Sunday 15 July 2018

Classic Gear:Lowe Alpine Expedition Pack

The original 1967 Expedition Pack

Last year I wrote a series of pieces on classic outdoor gear for The Great Outdoors. Over the next few months I'll post them here. Thr first one is about a pack that changed how we carry big loads.

Fifty years ago a new company launched its first product - an innovative pack that would revolutionise load carrying. The company was LoweAlpine, the product was the first pack with an internal frame. It was called simply the Expedition Pack and it came about when American climber Greg Lowe wanted a pack that would carry heavy loads and be stable enough for technical climbing so that he and his uncle could undertake long walk-ins to remote areas of the Teton range, part of the Rocky Mountains in Wyoming, and do alpine-style ascents. Back then in 1967 packs were either external frame ones that were great for hiking with big loads but awkward and unstable for climbing or frameless rucksacks that were stable but too small and too uncomfortable for heavy loads. 

Original Parallux back system
To combine the load carrying properties of external frame packs with the stability of frameless rucksacks Greg Lowe came up with a frame that fitted into the back of the pack. This was stiff enough to transfer the weight to the hipbelt whilst still being flexible and body-hugging enough for stability when climbing. To further improve the stability he added side compression straps, hip and shoulder stabiliser straps, and a sternum strap – all new features that are now standard ones. This design is still the basis of most internal frame packs today.

The back system involved two parallel aluminium staves in sleeves on the back of the pack that could flex and move with the body. This was called the Parallux System. The original version wasn’t adjustable, that came in 1977 followed by the Advanced Parallux System (APS) in 1993.
In the late 1970s Lowe Alpine pioneered women’s fit packs with the ND series. Originally this stood for Nanda Devi, the highest mountain in the Indian Himalaya and a Hindu goddess. Now Lowe says it stands for Narrower Dimensions to reflect the difference in design – a functional rather than romantic name. I know which I prefer!

As it was aimed at mountaineers rather than walkers it was a while before the internal frame pack was accepted as ideal for backpacking as well as climbing. By the 1990s though it had become the dominant design, with many variations from other companies as well as further developments from Lowe Alpine, all based on Greg Lowe’s original design. I think it’s fair to say that it’s one of the most important and significant developments in the history of backpacking and outdoor gear. 

A later version of the Expedition
In the 1980s and 90s I used Lowe Alpine packs with the Parallax back system regularly, including on a two-week trip in the steep and rocky confines of the Grand Canyon where a pack that balanced well was essential. Lowe Alpine also branched out from mountaineering packs as it realised the versatility of the internal frame. I still have and regularly use a 1980s Kinnikinnick travel pack with the Parallax back system. It’s proved amazingly tough and looks like it’ll never wear out.

Lowe Alpine has for many years made a wide range of packs in all sizes. The backpacking and expedition models clearly show their descent from the Expedition Pack that started it all.  The company has had several owners since the Lowe family sold it in 1988 but the line back to the original pack has never been broken. Today Lowe Alpine is British-owned and part of the Equip Outdoor Technologies group.

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