I got interested in Rivendell Mountain Works, makers of the Jensen Backpack, after discovering them on the web last year. I posted a message about the Jensen Backpack on Facebook and Cameron McNeish responded by saying that it was one of his favorite backpacks of all time. That got my attention and I decided it would be interesting to learn more about this vintage backpack.
If you’re not familiar with the Jensen Backpack, it is unlike any other backpack you’ve ever seen before. Originally manufactured by Rivendell Mountain Works in the 1970’s, it is credited with being the first soft, frameless backpack in an era where external frame packs were the norm. The Jensen developed a fanatical following among peakbaggers and climbers because it fitted closer to the wearer’s back than an external frame pack, making it better for scrambling and climbing. Unfortunately, production of the Jensen ceased after 1980, when Rivendell went bankrupt and closed down.
The Jensen Pack was reborn in 2006, when Eric Hardee, a devotee of the original pack, relaunched Rivendell Mountain Works with Don Wittenberger, the owner of the original Jensen Backpack designs. After the bankruptcy, Eric had reverse engineered the Jensen and was sewing relipcas for friends and a few customers. He convinced Don to let him restart the company, and with the help of the original Rivendell elves still living in Washington state, the Jensen Backpack was reborn.
The Jensen Backpack is a panel loader style pack with a zipper that runs up the sides and along the top of the pack. The internal storage is organized into three cylinders, two which are vertical, and one which runs horizontally beneath them and can be used as a separate zippered sleeping bag compartment. The zippers are heavy duty YKK #10 zippers with dual sliders and are protected by thick weather flaps to keep away rain, sand and grit.
The horizontal sleeping bag compartment at the base of the pack has a single internal compression step made with 1″ webbing and a side release buckle. The two vertical cylinders which sit above it are separated by a strip of fabric that runs about halfway up the back of the pack inside the main zippered compartment. This has the effect of segregating the loads in the bottom half of each cylinder but provides for a wider storage area above the fabric separator that can be used to store larger items such as rope coils. A picture is required to illustrate this unusual design.
The Jensen does not have any external storage pockets or hydration ports. There are plenty of external attachment points however, on the top of the pack, the sides of each vertical cylinder, and the pack’s front. They are made out of leather tabs sewn to the exterior of the pack and are wide enough to slip a 1 inch piece of webbing under. The pack comes with 9 such webbing straps, which add an additional 6.9 ounces to the pack weight if used.
In addition there are small webbing loops at the ends of each of weather flaps that protect the zippers. The ones at the ends of the main panel zipper are particularly useful for clipping water bottles to the pack just above the hips, since there are no external side pockets on the pack for this purpose.
The back of the Jensen is covered with corduroy fabric, which was one of its original signature features and allowed hikers and climbers to wear it without a shirt. The back flares out at the base of the pack to form wings which wrap around the wearer’s hips. These are joined by a 2″ un-padded piece of webbing and secured by an stainless steel buckle (picture below.)
The packs shoulder pads are anchored to a piece of leather sewn on the pack of the pack. It is reinforced using another piece of leather on the interior and sewn through. The shoulder pads are 2 and 1/2 inches wide and anchored at a slight angle for comfort. Their base is attached to the sides of the pack using 1″ webbing straps and metal 1 and 1/4 inch ladderlock buckles. An adjustable sternum straps is provided as well, also made using 1″ webbing and a 1 and 1/2 inch side release buckle. The Jensen does not come with load lifters.
The Jensen I tested was a size medium with 3015 cubic inches of capacity, weighing 2 pounds 9 ounces on my digital scale, instead of the 2 pounds 3 ounces cited by the manufacturer on their web site. Rivendell also makes a larger Giant Jensen that has a capacity of approximately 4,500 cubic inches. Attachable pockets and organizers can be purchased extra which are helpful if you like to access gear during the day without having to open up the main compartments of the pack.
Both the Jensen and Giant Jensen are available in a variety of different torso lengths, ranging from extra-short (XS) for people with 11.5-13.5 inch torsos (the elves demanded this) to extra-long (XL) torsos of 19 inches and up.
The modern Jensen is made using bombproof, heavy duty 11 ounce 1000 denier Cordura instead of pack cloth. The back corduroy panel which was 100% cotton on the original 70’s version has been replaced by synthetic blend for faster drying and the original aluminum hip help buckle is now stainless steal. Those are the major changes over the vintage 70’s model, according to the manufacturer.
