Customizable Pack Frame




About: I'm an amateur woodworker, welder, and fabricator who loves new tools and old projects. At my day job I am a drafter.

This wood and canvas pack frame probably seems old fashioned, since it is similar to a popular style among Boy Scouts in the 1930s and DIYers through WWII and beyond. But old fashioned though it may be, it is still a simple, affordable way to go backpacking, transport all your gear, and more easily carry heavy loads. Here are just a few of the benefits we've seen from this pack:

  1. You can make it out of materials you have on hand (which would come in handy in an emergency situation).
  2. It is much cheaper than buying a state-of-the-art backpacking pack.
  3. You can use your existing duffel bags and gear, since you can tie things on in whatever configuration works for you. This also leads to better access to all of your gear.
  4. The curved ribs keep the pack slightly away from your back, which makes for better air circulation.
  5. The frame allows you to lift the weight off your shoulders while sitting without having to remove the pack.
  6. It does not require advanced woodworking or sewing skills. At the same time, it is completely customizable, so if you have more skill you can do more advanced adaptations to meet your needs and aesthetic ideals.


Wood Frame:

  • 1.5" x 3/4" x 33" poplar uprights (2)
  • 1/4" x 1.5" x 22" poplar support (1)
  • 1/4" x 1.5" x 17" walnut ribs (2)
  • 1/4" x 1.5" x 20" walnut center rib (1)
  • 2" x 6" x 18" board (1) to create the form for the ribs
  • 1/2" pan-head screws (6)
  • 1/4" x 1/2" bolts (2)
    • Washers (2 per bolt) and nuts to match
  • Wood glue
  • Clamps

Canvas Skirt and Straps

  • 1 yard of 12 oz canvas (or at least a 36" x 36" square of repurposed sturdy material). If you choose to add the waist strap, you'll need an additional 1/2 yard of fabric.
  • Grommets (24) with tools to install (usually included with grommets)
  • 5' length of paracord (to lace canvas skirt)
  • 25' length of paracord (to lash things to the pack)
  • 1.5" x 10" leather strips (2)
  • 4" x 5" leather pieces (2)
  • 1" x 6' nylon strap (1) plus an additional 4' length if you choose to add the waist strap
  • 1" plastic buckles (2) plus an additional 2 buckles and 1 snapping buckle for the waist strap
  • 1" D rings (2)

Step 1: Wood Frame

The heart of this pack is the sturdy wood frame. We used poplar and walnut, but the type of wood you use doesn't really matter; any stout wood will work.

1. Create a form to bend the walnut ribs. On a 2" x 6" board (I used plywood, because I had it lying around), draw a curve where the center is two inches above the ends. Cut out the curve using a scroll saw. Drill several holes in the form to hold clamps.

2. Steam the three walnut ribs one at a time to make them malleable. I created a simple steamer using a hot plate, tea kettle, and dryer vent tube (again, this is what we had laying around). Once they are pliable enough, bend the walnut strips to the form and secure with clamps. Allow time to cool.

3. Meanwhile, make 1/4" x 1.5" dado cuts in the two uprights 3 inches from the top, then two more ten inches on center from the first. These will make the ribs sit flush against the uprights, but if you'd rather you can just glue and screw them together without the dado cuts (though it won't be as strong). Sand the two poplar uprights so they are smooth. You will also want to taper and round the bottom of each upright so you can easily attach the thimbles later.

4. Assemble the frame by gluing the ribs into the dado cuts in the uprights, then screwing them in place. The longer rib should go in the middle, and the uprights should be placed on the outside face of the curve. Center the poplar support on the ribs between the two uprights and glue it in place.

5. Finish the wood for durability. You can stain if you'd like, or just clear coat the entire thing.

Step 2: Canvas Skirt

You can use any strong material you have on hand for the smooth skirt that covers the frame, like a canvas drop cloth or old tent. You can also buy cheap canvas by the yard at your local fabric or craft store.

Here are the steps to create your skirt:

1. Cut a 22" x 36" rectangle of canvas

2. Sew a 1-inch seam around every side

3. Cut holes for the middle rib ends (the slightly longer ones) of the wood frame to come through the canvas. The position of these holes will depend on how wide your frame is and how high or low you want the canvas cover to be on the frame. I laid the canvas on the table, placed the frame on top, and marked where the edge of the frame would come through. I then cut 1 and 1/2" x 2" holes in the canvas to accommodate the frame. I cut a small rectangle out of the middle of the outlined square, leaving 1/2" of fabric on each edge, then cut diagonally to the corners of the marked hole so I could fold the fabric back and sew it to create a hem. You could also sew around the raw edge of the hole to prevent fraying, though the end result may not be as neat.

4. Cut a 3/4" x 4" slit in the top center of the canvas, just below the seam, for the straps to come through. The key is to have the slit meet the bottom edge of the top rib, since that is where the straps will be attached. Again, you will need to either create a hem or sew around the edge of the hole.

