Backpacks: All the Function-Nearly Half the Weight
by Dennis Roscetti (updated 11/20/99)
Dennis Roscetti has twenty years of experience hiking, backpacking, snow/ice climbing and rock climbing in the Cascades, Sawtooths, Bugaboos and Boliva. He has used a wide array of backpacks including the Lowe expedition pack, Gregory Snow Creek, Dana Designs Terraplane, Gregory Dru, Osprey Xenith, Dana Design Astralplane and Dana Design 10th Anniversary Terraplane. For many years he has worked in an outdoor store advising customers on equipment as well as having used a lot of gear over his 17 years as an outdoor professional.
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Elsewhere in these pages, Paul Richins issued a challenge to backpack manufacturers: design a reasonably-sized pack (4000 - 5000 cubic inches) in the 4 - 5 pound range. Is this achievable for a pack intended to survive in general use? Specialized climbing packs like Wild Things' Andinista or the Chaos from Cold Cold World offer sizes in this range at weights around 3 1/2 pounds. They do it by paring their packs to the bone-no frame (just a doubled EVA pad in back), simple suspension, light fabrics and no frills. The relative comfort of these packs is the subject of much debate among climbers, but a safe assumption is that most backpackers will find them uncomfortable for loads over 40 pounds. Can an extra 1/2 to 1 1/2 pounds of materials produce a pack that most people find comfortable? Recent years have seen the advent of new materials: light, very tough fabrics, composites, 7075 T6 aluminum.
In the past couple of years a number of new packs have been developed weighing less than 5 pounds. A lot of these are aimed at the alpine climbing market, yet many have features generic enough that many mountaineers or backpackers would find the packs usable as well. Osprey invented a new pack design concept, the Straight jacket system, to develop the climbing-oriented Mutant and more general-purpose Advent packs. The North Face thought it was developing a high-altitude climbing pack in the Thin Air, but the pack has seen surprising acceptance among lightweight backpackers. Mountainsmith refined its groundbreaking Mountainlight 5200 into the Mountainlight 3500 and 5000, also popular among lightweight fans. And Wayne Gregory dipped into all three of Gregory's current pack lines to craft the lightweight Makalu Pro. There are others from Kelty, Serratus, and other pack makers. I spent summer '99 testing out the Mountainlight 5000 and the Makalu Pro. Here is my report.
Mountainsmith's Mountainlight 5000 is actually a refinement of a pack they've made for several years, the 3 pounds 2 ounces Mountainlight 5200. For an increase of roughly 3/4 pound in weight the new pack has a built-in gear holster (one of those shovel-flap type pockets) on the front, aramid-reinforced fabric on the top lid and pack bottom, and a sturdier, more supportive suspension. The wide, but low-profile hip belt fits well without bulk. Two hip belt sizes are available in both Men's and Women's cuts. The shoulder straps are narrow, but nicely finished, and lined with a soft wicking mesh. A Women's cut shoulder strap set is available for those with smaller torsos.
The pack itself is a tall single-compartment top loader made of a light oxford fabric called Magnalight. Mountainsmith claims the fabric is as tough as heavier pack cloths and more waterproof. My own brief testing suggests the material is sturdy enough for those who aren't outright abusive to their packs. The two compression straps are tied into the gear holster, effectively making the flap part of the pack a compression system. Mountainsmith makes optional carbon fiber stays, that they claim cut another 6 - 7 oz off the weight. Finally, like most Mountainsmith packs, this one has the Delta suspension, with its paired "high-low" adjustment straps from pack bag to hip belt.
How does it work? First, this pack is tall. Adjusting the working back length is a simple matter involving a pair of ladder lock buckles hidden under the lumbar pad assembly. However, this adjustment does not change the overall height of the pack, which rides on a pair of 29" stays. Mountainsmith claims it will fit torso lengths from 16" - 24", but after seeing how this pack fits on my 19 - 20" torso, I wonder about the fit on someone with a torso length shorter than mine. The companion Mountainlight 3500 has 2" shorter stays, and would probably fit shorter torsos better.
The top pocket is rather small, and has a rather short zipper opening, making it hard to access the pocket. Despite its interesting attachment straps, which pull the top lid straight back to the stays, the top doesn't do a very good job of load control for the top of the pack; it's just too small to be effective. This pack could use either an internal load control strap (like Dana Designs' Head spacer) or an external strap over the top of the pack. The pack also has no pockets along the side in which to butt skis, wands, or pickets or carry a foam pad or Thermarest. Overall, lash points are rare, so attaching extra items is a creative process.
None of these drawbacks affects the way the pack distributes the load on ones back, which is very good. I have only tested it to 40 pounds, but the ride was comfortable and very stable. The Delta suspension snugs the pack into the small of the back, and the prominent lumbar pad keeps it there through all maneuvers you can perform with a pack this size. The pack makes contact with the upper back via two long foam channels over the stays; the pack feels securely in contact, yet the foam channels leave a "chimney over your spine that lets some air circulate. The pack is very comfortable. The pack slides around less than a lot of packs I've used. I think 50 pounds would be manageable in the 5000.
