Following the cold trail of the JanSport D-series packs.
December 15, 2020
My somewhat odd fascination with the JanSport D3 backpack was explained in an earlier post: Ode to the JanSport D3 backpack. What follows here is a very general roadmap of the D3’s history, and that of its sibling packs, the D2 and D5. I have tried to piece together an approximate timeline to satisfy my own curiosity and this information will be of absolutely zero interest to those who continue to follow this blog, hoping to read about fly fishing. I’m merely putting this information out there for the rare person who, like me, may find it somewhat interesting or even useful.
And why, one will surely ask, might this information be useful? Well, because there are a fair number of vintage JanSport packs available through various online marketplaces, and most of those packs are clearly being sold by people who don’t know much—or anything, really—about their item. For example, I’ve come across more than a few eBay listings for packs that are often described as follows:
While I acknowledge that most of these ads merely feature popular search terms to draw buyers in, there is also a lack of knowledge about the items being sold. Nearly always the seller doesn’t even know what decade the pack is from and seldom do the ads list the model of the pack. That’s because the sellers don’t know. And likely the seller could care less could not care less. Chances are they came to obtain the pack at a flea market or second-hand store and they just want to sell it for a quick profit. I’ve encountered only two sellers who actually knew something about the origins of their packs: One was selling a D3 they had acquired from a friend who was the original owner. And while the seller had access to the year of manufacture, the original owner didn’t know the model of the pack. Another seller was the original owner of the pack they were selling, but even they did not remember the model. I’ve also lurked in various hiking forums where certain JanSport packs were being discussed, and many folks, while they know enough to use the term D2, D3 or D5, don’t know really one JanSport model from another. I’ve even seen “D4” used to describe these packs, and of course there was never a D4 pack (that I am aware of anyway).
It’s understandable that there can be so much confusion over an item that was manufactured as long ago as the early 1970’s. And despite there being some level of demand for these vintage packs, it’s a very small number of people who make up this market. I personally find this micro-niche to be quite interesting, and while I’ve gathered what information I could, there’s still an awful lot I don’t know about the history of JanSport’s D-series of external frame backpacks of yore. JanSport as a company is a far cry from what it was during the 1970s and it’s not as though one can call up customer service and get any sort of meaningful information about products from an era long-removed from the present. I’m sharing what I have been able to track down to date, and would kindly request that if anyone reading this has more detailed information, please leave a comment so I can correct/update my information.
JanSport began making innovative panel (front) loading packs in 1967, the frames of which were the first adjustable aluminum pack frames. Based on that early design, the D-Series of technical mountaineering packs was launched in 1971, originally designed for a Dhaulagiri Two expedition in the Himalayas. Specifically, this first expedition-oriented pack was called the D2 (Dhaulagiri Two) and was the largest capacity pack of the D series (5220 cubic inches). It can be easily identified by the large “JanSport” logo across a removable fanny pack attached to the outside of the man pack bag (this detachable bag was for carrying crampons). The D2 also had a single, large pocket on either side, with sleeves for carrying skis or poles. It was a panel-loading pack with a U-shaped upper bar, from which the top of the pack bag was suspended. This trademark feature carried across many other JanSport models, giving them all a somewhat similar appearance. In 2011 JanSport released a modern version of the D2. The re-issue pack even featured the original style hip suspension system and a retro second-generation JanSport logo. I’m not sure how well the reissued pack sold given the trend toward internal frame packs and ultra-lite backpacking.
Similar to the D2, the JanSport D3 seems to have been designed less specifically for mountaineering expeditions and was geared more toward the long-haul backpacker (which is not to say that the D3 wasn’t also a mountaineering pack). The D3 was a large capacity pack (4146 cubic inches) capable of carrying very heavy loads more comfortably than other packs of its day. If availability on the used market today is any indication, the D3 became the most popular of the JanSport D-series packs over time. A trademark feature of the D3 is the large leather attachment patch (or crampon pad) on the outside of the lower bag compartment.
