The packboard is the MacGyver of backpacks. It’s simple, versatile and strong. Plus, it has great hair. For those who don’t know, packboards have been used for millenia to transport heavy, irregular loads.
The first packboards were made from branches lashed together with vines or sinew. Some indigenous peoples wrapped animal skin around it for additional bracing and comfort. GI radiomen wore them to carry their radio gear in WWII. To this day, hunters and trappers use modern variations to carry their kill down a mountain.
Nowadays, packboards are pretty thin on the ground. In the early to mid-20th century, companies like Trager Manufacturing Company created the iconic Trapper Nelson design for the mass civilian market. These rugged backpacks can be sized to suit a variety of loads, as well as the hikers themselves.
I built mine based on the traditional Trapper Nelson Indian design and the dimensions of the WWII GI packboards. My goal was to make mine out of a single 1x2x8, so measurements were adjusted to accommodate this. For reference, I’m 6’3” and 190 pounds. (Jealous? I’ll bet you are.)
So how did I keep the cost so low? I’m a packrat. I almost never throw anything away that could conceivably be of value in a project later on. When I bought a truck, the previous owner had left behind some 1/8” rope. This became the frame’s “padding”. The shoulder straps were made from remnants of an old ratchet strap left behind by a concrete contractor I hired a while back. I already had the screws, glue and tools. The only thing I had to purchase new was the 1x2.
Of course, if you have to buy everything brand new, it will cost more than $2. (Possibly $2.38 or even $3.17. Who knows?) But if you’re patient and creative, I’m sure you could find something lying around your house that will work. If not, scavenge garage sales and thrift stores for bits of rope or belts for the straps. Or, just walk along a highway to glean whatever materials you need. I’ve found tons of useful stuff, like scissors, needle-nose pliers, ratchet straps and dead bodies this way.
For those who don’t have the money to buy new, or just like to do their own thing, here’s how to make a packboard dirt cheap.
Step 1. Cut the 1x2 into two, 24” lengths and three, 16” lengths. (If your 1x2 is exactly 96” long, subtract the kerf from each cut length.)
Step 2: Mark the layout for the cross supports. I placed the 16” cross supports 1” in from the ends and at the 12” point on the 24” uprights.
Step 3: Set your circular saw to cut a depth of ½” and cut away the wood within the shaded areas. I cut both uprights at once to ensure the mortise cuts were uniform. The cross supports will stand proud about ¼”.
Step 4: Chisel out remaining wood and file smooth.
Step 5: Drill ¼” holes spaced 1 inch apart and 3/8” from the edge along the length of the uprights (to accept the rope weaving). If you don’t have a countersink jig, go back and counter sink the holes slightly with a ½” bit to remove sharp edges. Again, drill both uprights simultaneously.
Step 6: Sand everything smooth.
Step 7: Spread some glue in the mortises and insert the cross supports in place. Pre-drill two holes in each cross support end with a 1/8” bit. Secure cross supports with screws. Let dry overnight.
Step 8: Like you’re lacing a new pair of shoes, find the midpoint of your rope and loosely lace the length of the uprights. Once laced, go back and pull the rope taut working your way down the entire length as before. Knot at each end, cut off extra rope and singe the ends with a lighter to prevent unraveling.
Step 9: For the shoulder straps, fold your strap in half and loop the midpoint under an end cross support, bringing the two loose ends around and through. Then loop each end of the strap around each side of the opposite end cross support. The extra length of strapping makes a handy belt you can tie around your waist for additional support while hiking. Like with the rope, singe cut ends with a lighter to prevent fraying.