Kelty | The Story

Kelty gear makes the great outdoors accessible, enjoyable and fun – principles that have been at the heart of this famous US brand since it was founded way back in 1952.

16th November 2023 | Words by Matt Jones

Visit pretty much any trailhead or campground in the 50 US states, from Alaska to New Mexico, and there’s a good chance you’ll spot a Kelty pack. And if not, there’s likely to be a Kelty tent, camp chair or another piece of the brand’s distinctively bright, vibrant and colourful camping gear somewhere in the vicinity.

American pioneer spirit is in Kelty’s DNA. You can trace this enterprising outlook all the way back to originator Asher ‘Dick’ Kelty, the brand’s namesake and founder.

Over the last 70 years, Kelty has become one of the biggest and best-loved US outdoor gear brands. In recent years its popularity has grown across the pond in the UK and Europe too. Perhaps that’s no surprise – after all, American pioneer spirit is in Kelty’s DNA. You can trace this enterprising outlook all the way back to originator Asher ‘Dick’ Kelty, the brand’s namesake and founder.

A tireless inventor and passionate outdoorsman, Kelty developed a host of innovations in outdoor gear, including the first aluminium frame backpack. This was the brand’s original product, and the one on which it built its reputation. Other features of Kelty packs that followed included load-transferring waistbelts, padded shoulder straps and zippered pockets. Those are all design elements that are still found on almost every quality trekking pack sold today.

Pack pioneers

But back in 1952, when Dick Kelty and his wife Nina built their first packs, that wasn’t the case. Of course, the concept of the ‘backpack’ – a pack with shoulder straps that was designed to haul heavier loads on the wearer’s back – wasn’t altogether new. On the North American continent, Inuit people had been making and carrying stick-and-sealskin backpacks in Canada and Alaska since at least the early 1900s. Hunters and trappers had imitated these designs in wood and canvas. By the 1920s and ‘30s, the so-called ‘Trapper Nelson Pack’ was familiar – you could even buy one from REI. This had a wooden frame with canvas bands that cushioned the load, plus a detachable canvas bag that fastened to the frame via steel pins.

Meanwhile, in Northern Europe, Norwegian outdoorsman Ole Ferdinand Bergan had come up with a triangular framed pack made from light tubular steel that followed the shape of the back – a design he successfully patented in 1909 and which lasted for 25 years. It went on to equip numerous mountaineering and climbing expeditions. Similar styles were co-opted by military forces, and even today British soldiers still refer to their packs as ‘Bergans’.

In 1950, another Scandinavian, Åke Nordin, the founder of Swedish brand Fjällräven, sewed a cotton canvas pack and fashioned a wooden frame intended to keep the load high and close to his back. The two elements were fastened together using leather straps, forming what was arguably the first modern-looking rucksack.

Rather than steel tubing or wooden supports, Kelty decided to create his pack frames from aircraft-grade aluminium, which had a far superior strength-to-weight ratio.

In Southern California, just a year or so later, Dick Kelty hit on much the same concept – entirely independently, but with a significant upgrade in terms of materials. His idea was probably inspired by his wartime experiences in the early years of World War II as an aviation engineer for Lockheed Overseas Corporation, where he had helped modify B-17 and B-24 bombers in Northern Ireland, before becoming Lockheed’s liaison at an Army Air Force base in England. Rather than steel tubing or wooden supports, Kelty decided to create his pack frames from aircraft-grade aluminium, which had a far superior strength-to-weight ratio. Similarly, he used nylon parachute fabric and metal webbing-style buckles, derived from military issue kit.

Kelty’s first aluminium pack frames were bent over wood formers or mandrels in his garage, then welded together. It helped that Kelty was good with his hands – he was a carpenter by trade. Meanwhile, his wife Nina sewed the nylon pack fabric panels together at her kitchen table, using a Singer sewing machine. As well as the ground-breaking contoured aluminium external frames, these packs also featured metal clevis pins made from aircraft rivets and shoulder straps with internal padding made from wool carpet offcuts.

The Kelty family, hiking in California’s Sierra Nevada in 1957

The Kelty family, hiking in California’s Sierra Nevada in 1957

A backpacking background

The first two Kelty packs were made for Dick himself and his friend Clay Seaman, a regular hiking buddy with whom he often trekked into the epic mountain landscapes of the Sierra Nevada. Kelty was actually born in Duluth, Minnesota in 1919, but had moved to California as a child in 1922. He first visited the Sierra Nevada mountains aged 6 on a family camping trip – an experience that sparked a lifelong passion for the outdoors in general and the High Sierra in particular.

