Ode to the JanSport D3 backpack
Disclaimer: this blog entry has nothing to do with fly fishing and will be long and boring if you came here for something related to fly fishing.
Let me state for the record that I am not a backpacker. Or at least I haven’t been for many decades. I do a bit of day hiking, but I haven’t done an overnight trip since I was a junior in high school. That final trip in 1980 was to Lake Serene in the central Cascades of Washington, with my elder brother, Hal (not his real name, sort of). It was during our spring break in April and it was a good bit early in the year for what we set out to do. In our eagerness to partake of a little backpacking we jumped the gun by at least a month, or more, to be overnighting at this elevation. The alpine lake is at about 2500+ feet and, like so many alpine lakes, it sits in a bowl surrounded by steep peaks. Despite the final part of the hike being a scramble which involved using roots as handholds as we wondered if we were really on the actual trail, I recall the day being pleasant enough.We were young, fit, and ready for whatever adventure Mother Nature threw at us. But when we arrived at the lake there was still a couple of feet of snow covering much the ground. There were a couple of other hikers at the lake when we arrived but none who (wisely) intended to spend the night. The snow made pitching our tent a challenge and once the sun got behind the rim high above the lake, the temperature dropped fast and we hit the sack early (this was a time before whiskey, which likely would have had us bundled up and sitting on a snow covered log well past dark, solving world problems). What sticks in my mind is that during the night our body heat melted the snow beneath our tent and we awoke resting in body-shaped depressions that hadn’t been there a few hours earlier. It’s a good thing we were brothers or our close proximation may have been awkward. I don’t remember much more about the hike but had you told me then that it would be my last backpacking trip I would have given you a bewildered look. Of course I would go backpacking again, when time and money allowed for it (there was little of either when I was 17). Naturally new gear would be needed as I was still in possession of all my old stuff left over from our Scouting days. I didn’t give the matter of future backpacking much of a thought; it was something I’d enjoyed with regularity from the age of 11 until I was 15 (when I retired from the Boy Scouts). I naturally assumed backpacking was something I would do at least a little of it throughout my life. Hal, on the other hand, stayed close to his scouting roots and has continued to backpack throughout the years. He has, however, long since gone the way of ultralight gear which bears little resemblance to the equipment of 40 years ago.
Following a year behind Hal’s footsteps, I joined Boy Scout Troop #668 in 1974 as an eager 11 year-old. My timing could not have been better as the adult leadership of the troop was under new direction, led by a group of dads who were very dedicated to getting us boys outdoors regularly. Seasons permitting, Troop 668 held monthly overnight backpacking trips led by adult men with immeasurable patience. Once a summer we would embark on a “50 Miler” (though always longer) that pushed us farther into the backcountry and further tested the the tolerance of the adult leaders. We would load up our old, external frame packs with butane stoves (and extra fuel canisters), bulky 4-man tents, sleeping bags and blue foam pads, canteens filled with water, and the finest freeze-dried meals REI had to offer. Undoubtedly our packs were heavier than the guidelines provided us by our leaders, but that was understandable. After all, it was hard to keep the weight down when carrying an extra pair of Sears Toughskins jeans, bulky cotton sweatshirts, and some sort of warm jacket. Oh, and a pair of sneakers for around camp, as god forbid one would actually wear the 5-pound leather hiking boots for anything other than slogging up the trail. Our backpacks—empty—probably weighed 7-8 pounds, with their thick aluminum frames and heavy, coated nylon pack bags attached using countless metal clevis pins. There was no such thing as “ultralight backpacking” then, and in all likelihood we probably bragged about how much weight we were actually carrying at the time. I seem to recall my pack weighing 30 pounds for one of our 50 Miler hikes, at a time when I tipped the scales at a whopping 75 pounds. No big deal.
