Rivendell Mountain Works Jensen Backpack

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.

The Jensen Backpack - Front View

The Jensen Backpack - Front View

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.

Backpack Design

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.

A Panel Loading Backpack

A Panel Loading Backpack

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.

Fabric Separator between Cylinders

Fabric Separator between Cylinders

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.)

Corduroy Fabric

Corduroy Fabric

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.

Pack Specs

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.

Stainless Steel Hip Belt Buckle

Stainless Steel Hip Belt Buckle

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

Packing

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Place wider soft items in the space than spans the two cylinders at the top of the pack.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

Compression

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.

Attaching a Bear Canister

Attaching a Bear Canister

External Attachments

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.

Hydration

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.

External Attachment System

External Attachment System

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.

Conclusion

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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9 Responses to Rivendell Mountain Works Jensen Backpack

  1. marco August 11, 2011 at 1:37 am #

    Thanks, Phil. I have been interested in this pack but was unsure because of the high weight. A real game changer at the time it was first made. I appreciate your reports and this one really got my interest. I had not thought about the lack of compression but, the water storage looked to be a problem. Now I know it is.

  2. Earlylite August 11, 2011 at 5:31 am #

    I suspect the Jensen became popular in the early 70's because it was the first pack with a non-external tube frame to let you carry a load close to your torso for better stability off trail or on rock.That would have been particularly good for climbers with ropes and climbing gear. I suppose it's ironic that this is the rationale behind internal frame packs too. But Rivendell is in an interesting bind. They can't change the pack design to overcome the compression or torso slump issues without significantly impacting the vintage heritage of the pack. An interesting dilemma. Still it is appealing to wear a piece of history and I still have some reverence for the pack even though it didn't work out.

  3. Betsy August 11, 2011 at 8:51 am #

    I have one of the original Rivendell 1400 CI daypacks, bought when a Starving College student- thought seriously about the Jensen, but couldn't justify the cost. Some years later got a structurally similar "YakPack" which is still pressed into service for longer trips, even though the PU coating has long since departed the Cordura shell.

    What seriously impresses me even to this day is the weight to Volume ratio- my benchmark for a 'lightweight' pack is 1lb/1000 C-inches available; and surprisingly few of the big name Mfrs

    meet this criterion, even thought they use much lighter fabrics; it really makes me wonder…

    Thanks for the memory jog! B

  4. Earlylite August 11, 2011 at 8:58 am #

    I agree – It's impressive that Rivendell has kept this pack so light even though they use 1000 denier Cordura. The pack is bombproof! Thank you for the comment!

  5. John Whynot August 11, 2011 at 9:06 am #

    I wonder if the pack would have worked better for you if it was filled with vintage gear? Looking back on the gear I had in the late 70's, it may have been light for the times, but it was bulky. Zero degree rated down bag, pile jacket, Svea stove and fuel bottle. Sigg cooking pots…

  6. Earlylite August 11, 2011 at 9:13 am #

    I tried the pack with all kinds of gear including larger synthetic and down bags, heavy winter clothing, cans of beans, etc to simulate bulkier vintage gear and a climbing rack. I just couldn't get it to work on par with a more modern bag that has compression and even a minimal frame. If it were up to me, I'd just cut that middle piece of fabric out, drop in a piece of neoprene for a better back panel and the pack would probably work a lot better. But it was a loaner, so remodeling with scissors was out of the question.

  7. Dan Steinwender November 13, 2011 at 7:55 pm #

    I wonder if one were to split a neoprene sleeping mat in half ( requiring innovative reassembly at night ) and place one half in each cylinder for a stiffener. That might alleviate the sagging issues observed.

  8. kgwilcox January 11, 2012 at 10:31 pm #

    I do not understand the problems identified in this review. I use the Giant Jensen for pack trips and ski tours in the Sierra, and it loads and carries perfectly. I have not had any sagging issues. This pack is a brilliant design, and it is especially good for skiing! It takes skill to load this pack properly. When the load gets smaller towards the end of the trip, you just leave the top area empty.

    • Earlylite January 12, 2012 at 10:08 am #

      kg – that’s fair. I suspect we just have very different backpacking styles and needs. Do you hang any gear off the back? For winter, I’d imagine not. Thanks for the note.

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