The Trapper Nelson Backpack
~ Back Packing History ~

Ken James McLeod

Trapper Nelson, boots and hat of Leeland Seese

(an old-time Trail Blazer Club member © Mike D. Swayne

-- Capsule History of How Backpacking Got Its Name --

Having been raised in an outdoors-type family I learned to love the wild environs at a tender age, which led to backpacking in my teen years, and as I grew, my wonder and anticipation of the next adventure with a pack on my back never waned. In those early years, my fatherís Trapper Nelson was strapped on my back and that set forth a lifetime wonderment of hiking, enjoying the outstanding-picturesque beauty I always found. To this day, I wish that I still had that pack, at least for sentimental reasons. At any rate, my adventures continued as the miles and years piled up. In retrospect, backpacking gives one an incredible feeling of freedom, self worth and accomplishment, whereby all the senses of the body and mind come alive, which is the true gift of backpacking and what the Trapper Nelson provided . . . Ken James McLeod

(from article penned by Charlotte D. Widrig)

If you are a mountaineer, Boy Scout, forest ranger, prospector--if you occasionally hike into off-the-road areas on hunting, fishing or adventure trips--chances are that you are familiar with the words "Trapper Nelson."

Yet, few persons are aware that this copyrighted name of a pack board whose fame has encircled the world is a product of the Pacific Northwest. Before the 1920s the usual pack was a limp canvas sack equipped with shoulder straps. Only careful packing prevented the contents from digging into the hiker's back. The weight of the pack sagged down on the hips. The heavier the load, the more the carrier bent forward.

Lloyd F. Nelson is the man who developed and patented the rigid type of pack board which carries his surname. To him belongs the credit of eliminating discomfort, and adding pleasure, to backpacking.

The pack board designed by Nelson has a sturdy wood frame which distributes the weight and supports the bulk of the load on the shoulders. A canvas jacket cushions and ventilates the back. A "tailor-made" canvas bag, which can be attached or removed in a jiffy, further facilitates the art of packing. While the simplicity and comfort of the design are apparent today, the basic idea might never have come to realization if Nelson had not made a trip to Alaska in the spring of 1920.

Details of nelson's enterprise fall into three categories--inspiration, development and marketing. "I was working for the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton and was sent to Wood Island, near Kodiak, Alaska, to check shortages on a construction job," Nelson said. "When my work was finished, I asked for and received a short leave without pay, and joined the throngs of miners, fishermen and other foot-loose Alaskans who were staking claims on newly opened oil-reserve land."

"While assembling an outfit to enable me to cross a mountain range on foot," Nelson said. "an Indian agreed to lend me his crude Indian pack board made of sealskins stretched over willow sticks, a style used by generations of his ancestors." "I made the trip and staked my claim, but afterwards lay awake nights recalling the back-breaking ordeal and wondering if it would be possible to evolve a really comfortable backpacking device."

"While waiting on Wood Island for the ship that came once a month, I put together my prototype of a scientific pack-board frame, and thus began a project which kept me 'burning midnight oil' for the next nine years!" Back at his home in Bremerton, Washington, Nelson set aside a part of his basement for a workshop. His idea of a frame and carrying sack was fairly well defined.

"I made a trip to Seattle and purchased a power sewing machine and a bolt of canvas, thread, grommet, dies, cord, buckles and a side of leather and a cutter," he related. "Next, I asked a young man, J.D. (Dorm) Braman, then working at the Braman Mill in Bremerton to turn out material enough to make a dozen pack-board frames according to my instructions."

"The next step was learning how to operate my sewing machine," Nelson said. "My initial attempts were crude as I worked out a pattern for the bags and experimented with mounting them on the frames. Frank Aubrey, a friend, became interested in my idea, and we tested the packs on long walks and mountain trips, while I tried to achieve free body movement and ideal weight distribution. We carried blankets and canned food, and sometimes even added rocks for weight!"

"Meanwhile, I changed and improved my design," Nelson said. "I added an outside pocket to the bag for handy access to small objects and I increased the size of the flap to cover a bedding roll laid across the top of the pack." "When the first dozen were assembled, I looked over the array--and cut them up and burned them in the furnace," Nelson said. "Then I went back to dorm and ordered another dozen frames," Nelson's design and workmanship pleased him better on the second dozen. When they were completed, he set forth as a salesman and aroused curiosity by walking into sporting-goods shops and hardware stores in Bremerton and Seattle with his loaded pack on his back.

