The brief was to give it a thrashing – and thrash it I did. A packraft and foot traverse of SW Fiordland; a 125 km journey from Deep Cove in Doubtful Sound, south to Preservation Inlet. Bellowing fiords, white granite skycamps, a source to sea of the Seaforth River and scrub-bashing galore. If I could invent a ‘field test’ for a new pack, this would be it.


But first, some introductions:

I met David Carey in an industrial lot in Te Anau – the archetypical kiwi bloke in a shed.

“I started sewing in earnest during lockdown. Something to do with my hands and with my head – wellness as much as anything.” The self taught seam-master first honed his skills on small items. “I made bumbags and pouches, they’re small and fiddly and perfect for really learning… I made, oh gosh, I couldn’t say how many. It’s all I did.” By the time I catch up with David, things have progressed significantly. He shows the range; his designs and his brand, Fiordland Packs, embody his outlook on adventures. “You just don’t need all that stuff – the bits and pieces and bells and whistles, they just get caught up in the bush. And they make you heavy. You wanna just put some stuff in ya pack and go.” And go he does, David shows me a series of packs of all brands that he’s had and wrecked over the years – from his own impressive missions into the hinterlands of Fiordland National Park.

Sometimes if you want something done right, you’ve got to do it yourself. David started importing and testing new lightweight fabrics, trialing different combinations and styles. These represent a new class of super light, super tough fabrics that are changing the gear industry abroad. The lightweight revolution has been slow to get uptake in NZ, where us classic trampers are hesitant to walk away from our canvas gaiters and trusty framed packs. But a stream of Te Araroa through-hikers, GodZone adventure racers, and the knee-pain of the boomer cohort has seen kiwis finally get it: light is nice! I loaded up the pack for an overnight test run before the bigger mission, and was surprised that the minimal harness and lack of frame didn’t really make much difference comfort-wise. “So what’s all that for?” I asked, but David just shrugs and fusses with a sternum strap on a new ski-mountaineering design he’s working on.

Still unsure, I put my classic 80L pack alongside the Fiordland Packs 70L under a cold shower for 20 minutes, an experience which roughly translates to a summer’s day in Fiordland. When soaked, the classic pack weighed in at 4.8 kg (empty), while the Fiordland Pack topped out at 578 grams. Decision made. With packraft and all the bits and pieces, I decided I’d be happy without that 4kg before I even got out of the gate.

The size was ideal, and I rate the single large sack design that  lets you just chuck it all in. That no-dangly-things design meant I smugly slipped through subalpine scrub while my buddies got tangled, swore and took their packs off to get through. I didn’t miss the larger harness, but I did have one day with sore shoulders, and I noticed a bit of wear and abrasion where my paddles rubbed against rock on the bottom corners.

Back from the wilds, I meet up with David again. He takes the pack that’s gone 125kms through Fiordland and then pores over it like it’s a treasure – asking questions. How did this work? Were you using these? How many kilos? Where’d you put the packraft? The paddles? He inspects the wearing and abrasion where paddle shafts ground against hard granite in the Matterhorn range. I can see him already scheming for how to make it stronger, his brain ticking. Already I can see how things have progressed in the Fiordland Packs line.  The trial mountaineering pack has been tweaked up with additional suggestions and feedback, to make it even better. He shows me new dyneema samples he’s just got in and has plans for a super lightweight fly.

And this is what we’ve been slowly losing in the outdoor gear industry. As more of our gear comes from overseas, it becomes more generic, more featured, but the care has gone from it. My hope is that, through small independent craftsmen like David (and the other brands holding on – big ups Cactus) we can have a strong  cottage outdoors industry in New Zealand once again. My hope is that kiwis will support kiwis, using their brains and their hands to make world-class gear specifically for New Zealand conditions – for hills and for the scrub. Gear that makes us want to get out there and adventure more. For me, that’s what it’s all about.

David’s brand used to be called Empty Packs, but it has since changed to Fiordland Packs.  If you enjoy podcasts, check out his interview on The Wild Podcast.