The JanSport D5 was the little brother (or sister) to the D3. Both models are virtually identical in appearance although the D5 was designed for smaller folks up to about 5’7″. While the D3 measures 39″ from top to bottom of the frame, the diminutive D5 measures a mere 34″. The depth of the D5 is about 8″, which is 2″ smaller than the D3. The width of the D5 bag is 14″compared to the D3 which is 14-3/4″ wide. The upper frame extension on the D4 is contoured as well, likely to provide more clearance for the wearer’s head. It is not impossible to find a D5 on the used market but it is more challenging than finding a D3 because sellers do not know what they have. To the untrained eye, a D5 may easily be mistaken for a D3, but if one knows what to look for, they can find it. I’ve been able to find only four packs that I determined to be the D5 based on measurements provided me by the seller. After months of scouring listings I was fortunate to find one in excellent condition that was worth purchasing. The D5 is a very reasonably sized pack that I actually intend to put into service. I’ll save one of my monstrous D3’s for when I do a thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail and don’t want to stop to resupply 😉
Another thing that the D-series packs had in common—and what also set them apart from non-D-series JanSport packs—was the much-ballyhooed hip suspension system. Apparently this was an optional feature so you may find an old D3 or D5 without it. As time progressed and JanSport added more models to the lineup, other non-D-series packs could be had with the hip suspension system. But it was the D2, D3 and D5 that first featured the hip suspension bars, oft-referred-to-as “Hip Wings”. These U-shaped tubular bars were attached to the pack frame via pivot joints that allowed the wings to swing inward and outward (and to be folded out of the way or laying the pack flat). The suspension system can also be adjusted fore and aft to adjust the angle of the pack while being carried. Early versions of the hip suspension joints featured pivot joints that were metal on metal. JanSport obviously saw this as a design flaw which they soon remedied by adding plastic/nylon bushings on subsequent models. Overall the quality of the D3 was considered to be very good, although it has been said that the bushings in the hip suspension were prone to cracking over time. One of my late-70’s D3 packs has a cracked bushing but is still perfectly functional. The hip wings were attached to the hip belt via clevis pins fastened through leather-reinforced nylon patches (JanSport used ample leather in their design of these packs). The shoulder straps were also anchored to the hip wings.
I’m not sure exactly when but I believe that it was circa 1979-1980 that JanSport moved away from the tubular hip wing and began using straight aluminum bars for the hip suspension system. I base my assessment on the fact that in 1979 JanSport launched the Alpine Phantom mountaineering pack which featured the new hip bar design. This newer design was attached in a similar fashion to the hip belt, again with a healthy patch of leather for reinforcement. Ultimately JanSport changed the hip suspension to feature all plastic parts and, from what I’ve read, this was not necessarily an improvement.
JanSport was owned by Vashon Island-based K2 Corporation from 1972-1982. If your pack has the frame tag bearing reference to K2 you can be sure of the decade in which it was manufactured. After 1982 frames featured a different tag.
The D3 retained virtually the same appearance until around 1982 (when the company was sold by K2). After that, black compression straps with plastic side-clasp buckles replaced the tan-colored straps and metal ladder buckles. Back padding, shoulder straps and hip belt also were black and featured mostly plastic hardware. Around the beginning of the post-K2 era JanSport frames changed from the earlier bronze-colored, anodized aluminum to a bare finish. Later in the 1980’s the D3 further evolved in appearance, incorporating areas of contrasting black nylon on the different colored main bag. The bag become attached to the frame via plastic clips as opposed to the previous-era packs which used fabric straps and metal ladder buckles. The shape of the zippered main compartment changed from the earlier, rounded/half moon shape, to more of a somewhat squared-off look. In the late 1980’s a zippered pocket was added to the outside of the main bag. By the 1990’s the D3 took on an even more different appearance and the trademark large leather patch appears to have become no more. I believe by this time leather was no longer used anywhere on the packs. I’ve heard it said that later versions of the D3 were not of the same high quality as were the older packs, and based on my limited experience I would agree. I have three D3 packs from the early, mid and late-1970’s and every component remains intact and solid. I bought a mid-1980’s D3 that was in like-new condition for the most part, but both of the shoulder straps were broken where they attached to the frame using plastic tabs. The seller did not disclose this, so I returned that pack. The cost to repair the straps was nearly as much as the cost of the pack itself.
JanSport changed their logo over the years and that—depending on the logo your pack bears—may help place the approximate age of the pack. I wrote to JanSport’s customer service department but they were unable to tell me what years their different logos were in service. Instead, they suggested I send my packs in to their warranty department for assessment. The cost to ship the packs is prohibitive, however, so general approximations will have to suffice.
If you have a JanSport pack that appears on the surface to be a D-series but has neither the large leather patch on the front of the bag, nor the hip suspension system, the pack could be the JanSport Cascade. There were enough similar (yet different) models of JanSport packs made over the years to make it confusing today. There is no mistaking a D2. The D5 and D3 are easily identifiable with their large leather crampon pad and hip suspension system (although, as mentioned earlier, this was an option). Another JanSport model, the Appalachian, was similar to the D3 but has a different pocket configuration and is easily identifiable. It’s too bad JanSport didn’t affix the model name to every pack they made through the years. If they had done that we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
In 1973 a JanSport D3 would have cost $75 (source: article from Field & Stream, December 1973). Back in the day that was a fair chunk of change to drop on a pack. Factoring in the cost of inflation, that $75 would amount to $439 today. I’ve not seen one listed for even half that amount, so despite there being a market for these old packs, they’re not keeping pace with inflation. Prices are not unreasonable on the used market (typically less than $150), but shipping is not cheap for such a large item and that can be as much as or more than the pack itself, depending upon where the pack is being shipped from. As collector items, these old JanSport packs are probably not the best investment, but hey—you can’t place a value on nostalgia. Perhaps in another 20 years my collection of vintage JanSport D-series packs will be worth a little more than what I paid for them.
I’m looking forward to a multi-day backpacking trip this summer, and filling my JanSport D5 with much lighter gear than was available when the pack was manufactured in the late 1970’s.