"Everyone was interested, but no one would buy one," Nelson recalled. "The consensus was that my product was too goo-looking doe the type of person who carries food, clothes and blankets from place to place. The best I could do was leave my samples on consignment."

Before long, a few of the consignments sold, and Nelson decided to advertise his product. He put one of his packs on his back and went to the Izzard Advertising Co. in the old Times Building. There, he talked with Bill Horsley and arranged for printed folders. As he was leaving, Horsley asked what he wanted to name his new idea? "Anything you like!" Nelson said. "Your business is advertising."

When he returned a week later, Horsley had coined the name "Trapper Nelson's Indian Pack Boards." In time, this was shortened to the catchy trade name still in use. After applying for a patent, Nelson continued his advertising campaign by mailing his folders to sporting-goods shops and outdoor organizations. He placed a few advertisements in magazines, and he sent free sample pack boards to likely prospects, including the Forest service, Boy Scouts leaders and well-known sportsmen. Nelson's faith in his enterprise was unbounded. He even loaded his car with samples and took his wife and small daughter on a trip from Seattle to San Diego. They spent 35 days traveling and camping out. Nelson called on every sporting-goods store he could find in every town they passed.

To speed up production, he arranged with Charles Trager, a Seattle manufacturer of lumberjack gloves, aprons and bags, to take over the making of the canvas parts. In the summer of 1929, Nelson sold the business to Trager. "Fate is peculiar." Nelson remarked. "Two weeks later, I received a rush order from the Forest service at Missoula. They wanted 500 pack boards to equip forest rangers and forest fighters."

"Within a fortnight, another rush order came for 500 more from the Forest service at Salem, Oregon! A pall of smoke hung over the Pacific Northwest, and the ill wind that fanned the fires proved to be a boom to my pack boards. Movie newsreels showed scores of men equipped with 'Trapper Nelson' pack boards. At last they had reached the public eye!" George Trager, who inherited the business from his father, continued production of Nelson's pack boards and found many customers including the Coast and Geodetic Survey, the Army Mapping Service, and of course, the Boy Scouts of America. "Many orders had been received from foreign countries, and one surprise request for 50 'Trapper Nelson' pack boards came from the Abyssinian water Dept. commission!" Trager said.

Nelson finally retired in 1959. He was proud to have contributed with his pack-board episode, to the welfare and pleasure of those who travel on foot in the great outdoors.

In 1958 John Hartsfield joined the company and quickly became George Trager's right hand man. While still outfitting the US Forest Service and the Boy Scouts with good old Trapper Nelson pack boards, Trager's product line began to expand to include items used for everything from weekend hiking to expedition-level mountain climbing. In fact, Trager supplied the pack-sacks, gaiters, and mukluks for the 1963 Everest Expedition! During the 1960s and 1970s, Trager made most of REI's (Recreational Equipment Co-op Inc.) brand tents, packs, gaiters, and other items and has since gone on to produce daypacks for companies like Eddie Bauer and L.L. Bean under their own labels. And even during this time of product-design advancement among outdoor gear, one could still procure an original Trapper Nelson pack board from none other than Abercrombe and Fitch!

In the late sixties, George hired a salesman to call on university bookstores around the country. The salesman lived and worked out of his van and traveled from college to college town, selling Trager daypacks and returning to Seattle every so often to stock up on the popular packs. Trager brand daypacks were the first daypacks ever offered in a college bookstore, and Trager continues to supply these locations today nationwide.

George Trager retired in 1980 and John Hartsfield took over the company. During the 1980s and early 1990s, Hartsfield continued to build up the private-label portion of the business while concentrating on the bookstores for the Trager label items. John retired in 1995 and John tanner (who joined the company in 1997) took over the business.

In the past five years, Trager has focused exclusively on the design and production of its own line of quality products. Trager's dedication to function shows in the way watch of its new bags, packs and briefs fit the needs and lifestyles of today's customer. Trager's distribution base has broadened to include luggage and outdoor stores, on-line retailers and, of course, college bookstores all over the U.S.

And that, in short, is the way backpacking got its name. from a simple idea a Northwest Indian had--a hundred years ago--to what we now see almost every college kid and citywide worker hauling their stuff around in. And even thought you might not see too many folks with Trapper Nelson pack boards on the trails today, Trager is still extremely proud of its heritage and contribution to a worldwide industry, hobby and loved obsession.



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