Made in Duluth, MN: Frost River

frost river Made in the USA waxed canvas

Recently I had the pleasure of catching up with David Hoole of Frost River, supplier of gorgeous and durable camping goods and packs. Based out of Duluth, Minnesota, the folks at Frost River make shoulder bags, canoe packs, bike bags, backpacks, briefcases, luggage, hunting and fishing cases out of tin-cloth, an extra strong waxed cotton canvas that ages beautifully. All bags are assembled by hand at Frost River headquarters which also supports a storefront. Visitors are able to take a peak at the production happening in the very same place. 

How long has Frost River been around? How and when did the company start?

Frost River was started in 2001 by a group of people who had a long history of building canoe packs.  When forced to change methods and practices of manufacturing-- they went out on their own and started Frost River.  They were able to go back to building packs the way they should be made.  

Photo documentation of Frost River's portage from their old work space to their new home at 1910 W Superior Street, Duluth, MN

How important is being located in Minnesota and manufacturing in the USA to the identity of Frost River?

Being located in Northern Minnesota is vitally important to us at Frost River.  Canoe packs are our flagship product.  Being able to build a pack that can be relied on to carry all your gear on a canoe expedition into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is very important to us.  The Northwoods Canoe country is a tough place to exist as a pack.  The bottom of a canoe is usually wet; packs get tossed on the ground at every portage encountered, and they are constantly outside exposed to the elements.  Rocks are everywhere, and always seem to be rough, abrasive, and sharp.  On an expedition, packs are usually overstuffed with odd shaped gear and need to be unquestionably relied upon.  Being able to only survive, but become trusted, over years of abuse, is paramount.  It is what gives us the credibility to make a duffel bag or a briefcase that can be held to the same standard.  Customers, employees, and admirers invest in the reliability proven in the Northwoods… it is ingrained in every item we make.  People like to carry a bag, briefcase, or satchel that reminds them of the utility they appreciated when they were afield, even though they may stuck in town.   Living vicariously through what you carry.

All Frost River products are made in the U.S.A… always have been always will be. It’s automatic, the way it should be.

Where the magic happens; the many talented hands of Frost River at work

How many people are employed by Frost River

There are 14 of us who work at Frost River.  It is a fun atmosphere; we have a new home – this past summer we moved about 12 blocks and are now on the main street in Duluth, just west of downtown.  We work in a big old two story historic building that used to be a furniture store, then a surplus store.  The workshop is directly upstairs of the retail space and the leather working shop is in the back of the store.  As soon as you walk in you can hear action.  The “clicker” that is used to punch out leather pieces from full cow hides shakes the floor when it cycles.  Sewing machines humm upstairs, and the machine riveters announce themselves with a distinct KaChunk…. KaChunk.  When we are in canoe pack production mode the hammering of hand pounding the harness rivets is unmistakable as the burs are set and the rivets pounded over.  They are all distinct and industrious sounds of production that hearken back to earlier modes of production.  

Bags being assembled by hand and the machinery used to make Frost River products

It seems like you've created a fun atmosphere to work in over there at Frost River. It's super cool that your workshop is open to the public to visit so that we can see the effort that goes in to creating your products. How many visitors do you receive? Why is that transparency important to FrostRiver as a company?

Visitors really enjoy getting the chance to stop upstairs and say hi to the people who make the packs and bags.  Also there is equipment that we use every day that people don’t see any more.  Some of the riveting machines are a hundred years old… one is listed as model B.  They are cool old machines that have unique character and make great sounds.

Hand pound rivets being cut after burrs have been set

This may be a bit of a leading question, but... Frost River falls into the category of heritage goods. Have you seen a rise in popularity of your products in recent years and do you think that is a result of the economic times we live in? I read somewhere that people are more willing to spend more money on items that will last or have guarantees as opposed to cheaply manufactured goods that will come apart due to the current economic uncertainty.

Many of our packs and bags can be considered “Heritage” and the fact that heritage styling is considered popular right now is great for business.  It doesn’t change what we do, but it has meant that we are staying busy.  I think customers appreciate the styling and durability built into our products whether they have plans to utilize their reliability in the wilderness or if they are buying them just to be trendy.   All of our products carry a lifetime guarantee on the craftsmanship of the packs and bags.  In unstable economic times it is nice to offer the reassurance to customers who can buy something once and know it will last.  I think our guarantee is something that customers seek out and appreciate-- the fact that it fits into our business plan can make for an easy decision.

Frost River packs in action, ready for a 10 day trip

Showing off the goods: the Bushcraft family...Isle Royale, New Summit Expedition, and smaller kit bags.

Your products are guaranteed for life ensuring that your products can become heirlooms. Have you seen any gear that has been kicking around a family for generations? What is the oldest item you've come across?

We haven’t been around long enough to come across any true Frost River heirlooms that have come back for repair.  We occasionally get some repair work caused by normal wear and tear on some of our original 10 year old packs.  We are happy to fix any of our packs; sometimes it is fixing a failed zipper, other times it’s patching an axe wound (to the pack, not the wearer).  So sometimes the repair is free, other times at a small cost.  There have been some really old packs in for repair from other manufacturers. They are truly historic heirlooms and it gives us all a good feeling to keep an old friend in working order and keep it in service.  We build packs that can and will last a lifetime and can be passed through generations…. many are still serviceable and it’s good we can keep them that way.

One of our newest daypacks, the Geologist, is modeled after a pack carried by a real working geologist who sought Iron Ore in northern Minnesota, Michigan, and Ontario in the 1940’s and 50’s.  His pack was passed down to his son who brought it to us for minor repair, and we liked it so much we designed our own reproduction and it is available now as the “Geologist Bushcraft Daypack”.

In a time of outsourcing American manufacturing, we need to keep the tradition alive of crafting durable packs and bags so we don’t forget how to build something that can last.  There are perishable skills needed to build reliability in a pack, and if they aren’t practiced and taught, a craft will disappear from our culture.  Craftsmanship is important in our society.  Being able to built quality items with our hands and using machines are important to keep our American identity alive and our integrity intact.  We at Frost River all like making stuff, and the fact that people want to buy the products we create is wonderful.  We are all truly thankful to the customers who spend a little more to buy American made items.  Thank you to our customers around the world who buy our products and thank you to the retailers like Revolver who help spread the word of pride in American craftsmanship.

James Bond totes a Frost River pack! Actor Daniel Craig was spotted wearing the Nessmuk model in New York City, September 2011. Photo courtesy of

All photos courtesy of Frost River

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  • Brian Parr on

    Any word or more thought’s about the bedroll or log cot going into production. I’m looking for one of each, but I can wait until you start to make them. Please keep me posted. Thanks Mark love your product.

  • Oakley Holbrook Replacement Lenses Grey Polarized on

    Good post. I previousally to spend alot of my time water skiing and watching sports. It was quite possible the best sequence of my past and your content kind of reminded me of that period of my life. Cheers
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  • Mark Henderson on

    I have an old Frost River Woodsman Pack and a shell bag I bought maybe 10 years ago. I bought my wife, a teacher, a couple of Frost River bags to her books and papers to and from school. Recently I bought a Frost River Knapsack to carry while I’m snowshoeing. Great bags,,,

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