Kelty later credited Seaman with the notion of a pack that transferred the load from the shoulders to hips. During an earlier hiking trip in the Sierras, he supposedly placed the bottom supports of his wooden-framed pack in the back pockets of his jeans. This shifted much of the pack’s weight, enabling him to hike more comfortably. Copying this basic idea, Kelty’s pack design was thus fitted with a simple waist belt, setting the standard for backpack designs to this day – though the first padded hipbelt wasn’t invented until some years later, by another Southern California outdoor gear pioneer, Ralph ‘Andy’ Drollinger of Adventure 16 (‘A16’) packs, a rival specialty pack manufacturer.

Other fledgling outdoor brands were able to imitate and adapt Kelty’s external frame pack design because, unlike Ole F. Bergan, Dick Kelty did not patent his original Kelty pack. His wife Nina later recalled: “Dick was a very modest man. In 1952, when I begged him to take out a patent on his design, he said: ‘Man has been carrying stuff on his back forever. A backpack is nothing new’.”

Kelty Shop

Kelty Shop

Early Success

Luckily, as the prime movers in the world of framed packs, the Kelty Pack brand continued to lead the way. After those first two prototypes, the Keltys made packs for a few other friends. Then one evening, a stranger turned up at his door. It was a friend of a friend who wanted Kelty to make a pack for him, too. Word was spreading. “I guess it was at that moment I first saw a business opportunity in backpacks,” Kelty later recalled. The husband-and-wife duo launched their business with $500 borrowed against their house, which also served as their factory.

By the end of 1952, they had sold 29 packs for $24 each, purportedly making a grand total of $678.85 in gross profit – though some simple maths seems to show some accounting errors there, unless the sum total of materials and labour up to then really was a mere 17 dollars and 15 cents (roughly $190 USD today). But in any case, the little business thrived, even though Kelty’s only source of advertising, aside from word-of-mouth, was the Sierra Club newsletter. Still, Sierra Club members proved the ideal gear testers for Dick Kelty to refine his early packs.

As well as listening to his customers, Kelty also cared about them.

Nina’s little Singer sewing machine was soon replaced by two commercial machines. The Keltys made 90 packs in 1953 and 220 in 1954. As sales grew, they moved out of the house and into increasingly larger buildings. By 1956, Dick Kelty had quit his carpentry business to focus on Kelty Packs full-time. He opened his first retail store and a factory of sorts in an old barber shop in Glendale, California. Much of the brand’s early success wasn’t only down to how good the packs were though. As well as listening to his customers, Kelty also cared about them. His commitment to customer service was unparalleled – if somebody needed a new pack fast for an upcoming hiking trip, Dick was known to lend packs to last-minute buyers even before their cheques had cleared.

In 1962, the retail and mail-order divisions moved to a larger building on Victory Boulevard in Glendale. Kelty’s iterative design process meant the packs continued to be tweaked and improved – though at this point, they were all still one colour, and easily identified by Kelty’s distinctive triangular ‘mountain and arrowhead’ logo. The Kelty brand colour was a distinctive conifer green, partly a hangover from those early days of using military surplus nylon fabric. But Kelty also liked green’s association with nature. “I’ll make a pack in any colour you want,” he famously said, “as long as it’s green”. The phrase was borrowed from a fellow American pioneer, Henry Ford, who had famously uttered a similar witticism regarding the Ford Model T, back in 1922: “Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants, so long as it is black.”

And just like Ford motorcars, Kelty Packs were starting to become ubiquitous sights across America. They soon became the go-to for trail hikers and backpackers alike, while outfitting several major expeditions. This included the 1963 American ascent of Everest’s West Ridge and the 1966 National Geographic Antarctica expedition.

Though it took a couple of years, the latter actually paved the way for more colourful Kelty gear – in 1969, the new Kelty BB5 pack was offered in bright ‘expedition red’. As well as a large main compartment, it had five outside pockets. The brand also released an air mattress, a camp pillow, a nylon-covered sleeping pad and a rain poncho. This marked the brand’s first move into other categories of outdoor kit. A year previously, the brand had relocated to a new factory in Sun Valley, California, enabling it to ramp up production considerably.

Asher Dick Kelty

Asher Dick Kelty

Continual innovation

Dick Kelty continued to innovate. In 1970, he designed and produced the first stainless steel, quick-release waist belt buckle used on a backpack. Two models of Kelty daypacks followed in 1972. The next year saw the release of the Kelty Tioga and Serac packs, the first completely new pack designs since the early 1950s. Both featured a fully padded, one-piece waistbelt, waterproof fabric, and a new cam-lock buckle. The Serac also boasted a covered sleeping bag compartment. In 1974, Kelty introduced its first internal frame packs, the Ruck Sack; the Haul Pack; and the ‘Tour Pack’, designed by John Robinson (which is considered by some to be the first commercial internal frame pack). Down booties and dog packs were also added to the product line-up, whilst longstanding bestsellers like the D-4 and A-4 external frame packs got padded waist belts. In 1975, the first Kelty clothing arrived, in the form of down insulated jackets. Kelty-labelled down sleeping bags also went on sale.