Some of us would even, unknowingly, carry more weight than we thought thanks to the occasional heavy rock placed inside packs discreetly by elder troop-mates. This form of frontier discipline was punishment for having done something stupid previously. My first
rock-carrier pack was a hand-me-down frame with a canvas bag that was already probably 15 years old when I inherited it. The pack bag came with a bit of mildew and the accompanying odor. Remember the familiar smell of that old canvas, Coleman family tent when it was pulled from storage each summer? That’s what my first pack smelled like. Canvas, being heavy and prone to being even heavier when it got wet, had been replaced by the 1970’s with a newfangled, coated nylon and I was soon allowed to get a new pack bag for my old frame. Like those carried by most of the boys in our troop, it was a run-of-the-mill pack made by REI: basic, functional and inexpensive. The dads who led us on our overnight excursions generally carried much nicer packs; the Kelty Tioga was one of those packs that I remember. But the pack that stood head and shoulders above all others was the one carried by Pete Baird, our Scoutmaster at the time. Mr. Baird was an avid outdoorsman (and fly fisherman) who evoked confidence. Tall, lean and soft-spoken—though quick with a smile—when it came to hiking, he carried the weight of the troop on his back. And his pack, a tan-colored JanSport D3, happened to be the coolest thing on the trail for miles in any direction. It was big and badass. I don’t know what it cost back in the early-to-mid 1970s but even if it would have fit me (it wouldn’t have), it was out of reach of my budget, or rather that of my parents. Another thing that made Mr. Baird’s pack so awesome was that it was made by a local company.JanSport was founded in Seattle in 1968 and moved to Everett, WA in 1971. The company is now owned by a corporate conglomerate with other holdings in the outdoor industry, headquartered somewhere that is not the Seattle area.
I recall fondly admiring Mr. Baird’s JanSport from afar (way behind him on the trails), and up close (in camp). While all the other packs lay strewn about the ground, or leaning haphazardly against a tree, Mr. Baird’s D3 stood alone, literally and figuratively. The fold-out, D-shaped (or perhaps U-shaped?) aluminum “wings” on the frame allowed for the pack to be propped upright so it stood like a sentinel in camp. When vertical, the pack was nearly as tall as I was. Aside from the revolutionary frame design, which was considerably thinner, lighter and more flexible than others of the day, it was also highly adjustable and contoured to the shape of one’s body. The JanSport D3 also just looked different from anything else. Unlike packs carried by commoners, the JanSport was a front-loader, making it easy to unzip one of two main compartments and shop for the contents inside without having to empty the entire pack to find what one was looking for. It was cavernous. It was marvelous. It had no peers and, while I coveted that thing, I would never have one.
Or would I?
Fast forward to July 2019. I found myself browsing through literally countless used treasures at a church Haggle Sale in the small town of Tahuya, WA where my family has had a cabin since long before I was ever a Boy Scout. Nothing I saw captured my fancy until, tucked into a far corner of the church yard, I spied a magnificent blast from the past: Mr. Baird’s JanSport D3! Well, not quite—this one was blue—but it was the same vintage. I picked it up off the ground (didn’t the owner know that the hip wings folded out to allow the pack to stand upright on its own?!). Mouth agape, I looked it over carefully. It was in remarkably good condition for a 40-something year-old pack: No rips in the bag, the waterproof coating on the inside wasn’t cracked and flaking. Zippers were all in working condition and the shoulder straps, hip belt and back padding were all original and largely unstained from blood, sweat and tears from the trail. While there was some corrosion on some of the bolts and hardware, the frame showed surprisingly little sign of abrasions. The leather attachment pads were all intact with only the large crampon pad showing any significant signs of wear. Inside one of the side pockets were some bungie chords and nylon straps that were of the same familiar era as straps I used back in the Boy Scout days. Wow—what a find!
My son-in-law, Riles, was with me at the time and I’m sure he was
curious amused by my strange fascination with this blue beast. I told him briefly about Mr. Baird’s pack and how I always wanted one but could never have one and…my words were met with a thousand-yard stare. He needn’t have said anything as his reaction revealed the truth: this was just a stupid old pack and I had no need for it. So we walked away and returned to the cabin for a beer. Upon returning to the family gathering place I told everyone there about my find. Again, nobody was too impressed. A couple of friends who were visiting politely pretended to take interest in my retelling of the lore that was Mr. Baird’s pack. The conversation quickly turned to any topic other than the magnificent JanSport D3 which I had just walked away from. I attempted to engage socially but I was clearly distracted. I quickly finished a second beer and, with newfound liquid courage, decided that this was my once-in-a-lifetime chance to own something that had left un indelible impression on me as a boy. So off I strode, back to the Haggle Sale, with Riles in tow (apparently he was coming around to my way of thinking). There was an urgency to my gate as I wasn’t sure if the sale was still going on, and even if it was, I was sure that someone else would have discovered MY pack by now. My pace increased as I rounded the corner into the church parking lot. The day was warm yet I was chilled with a nervous sweat, and the regret of not having bought the pack earlier in the day gnawed at my gut. Much to my relief, there the pack remained, still propped proudly upright on its hip wings just as I’d left it earlier that day. I placed my hand firmly on top of the frame extension. If someone else wanted it now they were going to have to fight me for it. It was mine, if I could afford it (I had limited cash on me and this was not a Venmo event). Now, I’d never been to a Haggle Sale before so I didn’t know the process. I carried the pack to a pleasant-looking, blue-haired lady sitting behind a table and asked, “There’s no price on this. Do you know how much the owner wants for it?” She smiled and winked at me, “This is your first time, isn’t it?” (Of course she did not say that—she was a nice church lady!). She asked me how much I had, to which I replied (after looking in my wallet and seeing $23), “I have twenty bucks.” Her answer sent chills down my spine as she proclaimed,”Sold!” Then the guilt of having lied to this nice church lady got the best of me and I spilled the beans, “I actually have $23. Here, just take it all!”
