Kelty Backpacks, Innovation and Style
Text + Photos: Mike Blanchard
Gear | Recreational backpacking as we know it today was invented after the Second World War by people who had a love of the outdoors and hiking and wanted to make the equipment lighter using modern, space-age materials and ergonomic concepts.
Before the 1950s, backpackers used army surplus pack boards for heavy loads or soft rucksack-type packs. What we recognize as a backpackers' pack did not exist.
Inspired by the writings of John Muir and the photographs of Ansel Adams, people wanted to spend days out on the trail seeing the natural wonders of America. They wanted to leave less of an impact on the landscape and travel at a walking pace. As anyone who has carried their home and food on their back can tell you, lighter is better. The post-war era saw a huge boom in the outdoor sports equipment business. The moment was right for new things.
Asher “Dick” Kelty was a carpenter who had moved out to Southern California from Duluth, Minnesota. He loved hiking and in the early 1950s had an idea to use nylon and thin-wall aluminum to make a lightweight, more comfortable pack. He and his wife Nena began making prototypes and in 1952 started a business making and selling packs out of their garage. They sold 29 Kelty packs the first year. Early on, Kelty made two models: the Mountaineer priced at $27 and the Backpacker priced at $24.
The first pack bags were green because they were sewed out of surplus military parachutes. The tubular frames were curved to match the curve of your spine. The pack bag was secured to the frame using clevis pins.
The packs featured padded shoulder straps made of military webbing. After using the first packs, Kelty realized that if he attached a belt at the bottom of the frame to ride just above the hips, the weight of the load could be carried much more comfortably. The design started off with a plain buckle but soon evolved into a quick-release buckle and eventually a padded hip strap.
Kelty quickly began experimenting with upgrades and developing accessories for the frames and the bags. At first the pack bag was just a large single compartment. Then they added a small compartment below the main bag. They began offering zippered side and front pockets on the pack bags and an aluminum bar that went around the opening of the main compartment that held the bag open. Later they developed extension frames that added to the top of the frame so you could strap more equipment on.
Kelty was not the only guy working on developing backpacks and outdoor gear. At the same time, in Southern California, Jack Stephenson of Warmlite and Ralph Drollinger of A-16 were working on packs, tents and sleeping gear. Drollinger, who was an aerospace engineer, refined the concept of the hip belt, and there are Kelty packs out there with early A-16 hip-belt assemblies on them.
In 1950, Norwegian Ake Nordin was developing aluminum-framed, lightweight packs as well. Nordin’s company, Fjällräven, is still in business making outdoor equipment.
Early on, Kelty enlisted hikers to test and evaluate the packs, and as his products began to be seen out on the trail and hikers saw how comfortable and capable the packs were, the business grew. Eventually Kelty, the business, moved from Glendale to Sun Valley, California, and put it on their patch. Anyone who has seen the early Kelty triangular label will know. In a quirky bit of labeling, the patch featured the zip code of the company and a place for the owner to write their name. The early packs can be identified by the embroidering of a realistic picture of a mountain on the sewn-on patch. Later labels used a more cubist rendering of a mountain.
In some circles, external frame packs are seen as anachronisms. The trend now is toward internal-frame packs that carry the load closer to the body and are more flexible. These packs have become very popular, especially for climbers and people involved in activities that require more physical balance. However, the external-frame pack still has its advantages. It is able to carry heavier and larger loads more comfortably than an internal-frame design, and because it carries the load away from your body it is more comfortable in hot weather, allowing air to circulate between the pack and your body.
Dick Kelty passed away in 2004 at age 85. He left behind a sterling reputation within the industry. A man known for fairness, honesty and innovation.
Kelty still offers a version of the classic, aluminum-framed pack that is very close to Dick Kelty’s original product from the garage in Glendale. There is a brisk trade in vintage Kelty packs, and there are forums for collectors and users. There does not seem to be a comprehensive list of Kelty models and evolution, but I am sure someone out there will get around to putting that together. If you come across one of these gems, don’t be afraid to give it a try.
Jerry Blanchard Remembers His Early Kelty Experience
Text: Jerry Blanchard
Sidebar | In the 1950s, my father, Burt Blanchard, was scoutmaster of Troop 25 in Glendale, California. Our troop often did hikes in the Sierra mountains, and Dad wanted to get every scout a pack frame of his own.
Dick Kelty and his wife, Nena, lived in Glendale, and Dick had recently (1952) invented a pack frame made of welded aluminum tubing with olive green webbing and cloth parts that Nena sewed. I am not sure how Dad found out about Dick Kelty, but we think in 1953 or '54 he took me and my brother, Sterling, and I think Mom, too, to Kelty's workshop in his little garage. I was about 14 years old. Dad purchased some Kelty pack frames for the four of us in our family.
Dad asked Dick for advice on making pack frames for the scout troop. I think Kelty's pack frames were $24 then, which was more than many of the scouts could afford. I remember Dick Kelty as being very helpful to Dad. I remember him taking measurements so he could get us the right pack-frame setups.
Dad designed a pack frame with two vertical bars made of oak flooring strips, and with curved cross bars of aluminum alloy riveted to the oak. We made one for all the scouts in the troop. I think the aluminum came from Palley's War Surplus, located down on San Fernando Boulevard, where Dad bought much material, including the sheets of aluminum that we built a boat from. I remember helping make the pack frames in our workshop at home. I think the webbing and shoulder pads and maybe some "D" rings came from Kelty. The homemade pack frames were inexpensive to build and worked well, though they were not as elegant as the Kelty frames.