5. Add 10-12 grommets, evenly spaced, to each short edge of the canvas. You can find grommets at hardware or craft stores, or order them online. Find a set that comes with the basic tools to install them, and follow the instructions on the package. It is a fairly simple process that consists of cutting a small hole, inserting the two sides, and using the tools to hammer them in place.

Step 3: Straps

We used leather, canvas, and nylon to make the straps (leather and canvas to match the overall look and nylon for ease of adjustment). You could use any combination of these, or make straps out of anything that will be strong and adjustable.


You will need two leather or canvas thimbles to secure the straps to the bottom of the wood uprights.

1. Measure the circumference of the tapered edge of each upright (if you cut a piece of paper to fit, you can just trace it onto the leather, with a 1/4" seam allowance).

2. Cut the 4" x 5" leather pieces to the length of the circumference plus seam allowance, with an extra two inch piece sticking up from the center of the top to fold over into a loop (see picture). Cut out the leather and sew the two sides together to form a tube, then fold and sew the top piece down into a loop around a D ring.

Shoulder Straps:

1. Cut two 8" x 16" pieces of canvas. Fold the edges over for 1" seams, then iron in place. Fold the entire piece in half lengthwise to form a 3" by 14" strap and iron the fold.

2. Add batting or foam padding to the inside of each piece.

3. On one end of each piece, fold in and iron the corners (if desired), then place a 1" by 10" leather strip between the two layers of canvas, with 2 inches of leather encased in the strap. Pin everything in place.

4. Cut two 10" pieces of nylon strap. Thread one through each buckle, then fold in half, placing the two ends 2 inches deep into the other end of the strap (again, folding in the corners if desired). Pin this end in place as well.

5. Sew a seam 1/4" from the edge all the way around each strap. Then, for added strength and stability, sew a diamond pattern of 1" squares across the entire strap (see image for reference). We also sewed two extra straight lines 1/4" and 3/4" down from the seam on each end to better secure the leather and nylon straps.

6. Cut the remaining nylon strap material (just over 4 feet total) in half. Thread each half through one of the D rings in the thimbles, then fold 2 inches of the strap back onto itself and sew it closed. Go back and forth over the strap several times with your sewing machine for added strength.

Step 4: Optional Waist Strap

Some modern innovations have irrefutably made life easier. One of these is the waist strap added to packs in past few decades that allows you to carry the weight of the pack on your hips instead of your shoulders. If you'd like to add a waist strap to your pack, follow these steps:

1. Take the measurement of your waist and subtract six inches for adjustability.

2. Cut a piece of canvas the length you came up with in #1, by 10" wide.

3. Fold the edges over for 1" seams, then iron in place. Fold the entire piece in half lengthwise to form a 4" wide strap and iron the fold.

4. Add batting or foam padding to the inside of each piece.

5. If you'd like the corners to come in from the edge a bit on the ends, you can fold the material into the middle and make a seam (see image). Pin the edges to hold everything in place.

6. Sew a 1/4-inch seam around the edge of the entire strap.

7. Take the 4' length of nylon strap and find the center. Match the center of the strap with the center of your canvas waist strap and pin the nylon down the center of the strap to the edges (you should have a fair amount of extra nylon strap hanging off each end).

8. Before you sew the strap down, you'll need to mark a few places to leave openings so you can attach the waist strap to the backpack. Lay the waist strap against the bottom rib of the frame. Mark each edge of the center poplar support, then mark a spot 1" away from the support on either side. You won't sew the nylon strap down between the two sections on either side of the support to allow for a strap or paracord to attach the waist strap to the frame. You will also need to mark similar spaces next to the inside edge of the outer uprights.

9. Sew the nylon strap to the canvas waist strap, leaving the marked loops clear.

10. Add an adjustable buckle to each side, with a snapping buckle in the middle to attach the two.

Step 5: Assemble

Now that you've finished all the elements, you can assemble the pack.

1. Lay the shoulder straps with the leather side facing up on the concave side of the wood frame. bring the leather underneath the top rib, then up and over the top. Bolt the straps onto the top rib using the 1/4" x 1/2" bolts, washers (1 on each side), and nuts. You will end up crossing the straps before attaching them to the thimbles at the bottom for a better angle of wear.

2. Thread the straps through the hole in the top of the canvas skirt, then stretch the sides of the canvas around to the convex side of the frame. Lace paracord, rope, or leather through the grommets on the skirt to cinch it tight around the frame.

3. Slide the thimbles onto the tapered ends of each wooden upright, with the nylon straps on the same side as your shoulder straps. Thread the corresponding strap through the buckle on each shoulder strap (remember that for best results, the shoulder straps should cross at the top).

4. If you made the waist strap, attach it to the inside of the bottom rib using paracord or straps (you can use velcro or buckles if you'd like to keep it removable).