I hoisted the pack onto my back, where it belonged, and headed toward the cabin like a Pacific Crest Trail thru-hiker approaching their end-point at the Canadian border. Passers-by gazed at me with admiration and envy, cheering me on as I marched proudly, weighted down by an empty pack that would surely carry a lifetime of memories (with room to spare). After most of my life without one, I finally owned a JanSport D3. Once back at the cabin our guests quickly acknowledged that they had underestimated the magnificence of the pack. They gathered around to admire my find and asked me to once again recount the backstory that led to my fascination with the JanSport D3. The only thing missing was a campfire.
My life was complete.
Over a year has passed since acquiring the the Haggle Sale Pack and it has rested comfortably in the garage at home, waiting for something exciting to happen. As Mrs. UA and I were recently clearing out garage clutter she pointed to the pack and said, “Goodwill?” I gave her a side-eye glance. Was she was insane? “Leave it where it is,” I snapped. She just doesn’t get it. A while back I performed a little preventative maintenance which included waxing the zippers and applying leather cleaner/conditioner to all the cowhide patches. The zippers slide like new and the leather now has the suppleness of a newborn calf. I plan to replace the shoulder straps with something modern, and fine tune the adjustment of the frame to fit me. I’ve had every intention of carefully going through all the components to make sure the frame hardware is not lacking structural integrity should I decide to put the pack into action. If I do that I’ll also need to do a bit of shopping at REI as currently I own only a sleeping bag that would be suitable for backpacking. But I haven’t committed to hitting the trail just yet. The last thing I would want to have happen is some sort of frame failure while miles out in the high country, so I felt that a least a couple of replacement parts would be a wise thing to carry with me. Not surprisingly, JanSport no longer supports these old packs so I can’t exactly call up customer service and order replacement components for a pack that was made in the 1970’s. But in my quest to find parts online I’ve stumbled upon similar era packs on the eBay. Though perhaps not a common item, it’s not terribly difficult to find a JanSport D3 online. Most, however, do not appear to be in nearly the good condition of my Haggle Sale Pack. And they don’t exactly give these old packs away for free, so all I’ve done is browse.
The listing read, “Vintage 70’s JanSport K2 External Frame Backpack D3 Excellent Condition.” The K2 designation is indicative of the fact that, in 1972, K2 (another PNW company) acquired JanSport. The “Excellent Condition” was what really caught my attention, and after carefully inspecting the photos included in the listing, I made an offer that was significantly less than what the seller wanted. Much to my delight—like the church lady at the Haggle Sale— they bit. The pack was mine, almost. It arrived a few days later and its condition far exceeded my expectations
and I instantly felt bad for not paying the full asking price. The eBay Pack is in even better shape than the Haggle Sale Pack. There are no signs of wear or corrosion on any of the frame components and only some minor scuff marks on the frame itself. And while the bag has some minor staining from use, it’s in great shape as well. The zippers slide like new (I did wax them just for good measure) and the leather attachment patches don’t appear to have seen much (if any) use. The leather crampon pad has some light scuffs but is very clean. Of course I cleaned and conditioned the leather, just to give it that “new pack feel”. While I don’t know the exact manufacture date of either pack, it’s safe to say they are of the same vintage, although the eBay Pack would appear to be a tad older as evidenced by the shoulder straps that feature center-tucked stitching. The hip belt buckle on the orange pack is also of an older design. Other than that they’re virtually identical. So now, with a donor pack, I have ample replacement components to offer the confidence I need for f I plan to take one of these packs out on the trails. I’ve hung both D3 packs proudly in the garage until I decide to do something with them—if I decide to do something with them. I may not. After all, owning a classic doesn’t have to entail actually using it. Just knowing I now own a piece (or two) of my youth—something that was beyond my reach when I was a backpacker—may be enough. And if Mrs. UA complains I’ll just remind her that it’s not like I’m collecting 1971 Plymouth Hemi Cudas (something I’ve also wanted since my youth).
