Kelty Packs-- Another Southern California Pioneer (2 pages)



A. I. "Dick" Kelty is the man behind the bigger-than-life Kelty brand. Mr. Kelty was a humble carpenter who began to make packs with aluminum frames in his home in California in the very early 1950s, with the help of his wife Nena... Thus, within the history of gear, Kelty started as another home-based husband/wife team, just like GERRY, like Holubar, and like Stephenson's Warmlite....Mr. Kelty's first year of real business was in 1952, when he sold 29 packs, and they were all in olive drab color since they all used WW II leftover parachute pack fabric! (business card image credit goes to Mr. Kelty's son Richard Kelty, who sent me one of his father's original business cards).... As an international footnote, I will add that there has always been simultaneous independent inventing going on within the History and Evolution of outdoor gear. A case in point is the fact that in Sweden the frame pack was "invented" in 1950 by Ake Nordin, the man who was to become the founder of the still-thriving Swedish company Fjallraven (Arctic Fox in English).

My own first "real" pack was a no-name frame pack in a greenish fabric of some kind, but definitely not the renowned Kelty nylon (click here to see my pack in action circa 1965)...... By the mid-1970s, I proudly owned a Kelty BB5 pack. My shoulders and hips still recall backpacking into the Tetons in 1978, proudly hefting a 76 pound pack, fully half my weight! Those Keltys easily provided the capacity to go "Mega-weight" rather than "Ultra-light."

The picture above shows Dick and his wife Nena with two key staff. The picture below shows Dick Kelty in his element, cheerfully helping a group of backpackers! In the background one can see a classic green Kelty frame pack. The picture was taken in 1977 at Lake Arrowhead, California. Bruce Wagner, who was National Sales Manager for Kelty from 1968-1978, supplied this account, "the two young hikers in your 1977 picture of Dick Kelty are Carl Siechert (left) and Norm Switzer. Carl is my brother-in-law. He and Norm and another friend, Bill Berg, were two weeks into a South-to-North thru-hike of the PCT. They were testing equipment for Kelty and, in that capacity, quickly became known on the trail as the "Kelty Kids". On the weekend of April 16-17, 1977, Dick and Nena Kelty came to our home in Lake Arrowhead, California, to intercept the boys for an equipment debriefing. Your picture was actually taken by Bill Berg in the family room of our home."......... Click here for a picture of Mr. Kelty with the founders of Sierra Designs, with whom he sat in about 1979 for a publicity event for "CML" Group.... Mr. Kelty's reputation was sterling, Warmlite's founder Jack Stephenson, who knew him personally, fondly told me, "Dick Kelty was the best-ever innovator and super fair salesman, helpful far beyond any others."


Dick Kelty within The History of Gear was a part of what I call the California group of early pioneers; others from that same time frame include Jack Stephenson of Warmlite, and Ralph Andy Drollinger* of A16 Packs..... Mr. Kelty was known as an inventor and a person who always genuinely "walked his talk" as a true outdoorsman. Many grant him the title of the "father of the frame pack." Although some dispute some of the claims, what is certainly true is that he had many innovations in backpack design that improved weight-carrying and improved comfort. Some claim that he introduced the first aluminum frame backpack, the first waist-belt, the first padded shoulder straps, the first nylon pack-bag, the first zippered pockets, the first hold-open bar; and the first use of clevis pins. Whether he was truly "first" in all these categories I cannot say, but what is most certainly true is that Mr. Kelty was a giant among the gear pioneers, and through his efforts gave backpacking an early and long-continued boost into the national consciousness of the United States. (* Mr. Drollinger contributed some of the information on this page)

Why Keep Your Old Frame Pack? The following is quoted from the catalog of Moor and Mountain, a retailer near Boston which has been in business since 1966 and seen many gear trends come and go. I believe this quote is to be attributed to Al French: "Internal frames have much to offer backcountry skiers, winter campers, and high angle climbers. They allow what one calls a "live load", riding closer to the back and therefore the wearer's center of gravity. However, the backpacking industry (including most retail outlets) have unfairly designated external frame backpacks as obsolete artifacts from the Jurassic Age of outdoor equipment. In Al's opinion -- drawing from his and other folks' experience -- an external frame is more efficient for carrying a heavy load over long relatively flat distances; and, in almost all cases, an external frame pack is significantly less expensive, lighter, easier to load properly and is also far better ventilated for summer use. So don't throw your old Kelty D4 in the trash." Andy Drollinger, founder of A16 packs, agrees wholeheartedly with this statement, please click here to see some of his comments about Kelty..... Note: it is rumored that A16 has on display, in one of their seven stores, one or two of the very earliest Kelty packs. Ask if you are visiting A16, and please report back to me with the details and a picture or two! (Contact Me)

The Current Status of the man and pioneer company

Asher "Dick" Kelty passed away in January, 2004 at his home in Glendale, California of natural causes. He was born in September, 1919 in Duluth, Minnesota....Instead of a memorial services, he issued now-famous words encouraging everyone to "go take a hike." ..... His company lives on and seems to be thriving. Better yet, his wife Nena still publishes books about how to backpack! Her most germane is "Backpacking the Kelty Way" (pub 2000), and her latest is titled: "My Father was Carmen Miranda: Memoirs of an English Showgirl" (pub. 2008)... . Below is a recent picture of her, at a bookstore signing. Nena Jover Kelty.

Kelty, page two, pictures of circa 1970 Kelty D4 and BB5 frame packs

Trapper Nelson Pack Board packs, since 1924: a true icon

Remarkably different than the Kelty company has been the business course of former associate/rival, the small custom gearmaker Stephenson's Warmlite, which has survived, stayed tiny, and never changed its name or ownership in some 40 years of doing business! A little-known fact in the History of Gear is that Stephenson was selling a frame pack with a fully-padded waist belt system more than ten years before Kelty packs had them!

BOOK ALERTS: My first book in a series about The History of Gear was about Frostline Kits. Please visit my FROSTLINE PAGE (click here) for a link to order it, or to view a free 15 page PDF preview. The second book was released May 20, 2008 and is titled, "GERRY, To Live in the Mountains" (click here). The third book of the series covers the story of Holubar (an early business partner of Kelty); that book was released November 2009. My fourth book is "MSR, Defying Tradition and is about the early days of Mountain Safety Research (MSR)... My fifth book is about Stephenson's Warmlite, Jack Stephenson an early pack maker who knew Dick Kelty personally. Later, I will pull together several related gear companies into one book, among them A16 and probably Kelty.

Please Note: All Material above, and in all my "History of Gear" webpages, is copyrighted, and no usage of my material is permitted unless explicit permission is granted by me, Bruce B. Johnson, owner of ... Editors: Please contact me at if you have interest in publishing....Others: if you were involved with one of the old-line, vintage gear companies and have a story to tell in these pages, please contact me soon.


Main Page: Essays and pictures about the Pioneers of the Outdoor Gear Revolution, 1935-The Present, 45+ pages, five history of gear books completed, and new material always being added!

Holubar, in Colorado, was a very early business partner with Dick Kelty

Late 1950s: Kelty store carries its first down bags, ultralight bags made by Jack Stephenson of Stephenson's Warmlite

A16 (Adventure 16), another innovative pack company working on improving Kelty's original packs during the 1960s

Roy and Alice Holubar were friends of Dick Kelty and Dick's first wholesale account was with the Holubar Stores!


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Page last revised 11/02/2023