Step 6: Load

Now that the pack frame is done, you are ready to lash all of you belongings to it and head off into the woods and/or away from the apocalyptic scenario that led you to make this pack in the first place. You'll want to use a diamond hitch to secure everything to the pack, making use of the extra long rib for the center rope (you can find instructions for diamond hitch online). The pack is versatile enough to look equally appropriate with 1940s camping gear or your gym duffle and mummy bag. Just remember to keep the weight evenly distributed.

When you need a break on your hike, find a nice rock or flat piece of ground to sit on. The uprights will touch the ground, lifting the pack off your shoulders without you having to actually remove it.

And in the absolute worst case scenario, you've got rope and canvas for a makeshift shelter and wood to burn.

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    16 Discussions


    Tip 11 months ago on Step 6

    I can only see this being useful for reenactions or people who just really want to build their own pack. By the time you buy the materials and tools, you're going to spend as much as you would on a used backpacking bag which will be lighter and more comfortable.

    That said, it is neat to see a build of an early-style backpacking bag. The very first generation of recreational hikers who ventured into the Adirondacks in the late 1800s quickly found that the 'traditional' canvas rucks used by hunters and trappers at the time were simply uncomfortable, and the most industrious among them rediscovered the external frame pack, an ancient tool that may well predate human civilization itself. This looks very much like what the concept evolved into by the early 1900s when backpacking was slowly becoming an actual hobby, and I have been told that handmade wooden frames like this could still be seen on the trail from time to time even into the '70s.

    2 replies

    Reply 10 months ago

    "an ancient tool that may well predate human civilization itself"

    How does a tool predate civilization?


    Reply 10 months ago

    Definition of civilization

    1a : a relatively high level of cultural and technological development; specifically : the stage of cultural development at which writing and the keeping of written records is attained

    But I don't think the ones way back when would have been this nice.


    10 months ago

    Very nice instructable!


    11 months ago

    Great job. Neat seeing a project that is practical that can be made with materials we can harvest out in the woods or reclaim also. I've been wondering about using carbon fiber golf clubs for projects other than antennas (wrap with Al or Cu foil), masts and frames and this gave me an another idea to try for their use.

    5 replies

    Reply 11 months ago

    That would be awesome. This thing is pretty light to begin with but that could lower the weight and add a little more rigidity.


    Reply 11 months ago

    Haven't figured out the best joint yet. I was thinking maybe 3D printing connection cores and vacuum carbon fiber resin heat cure over. I've seen done with compressed air pressurized to be rigid inner bladder cores also, though would need to be such small diameter, I'm not thinking is as feasible. Might be easier with wood cores (should add strength with resin) and just using tape to compress the carbon fiber resin instead of using a vacuum.


    Reply 11 months ago

    I remember having the aluminium equivalent to this in the 70s with a curved ledge at the bottom. It was very lightweight and great for carrying loads. However, it had screwed joints and they were a bjt kf a pain, always working loose as the pack flexed. Hkwver, my next pack with an inner frame was so much better due to one thing mentioned here- the hip belt.I'm fairly certain, if it was possible to attach a hip belt effectively to these frames someone would have done so a long time ago as it made such a difference to carrying heavy loads.

    Maybe with carbon fibre you could make a hybid, an external frame but with an ergonomic shape and fit with a hip belt attachment system?


    Reply 11 months ago

    Great call. I have an aluminum frame pack (technically was my brothers and not sure what happened to mine that I last used for hiking Isle Royal in my early teens) where I actually used a really luxury padded golf club back strap as the hip belt pad.

    Smart idea in making the pack ergonomic in design to contour the users profile with a hip belt attachment system and even a lower back pad. Shoulder strap extra padding is nice also as well as the chest click to be able to put tension on the shoulder straps at the chest level.


    Reply 11 months ago

    The chest strap is a good call! It's another little thing that make a pack so much more stable and comfortable, stopping the pack pulling so much on the shoulders. It makes you wonder why it wasn't thought of sooner, it seems to be a relatively new innovation given how long rucsacs have been around. I even fit one to small packs if it's not got one.


    11 months ago

    Nice work on a classic design, the design reminds me of paintings done of the plains indians and the way they carried their heavy loads. Or prehaps this fine chap

    1 reply

    Reply 11 months ago

    Thanks. I think this design would actually work really well being held together with raw hide. That might be fun to try.

    I MP

    11 months ago

    What goes around comes around. This is very similar to a classical Trapper Nelson pack frame the first-ever mass-produced external-frame pack which began to be sold in 1924. In 1929 Nelson sold the rights to Trager Manufacturing in Seattle who made and sold them until 1983. I am in the process of making a reproduction Trapper Nelson.

    2 replies
    theskashowI MP

    Reply 11 months ago

    are you doing one with more of a sack on the back or just the board to tie to? I would like to do another canvas that I could swap out for more of an overnight or day pack.

    I MPtheskashow

    Reply 11 months ago

    I will make a modified reproduction of the original Trapper Nelson canvas bag , adding external pockets. The way the original was constructed you can mount any size bag you choose to make. The original attaching system can be added to your version rather easily. There are multiple sets of plans online.


    11 months ago

    Excellent work. Well Done.