Saturday, 31 August 2013

Why your dream pack won't be offered by any manufacturer.

I was trying to find something I had posted on a forum, and came across this post. The thread was entitled “Features you wish your bag has but doesn’t.” Lots of people posted all sorts of things they fantasized about. Then I came along. 

Sorry to throw a big bucket of cold water all over these proceedings, but you all understand the problem here don’t you? There is no way that a manufacturer can accommodate every whim of every customer. “Can’t please everybody all the time.”

Some of these suggestions are fairly reasonable. Some of them are not. Yellow or orange linings inside a bag? Sure, that is one that could (and probably should) be done across the board. Stock every colour that anyone could conceivably want? “Okay, now that you’ve added purple to the list of selections, I think it’s too dark, can you offer a slightly lighter shade of purple?” It is just not feasible for a pack maker to offer every colour that every person could want. Most businesses are not in a position to keep every imaginable colour that someone could want in stock, certainly not in the quantities that they would need to purchase in order to keep the cost in line with what most people are willing to pay. It doesn’t make sense for fabric mills to offer every conceivable nuance of shade and hue. From a logistical standpoint it is just not feasible. Manufacturers can’t offer every imaginable permutation that a customer might dream up. Sure, suggest things. Some of them might see the light of day. Other ones you will simply have to add or make yourself.

-Pen slots in the shoulder straps (for easy access).
Not that difficult a modification to add yourself.
-Better internal organization pouches in the Admin sections of backpacks.
And if they offer a pack with an admin area that you think is just perfect, someone else will complain that they want to carry two more pens than you would, and their PDA is a bit wider than yours. They simply can not cater to every possible variation. Now if they were to offer up a Velcro area and then you make something to your specifications that can be put inside and attached to that Velcro, that is much more realistic.
- Metal buckles or find some sort of plastic that doesn’t get brittle when cold.
Very little hardware is made in both metal and plastic variants. One or the other. Metal is really only used in critical applications, where lives are going to depend on it (parachutes, scuba, climbing). Not to mention that the metal hardware is in many cases, much more expensive. Not a few cents more, many dollars more. And if they made gear with metal hardware, guess what? People would complain that it was too cold and their fingers froze to the buckle in winter, or they got a burn after walking in the desert sun all day, etc. High end makers use Delrin buckles, which will withstand extremes of temperatures much better.
- Silent velcro...ever try and open a velcro cover covertly?
Come on. Not going to happen. Velcro is noisy. Period. I don’t disagree that Velcro is used way too often in way too many places where it isn’t appropriate. Manufacturers use it because it’s often times cheaper and easier than adding buckles or other closure methods. Besides the noise factor it wears out and it doesn’t stick when it gets clogged with snow, ice, mud, debris. It sticks to things it’s not supposed to. I save Velcro for sticking my patches to hats and packs. There is the odd application where it is appropriate, but I find that is the exception. Saying that makers shouldn’t use Velcro with such abandon I will agree with wholeheartedly. Wishing that manufacturers would offer “silent Velcro”? Come on. It’s called something other than Velcro.

- Removable laptop sleeve.
Lots of them out there.
 And not a particularly challenging DIY project.
- Longer shoulder straps, less stiff fabric and maybe removable non-slip shoulder pad.
Get some webbing, cut it to the right length, singe the end, take the hardware off the too short strap and sew it back on. Simple and straight forward modification that anyone can do. Really. And removable non slip shoulder pads are available to purchase separately from a number of manufacturers.
- Rubberized or water repellent treatment on the outside bottom of the bag.
The more feasible thing to do is to put your stuff in water proof containers. Water will get into your pack, regardless of whether there is a rubberized bottom or not. Seams, zippers, etc. A rubberized bottom is nice, but it’s not at all a fool proof way to protect your stuff. Pelican cases, Sealine bags, etc. are far more versatile and stand a much better chance of keeping your stuff dry. When that water gets in (and it will) that rubberized bottom would then prevent moisture from getting back out, allowing your stuff to sit and stew in that moisture. I’ll take drain holes, and water proof bags inside over an impermeable bottom any day. Not to mention that a rubberized bottom would make a bag heavier, harder to make, more expensive to sell, etc. For instance, adding a Hypalon layer to the bottom quarter of a bag will cause the price to spike - a lot.

