Not all backpacks are created equal…
By the same token, neither are the sizes of their owners.
So, if you’re a backpack manufacturer there seems to be just two strategies you can follow.
- You either go with offering customers an off-the-shelf, made to shoot-down-the-middle and fit Mr. / Mrs. Average-sized, hailing from non-descript-ville, upper vanilla-bland region…Have you ever met them? Yeah, me neither.
- Or, you make your backpack the perfect size by making it somehow fully adjustable to the variety of torso-lengths and spine shapes.
For Kifaru (an all American-family-owned outdoor apparel specialist), who have been welcoming customers since 1979 – they take the latter, but throw in a few novel twists of their own:
They create an important bespoke component – the backpack frame, while ensuring that this is interchangeable with a plethora of different packs, from day sacks to expedition and everything in between.
So what are the ingredients for success that this company mixes so well? Kifaru upholds the following principles to ensure they continue to be relevant to their customers and that their message doesn’t get lost in the woods:
Make your backpacks heavy-duty in construction, performance and wear.
Ensure that if you’re going to use the name Kifaru – which means ‘rhino’ in Swahili, that your brand lives up to it. Kifaru do this by ensuring its gear imbues the best characteristics of this magnificent beast, namely by being extremely well built and tough. In fact, in three words Kifaru’s slogan says it all:
“Gear for life”https://kifaru.net
Know your customer and deliver what they want:
The DNA of Kifaru’s end-users consists of hardened hunters, hikers and outdoor enthusiasts. All of whom are tired of poor fitting packs and apparel.
There’s an interesting and welcome side-effect of aiming specifically (pun intended) at the professional hunters’ market. They have some very unique requirements that if, as a company you’re able to meet – will satisfy the needs of all the other outdoor-orientated groups.
Patrick Smith – Kifaru’s founder understood this from the beginning and set out to correct a troublesome gap in the quality of hunter backpacks. He is responsible for the base/core designs of almost all the packs that the company currently puts out today.
His eye for detail, understanding this niche market – as well as the needs of the customer, have given birth to an innovative and legendary outdoors outfitter.
Targeted hunter needs
So which characteristics for backpack requirements are unique to the hunter and which are those that are shared with other outdoor activities?
As with all outdoors groups – the hunter requires their pack to firstly house their gear, keep the necessary equipment such as shelter and clothing dry, allow for partitioning of wet clothing and (here it comes) allow for the easy retrieval and transportation of a harvested animal.
Depending on the species of the animal – this can reflect anything from a significant, to a massive boost in the overall weight and total carry load.
You see, outside of the hunter demographic – the other groups don’t exponentially add weight to their pack beyond the usual perishables, such as food and water.
In other words, their loads normally don’t exceed their starting weight. But hunters will need to retrieve prey, in all sorts of harsh conditions, including unforgiving wet, windy and snowy environments.
This means that all of the carrying solutions that Kifaru offer, require the right mix of portability and expansion for ever-changing loadouts. From being able to house quick-grab items such as spotting glasses, tripods, guns & ammo – or hunting bows and arrows, to waterproofs, food and skinning tools.
Access and volume are usually two requirements that are pitted against one another. When you look at other packs such as the organisational wonders offered by tactical apparel companies like 5.11 – load capacity is heavily consumed by creating uber generous organisation solutions, pockets, dividers etc.
In stark contrast, many of the hiking specialist packs are sparse on the organisation side of things – offering little in the way of allowing users to cordon or separate their gear but maximising single compartment storagecapacity.
The problem this creates is that hikers have to remember exactly where their gear is located and the order it was packed in, which means a lot more time spent emptying and repacking items.
But Kifaru’s commitment to continued evolution of their packs, generated in part by listening and taking user feedback seriously, sees even their most successful product ranges continually improved upon with each iteration.
As a result, equilibrium can be found between these two competing requirements.
This translates into understanding where users require minimalism – keeping haul volume and capacity to the max – while still allowing for quick access and organisation thanks to their modular pack and frame designs and the plethora of configuration options that doing so makes possible.
