Time to Get This Backpack Rolling!
With any project that involves making your own gear from scratch or just modifying existing gear to meet your needs, you need to first know what your needs are. That can actually be harder than it seems. The easiest way to start is by evaluating your existing gear to find the features you use, those you DON'T use, and those that would be BETTER if tweaked a certain way. That's the hardest part, and something that you may not notice at the store or on the pictures and descriptions if you're buying commercial gear. I'm becoming more adept at modifying my gear to remove unnecessary features and weight, but there are occasionally situations that you run into where the flaw is built into the design itself. You're stuck with those most times.
My oldest pack, a Gregory Forester, weighs in at 2211g (4lb 14oz) for a 4700ci capacity. My first observation was that I could carry ALL of my most heavy gear, plus my son's sleeping bag and still have room to spare. While that has been nice for longer, family oriented hikes, it's absolutely overkill for solo hikes where a fast and light approach is taken. I have no qualms with its durability: it has seen many miles, has been re-purposed occasionally as a suitcase, and survived a time in my outdoor life that I wasn't as keenly aware of how to properly take care of things as I am now. It has been dropped, sat on, drug around, allowed to be wet for extended periods of time, overloaded/misloaded, etc. and the only problem with it now (durability wise) is that the waste band clip has partially broken (easily replaceable).
I love using the brain on that pack to carry items of frequent use. I enjoy the bottom zipper entry and the divider for the sleeping bag. I sometimes use the middle zipper to access the main body of gear and load the pack with that in mind. That being said, I don't have to have any of that! In reality, when I have to get my sleeping bag out, I also remove my cook set, filter, sleeping pad, tent, and the whole host of other assorted items that you would find yourself using (map, toothbrush, etc) once at camp. So, why have a zipper compartment there? 1) Its a fail point. 2) It costs weight. 3) It adds to the manufacturing cost. 4) I really DON'T use it! 5) My sleeping bag compresses into a smaller size than the compartment, leading to awkward loading unless I leave the stuff sack at home (which I don't do because I use a dry bag). So in making a pack, I wouldn't add a compartment specifically for my sleeping bag.
The reason for both the brain and the front loading access is to provide easy access to things stowed away inside the pack. Often, I find that when I have to dig around inside the pack for something like lunch (if I forgot to take it out in the morning), I can't merely open the zipper, take the thing out, use it, then put it right back where it was, zip the pack up, throw it on and go. 1) The compression straps prohibit that. 2) The load shifts when you remove something so that just putting it back doesn't happen. 3) I end up re-loading the pack anyway. That's worse case scenario, but it happens often enough that I remember it! So, examining that problem, it seems pretty clear that what I really want is easy access to the items that I need to frequently access. External storage pockets and a brain are good for this. Rain jacket, snacks/lunch, water filter, and a map are all things to have easily at hand and if buried in the middle bottom of the pack will cost you time and aggravation. Solution: No front entry! Brain and small/large net pockets instead.
The brain is something worth including for several reasons. It also has it's negatives that I'll get to in a moment. One great thing about the brain is that it covers the main closure of the pack. Many of the plans out there for packs go with either a draw cord closure or a double roll closure similar to a dry bag. Whichever style is chosen, having some coverage over this section will act as a roof to shed water away from a potential leak point. I say this assuming that the pack is being built using waterproof (cuben fiber) or water resistant (SilNylon) materials. If that weren't the case, a pack cover will accomplish this handily. Another reason for choosing a brain is that it provides an easily accessed pouch for water sensitive items that don't need to or can't go into the exterior pockets. Some people store water in this pouch, others store maps, etc. One substitute that I've seen for a brain is a front pouch that clips either to one shoulder strap or between the two shoulder straps. both of these I actually like better than the brain because you don't even have to remove the pack to get at the goodies. I can just imagine now how easy and safe map and camera access will be. I'll have to see about going with one of these though, time will tell.
The negative part of a brain comes in the added weight and the idea that it is top loading weight. When I was young and dumb, I carried 4L of water up there in a hydration bladder. It just doesn't work well. Light, little stuff seems to work well, but again, why can't that stuff either go inside the pack or on an outside pocket? The attachment would involve more webbing and buckles, plus the zipper or velcro closure. I'm just not sure if it's worth it and may include the buckles for it just in case I decide I want to try it.
Back to the Gregory! I want to say that although I'm going through features that I don't like about it, these are features that people like in a lot of cases. I just would rather have 2 lbs off my back than pockets and openings that I don't use. That being said, there's two features that are completely useless to me and I feel like anyone would have these same complaints. The access to the side pockets is severely inhibited by the compression straps. Solution: build a pack that has side pockets that you can actually get to when the pack is compressed! There wasn't anything that I could have done without severely modifying the pack and risking weakening it that would have fixed it. The other thing is the gear loops on the bottom.... I've never used them, but have this bizarre hesitation about cutting them out! I bet the weight between the two of them, all the extra webbing on that pack, and the sleeping bag compartment divider would come to about 7oz.... that's the weight of my filter kit!
So looking at different designs, I've found a couple features and styles that I'd like to incorporate. The new Zpacks cuben pack uses webbing to anchor the shoulder straps to the main pack. This gives a couple of different benefits. 1) Allowing the straps to twist on the webbing makes it easier on the material on both the shoulder straps and the main body of the pack . 2) By making the shoulder straps easily removable, I will be able to swap shoulder straps depending on the type of hiking I'm doing (heavier weight, cushier straps!). G4 design from Gossamer Gear uses velcro openings on an unpadded shoulder strap to allow the wearer to add sleeping socks or other "useable padding" to the shoulder straps instead of using single purpose, permanent padding. I've read mixed reviews about that. I've seen yet another design that basically involves the construction of a shoulder strap, waste belt system to which you strap one large or several smaller stuff sacks. This seems interesting and I may try it on a second project, just not my first.
So in conclusion, I'm still looking for design ideas and may look more carefully at several of the more detailed plans that are circulating on the web. In the end, I know that this project will be like most other MYOG projects in that the first time through will serve more as a "second starting point" than a true actualization of what I really want in a pack.
If anyone has any suggestions on step-by-steps, or plans available (free or pay), or any other features that they find useful, please comment, I really want some feedback.