Get to Know Pack Suspension

Okay, let's cover the suspension basics

Pack suspension has seen impressive evolution over the last 100 years and is now a sophisticated set of design and engineering practices. If you need to distill it to one principal, it is the goal to evenly distribute pack weight onto the human body to limit fatigue and keep the center of gravity as close to the body as possible.

Full suspension (left) transfers weight of the bag to the waist belt. No suspension (right) results in all the weight on the shoulders.

Full suspension (left) transfers weight of the bag to the waist belt. No suspension (right) results in all the weight on the shoulders.

Redistributing weight

While framed backpacks go back hundreds of years, it wasn't until after WWII that pack makers begin to experiment with aircraft tubing to make lighter and more rigid frames. During this time, the first instances of attaching the frame to a waist belt appeared. This was a revolutionary idea as it brought about a new approach to loading weight onto the human body. For the first time, much the weight on one's back could be distributed to the hips. This allows people to carry more weight longer without prolonged compression of the spine.

This post will mainly discuss larger outdoor bags. Frames are not always better on small to mid-sized bags. Any daypack or small backpack is better off without the size and complexity of a waist belt and frame.

An adjsutable yoke in blue allows users to match the pack to their torso length.

An adjsutable yoke in blue allows users to match the pack to their torso length.

Getting the right fit

Before getting into all the details of suspension, it's important to note that all the bag structure in the world won't help if the pack length doesn't match your torso. When first fitting a bag, get the waist belt so it is sitting on the hips just above the pelvic bone. Next, adjust the height of the shoulder straps. If a bag is too long or too short, it should be immediately apparent. For minimalist hiking bags, the user often needs to find a bag that matches their torso length, but many higher-end bags will have an adjustable "yoke". This this a moveable shoulder strap panel that can be adjusted to match the user.

Main approaches to suspension

Frame sheet (plastic):

This is one of the most common approaches to weight transfer. A plastic sheet, usually polyethylene or polypropylene, serves as the rigid element to transfer weight to the waist belt. The benefits include a semi-flexible back panel that is sometimes even removable and relatively low cost. Plastic frame sheets are most common on packs that need to support 20 pounds or less and for this reason, are usually found on small to medium volume packs.

Frame sheet (wood/fiberglass or carbon fiber composite):

Larger packs that will take more weight (above 20 pounds) require a frame with greater rigidity. One way to do this is by adding a baton or stay (see below). Another approach is using fiberglass or even carbon fiber composite materials. These materials offer greater rigidity and often with less additional weight. Designing and manufacturing composite materials is much higher-cost and, for this reason, is usually only reserved for larger and higher performance packs.

Frames heet+Stays or Batons:

This combination is one of the most popular frames and is sort of a sweet spot between ease of manufacture and performance. Simply put, a baton or stay (which is just a stick) is attached to the frame sheet. The stay takes the vertical loading, while the sheet helps distribute that rigidity across the entire back panel. Stays come in a number of materials including aluminum, fiberglass, carbon fiber and even steam-bent wood! The stays are often formed into an "S" curve to better match the the curve of the spine. Some stays, mostly aluminum ones, are able to be formed by the owner to fine-tune the curve to match one's back.

Perimeter Frame:

This frame style is becoming more and more popular in recent years. Perimeter frames are usually made of aluminum or steel rod or tubing and perform similar to a frame sheet+baton but with fewer parts. The benefit is a slightly more efficient structure with a little less weight.  These frames have the added benefit of leaving the back panel open for rear access. 

Trampoline Backs:

This is actually still a perimeter frame but is combined with a fabric or mesh. With these designs, the perimeter frame is bent into an arc shape that arches away from the spine creating an air gap between the bag and the user.  The fabric mesh spans the frame and is held in tension . . . like a trampoline.  This style bag is great for longer hikes in warm climates because you get the benefits of a structured pack that is only touching the body at the hips and shoulders, allowing for better ventilation.

Straps on the left pretending to do something but not actually doing anything. True load lifters on the right make a triangle to adjust.

Straps on the left pretending to do something but not actually doing anything. True load lifters on the right make a triangle to adjust.

