Proto-Pack: A Custom Paraglider Backpack

Long before I was a paraglid­er I was a back­pack­er. I grew up in the time of exter­nal frame packs, lived through the tran­si­tion to inter­nal frame (an Arc’teryx Bora 40 was my first), got into ultra light­weight packs, and only then found paraglid­ing and tem­porar­i­ly for­got about the prin­ci­ples of car­ry­ing a load in the wilder­ness. With a paraglid­er, you don’t need to car­ry it that far. The whole point is to fly.

Still, even­tu­al­ly you land. Per­haps you get into hik­ing up the moun­tain first, as I did. Either way, you’re faced with car­ry­ing the load for a dis­tance fur­ther than most pilots will. Most pilots did NOT get into fly­ing so they could hike. Their needs are met by the cur­rent back­packs on the mar­ket, which could be accu­rate­ly described as “sacks with straps”. Sure, they’re a lit­tle nicer than that, and cer­tain­ly Niviuk has come out recent­ly with packs that are built to car­ry a load, but as an inter­me­di­ate pilot fly­ing most­ly in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, I’ve got spe­cif­ic needs not met by the paraglid­ing pack industry.

So, what are those needs? Here is my ini­tial “wants” list:

  • Tough, rip resistant. 
  • Rea­son­ably lightweight
  • Clean out­side; able to slide through dense brush
  • Acces­si­ble pock­ets for radio/phone/nav device. 
  • Snack/water pock­et. 
  • Frame sup­port, car­ry­ing 40 lbs
  • Pack small, into a paraglid­er harness
  • Giant open­ing to be able to fit har­ness and wing in
  • Hel­met exte­ri­or mount option with net­ting or fabric? 
  • Stop sweat from my back while hik­ing from con­tact­ing the wing inside the backpack

Of course, what you want ini­tial­ly in any project and what you end up with are two dif­fer­ent things. I start­ed out by approach­ing world class gear design­er Dave Schip­per, co-founder of Slot-USA, a desert lifestyle gear company. 

Dave has been in the game a long time and has seen the gear indus­try from pret­ty much every side imag­in­able. He’s been a pro ath­lete (cycling), a moun­taineer on K2, been on the design side from con­cept to car­ry, has exten­sive (you might say exhaus­tive) expe­ri­ence on a sewing machine, has worked both over­seas and domes­ti­cal­ly in man­u­fac­tur­ing, and has more time above 10,000′ (more like 20,000′) than most paraglid­er pilots.

I was for­tu­nate enough to meet Dave on a canyoneer­ing trip north of Moab a few years back. He is the con­sum­mate out­door pro­fes­sion­al, an impres­sion that began from the time we shoul­dered our bags; he had made his own, specif­i­cal­ly for canyoneer­ing. At every belay he was ready; smooth and com­pe­tent with the casu­al excel­lence of some­one who has done the same task well thou­sands of times already.

We stayed in touch after that trip, and I would occa­sion­al­ly men­tion the dearth of good paraglid­er bags on the mar­ket. Busy with launch­ing Slot (a desert lifestyle & gear com­pa­ny), he could­n’t spare time ini­tial­ly for my ultra-niche ask of a one-off paraglid­er back­pack. Even­tu­al­ly he made a propo­si­tion: I come to his home base in Moab and we’d spend 3 or 4 days togeth­er in a sewing bee mak­ing up a cus­tom pack. I booked my ticket.

Of course, build­ing a pack isn’t about just sewing, it’s all about deci­sions. Those deci­sions start NOT with how the pack should be made, but what you want the pack to DO. I made out my list and sent it to Dave. Then we start­ed trim­ming it down.

Now, I’m not the world’s great­est paraglid­er pilot. I’m com­pe­tent enough to fly on my own and enjoy it, and at this point in my fly­ing pro­gres­sion I gen­er­al­ly make safe deci­sions. That, by the way, was arrived at after not mak­ing safe deci­sions and going through 3 crash­es in about 18 months, any of which could have killed or maimed me. I walked away from all of them by the grace of some­thing greater than I and start­ed mak­ing safer decisions.

Not being superb means it’s more like­ly I’m going to hike more than a bet­ter pilot. I like hik­ing, so I don’t con­sid­er it a penal­ty. Still, there’s no sense in wear­ing a hair shirt if you don’t have to, and car­ry­ing a sack with straps for a few miles in the sum­mer heat is def­i­nite­ly “hair shirt territory”.

