RETRO. VINTAGE. Old-school. However you label it, we're all suckers for nostalgia—a fact that gets Paul McCartney a gig at the Super Bowl and has Urban Outfitters constantly restocking its inventory of buffalo-check shirts. Even in the performance-first outdoor industry, consumer hunger for that classic look has been strong enough to spur such recent developments as soft-shell track jackets and the return of red-laced waffle stompers. And yet nobody would have ever predicted this: the revival of 1960s-era external-frame backpacks.
When Greg Lowe first introduced snug-fitting internal-frame packs, in 1967, back- packers bought in big-time. Here was a pack that hugged us close on twisting ascents or when we went backcountry-skiing or climbing. Lowe's imitators went on to add all manner of features, and except for guys who kept their beards through the Reagan years, we banished our externals to the basement. There was just one problem: externals do a superior job of carrying and distributing heavy loads when you're simply hiking mellow trails. This is why companies like Kelty and JanSport never stopped making them, and externals have always had a small but loyal following.
Now, triggered by a rediscovered love of backpacking among recession-battered Americans, at least half a dozen brands are planning new external-frame models for 2011. But while the new packs' designs pay homage to hiking's heyday, they benefit from four decades of engineering innovation. "The design is old-school, the performance is full-on 21st-century," says Kelty spokesman Scott Kaier of the brand's three models, which feature lightweight, water-resistant fabrics. Likewise, JanSport's reissue of its classic burnt-orange D2 has upgrades in foam, fabric, and webbing—not that anyone can tell by looking at it.
"We purposefully hid all the new technology," says Eric Rothenhaus, JanSport's director of design and development. "You can feel it, but you can't see it."