Going Lighter Guide Packs II

So, back to packs. In this post I’m looking at try ‘mid-light’ range which may well be where most people land. By ‘mid-light’ I mean packs that weigh around 1.5 kilograms (around 3lbs) to just over 1 kilogram and have a capacity of around 50-60 litres. This capacity should accommodate most backpackers who are careful in their choice of supporting gear.

The choice in this range has mushroomed since I first wrote this guide ten years ago —or was it 15? Many mainstream manufacturers have now realised there is mileage in promoting lighter weight designs using lighter-weight materials. At the other end of the scale many of the ultra light producers have offerings here, I guess as a way of enticing people in and helping them gain confidence in lighter weight  materials. 

While it is good to see some real movement from the big boys a look around current offerings has surprised me a little. One of the major global player I looked at was, possibly, the first major producer to make a really good mainstream, lighter, pack. It would seem churlish to mention names as I could have used a number of different examples. The pack I am thinking of had — I seem to remember — a capacity of 50-60 litres and weighed about 1.6 kilograms. Their current equivalent offering in this range shouts 45 litres, because theses clearly ‘better’ than 60. However, the weight of this pack is now up to 2 kilograms.

You might argue that if this slightly heavier pack is more comfortable to wear than it is worth the weight penalty, after all comfort is very important on long walks. But when you’ve gone though this lightweight journey yourself it is pretty evident that 1 kilogram presents quite a difference from 2 kilograms. I mentioned in the introduction to this series that I can really tell a difference when total pack weight drops below 10 kilograms. If you can drop a whole kilogram in pack weight it gives you a bit more latitude for variation elsewhere.

So, for what it is worth I would be looking at a capacity of about 50 litres or so at a weight of maybe 1.2 kilograms. This is a pretty mainstream and reasonably conservative design objective these days.

Weight in pack is design is shedded in two ways.

Firstly, lighter materials are used but should you be concerned? Well, probably not. One of the most popular lightweight materials for pack design is Dyneema. Dyneema is produced by fabric giant DSR who quite modestly announce Dyneema to be the toughest fabric  material on the planet — it is used in the production of bullet proof vests! The toughness of Dyneema (and its equivalents) means that it can be ‘spun’ in thinner thicknesses, hence lighter weight fabrics.

A Dyneema pack is as tough as you need it to be. It will cope with gorse and brambles, abrasion against rocks when scrambling and so on.  It is not indestructible though. Often you can find that the covering on the material internally can flake through abrasion caused by loading and unloading packs. I’ve also had wear and tear over time externally as well. This has not been caused by abrasion but by the elements, particularly as a result of being constantly soaked. This is probably not so much a problem in the dryer parts of the world but, say, in Scotland the one thing you to guarantee on a multi day walk is that your pack will get saturated on numerous occasions. Dyneema is not waterproof! However, Dyneema is very lightweight and will dry our quickly, not like the heavy old canvas packs of old.

Should I worry about this? Probably not. You’ll have a good ten years usage our of a Dyneema pack and that should be more than enough for most of us.

Secondly, lighter pack designs tend to have lighter back support systems. Mainstream manufacturers have to appeal across the board and, sadly in many ways, advertising campaigns love a good and innovative back support system; innovation sells. But in terms of comfort and lightweight hiking simplicity is better.

My first real lightweight pack was from USA based company URA — Ultralight Adventure. This was the Catalyst which weighed in at 1.2 kilograms for about 50 litres. This pack is still in production and has been modified over the years; it now weighs in at 1.3 kilograms for 55 litres (still more than acceptable). The pack is sold in the UK by Ultralight Outdoors.

URL has changed hands now but the original designer Brian Frankle achieved back support and stiffness by incorporating two thin metal rods into a plastic material. This systems is designed so that you can bend the rods to shape the profile of your own back. A simple system this but one that really works; this pack distributes weight to the hips really well.

I have love/hate relationship with this pack, which brings me to another point. My Catalyst was the second design of this pack. The shoulder pads were changed and were dreadful. The plastic adjuster on the shoulder straps used to get pulled in toward the body and off the strap/pad itself causing the plastic thing to dig into my shoulder. It was a design fault that was soon remedied. But, I had imported this pack from the USA and it wasn’t quite as simple to send it back to be retrofitted. And by then I have moved on and for a decade or so I happily used another of their packs which had no back system at all but a sleeve in which you could place a sleeping mat.