- Modular system...pick and choose interior compartments kinda like a camera bag
Lots of options exist. Blue Force Gear, Kifaru Marauder, Kifaru Foldout, CamelBak MedBack Insert, etc. Adding Velcro or PALS to the inside of a pack makes the construction  more complex and that combo of labour costs and extra material costs would cause the price of a pack to be pushed outside the range many are willing to pay for it.

- Stronger zippers!
You won’t find anything stronger than a #8 or #10 YKK zipper. What any reputable manufacturer uses.
- Magnetic or zipper closures instead of velcro, as was mentioned, too loud when trying to be covert.
See my earlier comments. And magnetic components would cause many to balk at purchasing it for fear of what it might do to ever present electronics.
- More attachment points on the shoulder straps, both on packs and slings. Not just molle, but a way to attach a chest pack if necessary.
Simple enough proposition to add in many cases. 

- More removable pouches that allow for multi configurations so we do not have to buy four or five other pieces to have them.
And if they offer you a pack with the components you think it needs, it will still cost you as much as you buying those components separately. Not to mention that what you think it requires isn’t what someone else might require. They simply can not please everyone, all the time. Get a MOLLE backpack and get the MOLLE pouches you need on it. That is your most realistic option.

- Easy access weapon pouches built and sized for guns and knives.
What guns? What knives? Again, this is an almost boundless arena of possibility. Expecting that any manufacturer can possibly anticipate any and every weapon and knife out there is just not realistic. Get a MOLLE pouch on a MOLLE backpack. That is your only realistic option.

- Make all pouches with side elastic so there’d be a greater range of phones, radios, digital cameras, knives, water bottles, multi-tools, etc., that would fit.
Elastic wears out pretty quickly. Yes it will increase the range of items you can put in, but one reason why it isn’t used that much is because it loses its benefits too quickly. Then you end up with a non stretchy, poor substitute for Cordura.
- Pre-made repair kits that you could buy at the same time you buy the pack. The kit would have common parts needed to repair that specific pack.
This I will agree with.

- Less advertising on a pack or bag: one small, discreet patch or logo is more than enough (Hey, I bought your company’s bag, what else do you want?).
Meh. Seam rippers are cheap. Don’t like the tag? Take it off. Or sew a patch of loop Velcro over an embroidered area. And I don’t recall ever really seeing any bag festooned with an excessive number of tags.

- Comfortable carry or drag handles at the top of the pack or bag.
Any good quality bag will have this, I’ve yet to come across one made from burlap or barbed wire, and it’s not impossible to add if it’s missing.

- More accurate descriptions of colors: when a website text indicates “Ranger Green” and the photo looks like “Ranger Green” why when I get it is it some other shade of green? The same is true for other colors. If the cloth is two tone (say, the main color is khaki with edging in olive drab) then the website photos and text descriptions should mention that little factoid.
Got some bad news for you. Monitors are no way to judge a colour. And there is no way that a manufacturer can guarantee that the “Ranger Green” they sell you is going to match the “Ranger Green” you bought a year previously from another manufacturer. How can they possibly control where a competitor buys their material, or how the manufacturer of said material dyed it? Dye lots vary from batch to batch. Well known fact in the industry. There will be subtle difference from lot to lot. Accept it. And exactly what is “Ranger Green”? Can you show me the scientific formula of what “Ranger Green” is? Is it a quantifiable thing? Is there a Pantone Color System for material? How do you know that the “Ranger Green” you’re using as a benchmark is correct? If you’re that obsessive compulsive about your colours matching, you need to buy all the packs and pouches from the same manufacturer, at the same time. Otherwise, you’re going to be disappointed. I have “Olive Drab” from a whole bunch of sources (packs, pouches, raw material {webbing. Cordura, etc.}) and none of it matches precisely. Go find all the “black” clothing in your house. Lay it all out. Is it all one uniform shade? Of course not. There is no precise scientific formula that fabric mills use to arrive at “black”. Not to mention that different materials take dyes differently, etc. Deal with it. Getting wound around the axle because a colour doesn’t meet your entirely subjective opinion of what that colour is “supposed” to be, is going to leave you open to a lot of disappointment.

