Thursday, 6 March 2014

Primitive Packs – load carrying equipment made from sticks, skins and string:

This post was originally published in a magazine but after spending the weekend weaving perfectly useable kit carrying devices using only willow wands and rushes, I thought it deserved an airing!

When I first started down this route over twenty five years ago, it was with a view to learning the essential survival skills that might give me the edge in an unplanned outdoor emergency but I never really devoted a lot of thought to where I was heading and why. Over the years my direction has seemingly changed from ‘survival training’ leaning more towards the traditional crafts and wilderness living skills collectively known today as ‘bushcraft’ although the effortless merging from one into the other implies that this had been my intended journey all along. I was just addressing it by the wrong name!

 Bushcraft as a subject is difficult to define having many variables and countless connotations, meaning different things to different people.  An interest in bushcraft often begins with survival training then delves further, looking towards becoming able to source everything needed for life from the natural world around us. We strive to learn how these natural resources were shaped and processed to benefit our lives in days gone by. With the development of this knowledge comes an awareness of how resources should be harvested responsibly so as not to have a lasting impact on the very environment that provides us with everything we need. One thing’s for certain…bushcrafters will never be bored!

Those of us who like to trace a skill back to it’s roots in order to understand it completely, look to the sketchy clues of the past for inspiration. More recent, well documented hunter gatherer societies help to fill in the gaps but every now and again a window to the past is unearthed enabling us to see first-hand, how ancient people, not too different from us today, were able to live in relative comfort long before we all needed bushcraft knives costing more than a family car and branded waterproof coats flown into the UK from the other side of the world.

One such window discovered in the Otztal Alps, September 1991 was Otzi,  the ice mummy found still surrounded by a good amount of his personal possessions just over 5,000 years after perishing in the snow. Setting aside the mysterious circumstances of his demise for now, the fact that he was moving through such treacherous terrain meant that he must’ve had total confidence in his clothing and gear to even consider it as a realistic option. No goretex covered, down filled jacket for this chap! Instead, his outfit had been skilfully made up from grasses, animal hides, bark, stone, sinews and wood.  Everything he carried and wore had been crafted from the woods, rivers, mountains and meadows he had lived amongst all his life. So based on this evidence and other similar examples, a motivated and skilled bushcrafter could theoretically put together a whole outfit, proving that everything a person needs really can be found in or made entirely from natural resources.  That’s quite a challenge! We’ll need something to carry it all in…

 Otzi’s pack frame:

 Otzi had what most people think was a pack frame lying near him. If so, then this item alone illustrates perfectly, the combining of skills and knowledge that a bushcrafter strives for. A two metre bent hoop of hazel rod formed the frame itself so the maker must have known about hazel as one of the more flexible woods. Two backboards of larch were lashed securely to this using plant fibre cordage meaning that the maker knew which species provided strong cordage and also how to process and construct the cordage needed. A goatskin kit bag was believed to have been fastened to the frame so a working knowledge of how to preserve and cure animal hides in order to make leather and buckskin would have been needed. I don’t believe any shoulder straps were found but these must’ve been present originally and it would be fair to assume these were also leather of some sort.  The images of the broken frame, despite being extremely ancient remind me hugely of some modern day external frame packs I have lugged over hill and dale so it doesn’t seem beyond comprehension that I might be able to make up a close copy that might actually be effective and maybe even comfortable to carry. After all, Otzi did apparently haul his original model most of the way up a snowy mountain with an arrow head lodged deep in his shoulder! You can’t really get a better recommendation than that.
My first job was to cut and bend a two metre length of hazel wood. Having had some success with steaming and bending wood in the past I decided to give it a whirl by suspending the hazel rod over a steaming pot of water, covering both rod and pot with a damp towel. The rod was quite thick and the bend in the middle, pretty tight so my first couple of steaming attempts resulted in splintered hazel. ‘Let’s keep this simple’ I thought so I decided to gently coax the freshly cut section by hand, around a stump acting as a former. This worked well so after scraping the bark off, I tied the frame in position to let it ‘set’ overnight.

Bending a green hazel rod around a former

Leaving the rod to 'set' in position
Otzi’s original back boards were larch wood (yet I’ve also read that they were elm) so just to be different, I made one from yew and the other from field maple. These back boards were split from round timber then carved into two thin planks. I drilled two holes in each end to provide secure lashing points, of course using a flint burin mounted into a hand drill spindle using rawhide lashing and pitch. This worked very well indeed! As I had every intention of using the pack frame I wanted to improve on the original by sealing the wooden parts with birch tar and using deer skin rawhide for really strong, durable lashings instead of the original plant fibre cordage. The rawhide lashings would be applied damp, shrinking as they dried gripping the work even tighter. My birch tar coating gave the wood a nice ‘antique’ effect and strong creosote smell which appealed to the eye but definitely not the nose (although it did keep the bugs away).
Using a flint burin to drill lashing points