If this makes you nervous you might be better advised to buy from one of the UK retailers. As I mentioned in the introduction these companies are run by outdoor enthusiasts and they are happy to talk to you over the phone about their experiences and their products.

Should I stick with major High St names?

Not necessarily. Take a serious look at the specialist and lighter weight options in this range — they will be closer to 1 kilogram than to 2. The major manufactures will change their line-ups and design every couple of years not last — as I mentioned above — innovation sells. The lightweight companies don’t make major revisions to their line-up that often. Their designs and tried and tested and that makes a big difference.

Is it safe to buy from abroad?

I have bought all of my packs over the last 15 years or so over the internet and would happily do so again. It is easy these days to do your research and to get the opinions of many long time users although, of course, you have to filter our the ‘fanboys’ of various companies. Buying from abroad does have its disadvantages in terms of time and delivery. And there is the interesting issue of import taxes. Sometimes these are charged and sometimes not! Best allow for the payment of taxes in your purchase price.

Some lighter weight manufactures now sell through UK distributers, for example, URL as mentioned above and Gossamer Gear. Others don’t but are now very used to dealing with international sales — I am a long term admirer of Ron Bell at Mountain Laurel Designs and Ron is happy to chat to you about all manner of issues and he now has quit a good handle on UK/Northern Europe weather conditions!

What about rock bottom priced manufactures?

Possibly. Over the last decade we have seen the growth of several UK and international companies who produce products that aim at the bottom of the price ranges. I’ll not mention names but it is pretty clear who they are. Often these companies have been created by previous staff from more well known outdoor brands and by that we often mean sales staff. But this doesn’t necessarily mean a poor choice pack. What these folk have going for them is that they understand the manufacturing process.

These days much of our gear, especially packs, are made in South East Asia, for example Vietnam. The designs may well come form the US or Europe but the manufacturing is in the hands of a small number of companies, companies who produce for a number of brands. Somebody with a good knowledge of the industry can design a pack quite quickly!  I’d like the shoulder straps from X, the back system from Y and the back pocket design from Z. And a new pack is born! 

Don’t scoff though, These can be great packs at bargain prices.

Here are my top tips.

Checklist

Aim at around 1 to 1.2 kilograms.

Capacity should be around 50 litres. A decent manufacturer will spell out how this capacity is allocated. What is the main compartment capacity? Is there an extension collar and how much does that add? What about the big back pocket? Are their hip belt pockets built into the design are available as an accessory?

An expansion collar can be useful but a really decent back pocket more so. Does this look easy to use? Can you see yourself just stuffing things in it easily — something that is very important inset weather. Side pockets should have a good capacity and a draw string to tighten the opening is very useful! Wide side pockets are better than narrow ones, particularly when stashing wet clothing and shelters. Do side pockets (and the back pocket) have drainage options to shed water as you walk, again, pretty useful in UK weather. I’m a great fan of hip belt pockets that can be used to hold Swiss army knives, compasses, sun cream and so on.

Speak to UK retailers. You will never regret it. For example, speak to Bob or Rose Cartwright and they will talk to you about the pack you are interested in but will pretty soon get on to your walking and hiking needs. They may well recommend a pack that is cheaper that one you were considering but this doesn’t mean it will be inferior. In the world of online retails customer service is very important and repeat business and word-of-mouth recommendations are taken very seriously.

 

 

Perhaps, my biggest tip is to avoid fashion. Be very skeptical about those back systems and the claims about comfort. As that weight creeps over 2 kilograms I don’t case how clever the system is you will notice. Lightweight hiking and backpacking is about reducing the weight of your gear right across the board. Less weight means less bulk. Think of a sleeping bag. A synthetic bag might have advantages but not only will it weight more than a down bag it won’t compress down as much. You really shouldn’t have that much need for complicated or advanced systems.

As I said earlier, this is the pack weight that most people will settle on. Packs in this range are light and effective at carrying medium weights. While it might not last a lifetime it will last a long, long time.

But if you want to go further and explore the lightweight world, I’ll look at that next.

Comments

  1. And avoid those back air flow systems e.g. berghaus airflow, that market as a dry back but actually make the load carry smaller and pack stability poorer

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