Let’s start with what I did­n’t like about the packs I was see­ing. They were too light, had no shape or frame, did­n’t car­ry well, and were either big and flop­py or so small that pack­ing your paraglid­er in there was like stuff­ing a goril­la into a foot­ball. They let my sweat leak through to the wing, their zip­pers broke, the straps ripped out of the seams, and all the pock­ets but one tore with­in the first year of hav­ing ’em.

Ok, my first point was that they were all made of light­weight mate­ri­als. That looks pret­ty in a grassy field.

It also sounds cool if you’re think­ing about get­ting into hike-and-fly, a sub-dis­ci­pline of the sport where you’re expect­ed to car­ry your pack a long ways (the hike part) before or after fly­ing. Light­weight works well if you fly in areas where you have lots of grassy spots to land, or your “car­ry to launch” con­sists of mov­ing your pack 100 meters from the back of your car to a launch site. 

Light­weight is far less use­ful if you land off-piste and have to bash your way through man­zani­ta and sage just to get to a dirt trail. I’ve done that, in some cas­es lit­er­al­ly using my pack as a bat­ter­ing ram or drag­ging it behind me in a tun­nel through brush. If you’ve nev­er land­ed out in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia it’s hard to believe how long it can take to move 70 meters through head high coastal scrub to a trail. Two of those ses­sions will make a light­weight pack look like you filled it with tuna fish and threw it at a hun­gry grizzly.

Light­weight is also less use­ful if you’re not into shav­ing ounces. At 44 years old I ain’t the spring chick­en I was, but I can still hump a 40 lb ruck 10 miles over rugged ground and not have to make any spe­cial prepa­ra­tions for the effort. An extra pound or two for me isn’t a big deal. This pack weighed in 2 lbs heav­ier than my old one. The Advance pic­tured above was 1.6 lbs, the new one is 3.6 lbs. I’m guess­ing most of that is the back­pad assem­bly and the big beefy zip­per. Winning.

So, I want­ed a pack I could drag through brush, throw in the back of a pick-up truck, chuck down on a dirt patch, with­stand a light rain, and not need to baby. I want­ed a tough pack. For the main fab­ric we chose some­thing from Dimen­sion Polyant, sim­i­lar to X21 from X‑Pac. There are no labels in Dav­e’s fab­ric selec­tion; he knows every­thing by heart. A tough fab­ric that is rel­a­tive­ly light­weight and water­proof, this mate­r­i­al was a superb choice.

Sec­ond, and more impor­tant­ly, I want­ed a pack that car­ried well. Tough fab­ric is an easy fix. A pack that car­ries weight well, dis­trib­ut­ing the load to where it’s best man­aged, was the prime goal. I want­ed a pack I could car­ry all day, just like a reg­u­lar hik­ing backpack.

A frame that is stiff enough to be use­ful and that con­nects the back with the hips (the ver­ti­cal car­ry­ing load to the hor­i­zon­tal weight load) and that is small enough to stuff into the back of a paraglid­er har­ness; THAT is the mon­ey shot. That’s where we started.

Dave spent a few hours with me in the months lead­ing up to our sewing bee. He asked ques­tions about what I want­ed and why I want­ed it. He drew out quick sketch­es explain­ing why one or anoth­er thing might or not be a good idea. I had more ideas than expe­ri­ence, so it took a while for Dave to nav­i­gate through my eager igno­rance and get down to what mattered.

We set­tled on the idea that we’d use a very nar­row inter­nal frame and a detach­able belt that would still con­nect solid­ly to the pack. The core of the frame would be a sin­gle alu­minum stay that slides into a durable cloth sleeve sewn onto a hard plas­tic rec­tan­gle with foam pads on the far side. Dave drew that out, then I start­ed cut­ting and glu­ing foam & plastic.

The pad would be thin enough to allow the whole pack to fold up and slide into the back of my paraglid­er’s har­ness com­part­ment. The pad was flanked by two more foam + hard plas­tic shapes that gave the back shape, but fold­ed on a “cloth hinge” to allow for compactness.

We lay­ered mesh over the foam side (against my back) to improve breatha­bil­i­ty, and then changed the way I packed my har­ness and wing so the wing was on the out­side of the back­pack, oppo­site to my back. No chance of sweat wick­ing through and get­ting on the wing, which had hap­pened before.

Now, to the crux of a stiff frame: How does it con­nect to the hips? As all seri­ous back­pack­ers know, putting the load most­ly on your hips and not on your shoul­ders is the best way to com­fort­ably car­ry a load a long dis­tance. When the load gets to the hips, that belt has to be stiff enough to car­ry it and not just sag under pres­sure. This means the hip belt should have a sol­id con­nec­tion when form­ing the bot­tom of an upside down “T” with the back pad.

