One of my ultralight silnylon backpacks.
When designing your own ultralight equipment for hiking there are several considerations that you must work through prior to actually doing any sewing. The whole point of making your own gear is to end up with exactly what you want, so before you start working on the pack you must know what that is. If you are like me, you want a very light pack that still has some of the benefits of a heavier pack, like a roomy interior and durability. However, you also need to look at things like placement of pockets, lashing points if any, and how you will use your pack. I like having quickly accessible items on the outside of the pack like maps, GPS, and snacks. This means in my case that I have to put pockets on the pack, which need to be worked into the design. I also like to have a haul loop so I can hang my pack rather than lay it on the ground, which is very hard on ultralight fabrics. You need to consider all of these things before working on the pack itself, so that way when you are done you really have exactly what you want.
1.3oz. silicone coated nylon fabric. (Silnylon)
The main fabric that you will be working with for ultralight pack making is Silnylon. This is a silicone coated rip-stop nylon that is sold by the yard online. There is no wrong or right side to the fabric because the silicone is pushed through the fabric to make it water proof. This is some of the lightest stuff out there right now for making gear, and it weighs 1.3oz per square yard. There are other grades of silnylon out there too that have different weights, the 2.2oz coated variety being popular as well, though it’s a bit heavier. Either one will make a great pack as long as you treat it with care. Ultralight gear by definition is not as rugged as full weight gear, so you will need to be a little nicer to this stuff on the trail.
A blue foam bed roll being used for padding.
Another piece of material you can use to make ultralight gear is the standard blue foam bed roll that you can get from any store that sells camping stuff. The whole thing only weighs about 6oz, but you will only be using a few small pieces cut from it. It costs about $10 depending on where you go, and is a light and cost effective way to pad shoulder straps and hip belts. It cuts easily with a scissors, and you can sew through it by hand without much trouble either. I use this stuff for very light padding in my shoulder straps and for a back pad in the main body of the pack.
To come up with a design it’s best to look to other ultralight packs being made and check out their dimensions. If you are going ultralight you will not be carrying more than 20 pounds of gear and food, so your pack only has to be able to hold so much. Plus, as you eat your food you will be constantly shaving weight off the load, possibly ending up with half the weight you started with. Some ultralight packers do not even put a hip belt on the pack at all because with the lower weight they say it’s not necessary. I like having a hip belt on there just because it distributes the weight nicer and it takes weight off your shoulders. Plus, it only adds a few ounces to the total weight of the pack.
The next thing to consider is what you will be carrying and how much room it will take up once it’s packed. The best way to do this is to gather up everything you would take on a trip plus a couple extra items just to make sure you always have enough room. Pack these into a store bought backpack or other container of a known volume and see if they fit. Doing this will help you visualize how much space your items take up. Once you figure out how much room you need, you can make calculations to determine the size of bag you need to make. Most packers carry their sleeping bag on the bottom of the bag, so I make my width and depth dimensions just big enough to get my down sleeping bag in it’s compression sack snugly into the bottom. This way the only dimension I have to worry about is the height of the bag. If you do some ground work like this, you will ensure that once you are done with a whole day of sewing that the thing you create will be the right size for the job.
Assorted backpack hardware, strap material and elastic cord.
There are only a few hardware items on an ultralight bag, and these can be bought at most camping stores as well. You will need a buckle for the hip belt, strap adjusters for your shoulder straps, and a cord lock for the bag opening. If you want to do a roll top dry bag style closure on the top instead of a drawstring then buy the hardware for that. Get the smallest items you can that will still do the job for you, but don’t worry about the extra few grams if you need a larger buckle for your hip belt. It’s better to carry a little more than to break a flimsy buckle and then you can’t use the hip belt at all. Make sure the buckles and strap adjusters you buy match the width of the strap material too. You can buy these in sets in most places, so get a one inch set of buckles, strap adjusters, and strap material so they can all work together. If you are planning on doing pockets on the outside pick up some thin elastic cord that you can sew into the tops of the pockets, which will help keep them closed and keep your gear where it belongs.
Last but not least is picking out a sewing machine. If you already have one you are ahead of the game, and it will same you some money. However, even if you have to buy a new machine the cost savings will be recuperated with the very first item you make. An average sewing machine will cost $75-$125, but if you look at the cost of the average nice backpack you will pay twice that much. All the machine really needs to have is an adjustment for thread tension, and stitch spacing. Almost any machine will have these adjustments, which are necessary to ensure good stitching that will not fall out. After that it’s all just extra stuff that you will most likely never use. Buy a name brand machine, and if you are on the fence between a $75 and $90 machine, just get the nicer one, it’s worth it.
In the next couple posts I will go into actual construction with dimensions and pictures to help you along the away. I’m going to be making another pack in the next couple days and will post a complete set of instructions to follow along with. You will need to understand some things like basic sewing yourself, but if you have used a sewing machine before or just understand the concepts, you will be fine.