Sealing the wood with birch tar
The shoulder straps were made from two 3” wide lengths of fallow buckskin, stitched around the frame with buckskin thonging and tied in place around the horns at the bottom end. I couldn’t help thinking the finished article looked similar to a snowshoe which, funnily enough is another theory as to it’s original use.
Lashing the backboards

Finished frame with buckskin straps
In use:
With pack frame finished and birch tar dry I got to work loading up the frame for a test run. In the absence of a goat skin bag I rolled up my standard day sack kit in a heavily smoked red deer hide and lashed it to the frame with cordage for a touch of authenticity. The frame felt extremely light and the fit was good. As the hazel rod still hadn’t seasoned fully, in theory the green wood frame would conform to the shape of my back during use. The buckskin straps had plenty of room for adjustment and enough spare end to take them from the bottom of the frame and around my waist, tying with a reef knot. This lifted the pack slightly placing it higher over my centre of gravity and taking some of the strain away from my shoulders and neck. I had just re-invented the rucksack waist belt and wondered if Otzi and his mates would have taken advantage of this unplanned bonus too. With the addition of some padding on the back boards this pack frame would not be too dissimilar to any of my modern packs for lightness and comfort!
Loaded up with belongings wrapped in a heavily smoked red deer hide
The burden basket:
At this point, all I had to compare Otzi’s pack frame with was my plethora of modern, traditional hiking rucksacks so in the interests of experimentation I decided to make a completely different load carrying system using sticks, skins and string, the burden basket.
Burden baskets have been used for centuries and still are the world over for carrying heavy loads. The conical shape is an extremely strong design and allows lightweight materials to be used in it’s construction. Typical carrying methods include shoulder straps or a ‘tump line’ (wide strap around the forehead or chest). They can even be fitted either side of a mule or similar beast for hauling a serious amount of gear. Some can be quite decorative, made up from coiled grasses and plant fibres while others are more rough and ready. I went for the rough and ready option, a rigid warp and flexible weft open weave design using green hazel rods and rawhide cordage. This model is apparently influenced by several different cultures from Mexico to Africa and with access to suitable materials, can be put together very quickly.
Before bending any hazel rods, I snipped my way through the remaining supply of fallow deer rawhide, cutting an ever decreasing spiral to create very long continuous lengths once soaked and stretched. With the rawhide lashing and weaving material soaking I carefully bent three similar sized green hazel rods around a former, then another two for spares, plus three hoops for the rigid wefts and left them to set in position. As with my Otzi pack frame, these had the bark scraped off and a coating of birch tar to seal the wood.  Once the hazel components were dry and the rawhide had become flexible again, the three ‘ribs’ were lashed in place to give six equal gaps between warps.
Cutting a spiral of rawhide

Lashing the three hazel hoops in position
The hoops were bound securely in place using rawhide lashings, starting near the base with the smallest and working up to the largest at the top giving the framework a natural flared opening. Soaked and stretched rawhide warps were taken from bottom to top and back again, spiralling around the hoops to tie each section more firmly in place. Lastly, a rawhide weft was started at the top and worked down to the base wrapping around rigid and flexible warps alike, creating a strong mesh. A buckskin tumpline was fitted and my second (and much prettier) pack frame was ready to trial.
Adding in a strengthening hoop
Fitting an intermediate hoop and strong rim
Rawhide warps
Rawhide wefts close up
In use:
Whilst being vastly differing designs, both packs required an additional weatherproof bag to contain small items of kit although the burden basket did not need any further lashings to accept the load. Everything sat inside nicely. The burden basket did exactly what it said on the tin, swallowing up a vast amount of heavy kit. I was amazed at how much kit it could take and impressed at the concept. Each of the individual components on their own were not particularly robust but when woven into a strong but flexible mesh their different qualities combined made a tough bit of kit. It could probably even be used as a fish trap with a bit of imagination!
Buckskin tumpline fitted although this is likely to be replaced/reinforced with shoulder straps
However, it’s certainly not that comfortable when you need to be nimble and light on your feet. This is where Otzi’s pack frame edges into pole position in my opinion. It’s still robust enough to carry your kit but won’t swing about as much or attempt to break your neck when ducking under branches and skipping over logs. My plan now is to oak bark tan a couple of nice thick fallow deer hides to make a roll top, leather sack for it, probably treated with a mixture of animal fat and birch tar to make a kind of primitive dry bag. So in summary, the burden basket is fantastic for lugging heavy loads but my Otzi pack will always be sitting on the top, holding all my essential kit ready to grab and go as soon as the heavy kit can be left behind.
All loaded up and taking it out for a spin. The high position is better for load carrying but a bit unstable with just the tumpline fitted. More traditional models are shaped more like a cone which seems to dovetail better with the tumpline strap and aid stability