Suspension and Compression
The Jensen Backpack has no suspension, no stays, or even a foam back pad to give it structure. Instead, you need to to pack it so that your load creates a virtual frame. There are also no compression straps on the Jensen to help firm up the load when packed or help compress out empty space if you don’t have enough gear to fill it’s capacity.
Experiences with the Jensen Backpack
I’ve been testing the Jensen for over a month with many different loads and gear combinations. Here are some pointers based on Rivendell’s instructions and my own experience for the best way to pack it. It’s not entirely straightforward due to the pack’s peculiar design.
- Put your sleeping bag in the bottom horizontal cylinder and stuff it with as much additional soft gear as you can. This part of the pack wraps around your hips, so comfort is paramount.
- Lie the pack flat with the corduroy side on the floor and unzip the main compartments. Stuff heavier gear or food down the vertical cylinders being careful to balance the load between them. The Jensen is very sensitive to weight balance.
- Place soft clothing between the gear/food in the cylinders and the corduroy to provide comfort. Down vests and insulated jackets are good for this. Don’t make this layer too thick though because you want to keep heavy items as close to your core as possible.
- Place wider soft items in the space than spans the two cylinders at the top of the pack.
- Attach sleeping pads, tent and poles, or other long bulky items to the sides of the pack, as close to the plane of your back as possible to keep the weight over your hips.
- If you have a bear canister, lash it to the outside of the pack between the vertical cylinders, so that it rests on the hip belt.
The lack of a compression system on the Jensen and its relationship to unused capacity further increases the packing challenge. For example, I don’t normally carry enough gear to fill a 3,105 cubic inch backpack unless I’m going on a very long trip and have to carry a bear canister or a lot of food.
If you’re like me and you can’t fill the Jensen to bursting, you’ll have problems keeping any items lashed to the outside of the pack because the walls of the pack will sag under them. A better compression system would help, but it’s hard to figure out how to rig it up because you can’t squeeze the cylinders closer to the back of the pack or scrunch them down vertically to remove extra capacity. One good compression option would be to change the design of the pack to have a roll top closure but that would probably alter its heritage too much.
If you find yourself hanging heavy gear or a bear canister off the back of the Jensen, you are likely to experience torso length shortening. What’s that mean?
In order to counter the backward tug of heavy items, you’ll want to pull down on the shoulder straps. By tightening the shoulder straps, the top of the pack will buckle a bit and the pack body will bow out away from your back. This has the effect of artificially shortening the torso length of the pack and throwing off your fit.
The precise degree of torso shortening you experience with the Jensen will depend on the rigidity of your load and you might be able to prevent it if you can pack the pack very, very tightly. Regardless, the rigidity will deteriorate as you eat up your food and increase the unused capacity in the pack. To prevent torso shortening altogether, my advice is to not hang any heavy gear off the back of the Jensen if you can avoid it, including a bear canister.
The lack of external storage pockets or a hydration pocket and ports makes carrying water with the Jensen a challenge. One option is to store water inside the pack. I don’t do this anymore, but it’s an option. Your other choices are to attach an external bottle to the outside of the pack with biners or an external pocket. I don’t consider either of these solutions terribly optimal, but you really don’t have any other choices with this pack.
Fit and Comfort
Despite all of the technical limitations of the Jensen which I note above, the pack is very comfortable and form fitting when packed without external attachments. The hip belt and fabric wings at the base of the pack wrap around your hips and feel quite comfortable, like a large fanny pack. Back ventilation is also quite good because there is an air space between the cylinders that allows sweat to evaporate more easily. The fit breaks down when you start to load the pack up with heavier or bulky gear, but it fits great with a soft 15 pound load packed close to your core.
When The Jensen Backpack arrived at my door I was eager to test it because of its unusual design and historical significance. Furthermore, it is quite lightweight for such a large pack, made out of bombproof materials, and has a lot of external attachment points which is something I always look for on an overnight pack.
But after putting the Jensen though the paces, I found that it doesn’t work for my style of backpacking because I often don’t carry enough gear to fill it and because I like carry a lot of my gear outside the main skin of a pack in easily accessible side, rear pockets and top pockets. The Jensen doesn’t have any external storages and it’s a struggle for me to use. That doesn’t make it a bad backpack, but if you like to pack like me, the Jensen is probably not for you.
For more information, contact Rivendell Mountain Works. The Jensen Backpack retails for $185 USD.
Disclosure: Rivendell Mountain Works loaned SectionHiker.com a Jensen Backpack for this review.
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