An upside down “T” is dif­fi­cult to slide into the small com­part­ment on the back of a paraglid­er har­ness, so Dave decid­ed to use a remov­able hip belt that was stiff, and sew a “tun­nel” under the back pad on the pack such that when the hip belt slid into the tun­nel, it cre­at­ed struc­tur­al con­tact with the back pad. We laid out a bunch of hip belt options, then picked the best one.

Since I want­ed a pack big enough to eas­i­ly slide my wing & har­ness into but that also com­pact­ed, I com­pro­mised on the “exter­nal smooth­ness” and we added 3 com­pres­sion straps on each side. These straps aren’t for tow-truck style pres­sure, but rather to snug up the load as close as pos­si­ble to the back and keep the whole pack­age tight and act­ing as one car­ry­ing unit.

Dave added in two key pieces I would have com­plete­ly over­looked; load lifters that snugged the top of the pack into the body more, and hip sta­bi­liz­er straps that con­nect­ed the bot­tom of the pack more secure­ly to the hip belt. Those are my under­stand­ings, not Dav­e’s explanation. 🙂

We also test­ed out iso­la­tion straps on the top of the pack. These were meant to stop the hel­met from sway­ing around a bunch. As it turned out, we’d made the com­part­ment small enough that they weren’t need­ed. I may cut them off, though I’ll test ’em out on a few more hikes before I do. 

All of this involved an incred­i­ble amount of sewing and think­ing on Dav­e’s part, and it was awe­some to watch a mas­ter at his craft. I most­ly sat at the table and lent an extra hand where I could, but the lion’s share of the work was his to exe­cute. For those of you who haven’t seen a pro­to­type pack like this before, this is about as clean and beau­ti­ful as they come. Sure, there are a few small blem­ish­es in there, but damn is this close to the kind of per­fec­tion we all strive for!

Dave also includ­ed small details, like two dif­fer­ent straps for lift­ing the bag. One, the thick grey one on top, is for yank­ing the thing off the ground and throw­ing it into the truck that dri­ves you up to launch (I don’t always hike up). The oth­er, a thin­ner pur­ple strap, is for when you want to lift the bag up on your shoul­ders. The dif­fer­ent heights of those may seem incon­se­quen­tial, but hav­ing the option is one of those “A pro knows” moments.

When it came to pock­ets Dave likes to keep things smooth, with­out a ton of dif­fer­ent options slapped ran­dom­ly around the pack. I like pock­ets every­where, but I also trust that Dave prob­a­bly has more pack knowl­edge in his lit­tle fin­ger than I do in my entire meat­sack. We set­tled on a wide shal­low pock­et stitched onto the front of the pack that, when unzipped, act­ed as a “work­sta­tion” for all my gear. Flight deck, radio, track­er, and mis­cel­la­neous stuff slides in there. While we prob­a­bly made the pock­ets a *lit­tle* on the tight side, I love the work­sta­tion con­cept, and I’m shift­ing to the “less pock­ets” camp.

For car­ry­ing water I can throw a blad­der inside and refill to an exter­nal hip-belt bot­tle pock­et. Dave com­pro­mised his “no pock­ets” aes­thet­ic so I could have my hip belt water bot­tle. I’m not a fan of blad­der & hose, even though it’s clear­ly a more effi­cient option. 

We end­ed up run­ning out of time to fin­ish the pack to Dav­e’s stan­dards. He’d like to see a nicer shape on top for the hel­met along with a few oth­er things. We scav­enged the hip belt & shoul­der straps from a Slot pack. We also missed a few things we meant to get to, like a blad­der pass-through in the top of the pack if I decide to go that route, and molle straps on the hip belt so I can attach that exter­nal water bot­tle holder. 

Still, I left Moab with a paraglid­ing back­pack that is bet­ter by far than any­thing I’ve seen on the mar­ket for the kind of paraglid­ing I love the best; a lit­tle known, a lit­tle unknown, and just as much hik­ing as flying. 

Here’s to hop­ing you got some inspi­ra­tion out of this for mak­ing your own pack. If you’re an indus­try pro look­ing to work with one of the best in the biz and learn from my mis­takes, reach out to Dave at Slot.

Here’s a quick vid of fly­ing, pack­ing up, and hik­ing out. 

Rock on!

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