Introduction: Duluth Pack

About: Tim Anderson is the author of the "Heirloom Technology" column in Make Magazine. He is co-founder of, manufacturers of "3D Printer" output devices. His detailed drawings of traditional Pacific I…

A Duluth Pack is what the trappers and packers used in Minnesota 150 years ago to transport furs in canoes. It's nothing more than a big canvas pillowcase with a flap and some straps. Kind of like a giant courier bag. It fits flat in the bottom of the canoe, is about as wide as the canoe, and it's easy to jam more packs in without piling them up too high. The weight stays low and the canoe doesn't flip over. The original Duluth Pack had a "tump line" to go over the forehead, but modern man doesn't get enough vitamins to use that, so we use shoulder straps instead. These bags are still very popular among canoeists in Minnesota, usually with a garbage bag inside to keep the gear dry.

It's also really great for "multi-modal" luggage going from one mode of transportation to another. It's a big bag, but you get to carry it on the airplane because it's easy to wedge into whatever space is available. You can reach under the flap to get or stow things without undoing the flap. It's not great for long distance hiking because there's no hip strap and the weight sits kind of low, but it's super handy for everything else, especially dumpster diving for groceries. Sometimes I fold the flap over the bike's handlebars to use it as a front bag.

Years ago I made a bunch of these packs for the St.Cloud Girl Scouts. This one may look like it's 150 years old, but I made this one myself, and have carried it all over the world. Now it's worn and weathered with patches and tatters.

Step 1: Long Ago and Far Away...

A long time ago in a land called St.Cloud Minnesota, I supported myself by doing heavy-duty sewing. I made bags, packs, some harness and awing work, I even repaired bras for cows. Bras for cows? It turns out that a Holstein is over-uddered. One cow can produce 100 lbs of milk a day, even more with RGBH. That means there will be 50 lbs of milk in the udder before milking. That's why you don't ever want to make a dairy cow run. She'll kick her udder and bruise it. If she steps on a tit in the manure, she can get mastitis and that's bad for everyone. Cow Bra to the rescue! A big bag of nylon mesh with some straps to hold it up. More comfort, better production. Everyone should know about it! I even put it on my resume, which prevented me from getting a job for years. This project has nothing to do with that, but once I get started on the subject of cow bras, I just can't stop talking...

Step 2: How to Make a Canvas Pillowcase

This bag starts out as a hemmed piece of cloth 26" wide and 65" long. You can make it any size.
You'll fold it twice and sew seams to make it into a bag.
Before you do that, sew a double layer of cloth onto the area that will become the bottom.
Otherwise your gear will bite holes there every time you set the bag on pavement.
Then, also before the seaming, sew on all the straps and hardware.
Finally, fold the cloth into a bag, but do it inside out with all the straps inside.
Sew the seams, turn the bag right side out, and go on a nice trip!

The shoulder straps can be scavenged from a discarded backpack when the students leave town and throw everything away. Or you can sew them from scratch.
The straps and snaps on the flap were scavenged from shopping cart baby seatbelts.

Don't worry, after using the straps I used the shopping carts to make shopping cart chairs, so no babies are endangered by this project.

Step 3: The Story of the Blue Cloth

A possum in New Zealand chewed a hole in that red pack. I was sailing around Hauraki Gulf in one of Gary Dierking's outrigger canoes. I was sitting on the beach under a southern oak tree eating my dinner in the dark with a red LED headlamp. There was a steep slope, so the animal was up in my face. It was about the size of a football with a tail, but they look bigger when they're up close wrecking your stuff. Even though I was right there, it didn't seem to see me.
The LEDs made the critter's eyes glow, but apparently it couldn't see that wavelength. I groped for a stick to club it with. There's nothing weirder than sitting on the ground trying to club an animal with sharp teeth that's staring right at you and not seeing you. Until it jumps back dodging the swing, looks around quizzically, and comes back to rip up your luggage more to steal your food. That's weirder. Eventually I managed to at least touch it with the club and it ran away. I hung the pack by a rope like you do for bears and raccoons, and that was good enough.

That old pack was mostly patches and holes already. As I hitchhiked to the airport for the trip out, I trashpicked a UV-proof Sunbrella boat awning to sew my next pack from.
That's why it's got that nice fringe. It should last a long time since UV won't weaken it like nylon. After 5 years of constant use, it's doing well.

Step 4: Corner Reinforcement

Here's a detail of how to reinforce the corners of the bag where the sides meet the flap.
Fold a scrap of cloth and sew it over the seam. That will keep the bag from ripping at that spot.

Step 5: Hibiscus and Australian Customs

After a bunch of months in Papua and Indonesia I'd collected a bunch of handmade tools and the bag was pretty heavy. And it was really going to pieces. The part of the pack that had rubbed on my back was worn away and no stronger than cheese. So I stripped some bark off a hibiscus branch that had fallen in the road. Hibiscus leaves look a lot like Basswood, and the bark is strong and fibrous just like Basswood.
In spare moments I used the bark strips to darn the pack using interlocking stitches. If this process continued indefinitely, the bag would erode entirely and I'd be left with a net bag, what the Papuans call a "Manimani". Mani is their name for the hibiscus tree, and doubling means "lots of hibiscus"
which is what it takes to make a net bag.

I flew to Australia to visit Saul's parents. At the immigration and customs counter, they asked do you have any wood, bark, blah blah. I sure did. The bark was holding my bag together. A bug crawled out of my bag. The inspector stiffened and drew back, then pounced on the bug.
After a couple of hours it didn't seem like they were going to let me into the country. It took about 3 hours to go 40 feet through two sets of counters and officials. Finally they decided that my fibers were okay, the tools I had weren't the wrong kind of weapons, and they'd caught all my bugs.
By then Saul's mom had given up and gone home, and had to come back again to get me.

Want to learn how to do repairs on this bag? Learn machine darning , which is the quickest way I know to fix anything made of cloth.