And also “Ranger Green” isn’t that common a colour. A lot of manufacturers have to accept what they can get. They simply don’t have the purchasing clout to boss the mills around and order huge quantities of material. When the business is largely driven by the US military who dictates what the mills need to make, they squeeze in specialty colours like “Ranger Green” in between mammoth runs of “Coyote Brown” and “Foliage Green”. If that boutique maker of packs and pouches whines that it’s a smidgeon too dark, that it has 3% more brown than the last run, do you really think the mills are going to pull the 50 million yard run of CB off so they can rerun it to please you? Their response will be a harsh but entirely realistic ‘Tough. Take it or leave it.’ If they don’t take it, trust me, someone else will. Who will make packs to sell to people who don’t complain about the colour not being entirely to their liking.

- An internal LED or tag for clipping on one of the CoutryComm clip lights.
Easy enough to add a loop to the inside of a pack to hang a light.

- Mesh pockets in the bottom for dessicant packs; can get pretty funky down there.
Mesh pockets will get ripped to pieces at the bottom of a pack. A much better option is to throw in dessicant packs inside a rugged plastic mesh, (something like this perhaps {although it is just a odor absorber, not a dessicant}). It will stand up to much more abuse than any fabric mesh could, easy to take out and clean the bag, replacing it or to dry it out, etc.

You want my suggestion? Modify your gear to what you want it to be.

Oh I know, I know... I can just hear it now. “I don’t know how to sew.” “I haven’t got time.” “I haven’t got a sewing machine.” “I’m to macho to sew. That’s skirt work.” Blah, blah, blah.

Guess what? I don’t know how to sew either. But I sew. Instead of wishing things were to my liking, I make them to my liking. It’s not that hard. Really. I don’t have a sewing machine either. It hasn’t slowed me down at all. I use a needle, upholstery thread, a few other things, some webbing, some hardware, some material, and I get things just the way I need and want them. There is no mystery to it, it’s not that difficult. Like that famous sport shoe maker is fond of saying. “Just Do It”. I’m really not trying to be flippant. It really is not this insurmountable problem to add small features to a bag. You want somewhere to hang a small light from? Take a piece of 550 cord, singe the ends, a crewel, a meter of upholstery thread, tie a knot in one end, put a rubber thimble on your middle finger, fold the 550 cord over the interior seam, and if it proves to hard to push that needle through, use the pliers on your multi-tool to push it through. Go around a bunch of times. Imitate the bartacking you see on your pack if you are really concerned about its strength. Will it be pretty? No. Who cares? It’s on the interior where no one other than you will ever see it. Will it work? Yes. Will you have added your own stamp to it, making it uniquely suited to your needs and desires? If it wasn’t doable, I wouldn’t have dozens of examples on my blog of everything from straightforward modifications to more elaborate from the ground up constructions.