Kifaru product images above starting top left and moving clockwise:
ORGANIZER GUIDE LID XPAC CB/RANGER GREEN (800CI / 13L) , MUSKEG (backpack shown with lid and extra BELT POUCH XPACs added), KIFARU PACK BELTS, GRAB-IT II, TACTICAL PLATFORM FRAME AND SUSPENSION (NEWPLEX SS),
It’s a startling departure from the norm – where manufacturers all too often assume their most popular offerings are beyond further re-design.
After an additional load has been successfully stowed/strapped to the pack – the hunter needs to traverse a range of different terrain easily and potentially silently. Afterall, a successful kill doesn’t spell the end of a day’s or night’s hunt. As such, he or she may still require rapid access to their kit as required.
Kifaru – recognise the importance of providing the right fit – but that’s something realised through their separate modular frame system. Furthermore, the manufacturer strives to ensure that all of their backpacks and carrying accessories are supported by making these interchangeable with their frames, depending on the requirements of their customers.
It’s not unusual for the Kifaru sales team to enquire beyond a customer’s personal details such as inseam leg dimensions, overall height and weight (used to determine their torso length).
They check the intended use of the frame/pack so that it will meet the buyer’s expectations. So, for example, the duration that the pack will be required to fulfil, e.g. is it going to be used for a 3, 5, or 7-day hunt or say, for a single, long solo hiking expedition – or perhaps for use in multiple countries?
Also, they may ask what kind of items you’re expecting to transport during your activities. Many of the packs have the option to stow long items such as guns or bows – but these can just as easily be used to accommodate similarly unwieldy objects like camera tripods, hiking sticks, fishing rods etc.
Getting answers to these questions allows Kifaru to recommend, using their extensive expertise, which pack, frame and configuration of modular hip belts, lids, pouches etc. are likely to be especially beneficial.
There is just one catch, how much would you as a backpack manufacturer charge for a backpack and frame that fits your customer perfectly?
Or, to put it another way – how much would you spend to buy such a tailored pack that could easily last a lifetime of use?
The cost of doing business?
If you’re going to invest in a complete Kifariu backpack from scratch, you can expect to pay anywhere from around $600-$800 minimum (around $350 for a frame and depending on size, the remaining on the pack itself).
OK, so Kifaru packs / frames aren’t exactly cheap.
Your off-the-shelf substitutes will likely cost you a quarter or third of a Kifaru bespoke pack. But while the latter may seem like a really expensive investment – it actually proves (thankfully) to be something of a false economy.
Off-the-shelf packs, even those with some degree of back length adjustment feature are quite limited. In our trending quest for ‘ultra-lightweight’ hiking and camping gear, we often find ourselves neglecting function and performance.
When a Kifaru pack fits the user properly, they are able to transport loads that are substantially heavier, with far less discomfort. Many of the off-the-peg packs lack the required rigidity to help disperse a heavy load equally. Most will rely on incorporating a thin plastic or foam stiffener, rather than a dedicated frame.
However, when you’re carrying a serious amount of weight, (especially true on larger-sized packs) on, say, a longer expedition and over significant distances – you really need that extra rigidity along with the ability to compress the pack down when it’s total volume is not fully reached.
Getting this monkey off my back to make room for a rhino…
*Disclaimer – I have not been fortunate enough to get hold of one of Kifaru’s frame/pack combos. I live in Europe and so there’s a bit of a disconnect in terms of awareness of a brand that has, at time of writing, very much hung its hat on serving its local US market. Also worth noting, I wasn’t asked, paid or invited by Kifaru to talk about them.
As per usual, I’m recommending to any outdoor enthusiasts to check out this brand as I honestly, think that when you come across a brand that doing so much right and really represents value deserves your attention.
Well, Kifaru have taken the responsible stance of not only keeping all of their production inhouse, but also all of the materials are sourced from within the US too. This allows them to monitor and maintain the quality that goes into all of the items they make.
Made to measure = customised high quality
It also allows them to ensure that for everyone involved in the making of their goods that they receive a fair wage as well as safeguarding the job security of their suppliers.
Nearly all of Kifaru’s items are produced to order – so yes there are lead times involved with most orders. However, there are advantages to manufacturing products to order, especially when it comes to fulfilling those containing multiple items.
