Lockable Backpack Zippers
Vancouver, United States
Replacing the zippers on my new backpack with a lockable variety—a tale of frustration and success.
I had my mind made up, I was going to replace my current top-loading backpack with a (front) panel-loading model. These types of backpacks allow for full access to the primary compartment of the pack, unzipping like a book bag a student would carry, thereby eliminating the need to dig through layers of gear to retrieve something.
I am skilled in the art of layering my backpack—it's not balanced for distance walks, but ordered in a variable hierarchy of need and use. I've grown weary of this sensitive layering process though, and believed my reprieve would come in the form of a panel-loader.
My father and I spent the better part of a day visiting every outdoor/hiking/surplus store in the greater Portland metropolitan area, searching for backpacks. The problem here in the U.S. is that our backpacks are actually designed for the traditional concept of backpacking—hiking, camping, etc—and not for traveling. I don't believe this to be the case in Europe, the UK, Australia (and so forth), as the idea of nomadic travel with backpacks instead of suitcases is a much stronger part of the culture—especially for the youth.
My trusted, medium-sized Kelty Moraine 3600 has a capacity of about 59 liters. Every single panel-loading backpack that my dad and I found was no larger than 30–35 liters (closer to that of a day-bag than a primary backpack), save another Kelty, the Redwing 3100 (which offered close to 52 liters of space). The Redwing it would be—but there was a catch: The zippers couldn't be locked.
Again, backpacks in this country are trail-packs, and it seemed that most every major brand has redesigned their bags for 2007 without the traditional metal zipper pulls, replacing them completely with nylon cord. I have no doubt these pulls are easier to use, and less prone to breaking the delicate pot-metal that the zippers are made out of, but it leaves travelers without any way to lock the pack compartments.
I saw a few design flaws with the Redwing, but decided it wasn't anything that a few Thai baht and a seamstress couldn't fix. The major concern was the zippers, as the pack would completely useless to me if I couldn't keep thieving hands out of it.
The search turned to backpack and luggage repair stores that could replace the zippers with the lockable variety you might find on suitcases and duffel bags. I felt like a pinball, bouncing around greater Portland, going from one store to the next. One store claimed they could get what I wanted, but in a week (I didn't have such time); in another a 35-year-old zipper repair veteran lectured me about the futility of locking zippers, and the lack of durability the weak pot-metal provided; while yet another told me to return the pack, as replacing the zippers would be 100% impossible without also replacing the track they ran on.
Apparently the YKK brand (that makes the zippers for my Kelty pack) likes to redesign the mechanism and track every few years to thwart counterfeiters. My zipper, a YKK RCz, was so new on the market repair shops won't even bother stocking replacement parts for them (as none were likely enough to come back for repair for several years). Finding them for sale online would likewise be next to impossible—especially for the type that can be padlocked together.
I couldn't replace the zippers, I wasn't going to replace the zipper tracks, and I couldn't even get a shop to insert a traditional metal zipper pull instead of the nylon cord (as prying up the pot-metal finger to insert it would snap it off). I was, for lack of a better word, screwed.
I had been running around to these various repair outfits alone, and called dad to give him the troubling news. He suggested I run over to Home Depot, a popular chain of do-it-yourself construction stores, to see what I could come up with. He also suggested looking into the vinyl-coated cabling that bike locks are made out of.
Home Depot carried a small enough gage of the plastic-coated wire rope to slip through the zipper where Kelty's nylon cord was. Creating a small loop on each zipper was done using an aluminum "Ferrule and Stop Set," crimping them with a special tool and cutting the excess off. Later a table-grinder was used to remove any protruding cable.
I pretty much got kicked out of the Home Depot, though. I was being bad and doing the entire assembly in the middle of the isle—using the wire-cutting machinery that was marked "for employee use only," as well as the US$30 crimping tool without purchasing it. But I didn't really see the point, as I'd use it in the parking lot and just return it away—and I needed the wire cutter.
I got a lot further than I expected—just one crimp away from completion before staff confronted me. …I just went to another Home Depot and finished the job.
Not only did I create these secure little loops of steel cable that I can run a padlock through, but I also used a larger gage of the stuff to create the cable I'll be using to secure my pack to something solid (so that it doesn't walk away without me), instead of the Pacsafe wire mesh I've been carrying around for my Moraine 3600.
Total cost for the homemade steel zipper loops (four) and one homemade security cable: US$5.13.