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Outdoor Icons: Dick Kelty

July 28, 2011
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When a National Geographic explorer holds a particular man personally responsible for overcrowding the wilderness for good reason, you know the man in question has to be an icon as big as the outdoors. While that man, Dick Kelty, was best known as the father of the frame pack, he was just as importantly an avid outdoorsman, family man and entrepreneur whose innovations have evolved over a span of time and who continues to live on with his legacy today — more than six decades since he founded his family business in 1952.

Kelty is credited with inventing the first aluminum frame backpack, which improved the way in which hikers could accomplish what they loved to do — hiking trails for hours on end, but without the pain of having straps of the pre-Kelty-era canvas backpacks digging into their shoulders. Beyond enhancing hiker comfort, the impact the invention had on the outdoors is perhaps best described by Nick Clinch, an explorer for National Geographic magazine (as told to Kelty’s wife, Nena, in her 2000 book, “Backpacking the Kelty Way”): “I blame Dick 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 made it enjoyable for people to go backpacking.”

Becoming an outdoor industry leader wasn’t at the forefront of Kelty’s mind when he was working as a carpenter in Southern California in the late 1940s. Instead, the calling seemed to have found him, a ready craftsman and outdoor consumer, when he thought there had to be a better way of toting around gear than wearing an awkward, heavy pack made of wood and canvas while backpacking. In 1952, Kelty borrowed $500 against the family home to officially start Kelty Pack. Kelty began experimenting with the creation of aluminum frame packs in his home garage.

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