When I started backpacking I still occasionally met someone on the trail who used the Trapper Nelson or Alaskan Packboard. These tough individuals had about thirty years more experience than I did and always gave me a quizzical and skeptical look as I bounced along and struggled with my nylon and aluminum load. I did consider making my own packboard and dug up plans for one from an old book at the Seattle Public Library, but from the looks of it the reason these grizzled older fellows were strolling along comfortably had more to do with fitness and acclimatization than with gear. A pound is a pound, no matter what it is.
If you want to carry heavy loads (or just need to) the Trapper Nelson is still one of the best solutions. You can download free plans for the Alaskan Packboard through an article by Ross Mohney in Mother Earth News. If you want to go with something off the shelf, try the Kelty Cache Hauler Pack. Theoretically, the Trapper Nelson will haul anything you can put on it, as long as you built it tough and can actually pick it up. The Kelty Cache is lots more comfortable but the upper load limits aren’t certain. A hundred and twenty pounds is within its ability and that’s plenty for most people.
Except for hunters, mainstream recreational hikers today seldom need to go heavy, and many do go out for a week on the trail with a load that’s less than 35 pounds of high-tech gear. There is another approach to hiking, which is more about hiking to stay for awhile than about just passing through. If you’re building a remote hunter’s camp or just want to be far enough into the woods to be away from people for a few weeks, you need more than light gear. You need tools and equipment, and they all have to be packed in a piece at a time. The practical solution is to carry as much as you can carry at one time.
Having tried this with an ordinary backpack I know that doesn’t work well at all. Backpacks carry hiking gear efficiently, but tools and supplies dig holes in the pack cloth and put large lumps of weight in strange places. Frames get stressed, straps pull apart, and the most damaging thing you can do is put the pack down. Aluminum frames don’t hold up to impact. Manufacturers seldom warn about maximum load weight because manufacturers don’t build packs with that in mind. Today it’s all about cutting weight, not increasing it.
There are a few good ready-made choices but even these will need extra care and reinforcement if you’re carrying real weight. For me, a heavy load is a hundred pounds. I’ve occasionally carried more, but not on a pack frame. Working in the deep woods with nothing more than trail access and tricky footing, I discovered that the old-fashioned coolie pole and a couple of large buckets actually works better than a pack if you’re, for instance, hauling cement and masonry sand. Manufactured pack frames may not hold up to anything more than 75 pounds, so expect to break up the load into 75 pound chunks and watch for problems.
The Kelty Cache Hauler Frame is one of the best pre-made haulers available, and you can save money by buying just the hauling frame and not the pack. Another possibility is the ALICE Pack Frame, designed for heavy military loads and definitely capable of holding a hundred pounds and more. ALICE packs are durable although not built with comfort in mind, and do accept a shelf bracket at the bottom of the frame, meant for holding heavy batteries. Any good hauling frame should have something like this because it places the strain on the frame instead of the fabric.
Not everyone looks upon hauling heavy loads as an entertaining challenge. If you’re running marathon distance daily on the Appalachian Trail, this won’t interest you, but if you’re looking for time off in the middle of nowhere, with gear that’s more than marginal, your choices are either hauling it in on your own or footing the bill for an airdrop. Packs like the Trapper Nelson cost a lot less than a helicopter.
If you’re interested in the art of hauling you’ll find inspiration in the accounts of people who’ve had to do it. Here are some links to good material by experts:
One Man’s Wilderness: An Alaskan Odyssey tells the story of Richard Proenneke, who retired to Alaska and over the course of two or three summers packed in enough equipment and supplies to build and outfit a log cabin out where nobody but bears would visit. This is also available as a video documentary but I don’t have a link to that handy — checked it out of the local library a couple of years ago so you might try there first. Watch the way this guy works and you’ll have to learn something.
WWII Army Combat Lessons No. 3 — available free to read online through Scribd, this training manual recounts lessons learned from front line experience in some of the most difficult terrain of WWII.
Ralph Zumbro on Basic Loads — Another Army vet recalls the basic infantry 45 pound load, down to pocket contents. Good info on going heavy as well as going light. Leave out the ammo and the weaponry and you’re set for the Appalachian Trail.
A Long Term Survival Guide — Free to read online at Scribd, this book provides detailed advice on building a semi-permanent camp as well as showing you what you’ll need to get all the pieces there.
See the Free Stuff category here at the Marked Tree for more free plans, free manuals, and free info online.