History is littered with technologies that wound their way from the defense and aerospace industries into our everyday lives. From radar to GPS, civilians have benefited greatly from advances that were once the domain of deep-pocketed contractors and corporations.
Now, one of these technologies is coming down to earth in the form of a backpack frame. The frame is made of carbon fiber, which means it’s light and sturdy. But what’s new about it isn’t the use of high-tech materials; it’s the way the material was crafted. And according to its maker, the outdoors gear manufacturer Kuiu, this process means you can fit a lot more weight into the hiking pack, all else being equal.
If you’re not familiar with hiking backpacks, the basic idea behind many of them is to slap a fabric bag on top of a stiff internal or external frame; this helps distribute the weight you’re carrying and increase your stability. Often, these frames are made of aluminum. But carbon fiber is an attractive material for frames because it’s incredibly light; it’s often found, too, in race cars and high-end bicycles.
The type of carbon fiber Kuiu uses in its new backpack, which was announced Thursday after a two-year development period, is a variant known as “spread tow.” What this means is that instead of weaving together round bundles of carbon fiber strands to create a surface, you flatten the bundles so that all the strands are arranged in a long rectangle, and these flat rectangles are stitched together.
“Because the fibers are no longer woven, and because there is no bend in the fiber, it’s stiffer, stronger, and there’s less resin built up in between the fibers due to their shape,” said Jason Hairston, who founded Kuiu after a neck injury in the 1990s took him off the San Francisco 49ers and out of a short career in professional football.
The difference in frame construction means the pack can handle 150 pounds of gear, Hairston claims, up from the 100 pounds that represents the limit of Kuiu’s current Ultra backpack.
Of course, most backpackers won’t — and probably shouldn’t — be carrying that much weight around. The conventional wisdom for backpacking is generally to carry no more than a third of your own weight. But Kuiu’s gear targets mainly hunters who may find themselves carrying parts of their prey.
Whether or not you’re a hiker, Kuiu’s new pack is another example of what happens when investments in cutting-edge technology make it down to the rest of us.