Going Lighter Guide — Packs: Introduction

So, it is time to go where every blogger dreads — into gear. Any venture into writing about gear is fraught with danger. People are fiercely loyalty their favourite piece of kit and manufacturer; many seem happy to sit at either extremes of a spectrum of experience and opinion with little respect for the spaces in between; and in my experience some people seem to post comments — to be frank — when they are pissed.

But awards we must go and start talking about packs and we will just have to do our best to ignore the keyboard warriors and pundits, especially the drunken ones!

The pack is one of the most important items for any backpacker and it will almost certainly represent a major purchase. However, if you are on a lightweight journey you may find yourself changing your pack my regularly than some of you other gear. I’m concise that readers will be at different places in their journeys. Some will be just thinking about making their first moves, while others may have done that and are thinking about going lighter still. So, I shall share my thoughts across two posts, the first will look at lighter packs and he second will focus on what — of the sake of a description — I will call ultralight packs. These categories will be quite broad, necessarily so as the lightweight experience is very different depending on the terrain you hike in and, of course, the climate.

The Thing About Pack Weight

Of course, when we talk about pack weight we are talking about the pack and its contents. Over the years I have found that packs become ‘comfortable’ at around 2 to 1.5 kilograms (4.5 to 3 lb.). As I mentioned already a heavier pack may be very stable on good, flatfish, paths but can be a nightmare when you are navigating rougher ground, for example when scrambling a little. One the weight of the pack itself goes below 1 kilogram (2 lb.) things get easier to. But your first considerations are not just about weight.

Weight and Volume

If you are starting out on your journey you are probably not in the position to change all of your gear in one go — if you are, well, congratulations! Think abut the gear that you will be putting in your pack. Heavier gear tends to be bulkier; a synthetic sleeping bag will almost certainly be more difficult to compress than a good down sleeping bag. So, your pack has to cope with the tea that you have to put in it! Ideally, your shelter should also fit inside — strapping your tent to the outside of your pack can create problems (certainly in UK weather) and can cause you to feel more unstable over rough ground. Some shelters — even single person shelters — can be bulky.

The weight of your pack is often not determined by the fabric used. True, when you are looking at lightweight gear fabrics need to combine lighter weight with toughness, but in many mainstream packs weight comes from elsewhere.

Suspension Systems/Frames/Accessories

Frames and suspension systems can be heavy. These are almost always promoted with promises about how the system distributes the weight, adds greater comfort, how that large hip belt is contoured to fit your hips (or in some cases can be heat moulded to your actual hips in a store).

Now, I don’t want to dismiss all of this stuff. Some of these innovations are important. However, over the years I have owned and used a number of packs and am extremely suspicious of many of these claims. When you are carrying a heavy load — say food and water — a heavy pack is, well, a damn heavy pack. When things are heavy I’m not sure you really notice that innovative back system; a system that allows you to adjust straps and belt so you can change the load bearing from your shoulder to your hips and back again as you go is probably more important.

Put simply some of these elaborate frame and support systems are simply adding more weight without much benefit.

How Do You Want to Use Your Pack?

Another major factor indoor choice will be your own hiking preference. If you like doing overnights but not longer trail walks then you can probably get away with carrying more weight. If your goal is a single overnight wild camp you might want to max out on the camping experience and I guess take more equipment with you. If you are tackling longer, multi-day hikes, then you will certainly benefit from a lighter pack.

On a long hike our pack has to be versatile. It needs to be comfortable at a decent base weight but it might have to carry quite a bit of food and water and this can increase the weight of your load substantially. The key here is comfort and there may or may not be a relationship with weight.

My favourite pack weighs around 600 grams (under 1.5lb.). It is frameless but I can slip a foam sleeping back in the back to give it a bit more stiffness. I have another pack from another leading lightweight manufacturer that weighs 100 grams less — 500 grams (just over 1lb.). My favourite pack has belt pockets attached — without these it weighs more or less the same as the second. My favourite pack has a capacity of 58 Litres. The second pack has a capacity of 38 litres. Two lightweight packs with the same weight but different capacity.

When looking at these two packs there is a second issue of functionality. When I bought the second pack I bought it as a day or overnight pack. As a pack it is sleeker and doesn’t need as much compression as the first and larger pack. But in practice this second pack is quite difficult to load, especially when you are trying to load even a light load in pouring rain.

So, two packs with a similar weight but very different functionality. I use the second now as a day pack or to take shopping. I never use it as an overnight because — in UK weather — it simply doesn’t cut the mustard.

What Load Can It Cope With?

This is, perhaps, the most significant question to ask or research. For the sake of argument I will focus bak on the two packs above.

Most manufacturers will give you a maximum carrying capacity/weight. My favourite pack is rated at 8-12 Kg (18-25 lb.) and the second rated at more or less the same, 9 – 12 kg (20-25 lb.).

Understanding all of this is all about key differences. The first pack capacity is 58 litres and the second pack’s is 38 litres. All other things being equal you can see why the first pack is easier to load in terrible weather — it just has more space.  The next question would be whether the first and larger pack can be strapped down to comfortable hold a much smaller load. If it can — and in my case it can — then this pack will always be abetter option for multi-day hikes.

