FirstSpear TV

Q&A – Pack Designer Mel Terkla

I caught up with iconic pack and outdoor gear designer Mel Terkla, and he shared a few insights into his remarkable life and career of designing rugged packs capable of filling tactical, hunting, and everyday carry (EDC) roles.  Anyone who knows Mel well should already knows he is remarkably humble and an American patriot.  And yes, he’ll still let a modern sport bike unwind every now and then.

SSD: You’re a Vietnam era veteran, yet you still ride a crotch rocket every now and then. Does the missus ever ask you to settle down?

MT: That would be a big no!  We’ve been together for 39 years and she got used to my risk taking from the beginning and knows that’s just who I am! I grew up in the country and was always climbing trees, having slingshot fights, riding my little Honda 50 in the apple orchards and the creek, and all the other crazy things kids in the country did back in the 50’s and 60’s!

I started racing motorcycles on dirt tracks right out of high school and actually planned on going pro until Vietnam and the draft came along, and decided to enlist. My dad joined the Navy when he was 16 and in his third week of boot camp Pearl Harbor was bombed and he was shipped out spending 4 years in the South Pacific! So growing up I always knew I would be joining the Navy when the time came.

I enlisted in Jun ‘68 and went to a Radioman A school in San Diego. I requested Vietnam service on the PBR’s in the Mekong Delta as that’s where the action was for the Navy in Vietnam (not counting the SEAL teams)! I already had a friend I grew up with at this time  killed in action and I wanted to serve in the war as my dad did. No social media back then and as a young kid from a small town, I didn’t know anything about the world and just wanted to do my part in the war.  I got my orders to Vietnam, but at a commsta (communications station) in a relatively safe area. It would be considered a green zone today. No humping the bush or firefights, just the occasional rocket and mortar attack. Made some great lifelong friends in 69/70 on that tour and wouldn’t trade that for anything.

After I got out of the Navy I started riding sport bikes and still do to this day with no plans on giving it up anytime soon…motorcycles are in my blood! My wife knows the risks I take as I ride at a very spirited pace, and even though I’m a very experienced rider, bad things can happen if your number comes up!

I also worked in a logging crew for 6 years as a chokersetter, an extremely dangerous job and physically demanding…my wife really didn’t like me doing this but knew it was part of me! I had done some logging work when I was younger, but I started this job when I was 46 years old and worked until I was 52…in those 6 years I was in the best shape of my life! Most chokersetters are in their 20’s before moving on or becoming a catskinner or faller, but my boss loved my gung ho, no quit attitude on the job!

I never got to be a spec ops type guy in the military, but have loved danger and adrenaline rush situations my whole life…and my wife always supports me!

SSD: I read your interview over at, and even when activity was higher at the Lightfighter forums and you were a regular there, I could sense that you were more about quality materials, efficient design, etc., compared to gadgets or marketing hype. How far back did you design your first piece of gear?

MT: I’ve always enjoyed designing gear or coming up with ways to improve the various types of gear…packs, LBV, chest rigs, belt orders, and accessories for such!  My second choice design passion would be clothing, but have not entered that field yet…stay tuned to the future for that!

I designed my first official piece of gear in the early 90’s! I called it the SlingStack System, and it came from seeing the police shotguns being carried in patrol cars. Most of them that I saw at the time were running slings that could easily catch on a multitude of items in the patrol cars when exiting, which is the last thing you want when responding to an active shooter situation! My design allowed you to carry the sling stacked in a nylon pocket attached to the buttstock of the shotgun that could be deployed quickly if a sling was needed, yet kept the sling secure and out of the way for those quick exits!

I contacted a company back then called B.E.A.M. Co. that was owned by an LA County Sheriff deputy named Charlie Araujo. We met in person and he liked the design and purchased the rights to it for his company! Unfortunately, they went out of business before it could be produced.

Then in 1996 I designed a mag carrier for HK MP5 magazines, as that was the weapon of choice for entry teams at the time.