From my own past experience working for an independent bespoke furniture manufacturer in the UK, I know first-hand that material colours and shades can vary significantly outside the same batch.
You’ve most likely had the experience of buying a leather or fabric product add-on for an existing product you own from the same manufacturer, but at a later date.
Regardless of whether it’s a replacement cushion cover, or a pair of tailored suit trousers; when you get the final add-on home, you notice that it’s no way even close to the original’s shade, hue or dye colour. Unfortunately, and as a consequence – it looks like it was an after-thought.
Kifaru start your order once all of the materials required are in stock and there’s enough from each batch to complete your order. As they are a small tight-knit crew of highly specialised craftsmen and women – your order is being cut, sewn, stiched and welded by the the same skilled staff.
This helps to remove the margin for error and/or production inconsistencies. It’s just another example of their attention to detail that sets them apart from their rivals.
A US company that can still reach beyond its’ territory
So while a brick & mortar store in Europe or in other continents may seem a little way off (though I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have my fingers crossed for this in the future) – the good news is that the rest of us living outside the US can still get a hold of their products. Kifaru does international shipping! Check out their site to see their products and their corresponding lead times and delivery options here.
Still not sure? Perhaps the discomfort of sitting on the fence is making you forget the pain of using a pack that will limit your enjoyment of the great outdoors?
Need more convincing why you should consider the Rhino?
Some of you may still be wondering: ‘…well Kifaru do make pretty looking gear, the high-quality materials and manufacturing techniques are clear from user videos, customer testimonials and Kifaru’s own educational explainer videos…but are they really worth the money when I could pick up a ready-made off-the-shelf substitute right now.’
Personally, from experience this writer has to attest to the discomfort and pain from carrying a loaded pack where it’s not suited to torso dimensions. I’m relatively tall at 6’ 4” or 1m 93cm depending on which side of the measurement scale you park on.
If you’re too tall or short for the pack you’re wearing then the hip waist support belt, which is designed to take the bulk of a pack’s load and drive that weight down your legs, fails.
The shoulder straps will have to compensate and take the majority of the load instead. Inevitably, when they do – it’ll be hard to ensure the top of the shoulder straps remain at the 45-degree angle necessary to ensure the pack is taking the bulk of the force and not your shoulders and spine.
This produces a domino-effect of related issues. The weight will leave you feeling as if your spine is being crushed, encouraging it to bend either high up in the vertebrae column near the base of your neck or further down in the lumbar area of your back.
Under those circumstances – it’s going to be really hard to traverse uneven ground. Ascending and descending inclines will pose more of an issue, your pack will inevitably make you top-heavy and your balance will be compromised – increasing the chance for strain or further injury.
Now take this and apply it to a scenario where your pack is overloaded and you’re on a long, tough hike, navigating terrain that requires a degree of nimbleness to successfully tackle and well, you get the idea…it quickly escalates into a special form of mobile torture.
So no, unless you’re trying to satisfy the ‘inner masochist’ – an ill-fitting pack simply won’t do.
A company’s commitment beyond the sale…
Aside from the progressive mentality of the company’s research, design and production departments – it’s Kifaru’s commitment to the customer that really helps set them apart from the competition.
It’s not uncommon for customers to call up and get through directly to Aron Snyder, Founder & former owner of Rokslide, outdoor gear influencer, outdoor photographer and now President and CEO of Kifaru International.
Aron also happens to be an experienced bow hunter and ex-soldier. If you catch any of the numerous videos – you’ll get a sense of the wealth of knowledge and experience that he brings to the outdoors table, not only in terms of gear but crucially, its real-world application.
[Although a little dated now, this humerous video interview entitled “Why Kifaru packs cost so freakin’ much” (the first episode in the ‘Gritty Bowmen’ vid-podcasts) is a great, relaxed straight-talking discussion and gives a flavour of Aron’s outdoor expertise and how he came to be involved with Kifaru. Definitely worth checking out]
And it’s not just Aron, the whole Kifaru team have soaked up enough knowledge from their love of the great outdoors and their manufacturing experience to be able to connect with their audience and customer base.
This is arguably one of the biggest pluses to buying from a small business – that extension of service beyond the usual pledges, warranties and guarantees.
