Which Pack ?

I bought a lot of gear last year. Oh boy, did I. Instead of spending it on accommodation on trips, I invested the cash on upgrading my kit and using it wild camping. Too much time on my hands probably also played a part. So this year, I need to spend less on gear and limit myself to a few key items. My gear buying this year will largely be dictated by this year’s main project – the Cambrian Way. Consequently, my gear priorities this year are:

  • Pack
  • Footwear – my trail shoes and mid boots are both approaching retirement after 3 years and 2 years respective abuse. At least one of them will be put out to grass.
  • Electronics – specifically with a focus on the fact that I’ll be away in the middle of nowhere for quite a while. This has implications for my charging needs, on safety, and for the possible decision to track the whole walk on Social Hiking. I’m really not getting on at all well with the Powermonkey Extreme and keep reverting to my old Powermonkey minigorilla. But this wouldn’t be enough by itself. Also if I do track the walk on Social Hiking then I’m considering investing in a Spot for transmitting my position without relying on my mobile phone.
  • Tweaks to my tent, possibly including a custom inner.

There will be other purchases, of course, but they should be relatively few and far between or be routine replacement as items wear out. And I’m going to try to fund any new purchases from selling stuff lying around in my study/gear room. So far I’ve got £5 in the kitty!

In theory, I already have the gear I need for a 3-4 day backpack, so could conceivably just adopt several cycles of that approach to get me through the 3 weeks of the walk. But on a walk like that you do want to add some extra luxuries in, may be faced with several days where extra food and fuel need to be carried, and because of the length of time are likely to experience a greater range of weather conditions. All of these say that I’ll be taking more stuff with me on the walk than I would on a typical 3-4 day backpack. And since my Jam is literally jam packed on those trips, it ain’t big enough.

I already have a rucksack that is big enough to get everything in, but at 2.23kg the Lowe Alpine Khumbu 65:80 is a bit of a beast, albeit one that carries a load in reasonable comfort. However, because it carries so well, it does have a tendency to tempt me into overloading it, which was surely a factor in me headbutting a kerb in Ulverston at the start of my Cumbria Way walk in 2011. So the question is: can I do better, and is it worth doing ?

Can I do better ?

The answer to this is, unsurprisingly, yes. There are plenty of packs out there that are lighter and carry a similar volume. Where it will be difficult to do much better is in the max load that a pack can carry. The Khumbu may be heavy, but it’s a proper beast of burden, able to carry up to 25kg. On the Cumbria Way, I got the pack down to 18kg, including the pack itself, and this didn’t include tent and a few stovey bits. So allowing for the times when I need to carry extra food and fuel, I’d really like to be able to carry up to 20kg to be on the safe side. Clearly, the occasions when I carry that sort of load should be the minority.

Is it worth it ?

When you consider that my Khumbu only cost me £49.99 in a sale in Decathlon, and that its only real flaw is its weight, this becomes a much more difficult one to answer. On a pure cost basis, it’s difficult to see how it would be worthwhile when some of the contenders cost twice, three times or even four times what the Khumbu cost. But when you compare the weights of the packs themselves this comparison is exactly inverted – there are packs available at half, a third or even a quarter of the weight.

So, a replacement would have to carry a similar volume, be able to handle my maximum likely load weight, itself weigh substantially less than the Khumbu, but still provide a good comfortable carry, all at a price that isn’t ridiculous.

My preliminary research led me to look at offerings from Golite, ULA Equipment, Hyperlite Mountain Gear, Gossamer Gear and Mountain Laurel Designs. Here’s how they stack up in comparison to each other and to the Khumbu.

Pack Weight (kg) Total Capacity (ltr) Max load (kg) Price (£) Features (see key)
Lowe Alpine Khumbu 2.23 80 25 £50 (norm. £145) #9, H, L, B, R
MLD Ark 0.51 72 23 £181 #4, H(opt),R(opt), L(opt)
HMG Porter (Expedition) 0.88 72 23 £194 #2, W
ULA Epic 1.20 38-82 18 £172 #4, W, V
ULA AirX 1.13 75 18 £184 #4, H, K
GG Mariposa 0.78 70 16 £125 #8, L
Golite Jam 70L 0.91 70 14 £90 #4, H
ULA Catalyst 1.36 75 18 £156 #4, H

Bold red indicates the pack winning in each category. All packs include a hipbelt so this is not shown as a feature. Apart from the MLD Ark (on which they are an option), all come with hipbelt pockets as standard. Prices are converted from USD where relevant and include any options described in features above. They don’t however include delivery costs and import duty where applicable.  Max loads are taken from a combination of the manufacturer’s own specs and reviews where they indicate that a heavier load can be carried comfortably.