SSD: You had a long run over at Kifaru, and quite a few folks were happy to see you transition to Wolfpack gear a couple of years ago, for design work on their line of packs. How did that transition go?

MT: I hooked up with Kifaru in Jan 2002. There I helped start their Military/Tactical line of packs and accessories! I designed all the packs, pockets, and accessories for that line in the 12 1/2 years I was there until mid 2014. I also designed the Kifaru Woobie which became the biggest seller of the whole line…there’s a funny story how that happened! I was pretty much given carte blanche on design for the tactical line from Patrick the owner.  It was a fun run!

In Dec 2015 I hooked up with Wolfpack Gear in San Luis Obispo, CA to design a line of Tactical/Adventure packs. They made gear for wildland firefighters and that was their primary customer, but had no experience in other markets. I designed 8 packs and a modular frame system in the 2 years I was with them, but only one pack made it to production! Right in the beginning they wanted me to design a medic pack for firefighters before starting on the Tactical/Adventure packs, so I got that done and then went to work on the other designs.

After 2 years, I left Wolfpack at the beginning of this year Jan 2018. Luckily, I found out the designs are still mine after talking to an attorney.  I have updated changes for all the packs I designed to make them even better, and I’m now just searching for the right manufacturer willing to produce them!

SSD: What has you staying busy these days?

MT: In the meantime, my wife and I decided to start a small home business making pockets for packs…PocketUp! That’s going really well, and we hope to grow it into a business that supports us with no intention of getting rich…we live the simple life.  Obviously, we can’t do huge runs and won’t be doing large

technical packs, but there should be some cool stuff down the line!

SSD: Pack design, materials, and pricing have experienced a tumultuous ride over the past nearly 20 years. What do you think the future holds?

MT: Pack design, materials, and pricing for the future? I think you will see pack design get back to being simpler and less technical…kind of like the old quote “what’s old is new”! I could be wrong, but I believe you will see less and less  PALS webbing in the future! There has been lots of innovation in materials, and I think in the future you will see lighter materials that have the same rugged properties as 1000d Cordura. Not quite there yet, but on the horizon maybe! Unfortunately, pricing will continue to be an issue in the future, especially anything Made in the USA…hence the quest for going back to simpler designs!

SSD: Have you ever looked up to other past designers as a role model?

MT: Past designers as role models? I look up to the guys that were the pioneers of internal and external framed packs with mountaineering grade suspension from back in the 70’s.  Dick Kelty, Wayne Gregory, the Lowe brothers, Dan McHale, Dana Gleason, and a Patrick Smith to name a few! I admit to being a little prejudiced, but I believe Patrick Smith to be the wizard of suspension! I also believed in his philosophy on how to build and market gear.

After he sold Mountainsmith in 1995 and started Kifaru in 1997, he went to direct sales and no dealers! He explained it to me in detail when I started with Kifaru. When you use dealers and your packs are up on the wall in the stores, then the manufacturers have to keep up with the Joneses. If brand X has a new doohickey on their packs, then the others have to keep up and add doohickeys to their packs and it just turns into a round-robin! I could point this out to you if we went to say, an REI store or maybe the Outdoor Retailer Show, where all the packs look basically the same! That’s something you can’t say about Kifaru or Mystery Ranch packs, for example!

On the marketing side, I respect Patrick and Kifaru to keep everything Made in the USA, no matter the challenge of high end pricing! Like I said, suspension is Kifaru’s forte and is a Kifaru suspension is the best I have ever experienced. Patrick was always a firm believer that you didn’t need super thick shoulder straps and waistbelts, just the proper shape and construction! A pack waistbelt should have the ability to wrap the iliac crest and cup it on the top and bottom with no gaps! You cannot do this with plastic sheeting or other similar items that you see being used on most packs on the REI wall. If you have the correct size, shape, and wrap on a waistbelt, you can support 100lb+ loads easily!

SSD: Are there any young guns out there who are pushing the boundaries of innovation?

