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AMC Hut Crew Packboards

AMC Galehead Hut Croo with Packboards
AMC Galehead Hut Croo with Packboards

When I was hiking up to Galehead Hut and South Twin Mountain over the weekend, I ran into two members of the AMC Galehead Hut Crew (traditionally spelled “Croo”) who were packing out garbage and returning with a load of fresh food for hut guests.  It’s really pretty impressive to see these guys on the trail, hauling up to 60 pounds of  fresh and frozen food up a 4.6 mile path with nearly 2,500 feet of elevation gain. It’s also a great way to get in shape (see the AMC Hutman Diet Plan.)

Zealand Hut Packboards
Zealand Hut Packboards

The packboards themselves have a pretty no-nonsense design and are still made out of wood and canvas. Food is packed in boxes and lashed to them using rope. The shoulder straps are made out of leather, although some of them are padded and covered with duct tape. Surprisingly, hip belts are not used and the load is completely carried on the shoulders, which seems a bit antiquated to me. I suppose tradition is more important than common sense, or that it just doesn’t matter for people who do this all the time and are in shape!

To Be Awake is to Be Alive - Thoreau
To Be Awake is to Be Alive - Thoreau

When I met these two crew members on the trail on Saturday, I was curious to see if their packboards has any graffiti on them, something that I’d observed at the Zealand Hut a few weeks prior. The ones there had drawings on them and the names and initials of the crew members who’d used them in the past.

AMC Crew Names
AMC Crew Names

Their packboards didn’t have any graffiti like this written on them so the practice may not be that widespread or their packboards might just be newer. Observing and discovering these kinds of traditions is fun for an old history major like me, and there are probably a lot more traditions that AMC management is completely unaware of! If you know of any, please leave a comment below.

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21 comments

  1. Oh man. Those things have always looked like pure pain. I've noticed that most hut croo that I've seen tend to hold the bottoms of the packboards like the guy in the picture up top, which may help out with the lack of a hip belt. It still puts the weight on the arms, but maybe hurts less than right on the shoulders.

    And, of course, those packboards are probably what make the hut croos so tough that they give even the most seasoned AT hikers a run for their money every year :)

  2. Funny, when ever I see them they're not wearing shirts. Do you think it's because they're sweating, is it to show off their six packs, or it that another tradition too? :-)

  3. Good point! You're right. Since hiking is all about fashion, I'd say it's the six-packs. Hut crews only sweat enough to look rugged. :)

  4. Actually while staying at the Greenleaf hut recently one of the croo members discussed in detail the packboards and the reasons behind no hip belts. She gave the presentation after dinner.

    I'm paraphrasing here and likely am leaving a lot out but: if a hip belt is attached and they fall they will go with the packboard (very bad!). Without the hip belt the load goes high and away and has proven to be less dangerous with a high load. Also the weight isn't on the arms it's on the shoulders and spine. The woman giving the discussion (I forget her name) was able to hold another croo member on her back (100+ lbs) without major difficulty.

    The Greenleaf croo was very active and gave a lot of information to the guests when I was there the one night.

    -Stephen

  5. That's fantastic info Stephen, thanks!

  6. Oh, and as for the graffiti, I think one of the boards she had went back to the 70's or 80's. They're are different sizes and usually if you find one that fits you guard it with your life, seeing as she was shorter I can see why.

    -Stephen

  7. Saw a crew guy flying down Old Bridle Path with one of these last weekend wearing a skirt. Wonder if that's a tradition too.

    Holding the frame like that must be a killer shoulder/trap workout

  8. They need to look into using some Kifaru or Mystery Ranch packs. Those packs can haul weight comfortably. That's why a lot of backpack hunters like them.

  9. Something I saw that impressed me even more than croo members hauling up supplies was a trail maintenance crew coming out of the woods at the Appalachia trailhead. This was a group of young adults, mostly college age and a little older, and mostly young women. All were carrying packboards loaded with whatever they needed to stay out in the woods for a few days, plus tools such as shovels, pry bars, and picks. Some of the packs looked heavier than the crew member carrying them. I got to talk to a couple of them and they stay out there and supplies are brought to them at the trailhead. Whoever says that the youth today are lazy and lack ambition is looking at the wrong goup of young people.

  10. Geoff – These kids are the exception to the rule. Most are at home playing video games and watching reality TV.

  11. It was great to see this article – it brought back some great memories. In the mid-late 70's I did some volunteer work for the AMC Trail Crew – some of which involved packing supplies of mulch for the then-new composting toilets at several Shelter sites. Volunteer stints were only one week long, but one summer I enjoyed it so much that I went back for a second round. I did this for a couple of summers, then got sucked into the real-world-of-work.

    Those volunteer weeks were an experience I'll never forget… I'm very glad I had the opportunity. Making it even more special was the fact that in those days us volunteers stayed in the main lodge where the real trail crew stays .. I've noticed in more recent years there's a separate place for them further up Hwy 16. Staying right there in the lodge we got to experience the "real deal" – what it was like to be a member of the croo.

    As for the "no shirts" comment earlier … just imagine carrying pack boards with 60-80 lb loads … in the summertime … the last thing you want is to over-dress :).

    Thanks for posting this article!

