Recently a customer at the gear shop I work for, brought in a relic from the early(ish) days of backpacking. He told me of the great adventures he and his Kelty backpack had shared since it’s original purchase date in 1983. Regretfully, he said, it was time for him to move on. He had been using this pack somewhat frequently since day one, but no longer gets to backpack as frequently; he longed for a lighter and smaller pack to bring him into the modern backpacking scene. He kindly donated the pack to the shop, as he didn’t have any room to keep it stored at home any longer. Upon first inspection, I was amazed at the great condition and build quality of the pack. This got me thinking… maybe it’s time we look back at where backpacking once was. Sure, it’s easy to see that modern backpacking has changed for the better, with lighter, more comfortable loads, but let’s not forget how we got here. The early backpacks may have been heavy by todays standards, but they were beasts of design and craftsmanship.


Behold! The 1983 Kelty Sonora III backpack.



You can see the beliefs of the time reflected in the design of the pack. Loads were carried high above the hips, suspended on a frame near the head. This was in an attempt to bring the center of gravity back towards the center of a persons body, creating a more natural gait (and avoiding the feeling that the pack is pulling you backwards.) For heavier loads, this train of thought sort of made sense; as loads have lightened over time, it’s become apparent that it is no longer necessary to suspend loads high, but instead it makes more sense to keep them low and close.



The aluminum, TIG welded frame is surprisingly light, and it actually provides much better ventilation than you’ll find in most internal frame packs (Though Osprey has made great attempts to bring this back.) Much of the strapping and suspension on these types of packs is attached to the frame via cotter pins and through tension (applied with cordage, as seen behind the hip belt.)



The bottom of the pack straps attach onto some serious U-shaped aluminum anchors that pivot on the frame.



Shiny Buckles! The buckles and tri-glides on this pack are made (apparently by Kelty themselves) of metal. They might be heavy, but man do they look cool. This picture of the hip-belt gives you and idea of just how serious the hardware on this pack is. The hip-belt is unbuckled similarly to an airplane belt, by leveraging the metal part on the right towards the middle of the buckle.



A smaller aluminum frame actually juts out from the main frame to keep the top of the pack open for easy packing. Necessary? No… but it is pretty darn convenient. In the times of high-loads, side compression wasn’t even a consideration.



The backpack with the top peeled off. Hide your eyes.



Real leather! (Currently it’s ‘ll the rage on hipster bags!)



The material portion of the pack is secured to the frame with a giant clevis pin. This reminds me of something you’d see in the aviation world.



Made in America!



It’s hard to tell just how beefy these zippers are in this picture, but just trust me, they’re seriously beefy.



Kelty “Owner.” It’s interesting to think about how “pride of ownership” was once such a big part of American culture. Maybe it still is…



Bonus Surprise!!! – The owner also left his original sales tag and instructional booklet with the pack. I’ve photographed it all, if you are really interested in learning about the Kelty Sonora III.







No Price 🙁



Cool drawings! If you didn’t buy your Kelty from an outfitter, you may have had to assemble it yourself! This actually sounds like a ton of fun, it’s almost like a DIY kit.



Step 7.) Stare longingly into the abyss that is your backpack.



You know your pack is heavy when you recommend lifting it onto your knee before you finish putting it on your back.





I had to give it a go.



Thanks for following along! Hope you enjoyed this brief time stutter. May all your hikes start and end as happy as the dude in this picture is.



If you like this content, and would like to see more of it produced, consider supporting it on my Patreon page ( With your support, I will be able to bring you higher quality, more frequent content. Good things are in the works!