Heavier Packs

I have used two of my own lighter weight packs as an example here. But let’s have a look at my heaviest pack. This weighs 1.3 kilograms, so double the weight of the favourite. Its volume is larger, 75 litres. Its maximum load is rated at 18 kg (39 lb.) which is a margin more capable. But do I ever use it?

The answer is no. I can usually cope with the lighter pack and its overall pack weight. Even when this favourite is pushed hard it is no more uncomfortable as the heavy load pack.  Load the heavy pack towards its limit and it becomes very uncomfortable.

So, work out how you will be using the pack. And then start thinking about the weight and crying capacity you will need.

But How Do I Choose?

How would you be able to discover the difference between my two featured packs without have to buy and use both?

This is where your research comes in. The internet is very helpful in terms of independent reviews. But are these views really independent? This, I think, is becoming more of a problem as so much moves to YouTube. Across many activities manufacturers are now wise to the power of the internet review, supplying YouTubers with free ‘review’ samples. I’ll leave it up to you to decide if this is a good thing or not or something to be more suspicious about. To be fair this is only a development of a long standing practice where manufacturers fly over reviewers to the alps of somewhere for a weekend to allow them to try out the gear, and no doubt sample hospitality at the same time. Does this skew reviews? Again you must make up your own mind.

Honest Sources of Advice and Guidance

You should look at those gear testers/journalists who have been doing things for a long time and who are noted for walking and hiking. Covering outdoor shows with a press pass with the Outdoors Station for many years I have met a fair few reviewers. Read their reviews and you would think they are always out doing exciting things when maybe they are predominantly walking up a local hill with their dog. I won’t compare magazines but some are better than others.

I will mention TGO magazine and their long standing gear tester Chris Townsend. They may not review every piece of whizz gear that goes around but the views of people like Chris can be trusted. If you haven’t checked out Chris’ own personal website do so. There is more stuff on gear here than can be featured in the magazine

And then there is still a place for a specialist dealer and this is especially true when you are starting of to move to lighter weight gear for the first time.

Local Dealers

If you are lucky you will have access to a good dealer. Near to me I have one of the biggest branded retail stores. The manager here — or one of the senior staff — is an outdoor enthusiast. He has moved around the stores over the years and I know from conversations over the years that he is bother a climber and hiker, is out often and in the Scottish Highlands once a year. I discovered all of this by talking to him, not just about gear but about how he uses it himself. You can soon suss out whether people are experienced themselves by talking about wild camping, your own expeditions, holidays and so on.

You may also find great dealers in outdoor centres such as Betws-y-Coed in Snowdonia (try Stewart Cunningham), the Lake District, Fort William, Glasgow and so on. The odds are that people here will be spend more time on the hills than, say, somebody in a large discount warehouse in the home counties or Covent Garden.

Online Dealers

If you are not lucky enough to have easy access to a good dealer the you can still get great service online.

I shall declare an interest in pointing to backpacking light.co.uk in that Bob and Rose Cartwright are personal friends but I have no financial interest in their business. You may think their range is a bit limited and that is deliberately so. They stock a range of products that they think are good value and that are effective. Both Bob and Rose regularly hike with their own products and can speak for experience.

A good dealer like this will also be happy to spend time talking to you on the phone and effectively build up a relationship with them. They will be particularly helpful when discussing the functionality of pack. They are unlikely to recommend something on the basis of marketing hype and they tend not to stock very expensive stuff  (where most of the expense coms from the bells and whistles rather than the basics).

There are other online dealers to explore as well. Ultralight Outdoors, for example, carries a bigger range of specialist gear especially from the USA. Of course, this is a premium price and you need to do your research on this more specialist gear. Some of the other operations will often advertise gear that somehow often seems to be out of stock at the moment or currently being shipped. You may take this as a point of caution but, again, speak to them on the phone of by email and get into a proper conversation — they will be able to suggest alternatives.

 

So, In Conclusion …

  • Be very clear about your hiking needs. Resist the temptation to over-cook things; you want a product that works for you rather than the you that you might dream you might become!
  • Consider practicality and functionality along with price;
  • Take marketing blurb with a big pinch of salt — do those innovative features simply add weight?
  • Don’t worry about fashion! Designs are refreshed or replace on a cycle of one year to two years — a good dealer will be able to post you in the direction of last year’s gear which might be more affordable but just as functional;
  • True and develop an ongoing dialogue or relationship with your dealer of manufacturer — even in the case of specialists in the USA or Europe you can build up a decent conversation by email or today even Zoom.
Next we will look at the lighter packs category.

Comments

  1. Very thoughtful piece Andy, but your proof reader needs sacking!

    • I know; you wouldn’t beleive the number of times I have tried to sack myself.

      Much of the time I’m writing big and heavy things. This blogging is a bit of an antidote and I tend just to rely onthe spell and grammar checker — I think the mistakes add a certain character to everything 😉

  2. Andy thanks for this thought provoking piece. I’m assuming your packs are from smaller independent manufacturers? I don’t know a bigger company making packs that light. I’ve been wondering about replacing my OMM Villain, but most similar size and spec packs are heavier (my Villain is 795g after a bit of weight reducing work). I’m probably jumping the gun and you’ll tell all in your next post?

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