MT: First off, as an old guy, young guns to me could be in their 40s! The Hill brothers from HPG, Bryan Black from ITS Tactical, Joel Zaruba from Zulu Nylon Gear, and Stephen Hilliard from Blue Force Gear, are a few guys I know that are excellent designers and are far from finished pushing the boundaries of innovation.

SSD: Considerations for jackets, footwear, hats, and watches tend to go hand-in-hand.  What is your go-to brand in each category?

MT: I really like jackets from the UK and have several from Snugpak, Buffalo Systems, Arktis, and an old company SASS. I also have several of the older Kifaru Packlock Parkas that are in a league of their own. In footwear I like Salomon, Vasque, and Merrells…or I should say my feet like them! When it comes to hats, I live out of simple ball caps…no preference there. I’m a simple guy and not into expensive watches to be fashionable, and I wear Timex or Casio watches that are relatively inexpensive, yet do not fail me! Unlike most fashionable city boys, my watches have always taken a beating in blue collar jobs! You might be too young to remember the old Timex commercials on TV and the slogan “Timex can take a lickin’ and keep on tickin”, and it is still true today. I’d be real curious to see how those high end watches would hold up when setting chokers in a logging crew…my Timex never failed me. To finish this off, I will say that a clothing company I can heartily endorse is RailRiders! I live out of RailRiders gear and am like a walking advertisement for them. John D is the owner and friend of mine, and a good dude.

SSD: What sort of advice would you give to a friend who was looking for a 3-day pack for use in the back-country, but might also want to employ it as a carry-on for a short weekender?

MT: I would say a Kifaru Late Season, which is no longer made, but worth searching out. It is the hunting version of the Pointman that I designed, but with no PALS webbing. It’s a great suspension!

Jon Custis is a veteran Marine infantryman who writes on a variety of tactical equipment, training, and leadership topics.

11 Responses to “Q&A – Pack Designer Mel Terkla”

  1. J.V. says:

    Legend right here!

  2. MM says:

    Great interview of a great guy! Thanks for posting this.

  3. Bill says:

    Mel is one of the reasons I invested in Kifaru gear! I will be checking out his new gear

  4. Chucker says:

    Damn that’s cool! Happy to see there’s an outlet for all that innovation!

  5. DF says:

    Awesome Story about an amazing designer! Nice work guy’s! You nailed it!

  6. Torch says:

    Mel is one of the greats. I remember when I first got into Kifaru and the customer service line was his cell phone and you could tell that he just lived for being outside and getting real feedback. His stuff served me well through every deployment and is still going strong.

  7. DS says:

    Mel is quality people, and so is Jon Custis. I love this article, it’s a couple of great individuals with real experience, discussing gear. Hard to go wrong with that. I met Mel before he went to work for Kifaru, and can tell you through all that time, he remains incredibly humble, and the kind of guy to give you the shirt off his back.

  8. AbnMedOps says:

    Great to see Mel is still hard at it! His design influence continues to be far reaching, and his advice was always sound. And he’s a good guy!

  9. Willsew4kit says:

    excellent article. I would learn much from him.

  10. Jeff Wemmer says:

    Known Mel for years! Always great to see a deserving individual get some recognition.

    Mel’s DNA is scattered all over this industry – There’s no doubt that our Warriors have benefited from his unique and straightforward design ethos!

    This is part of what makes America great – Folks like Mel’s stepping up and contributing their life’s experiences for the greater good of all!

    Keep rock’n Mel!


  11. Rob Collins says:

    Mel’s pack designs are most of the load carrying gear I have. My kids will benefit too, as will the Scouts I lead and their parents. Just talked my Pack Treasurer into a Kifaru Late Season. Glad to see I’m not the only one who appreciates Mel, thanks for this article, and the chance for people who feel the same to have a chance to say it. Mel’s success flows to anyone who uses his gear; he’s generous with help when he can lend it, and with his enthusiastic acknowledgement of others strengths.

    I’m proud to call you a friend, Mel, though we’ve never met face to face.