We pay a lot of attention to the things we carry, and place less on what we actually carry those things in. It's a silly arrangement, really, when you consider that the life-saving gear we meticulously pack—avalanche probe, ice ax, extra pint of bourbon—is often limited to what we can actually fit into our sack.
Three western Montana backpack manufacturers at least have their priorities straight. Through years of personal R&D, one-of-a-kind designs and handmade alterations, they've created bags for all sorts of terrain and tastes. For them, the pack is the primary piece of equipment for any backcountry adventure.
In all the rush to build the most durable adventure equipment, style often falls by the wayside. Not so for Joe Goertzen, who makes old-school canvas and leather equipment that is as burly as it is beautiful.
"The whole idea is to build something that's vintage looking, but with modern conveniences," says Goertzen, who creates everything from day packs to fly-fishing lanyards in his basement workshop. "You can walk into REI and see hundreds of new backpacks all lined up, but you're not going to see anything like what I make."
The difference is in the details. Goertzen is a classically trained artist who specializes in oil painting, so composition, look and feel are important to him. He hand cuts every strip of leather and canvas, and constructs each bag to look like something from another era. On his original Ruck Sack ($175), Goertzen eschews plastic buckles for brass. Two full-strength, weight-bearing carabiners help secure the leather straps. A climbing-spec utility cord fastens the main compartment. The final touch on each order is a hand-stamped brass nameplate.
"I try to keep the designs simple and versatile," he says. "That way it carries what I need and, when I discover I need something new, it can change. The nice thing about doing this myself is I can change the whole design in a single day."
He points to a few recent modifications. The inside pocket of the Ruck Sack is now the perfect size to hold an iPad. The outside pouch of the Ruck Sack's smaller, lighter counterpart, The Summit ($100), was lengthened at the request of a friend who noted that it wasn't quite long enough to secure a tallboy.
"I started making these for myself, and then my friends, so they tell me what they need and how to make it better," Goertzen says. "I hear all the time about some great idea they're using it for that I never imagined."
Goertzen's day packs are gaining in popularity, but he says his most popular items remain the fly-fishing lanyards (starting at $49.99) and creel-style bags ($350) he started with three years ago. Perhaps it's because he's based where a river runs through it, or because fly fishermen tend to prefer a more traditional look. Whatever the reason, Goertzen's happy making something that stands out in an industry increasingly filled with mass-produced items.
"I like the idea of people having a bag that not everybody else is wearing on campus, or on the trail, or on the river," he says. "These are made for people who appreciate things that are one of a kind."