Wednesday, 18 December 2013

How To Avoid Gortex...

Restoring a Vintage Swedish Army Rucksack...

... Or at least pepping it up a bit.

1950's Swedish Army Rucksack
Not a stitch of technical fabric in sight.
The search had been on for a while for a decent vintage or reproduction rucksack or day sack. The Swedish outdoor brand Fjällräven make fantastic retro inspired, and very durable, trekking kit. However, their price point is rather high - at nearly 1,800 Swedish kronor (approx £200) for a 40 litre bag I decided to look elsewhere.

It's clear that Fjallraven have taken as their inspiration the original Swedish and British Army commando rucksacks from WW2.

1950's Swedish Army Rucksack1950's Swedish Army Rucksack

So I set about finding one. This example was £20. According to the seller the pack is post war. Metal framed and made from thick field grey canvas and heavy leather, 60 odd years on the rucksack was still in pretty good condition.

A few minor repairs have been done on the canvas and the leather was a little tired, but that's it.
The stitching was all in good condition, with no repairs needing doing.

I set about washing the canvas first. I scrubbed the lot with a hard brush in warm water. No soap. This supposedly expands the canvas fibres, and as they re dry they become even tighter - hence more water resistant.

As this was drying I turned to the leather, applying a liberal coat of Leder Gris leather grease to all of the harness and straps. Leder Gris is made of entirely natural ingredients, with none of the degrading chemicals you find in normal polishes like Kiwi. This helped to moisten the quite dry leather fixings after what presumably had been long years of storage.

1950's Swedish Army Rucksack
Despite years in storage the dry leather responded wonderfully to a working over with some leather grease.
I was in two minds as to whether it needed waxing. There are separate schools of thought here. The first says just wash the canvas - the wet fibres will expand and then shrink tighter with drying. To wax a vintage item will only push the dirt you could not wash out deeper in to the fabric, shortening its lifespan.

The second argues that a coat of wax will obviously increase the waterproofing - more important on something designed to spend its working life outdoors.
There was a district whiff of paraffin prior to the wash, so the pack had clearly been waxed previously.

Fjallraven Greenland Wax
You can try making your own with a mix of bees wax and paraffin, but I had some Fjallraven Greenland wax to hand anyway.

I applied a thin layer all over, but paid particular attention to the seams, bottom and lid - all points that get the most wear / exposure.

You simply warm the wax and rub it in to the canvas as evenly as possible. Once that's done the wax needs drying - I stole the wife's hairdryer and just worked over the pack panel by panel.

It should be good for quite a few Danish winter downpours now.

However you choose to treat your pack, if you're going to be out in inclement weather you'd use a dry bag inside the pack anyway.
When the pack next needs waterproofing, I might try making my own wax and applying it melted with a brush - this is supposed to give a much more even finish.

1950's Swedish Army Rucksack
Tool attachment loops. Not that I have an ice axe, but if I did these would be most useful.

1950's Swedish Army Rucksack
A simple top loading pack with heavy duty draw string closure.
To wear the pack is surprisingly comfortable, and at 40 litres, is perfect as a overnight or weekend bag. There are loops for a bed roll and an ice axe / entrenching tool, so it is definitely still functional in it's original role. I'm not sure I'd want to take it on a long trek though.

With minimal expense, time and effort you can easily bring one of these bags back to life. Why waste money on modern branded examples?

1950's Swedish Army Rucksack
Bed roll or sleeping mat straps .

If you're tempted they are still readily available from Ebay and various surplus stores.


  1. I actually used one of these at Boot camp when I did my national service. They're quite comfortable, as long as you take care when adjusting the straps. But they're not the thing for heavy load, since the load is on your back and not resting on your hip.

  2. Did you guys wear webbing too? I guess it's a similar to our PLCE - worn with webbing the bottom of the bergan rests on it, transferring some of the weight on to your hips.

  3. Good point. Yes, we were issued with US Army WW2 style webbing. I just didn't figure out the trick of using it as a rest for the backpack. No icepick, but we did get a (ww2-era) entrenching tool (AKA: "a spade"). Guess the navy boot camp wasn't very high on the priority list for new equipment!