The Cooke Custom Sewing Pioneer Pack, part of Cooke’s hybrid portage pack series, combines the shape of a traditional portage pack with the features of a more modern backpacking pack. It has a padded foam back, contoured and padded shoulder straps, a sternum strap, a padded hip belt, four grab loops, load lifter straps and hip stabilizer straps. It is made from a heavy-duty nylon and comes in blue, red, yellow, pink and green. Dan Cooke makes every pack by hand in Minnesota (All the best portage packs are made in Minnesota).
The Pioneer Pack is our primary portage pack and sees more use than my Duluth Pack, SealLine Boundary 35 Day or Vaude Hobb Creek pack. On tandem trips, it’s the perfect size for two people traveling in a lightweight style. On portages, one person carries the pack and the other carries the canoe. This makes for a quick single-carry portage.
On the trail, it is more comfortable than most portage packs because of its backpacking-pack-style features. To make it work, it’s best to loosen all the straps before putting the pack on. Then tighten the shoulder straps and hip belt. After that, tighten the hip stabilizers just enough so the pack doesn’t sway. Adjust the load lifters last to the point where the load shifts off the hip belt and hovers somewhere between the shoulders and hip. It works just like a backpacking pack that’d you’d carry for hours at a time.
There are a couple of downsides to using this system on this pack. The first is that the lack of frame prevents the load lifters from working as they would on a pack with a frame. You can stiffen the pack, by packing your sleeping pad chair kit or tent poles against the pack’s foam or by making your sleeping pad into a vertical cylinder shape and packing your gear inside of it. Second, for load lifter straps to work, the angle that the straps leave your shoulders and attach to the pack should measure about 45 degrees. That requires a taller pack. Because a portage pack’s design requires it to fit inside the gunwales of a canoe, the pack can’t be tall enough for the 45 degree angle. When I wear it, because of my long torso, the straps hover around 0 to 10 degrees. It still lifts the load, but not as effectively as a taller backpacking pack. Third, the foam used in the hip belt and shoulder straps looses shape easily and bunches up when tightening the stabilizer or lifter straps too much. If that happens, the pack becomes ineffective at lifting the load. That’s why I suggest loosening all the straps before putting the pack on. (Note: I recommend doing that with all backpacks.) If I could pick one improvement to the pack, I’d stiffen the foam in the hip belt and shoulder straps.
The pack itself is pretty simple. One main compartment holds the gear. Inside the compartment on the pack’s front, a small, interior, mesh pocket keeps fuel bottles organized. On rainy days, I stuff my wet tarp into the mesh pocket. After you finish packing, you secure the pack’s opening with two large flaps that fold in from the sides and clip closed using side-buckle snaps. A long top flap, typical of portage packs, folds over the top and snaps closed on the front of the pack. Inside the top flap is a large pocket, which is handy for rain gear, maps and the water filter. It’s big enough for all the stuff you’d want handy during the day, which allows you to keep the waterproof seal on your compactor or contractor bag closed.
We found that like most backpacks if you pack it following a specific order, it carries better. It’s key to keep the heaviest items low and against your back. In most backpacking packs, you pack the sleeping bag lowest, which helps shift the load when using load lifter straps. With this pack, we load it that way, too. First, we pack the sleeping bags on the bottom and usually one of the sleeping pads. The other pad goes next and up against the front of the pack. Next, we add food behind the pad and center it in the pack using bags of clothing. On top of the food we put the tent up against the pack’s back. Then in front of the tent, we place our cooking gear. On dry days, we use our rain gear to hold the load in place by stuffing it into gaps. Everything inside the pack is packed into one large contractor bag. When we finish packing, we twist the bag’s top closed, fold it over once or twice and secure it closed with a rubber band. Any variation from this order results in an unwieldy pack.
Top help with securing the load, the pack has three side compression straps. When combined with the two side pockets, the straps also work for carrying your collapsed fishing pole.
Overall, the Cooke Custom Sewing Pioneer pack is a great combination of a portage and a backpacking pack. It carries better than most portage packs. It’s big enough for two. It’s durable. The extra pocket in the top flap is a feature that I wish more portage packs would incorporate. Plus, it’s made in Minnesota by a passionate canoeist in a two-person company. If you’re looking for a portage pack, give this one a serious look.
Dimensions: 24 by 18 by 11 inches
Capacity: 4700 cubic inches plus 525 cubic inches in the top pocket
Weight: 4 lbs. 2 oz.
Price: $195 | More Info
For solo canoeists, consider the Cooke Custom Sewing Explorer pack. It’s the perfect size for most solo canoes. I don’t own one yet, but it’ll be my next portage pack. You could buy me one in red or give to the cause by buying me a coffee or beer with the link below. :)
Note about portage packs and weight: Most commercial portage packs manufacturers choose beefiness over lightweight. Although the canoe environment is tough on gear and vocal canoeists, like Cliff Jacobson, insist on the heaviest, beefiest gear, not everyone needs it nor wants it. I’d gladly sacrifice some durability in a portage pack for a lighter weight. By using a slightly lighter or more modern fabric, I bet Cooke could build this pack to about 2 to 2.5 lbs. One look at his 8.1 oz. Lightweight Hiker pack shows that he can make a light pack. I’m not saying that silnylon needs to be the fabric, but I think it’s worthwhile to market a durable lighter pack that maintains the portage pack style. I’d really like to see the Explorer sold as a 2-pound pack and marketed as the “Explorer Pro.”