  12. From someone with a bit too much experience with these, let me answer some of these questions:

    1. If it’s over 50 degrees and you’re on a steep trail (to Greenleaf, Madison, Galehead especially) you certainly won’t want a shirt on if you’re making any kind of speed. And hut crew can get up those trails with 50-100 pounds faster than most day hikers. Think an hour to Mizpah or Greenleaf, two hours to Galehead or Madison. Some of the best days for packing are cool, rainy days. You get wet from sweat anyway, but the rain washes it away and keeps you from overheating. And if you are packing the Valley Way—the hardest hut trail by far, with 3500 feet of elevation gain over four miles, higher and steeper than any climb on the AT save Katahdin (northbound) or Madison (southbound)—it’s always 20 degrees cooler at the top than the bottom. Which you never notice.

    2. @Stephen, yes, the presentation you were given is correct. Most hut and trail crew have, at one point or another, tripped and “thrown” their pack boards. With the weight centered above the shoulders, it will flip over your head as you fall and you’ll land on top of it. It’s not fun, but it certainly beats being crushed between White Mountain schist and 75 pounds of eggs, meat and vegetables. Of course, if you’re carrying twelve dozen eggs you don’t really want to flip the board.

    And, yes, the design puts weight on your spine, and the handles allow you to lift the weight off of your back as you hike, further distributing the load. As you use a packboard the leather straps conform to your shoulders, too. They are also easier to tie cardboard boxes to, rather than crush foodstuffs inside a pack. Some crew members do use internal frames, but most find packboards more versatile and comfortable.

    Oh, and, yes, it’s fun to walk around a hut with 200 pounds of person, packboard and bench latched on to your shoulders.

    3. @Guthook, most hut crew would run a thru-hiker in to the ground with ease. Many complete the Hut Traverse: 50 miles through the Whites in under 24 hours. 15-25 mile day hikes between breakfast clean-up and dinner prep (7-8 hours) are de rigeur. The traverse is like taking the four state challenge and adding, oh, 8 miles of horizontal and two miles of vertical to it.

    4. Many of the wood frames are decades old. The canvas seems to last about 20-30 years before it needs to be replaced. The leather 10-20. When a packboard breaks, it is sent down to the shop and a new piece is put in. I believe they are solid oak. And, yes, packboards are selected by crews by seniority. To test a packboard at the beginning of the season, a hut crew member will have another crew jump on to the packboard and hang there.

    5. Back in the 60s crew members (all male then) regularly shouldered 100-200 pounds, or more coming downhill to Lakes. Of course, they now have permanent spine damage. Today’s protocol is to carry no more than half your bodyweight, although some crew members do still pack “centuries” which is frequent at Lakes.

    6. @Mazz Yes, skirts are traditional for some crew members, particularly those of Scottish ancestry.

    7. @Pat Packboards work very well for most crew, many of whom have tried and given up on internal frame packs. Most crew members pack their trails in under two hours, too, so they’re not out for days. And when a crew member got a moose hunting permit in Vermont a few years back, she borrowed packboards to carry it out on. (Or at least considered it.)

    8. Yes, trail crew makes hut crew look like a bunch of weakling choir boys.

  13. I came across this thread looking for plans for one of the AMC packboards. I am getting a large format camera and have been reading about how hard it is to carry a 15 pound camera hiking. Having used a packboard as a trail crew member in the late sixties, I say 15 pounds doesn’t even register. AO’s comments brought back some good memories. The beauty of these frames is that you can lash anything to them (including a large format camera). We carried 8 foot long boards on packs weighing 120 pounds several miles uphill with relative comfort with these things. We lived on the trail and carried nothing but the finest cast iron cookware with a chainsaw lashed to the top for good measure. AMC should market these boards.

    At that time my Limmer boots cost $30 with the $5 AMC discount.But then again, we got paid $22 per week.

    • I was looking at plans to build one of these myself for carrying a heavy load recently. The lack of a hip belt brought me to my senses though. Too old for that.

      • I will be chasing down plans as I think it would be an ideal transport for an bulky 8X10 camera. I will post what I come up with. In affirmation of AO’s statement, many of the trail crew were Dartmouth students. It would not occur to them to use more than one packboard to carry a moose. Just need more rope.

  14. AMC packboards are constructed of seasoned white ash
    http://www.gmcsterling.org/techniques/packboard/packboard.htm
    these plans are pretty similar to the amc style, other than the nylon corset and straps. heavy cotton canvas would do better for the corset, and leather from peter limmers workshop can be purchased for straps.
    also if one packs a respectable load with shirt on it is likely to bunch up in the back and become uncomfortable.
    the length of ones packrope is a matter of preference and task, but a proper diamond hitch is really the way to go. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diamond_hitch
    lacing of the corset is also a matter of preference, but any kind of zig-zag which is tightened by drawing the cords into four or five bundles seems to stay tight for a long time.
    your leather and wood will benefit from cleaning and conditioning with linseed oil.
    i hope these thoughts are helpful

  15. Very cool – interesting site, too. Thanks!

  16. Those are the coolest looking backpacks I’ve ever seen! Talk about getting creative :)

  17. These are ultra cool..
    Just like the old school surf boards you come across sometimes – old school backpacks- great.
    But, they look so uncomfortable and painful to carry!
    Are these the forerunners of Molle systems today?
    Either way, nice article, thanks…

    Wilderness Survival Dude.

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