# = number of compartments – I do like side pockets and a front stash pocket to give flexibility.
H = hydration sleeve – I’d like one but not a deal-breaker. I actually use this to store things other than my Camelbak.
L = lid – I’d like one but not a deal-breaker
B = separate bottom compartment – useful, but not essential
W = waterproof – a definite plus
R = raincover included
V = variable volume – attractive as means that one pack might fit all occasions.
K = Klymit sleep pad included (used as pack suspension).

When I scored the above according to weight, price, capacity (including how big the main compartment is), max load, the load compared to the weight of the pack itself and features, this was the result I got and what each did well/badly:

  1. MLD Ark (low weight, good load/weight, features (if prepared to pay extra))
  2. Lowe Alpine Khumbu (capacity, max load, features but very heavy)
  3. ULA Epic (capacity, features, variable volume, waterproof but not lightest in the comparison)
  4. HMG Porter Expedition (weight, capacity of main compartment, max load, but shockingly expensive because it’s made of cuben)
  5. ULA Air X (middle on most things and expensive because of the included Klymit pad)
  6. Gossamer Gear Mariposa (weight, price, but worst capacity of all and max load is a bit low)
  7. Golite Jam 70L (price, but otherwise not stunning in any area and especially bad for capacity and load)
  8. ULA Catalyst (capacity’s ok, but it’s heavy for its max load and is poorly featured)

The competition splits neatly into two here. The bottom 4 are bottom mainly because they are heavy or low capacity and mediocre in the other one of these two. The top 4 all offer something in  the key areas I’m looking – the capacity, the max load, weight and features. They are also the only ones that are either waterproof or come with a raincover.

I like the Ark because my research suggests that it can handle any load I am likely to throw at it despite it’s fantastical low weight, and if I’m prepared to pay for it can pimp it up to include the options I’d want. Its main compartment is one of the biggest of the group – i.e. MLD aren’t wasting that quoted capacity on small compartments that might not be much use.

MLD Ark
MLD Ark

The ULA Epic has a certain fascination because it is essentially a giant drybag mounted inside a carrying frame. This not only makes it waterproof (it is aimed squarely at packrafters) but also variable capacity, meaning it could be one pack for all occassions. The ability to sling a packraft underneath could be used to carry a wet tent, particularly one which packs quite long like the Scarp. But it isn’t terribly light and doesn’t lend itself to big loads. If I could be happier with its max load then I’d probably have already bought one by now, taking a chance on the random drybag colour that I’d get. It looks freaky, but actually makes good sense.

ula_epic
ULA Epic, a waterproof drybag and carrying harness

The HMG Expedition is a super-sized version of the popular Porter pack. Because it is essentially a big cuben stuffsack with shoulder straps, it’s not particularly versatile in terms of compartments but it’s waterproof and can carry a respectable load. But I don’t really like a white rucksack, and I’d feel like a bit of a knob carrying it. It’s just crying out to be graffitied.

HMG Porter 4400 ("Expedition")
HMG Porter 4400 (“Expedition”)

In comparison to these, my existing Lowe Alpine Khumbu is heavy, but has good capacity, all the features I want and can carry a load heavier than I’d actually want to carry.

My old workhorse the Lowe Alpine Khumbu 65:80
My old workhorse the Lowe Alpine Khumbu 65:80

Of course in this analysis, I’ve not factored in other comfort factors such as sizing, fit and how the pack is constructed from a carrying perspective. That’s for the final decision process. And I’ve not considered how to buy as a factor either. The ULA and HMG packs look like they can be sourced from Europe, albeit at prices that reflected the import duty already suffered, but the MLD pack would be a case of importing from the US directly. Having done this with my tent, this doesn’t concern me. What is more of a concern is that to get the pack I want, I might have to buy blind. Having said that I did it for my Golite Jam 50L and it was fine.