As noted above, Gregory borrowed from all three of their current pack lines to build the Makalu. The hip belt and the reticulated foam back panel come from the Escape line of midsize packs. The shoulder straps are the same Flo-Form straps used on both the Adventure series packs and the high-end Pro packs. The 7075-T6stays and partial frame sheet are similar to those used to support the Pro series packs. The Auto-Cant shoulder harness adjustment system is used on all the larger Gregory packs. The pack bag is rather un-Gregory like, a simple top-loading pack bag made of alight Spectra rip stop, with the bottom made of a single layer of 1000d Cordura.
Where the Mountainlight 5000 feels tall and narrow, the Makalu feels shorter and fuller; the overall impression is that of an overgrown rucksack. This is OK because the Makalu Pro was designed to be a climber's pack. For example, the hip belt has thicker foam than the one on the Mountainlight, but also has a pronounced taper. It's wide in the back, but gets narrower toward the front, like a climbing harness waist belt. This gives a narrow profile at the point where you might want to access a climbing harness underneath. The hip belt also has a pair of removable racking loops. The front of the pack has a pair of daisy chains, ice axe loops, and attached shaft tie-off loops. Two compression straps control each side; the straps adjust with side-release buckles for easy attachment and detachment of gear. The pack also has the classic Gregory mesh pockets. These serve the traditional roles - butting pickets, ski tails, wands, etc. However, you can also stuff a liter water bottle, a Thermarest, a fuel bottle, a pair of sandals, etc. in the pockets and expect your gear to stay there. Very handy, though I don't know how durable the mesh will be. Pack weight on my scale is 4 pounds 13 ounces.
Sizing the Makalu Pro is a bit trickier than the Mountainlight. The pack itself comes in two sizes: Medium, for back lengths 17.5- 19.5"; and Large, for lengths 19.5 - 21.5". The shoulder straps and hip belt are modular, so sizes can be substituted to adapt the pack to particular torso dimensions. My back length is 19", still size Medium, but I need the large shoulder harness and hip belt for my particular torso. Because I'm near the top of the size range the pack rides relatively low on my back, like a climbing rucksack.
Thanks to its shorter, squarer dimensions the Makalu is easy to pack, and to find things inside once packed. I think the pack bag carries more than the Mountainlight 5000, but then Gregory always sand bags a little on its claimed volumes. The top pocket has a longer, larger zipper; I have a considerably easier time working with this lid than with the Mountainlight. Most of the buckles and webbing on the Makalu are 1" instead of the 3/4" found on the Mountainlight; probably heavier, but also easier to operate with cold or gloved hands. A load control strap over the top of the pack keeps the top of the pack in line, as well as offering a spot to strap on a rope or a bulky fleece jacket. The compression straps have enough length to slide foam pads behind, and the side release buckles make it easy to attach and detach gear. The mesh pockets on the side shave surprising capacity. Overall, I found myself missing the front pockets on my Dana Terraplane less with this pack than with the Mountainsmith.
With loads over 45 pounds the pack had a tendency to gradually creep down my back, despite the very grippy lumbar pad. The relatively soft hip belt and lack of stiffening at the hip belt attachment point let the pack sag onto the hip belt more than a burlier hip belt might, but I suspect the real issue is fit. Gregory makes the stays from 7075-T6 aluminum alloy instead of the usual 6061-T6 or 2024-T6. The shape of the stays is set at the factory. The alloy's naturally greater resistance to bending and its "memory" mean the stays are very supportive, but allow a certain amount of flex for movement. A user whose back contours are significantly different than that of the stays won't be able be change the stay bend to match their back. A set of delta straps (like Mountainsmith uses) would help to pull the pack into the lumbar area and keep it there, but Gregory chose not to go that route. Since the Makalu is designed to carry loads in the 30 - 45 pound range, the fit issue should be less of a problem than it would be on some of their higher-capacity packs that use this alloy for stays.
So, is it possible to build a 5,000 cu. in. pack that weighs 5 pounds or less? Absolutely!!!. Pack models and specs can change quickly though, and the tendency, like car manufactures, is to add features and weight. I understand that The North Face plans to discontinue the Thin Air for next year (2000). Meanwhile, Osprey has apparently bulked up the Advent; it now weights nearly 6 pounds. The climbing-oriented Mutant is still listed at 5 pounds. And Vortex recently revamped their lightweight STX, pushing its weight well above the original 4 pounds 12 ounces.
After a summer of looking at packs and field testing the Mountainlight and Makalu, I've come to the conclusion that the lightweight pack is less about high-tech materials than it is about simple design. If there's a new fabric or lighter/stronger frame material it's been tried before, often without significantly lowering the weight. But look at the short list of packs that go below the 5 pound mark; some use the newest and coolest of materials developments, some are remarkably traditional, but they all share the same lay out: single compartment top-loaders with no access zippers, molded back panels, multiple pockets, etc. Kind of like updated versions of the original internal-frame packs from 25 years ago.
Simple pack design requires some rethinking on the part of the pack's user. If you have a tendency to carry heavy loads, learn to keep your pack below 40 pounds. These packs can cut another couple pounds off your load. In some ways, the best reason to buy one of these packs is to spur you on to lighten the rest of your load. You will find yourself moving farther, faster, and in less pain. And you will enjoy the backcountry more than ever.
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