Can you imagine calling Patagonia, (a company whose sustainability policies are extremely impressive), and getting through to its founder Yvon Chouinard and have him talk you through a query you had about an item they manufacture?
The real ‘opportunity cost’ of buying the wrong pack…
So, coming back to price – cost is indeed relative. The phrase “Buy cheap, buy twice” springs to mind. Except, in the case of outdoor gear – it’s often a lot more frequent than twice.
If a cheaper pack simply didn’t last as long as a more costly one that would be one thing to worry about – but this isn’t the only way that cheaper packs fail the user. Thinking about this in a bit more depth made me consider just how many packs I have bought over the years – and that’s over a relatively short period of time, 5 or 6 years to be exact.
Backpacks are a difficult beast to gauge immediately. Buying a good quality pack requires far more research and time investment than buying a good pair of shoes or boots. You can’t really get a feel for how a pack performs from walking around your house for the first few days or weeks as you might do with new footwear.
Any backpack can seem fine at first, great even for a short while after you have gotten to grips with them. In a pack without a dedicated, properly fitting frame, the discomfort may not become clear until you are right in the thick of your adventure.
Perhaps the plastic insert doesn’t dig into the small of your back until you’re past 50 miles of hiking? Perhaps the pain doesn’t become noticeable until you’re loaded up over 25 kilos of weight. You get the picture.
So excellent material and fully user-customised backpack ergonomics are really two of the most crucial ingredients.
In terms of quality for an-over-the-shelf backpack, Karrimor SF’s range are excellent – their larger packs have dedicated frames and back length adjustment and those better ones are around $300-$400 and they have served the British Military very well.
But Kifaru’s appeal along with its dedicated customer support has a huge advantage. Once you have the perfect fitting frame – well, any of their compatible packs are going to work for you. And as we mentioned before, that represents a sizeable chunk of the total cost – so you can cross-off the ‘fits perfectly frame’ and then the price of each pack makes a lot more financial sense – and is comparable to the price range of the packs from other makers mentioned above.
Not a hunter? Not a problem…
Kifaru’s hunting packs have features like a separate meat shelf for stowing downed animals and you might as a hiker, be thinking to yourself, “so what – I’m not going to have any real use for this” – and perhaps that’s true. But their durability, ruggedness and ability to be modularly arranged with a near-endless number of combinations guarantees that they will be highly sought-after by all outdoors folk.
You don’t buy a Swiss Army Knife or Leatherman or Gerber multi-tool just for the blade, you buy it for the options they afford you: to tackle different jobs on-the-fly; as well as a dedicated one-purpose tool would – and that’s what you’re investing in with Kifaru’s packs.
I’d strongly encourage you to have a look at Kifaru’s wares. It’s worth noting that beyond the packs and frames – they have a stellar line up of tarps, stoves, tipis, sleeping solutions and clothing and more.
Product knowledge synergy
What’s nice to see is that Kifaru apply what they have learnt from one product to the next one, e.g: the material used in their extra warm sleep systems are the same they incorporate into their hoodies.
As they make backpacks and recognise how vital the hip/waist belt is – they produce hoodies that allow the same pack hip belt to be fed through them, with the hoody’s kangaroo pouch situated in front of this. You no longer have to choose between wearing your pack the way it was meant to, keeping your hands warm and the type of upper torso clothing. Now that’s product evolution at its best.
They say: “home is where the heart is”. If your heart is like mine & very much located in the great outdoors, then you need a means to ensure the belongings that will add enjoyment, keep you safe, boost morale and allow you to survive are with you – without detracting from the very reason(s) you are on your adventure in the first place.
And it’s for that reason that I wholeheartedly recommend you track the rhino and check out how Kifaru International can take your adventure to the next level.
Thanks to the Kifaru International team for allowing the use of their stock images for the purpose of this article 🙂
PS – As you can probably tell this brand has really ticked so many important criteria boxes that I look for. From ethos, to production quality, after sales service and support. It goes without saying that in the near future – I’ll definitely place an order for a backpack, frame and accessories. When I do – I’ll do an unboxing video and a review once I have had the opportunity to test the gear and take it out on some adventures.