hikes carry get all their gear. 


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