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Gear Pioneer Dick Kelty Dies


by Unknown

February 11, 2004

Camp4 - Climbing News Archive

Ahser "Dick" Kelty, the father of the external-frame pack that first popularized backpacking fifty years ago, died last week at his home in Glendale, California. Kelty's backpack innovations—all home-brewed— include waist-straps, lightweight aluminum frames, nylon bags, and padded shoulder straps.

Dick Kelty was born in Duluth Minnesota in 1919, and moved to California with his family when he was three. He went on his first hike in the Sierras at age six, and built his first backpack when he was 14, after finding others inadequate. Until 1950, a backpacker had two options: a pack called the "Trapper Nelson," available through Sears Roebuck and Company, or an army packboard, originally developed for World War II soldiers, available at army surplus stores. Both were made of wood and canvas and had two thin shoulder straps. And both were heavy, uncomfortable, and available in one size only.

Kelty, who had assembled aircraft parts for Northrup and Lockheed Overseas Corporation and worked as a carpenter, had a knack for building things. He designed and built his own house in 1946, and five years later began making his famous packs there, after a painful July hiking trip inspired him to try something different. With blistered feet and sore shoulders, he wondered if longer side stays would allow hikers to lift the frame up and give their shoulders a rest. A friend of Kelty's, Marx Brook, tested the new design, and returned jubilant. "Hey Kelty!" he yelled. "I stuck those long side pieces in the back pockets of my jeans, and voila! The weight shifted off of my shoulders and onto my hips!" A few tweaks later, Kelty had developed the now-standard waist-strap.

Kelty, working out of his garage, thought he could still do better. He replaced the wooden frame with a lighter aluminum one, made softer shoulder straps by stuffing them with carpeting, and replaced the canvas bag with lighter nylon. He then tested the comfort of his new backpacks by filling them with chicken feed and having family members roam around the house with them. Then, to test their durability, he climbed up on the roof and threw them down onto the cement driveway. They survived unscathed.

All of the early Kelty packs were green (Kelty dyed the white nylon in the washing machine), except for one special custom-ordered red pack Kelty made in 1966 for his friend Nick Clinch, which he took to Antarctica. In Backpacking the Kelty Way, Clinch later recalled, "Until Dick came along with the Kelty Pack, backpacks made your shoulders hurt. It was just awful...Dick's design was revolutionary...he took the misery out of the sport." He called Dick Kelty "the Henry Ford of backpacking."

In 1952, Kelty sold 29 of his backpacks, for a total of $678.85. Five years later, Kelty sold almost 500. Fifty years later, Kelty Pack Company sold roughly 100,000 packs, with total sales nearing $20 million. The company is now one of almost 100 backpack manufacturers, and makes tents, sleeping bags, child carriers, and jogging strollers as well as backpacks.

"Kelty introduced a whole generation to the passion and freedom of backpacking," Kelty president Casey Sheahan told Sporting Goods Business last year. In so doing, Sheehan said, the company has helped make camping seem less "dorky," and more fun and comfortable.

The L.A. Times reported that there will be no memorial service for Kelty, who was 84.

News courtesy Outside Online.

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