Think about it. The manufacturers already have your solution. It’s called PALS/MOLLE compatible. You buy a pack, you buy or make some pouches, you add them, your pack is exactly how you want it. That is the compromise you and they have to settle on. You either accept that compromise and set up a pack as close as possible to what you want, or you accept the inevitable disappointment that comes from expecting makers to offer any and all conceivable wants. Don’t like that chintzy water bottle carrier? Get a MOLLE water bottle carrier that meets your needs and add it to the side of a RAID pack. Not happy with the organization of the admin section of available civvy packs? Then you find a MOLLE admin pouch that you like or have one made to your specs and add it to the face of a Mystery Ranch 3-Day. Don’t like the internal organization of what’s available at the mall? Then get a Kifaru Marauder and use the PALS on the inside to divide it up just how you like it. Oh wait, I can just hear it now. Someone will then very predictably say “Sheesh, that Kifaru pack is kinda expensive. What I really want is a pack of great quality, with all the features I want, and it can’t be too heavy, and it has to be a dark shade of periwinkle, and be made in the USA, and not look all tacticool, and be eco friendly, and....oh and it has to be cheap.” Jumping jeebus on a pogo stick. You can’t have it all folks. Sadly, manufacturers can’t in anyones wildest dreams absorb the costs of offering every conceivable feature that everyone could possibly want. And still offer it at top notch quality and at a reasonable price. They can offer you a bunch of options, but not all options. They can offer you a cheap pack with fewer options. They can offer you a top notch pack that you have a large amount of customization options with. You need to weigh what is important to you. But you can’t expect that your every wildest whim is doable. The best you can probably hope for is a middle ground and then rolling up your sleeves and hacking your gear. Or paying someone to do it for you. Or paying someone to build from the ground up for you. Which will cost you.

Sorry to be the guy who farts at the party, but while it’s cool to dream and throw ideas out there, there are also harsh realities of running a business that makes and markets sewn goods. Making suggestions about things you’d like to see offered is totally cool, but holding your breath while you wait for your “ideal” pack to appear isn’t. My totally dorky advice is to try your hand at modding gear to your liking. I wasn’t thrilled with some of the features on my gear, so rather than wishing it was the way I wanted it, I bit the bullet and changed it to suit me. It certainly doesn’t look as nice as “professional” gear, but some of it is over 15 years old now and still going strong. And it has given me the tremendous satisfaction of coming up with an idea, and realizing it with my own hands.
- One of my biggest reasons for starting this thread is what I feel is a lack of innovation, creativity, and versatility with an eye on aesthetics (packs completely covered with MOLLE look like crap to me) by common manufacturers. Sure Kifaru packs are great, and versatile, but maybe I don't want such a militaristic look, or even have that philosophy of use. Also...I wouldn't totally mind adding pouches to a MOLLE pack...but the biggest issue is that often the best designed pouches range from $40-60 a piece. Throw on two pouches and you just doubled the price of your entire bag.
It’s that whole balancing act that is virtually impossible to get bang on. Bag makers would go completely insane if they had to get that balance of aesthetics, functionality, durability, price, etc. right for everyone. You may not like the look of PALS webbing, but it is still one of the most feasible ways to get packs set up to the individuals particular needs. And if you have it tweaked to such a degree that you know that is precisely what you need (all I want are those two water bottles on the sides) then you can always remove that webbing you don’t need. And yes, there is that issue of cost. But again, you can’t have everything. You can’t have a bag that looks good, and has all the features you want, and is durable, and doesn’t cost too much. You can get some of those qualities - but you can’t have all of them. Sorry. Harsh reality. People may not like my suggestion, but getting a bag that is most of the way to how you want it and modifying it the rest of the way, or having a bag made from scratch to your exact specs, are probably your best options.

I keep trying to stress this. Modifying gear is not nearly as difficult as people imagine it to be. Everything you see there, was done by hand. No, doing it that way is not fast. But as someone who spent 4 years commuting 4 hours a day to work on the train, I used the time as productively as I could.


  1. I'm really enjoying your blog. Your recommended links matches very closely to the bookmarks already in my browser. I'm interested in doing some DIY tactical things like the mods shown on your page, but I'm a little lost on where to start. For example, I did a search on "hand sewn bar tacks" but only got directions on how to sew button holes. Can you give a little advice on where or how to start? I really appreciate the links on buying raw materials.

    1. Thamk you.

      Bar tacks are pretty straightforward. Take some thread no longer than the span of your arms. Put a knot in one side. Leave the other side unknotted to give yourself an out if you get tangled up. If you have some webbing you'll see that there some subtle ridges in it across the 1" side. Just put a line of stitches across that using that ridge to keep them straight(ish). Go back and forth a few times. Then go back around that line. So if your initial line was say horizontal, the stitches that go around it are vertical. Just look at a picture of bar tacking.

      This photo should explain it.

      If you have any other questions ask away.