Load lifters:

One of the main ways to adjust the shoulder straps and the way the frame sits on the upper body is with load lifters. These are straps connect from the upper part of the shoulder straps to the tops of the frame, which needs to be above shoulder height.  The resulting triangle shape allows for fine-tuning of weight distribution on the shoulders.

In recent years it's become fashionable to add load lifters to backpack straps for appearance. These are easy to spot because the shoulder strap and lifter strap connect to the bag in the same place and do absolutely nothing but add weight to your bag.

 

Where’s Athleisure Headed?

Image courtesy of Nike

Image courtesy of Nike

I can still remember the moment. it was 2012 and I was working in San Francisco’s well heeled Fillmore neighborhood. While waiting in line at Starbucks, I noticed the women in front of me sporting Lululemon yoga pants and a fur jacket. I realized this wasn’t a post workout coffee, nor was she throwing something on to run out for a quick minute; she was dressed with purpose.

 

Now it’s 2017. The Athleisure category shows no signs of slowing down, and apparel brands and retailers alike are finding out how to capitalize on this trend. This new category exists in many spaces but at its core is built around a foundation of yoga apparel.  How brands choose to build on the yoga momentum is fascinating. As customers preference has shifted and formality has become more lax, we're getting a glimpse at how brands build stories and followings for the new normal.

 

Outdoor Voices leggings. Image courtesy of Outdoor Voices.

Outdoor Voices leggings. Image courtesy of Outdoor Voices.

For how much we all mix and match athletic with dress apparel, clothing brands and retailers are still figuring out how to communicate this blended point of view without dumbing down their product story.  Lululemon probably won’t say “great for going to work and sitting around the house”. These brands are more likely to stick to their aspirational messaging around outdoors and fitness and maybe have a wink and a nod in the lifestyle imagery showing someone going out to brunch with the caption “urban exploration”.

 

New brands getting into the space are best positioned to hone their brand story to the the current trends. As newcomers, they can adapt to the trends without the risk of alienating an existing customer base. Some of the most focused storytelling has come from Outdoor Voices. The four-year old brand has struck balanced tone between fitness and fashion. The cuts look good and they seem on or ahead of trends with their complex patterns and color blocking.

Image courtesy of Stella McCartney

Image courtesy of Stella McCartney

Image courtesy of Adidas

Image courtesy of Adidas

Wer have also seen large athletic brands like  Nike, Addidas and Under Amour bring a lot of new ideas to this space, creating garments that test consumer's openness to a continuing blurring of the fashion/performance space. Adidas' partnership with designer Stella McCartney shows the brands hard push to establish it's self in the main stream apparel space. 

 

Established outdoor brands seem poised to capitalize on this new category but have been slower to react. There seems to be some reluctance to broaden their outdoor story to encompass the everyday.  For some of the larger outdoor brands, it seems like a missed opportunity to bolster their apparel categories. I understand the reticence many of these brands may have to watering down their massage of outdoor escapism, but this could still be an opportunity for a sub-brand that can take ownership of this space.

 

Now the tricky part. Where is athleisure headed?

While I can only imagine what trend forecast services like WGSN would say, I offer three ideas:

A. Athleisure Dissolves

There is a risk that as the movement grows, aethletic-inspired aparell will lose its identity and soak into the ever more casual attire. We may already be seeing this with Betabrand's Dress Pant-Yoga Pant. A style that takes the comfort of athletic fabrics but ditches the look.

Image courtsy of Betabrand

Image courtsy of Betabrand

B. Athleisure Matures

Athleisure’s DNA is in technical performance mixed with comfort. This trend might continue to evolve beyond the basic yoga-centric pieces and mature as a category for technical dress that is more about ergonomic cuts and breathable textiles that continue to bridge our workout/home lives.

 

Image courtesy of Aether Apparel

Image courtesy of Aether Apparel

C. Athleisure's Becomes simplified and iconic

After starting to watch the Netflix series 3%, I’m inspired by the the mix of simple cuts and and what look like synthetic meshes. After a movement of increasingly complex “engineered” patterns, we may see a return to simple, basic shapes that allow new textile technologies and color/pattern to shine.

 

Still from the Netflix show 3%. Image courtesy of Netflix.

Still from the Netflix show 3%. Image courtesy of Netflix.