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October 2021 Issue
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Packs with relative dimensions

Fiordland Packs’ David Cary with his 35l pack which weighs 320g. Photo: Ricky French

A Te Anau man used his sewing machine to make face masks, now he’s creating ultralight packs. 

‘Pivoting’ might be the new buzzword in the Covid-19 era, but for Te Anau man David Cary it has a double meaning. 

If you’d asked the former sharemilker 10 years ago what he’d be doing now, it’s unlikely his crystal ball would reveal a life sitting behind a sewing machine, pivoting his needle around straps and buckles, stitching together his own range of tramping packs to send to trampers all over the country. 

Cary’s brand is called Fiordland Packs (formerly Empty Packs). They are ultra-simple and ultra-light, made mostly from a material called X-Pac VX21, a laminated fabric with an anti-abrasion ciré coating, sourced from a United States sailcloth manufacturer. They come in 25, 35, 45 and 70-litre versions. The 70-litre version weighs 900g, and the 25-litre version just 220g. 

It was only a little over a year ago that Cary decided to start making packs. He found a commercial sewing machine on TradeMe and set about learning how to sew, starting with making facemasks. He then moved onto bumbags, slowly building up the skills to move onto packs. Cary sold his first pack in September 2020, and orders are steadily coming in. “I think people like the fact that there’s a real person you can talk to who’s making your pack. And that it’s made in New Zealand,” Cary says.

It’s still early days though, and Cary doesn’t want to get ahead of himself. He constantly seeks feedback from customers so he can refine the designs. 

“It’s such a neat feeling,” he says. “You make something and people are using it. It’s beautiful.”

To design the packs, Cary works with patterns, cutting outlines the same way a seamster might make a dress. When the basic shape is there, he then builds the pattern up with pieces of scrap material until he’s happy with the design. Then comes the testing of prototypes, with Cary taking the packs into the bush, mostly through the wet and wild mountains and rivers of Fiordland. “I figured if they could handle these conditions, they could handle anything,” he says. 

“It took about six iterations before I was happy with the design. Every time I made a pack, I made small improvements. Through countless small changes, the first pack was born.” 

Nelson tramper Ian Gilmour says he was after a simple, New Zealand-made lightweight pack that he could take running as well as tramping. He put the 35-litre version through its paces on a weekend in Kahurangi National Park in July. “We had blizzard conditions one day and clear, blue skies the next,” says Gilmour. “I was initially worried I wouldn’t fit everything into the pack, but it’s a bit of a Tardis*.”     

Gilmour was especially impressed with the stuff pockets on the back, allowing easy access to rain gear, and the fact that he could customise the pack when ordering. “I wanted hip belt pockets for things like my phone, and David was able to add those for me,” he says. 

Another modification was to integrate elastic shock cords to the sternum strap, similar to some high-tech running vests. The shock cord expands and contracts as you breathe, making the load more stable when running. Gilmour also likes that the pack is small enough to be taken as carry-on luggage on flights. 

Cary hopes people enjoy his packs and that in time he can employ staff.

“Sewing is a skill a lot of people have,” he says. “In Te Anau, we’ve lost a lot of tourism jobs. I’d love to give locals the opportunity of work, that would be very rewarding. Like everything in life, you just have to take the first step, then keep chipping away at it. Never give up. “Eventually, you get where you’re going.”

* Tardis: Time and Relative Dimension in Space, from Dr Who