1977 saw the company celebrate its 25th anniversary. Fittingly, it introduced the Sonora frame pack, a brand new, fully-featured pack featuring a front- and top-opening main compartment. A year later, Kelty made the most of the latest technological innovation to hit the market: a waterproof-breathable membrane called Gore-Tex, with the launch of a capsule collection of raingear. After that, the brand turned its focus to family hiking, with the introduction of the first adjustable-frame kids’ packs, named the 4/C and 4/D.

Perhaps inevitably, by this point, a lot had changed. Kelty Pack had long outgrown its origins. Dick Kelty had sold up in 1972, and Boston-based CML, Inc. purchased the business – though Dick remained as chairman throughout CML’s six years of ownership. CML was one of the first management companies to specialise in leisure products, recognising America’s demographic shift towards leisure activities, and the boom in specialty equipment needed for such pursuits. They also owned the Carroll Reed chain of ski shops and Boston Whaler, Inc., a manufacturer of outboard motorboats. CML recognised that Kelty would be a good acquisition – the company had good products, a growing market and a sound management team. In similar vein, CML would also acquire fellow Californian outdoor gear maker Sierra Designs.

Rick Ridgeway in the Himalaya, a champion of Kelty Packs. He’d later engage Dick Kelty as a gear consultant.

Rick Ridgeway in the Himalaya, a champion of Kelty Packs. He’d later engage Dick Kelty as a gear consultant.

Leaders in leisure

“By taking the weight off the hiker’s shoulders and putting it on the hips, he took the misery out of the sport. Kelty made it enjoyable for people to go backpacking.” – Nick Clinch

In 1976, Kelty packs accompanied mountaineer, writer and filmmaker Rick Ridgeway’s expedition to the summit of Mount Everest. Kelty packs were also carried on expeditions to K2 and Cholatse. But just as importantly, the brand’s affordable and widely available packs encouraged thousands of Americans to explore the backwoods and mountains of their own country. National Geographic Explorer Nick Clinch even wrote that he blamed Kelty for overcrowding the wilderness. “By taking the weight off the hiker’s shoulders and putting it on the hips, he took the misery out of the sport”, he explained. “[Kelty] made it enjoyable for people to go backpacking.”

In 1979, ownership of Kelty transferred again from CML to American Recreation Products Inc., headquartered in Boulder, Colorado. They remained as custodians of the brand for nearly four decades, overseeing the launch of a slew of new and successful products. This included Kelty’s expansion into luggage and the extension of the pack line, which eventually included six styles of internal frame packs and eight styles of external frame packs (and not just in red and green, but also an eye-catching blue). In 1987, Kelty produced its first women’s-specific catalogue, highlighting internal and external packs along with sleeping bags that were particularly suited to the female frame. Spring 1988 brought the radically designed Radial external frame pack and the Windfoil series of tunnel tents. Two years later came the Jetstream mountain dome tent, the Nautilus 3-season dome and the Ultralight tunnel tent. The mid-90s even saw one of the most leftfield brand collaborations yet, when Kelty produced a limited-edition Grateful Dead festival backpack, complete with the band’s iconic ‘Dancing Bears’ logo.

Woman wearing a Kelty Pack

Built for play

Then, in 2015, Exxel Outdoors purchased American Rec., heralding a new chapter that really kickstarted the ‘modern’ Kelty brand that is so familiar today. Exxel CEO and Chairman Harry Kazazian, who is descended from an American-Armenian immigrant family, says: “The brands under the American Rec umbrella [Kelty and Sierra Designs] had colourfully storied pasts, and we made the decision to acquire the company and bring them back to the glory of their heyday. The mountain of talent we now had in Boulder made our decision to move our headquarters there an easy one, and the brands’ continued upward trajectory has made us proud of our investment”.

Exxel is a member of the Conservation Alliance, and has also donated gear to the victims of natural disasters. Most recently, the company developed the Adventure Armenia project between HEX and HIKEArmenia, which resulted in a curated collection of five pieces that paid homage to Kazazian’s Armenian heritage through design, while also shedding a light on Armenia as a world-class hiking destination.

And how about Kelty itself? Today, the brand is still dedicated to getting everyone outdoors, with the tagline ‘Built for Play’. The product line includes a wide range of sleeping bags, tents and other outdoor equipment – including, of course, its iconic packs. Even today Kelty still manufactures a traditional external-framed pack, based on an original Dick Kelty design, alongside their modern internal-framed rucksacks like the much-loved Redwing and the Asher series (whose name is yet another tribute to Dick). It’s a little nod not only to their visionary founder, but also his vital contribution to America’s enduring love affair with the great outdoors.

Kelty Asher 55L

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