Now I just need to see if I can find a pair of vintage Sears Toughskins in my size.
For those still reading, here is a treasure trove of nostalgic Jansport images:
And here is a historical snapshot of the JanSport company:
(I’m adding to this entry as I am able to gather more information, as there may be more JanSport D3 geeks out there, like me, with a thirst for knowledge about the history of these packs)
The D-Series of technical mountaineering packs was launched in 1971, originally designed for a Dhaulagiri Two expedition in the Himalayas. From 1972-1982, Jansport was owned by Vashon Island-based K2 Corporation. The tag on my orange D3 bears reference to K2 so I know it was made sometime during that decade. My hunch is that it’s a mid-1970’s model. The blue pack does not have a tag but I’m 100% positive that it is from the K2 era as well. I would place Old Blue as a slightly newer model than Big Orange.
I dug deep into the bowels of the internet trying to find information on how to more accurately date the D3 series of packs but have come up with little concrete information. I did find an expired eBay listing for a tan D3 bearing an earlier JanSport logo which indicates that it is older than either of my blue and orange packs. A bit more research reveals that this logo—with the domed mountain above the JanSport name, is the second generation logo and would put the pack’s manufacture date from the early- to mid-70’s. Hand written on this pack is information from its original owner, suggesting that it was acquired/manufactured in 1975. This pack is virtually identical to my orange D3, right down to the style of the hip belt buckle, but, again with the earlier JanSport logo. Perhaps JanSport changed the logo in 1975? If that were the case the oldest my orange pack could be is 1976. Anyone else confused yet? I’ve written to JanSport asking for information about the different logos and the years they were used. For some reason they cannot do this without me sending the pack(s) in to their warranty department for assessment.
I would love to have an even older D3 than either of my gen 3 logo packs. But I think I’m done acquiring old D3 packs. For now, anyway. If I could find a tan D3, with the second gen JanSport logo, that would be the pinnacle of nostalgia.
The listing photos on eBay looked promising, but certain details weren’t clear in the low-res photos so I asked the seller for some higher quality photos. Just as I had hunched, the pack in question had a very early hip suspension system in which the pivot joints on the “hip wings” were metal on metal. I’d read in a forum somewhere that this was a very early design flaw which JanSport soon remedied by adding nylon/plastic bushings. If I were going to use this pack on a regular basis I certainly wouldn’t want this old design, but as a collectible it made the pack even more desirable.
In addition to the antiquated hip suspension this pack also came with a factory-issue pack cover and stuff bag, both of which are something I had neither seen nor heard of on these packs. Both accessories are detachable. The cover has a flat map pocket on front and attaches to the upper frame via straps and buckles. There are drawstrings to cinch the cover tight at the bottom. The stuff bag attaches to the lower frame via 4 straps/buckles. It has a zippered closure, likely intended for a sleeping bag. Interestingly the JanSport logo on both of these detachable accessories appear to be newer than the logo on the main pack bag. In the early 1970’s JanSport changed their logo from Jan Sport (two separate words) to JanSport (one word). The main pack bag features a “Jan Sport” logo while the two detachable accessories feature logos using “JanSport”. I’m not sure the reasoning behind the combination of varying logos on this pack, but I’ll assume this: The pack had already been assembled at the time when the company was transitioning from the use of “Jan Sport”. The cover and stuff sack may have been made shortly thereafter using the new “JanSport” logo. Whatever the case may be, it’s cool to see the different logos, and I have yet to encounter a pack bearing the older “Jan Sport” logo. I do know that the pack was made during the K2 era (1972-1982) because the frame bears the familiar sticker noting as much. Interestingly, on every JanSport frame pack I’ve seen, the sticker is affixed to the upper left crossbar joint. On this pack the sticker is on the upper right joint. What does this mean? Maybe nothing, but it’s one more thing that is different about this particular pack. And again, that makes this pack extra cool. I’m just going to assume that this pack was made in the early years of the D3 production, during a time of transition for the young company.
The condition of this pack is amazing. While the frame does show some light signs of abrasion, everything else looks as though it spent its life in a showroom. The detachable cover and stuff sack do show signs of some color fading but the pack itself is in top-shelf condition. The seller from whom I purchased the pack was the original owner, and according to them, it was purchased new “sometime in the 1970’s”. Another bonus to this pack is that it came complete with a set of 7 cinch straps, none of which appear to have ever been used.
After writing this article I delved into a bit more detailed history of the JanSport D-series of packs. If interested you can find that here: Following the Cold Trail of the JanSport D-series packs