Stitched and constructed by hand in the USA, and made for backwoods abuse, a Duluth Pack is likely the last canoe backpack you’ll ever have to buy. Its retro styling is an unforeseen bonus.
A short-term review of the Duluth Pack #51 Deluxe doesn’t do it justice. This is a bag that’s better suited for a 30-year review. But we did our best to shove some use and abuse into a two-month test period.
Duluth Pack has been manufacturing canvas bags and backpacks since 1882. Yes, 1882. And the company’s products come with durability that is legendary in the outdoors world.
We got our hands on what is the company’s medium-size utility pack and put it through its paces. This is a smaller version of the kind of Duluth Pack you may have used in the BWCA, Quetico Provincial Park, Algonquin, or portaging in the Adirondacks as a kid.
It should be stated right from the start that the #51 Deluxe — or really any of the Duluth Pack bags — have nothing to do with “performance” in the modern sense.
These bags are built the same way they were in 1882 — by hand — and the company has largely ignored the upgrades made to backpacks over the past 100 years or so in favor of its time-tested design.
As noted, this is a much smaller version of what you might think of as a “duluth pack” in the generic sense. This is not the enormous, 100+ liter canoe pack you might expect.
The #51 Deluxe pack measures about 20 x 18 inches and has a day-pack capacity of about 1,600 cubic inches, or 27 liters.
It is designed for daylong canoe trips or as a small extra pack for overnight paddles. As a bonus, it makes for a stylish “around town” retro pack when not on the water.
The #51 Deluxe has a leather base sewn to waxed-canvas uppers. Its flap closes and secures with two leather straps and brass buckles.
Cotton shoulder straps are riveted in place. It has a single small zipper pocket on the inside. Nothing fancy about it, and in the hand it is almost alarmingly old-school when you’re used to the materials and designs of the current backpack world.
Canoe Trip Test
I set out on a weekend of river canoe camping in northern Minnesota with the Deluxe pack as my main squeeze. I was going light, and it held all the essentials for an overnight trip, but not much more.
Because the #51 Deluxe is made for canoe packing it’s designed to sit lower on the back so as not to interfere with a cross support while portaging a boat. This made it a little awkward with heavy loads and it put a lot of weight on my lower back. I wouldn’t suggest any long day hikes with it carrying much weight.
Water beaded and rolled right off the waxed canvas exterior. I did have a bag liner in case things went south in the canoe, though; it is definitely not waterproof if dropped in a river.
Like anything made with waxed canvas, when exposed to a lot of sun the wax can run off, usually on your hands or anything else it brushes against. Reapplying a coat of wax every couple years keeps the pack water-resistant.
The cotton straps fit comfortably on my shoulders. But with no frame and without anything to help keep the bag’s shape, the weight felt a little dead on my back. The pack isn’t made for hiking anything more than a mile or two, hopefully between lakes and with a canoe over your head.
Duluth Pack really shines with long-term durability. I’ve known owners of Duluth Packs that have had them since the ’60s. They are still in fantastic shape.
When Duluth Pack offers a lifetime guarantee, the company means it. If you manage to wear something out, bring it back and they fix it.
One GearJunkie editor used a few Duluth Packs for his yearly family canoe trips to the Boundary Waters and Quetico during his youth. Those packs took a remarkable amount of abuse and simply shrugged it off.
They were over-loaded, hung in trees loaded with food at night, thrown on rocks, hooked with fishing lures, rained on, and dragged in and out of canoes for months of hard abuse. They never showed signs of wear.
The #51 Deluxe is best if you’re looking for an overnight or day canoe pack that isn’t as monstrous as a standard Duluth Pack. The $145 price seems like a bargain for a hand-built bag, especially once you consider that you’ll have it for many, many years to come.