All of these additional considerations aside, what is clear is the 4 that I’ll be choosing between because they are so far ahead of the other contenders. And that choice is ultimately one between capacity, weight and versatility. Oh, yes and not wanting to look like a dickhead.

I’d love to hear thoughts if anyone has any, and feel free to indicate which of these you’d choose.

8 thoughts on “Which Pack ?

  1. You have certainly done your homework, thorougly! The last time I looked at trekking packs I was looking at Osprey. They have a lightweight version but it’s still 1.82kgs http://www.ospreypacks.com/en/product/mens/kestrel_68?tab=specifications I don’t think it meets what you’re looking for size wise.

    My votes with the MLD with the lid and hipbelt pockets. For me the lid is important for keeping the small bits and pieces handy. Hipbelt pockets are handy for long hauls.

    Look forward to hearing what your choice is.

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    1. Yes, at 1.82kg it wouldn’t offer much over my 2.23kg Lowe Alpine,and is on the small side. I have to say that I’m strongly drawn to the MLD because of the overall combination of features. But it does seem a bit too good to be true – the lightest pack (presumably because of lack of frame) but still capable of carrying a decent load. That one’s a real try before you buy candidate, but of all the packs I’ve looked at, it’s the most difficult to get hold of. I agree with you on the lid – it’s handy and if that were the only difference between two packs, it would be the decider. But I manage fine with my lidless Jam, so maybe a lid isn’t a deal-breaker.

      As things stand, the arguments for a particular pack need to be pretty compelling otherwise I’ll more than likely stick with what I’ve got.

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  2. A good selection of packs. It seems the Ark is frameless. If so, I’d be sceptical that it can carry the weight advertised. MLD do produce high quality gear. Carrying loads of over about 12kg some kind of simple frame is helpful.

    Of the packs listed, my only experience is the GG Mariposa, which I’ve found excellent. Volume is very similar to the Ark. I suspect the extra weight comes from the frame (which is removable). Looking at the pictures, the Mariposa seems to have a more substantial hip belt.

    Are you really going to carry more than 16kg? Even with 5 days food I’ve never gone above 15kg.

    It’s a shame you can’t try before buying as fit is important. Good luck.

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    1. I have to say I think the Mariposa is the nicest looking pack of the set I was looking at, which as you rightly say is a similar capacity, but I was concerned about the recommended max load which at 16kg was the lowest on parade. Even on a normal 3-4 day backpack I’ve found myself sometimes pushing the recommended 14kg limit of my Jam, so the Mariposa doesn’t offer much headroom when I factor in some extra food, and the likelihood that I’ll take a few extra bits of clothing, my Kindle, and quite possibly a bag of art materials. Ideally I want a pack whose recommended max load is more than I’m going to carry, and so the Mariposa doesn’t look great up against those packs that are capable of carrying more. Of course, I could try to lighten up some more but having done the obvious big wins am now scrabbling around for the scraps. I carried 18kg on the Cumbria Way including my heavy pack, but didn’t carry a tent because I used camping barns. So a lighter pack and the tent effectively cancel each other out in terms of total weight. There were other things in my pack that I have since lightened up or ditched altogether so I’d be confident of beating the 18kg – indeed 15-16kg seems like a reasonable target – but I want a bit of margin just in case. I don’t want to buy a pack right on the boundary of my likely load. I think the Mariposa, despite it’s looks and price is right on that boundary.

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  3. Nice selection. I went through it myself lately and decided for two packs: the GG Gorrilla and the Mariposa. The latter for longer trips like the TGO Challenge.
    The Mariposa imo is huge and can carry 18 kg which I tried but in reality I never need longer than 1 or 2 days with all food etc.. The broad shoulder straps and hip belt are very comfortable.
    I don’t consider myself as UL, prefer Lightweight though
    Highly recomended!!

    Willem/Amsterdam

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    1. Thanks for your thoughts Willem. I’ve had the Mariposa recommended to me, and it’s the nicest looking of my shortlist – some of them are downright ugly. I think it’s those recommendations that have kept it in the running, as when I’ve looked at its specs, one of the others has always seemed better. What I have found interesting during this exercise is realising that my current pack does everything I need it to and the only thing wrong with it is its weight. So I’m really toying with the issue of how much is worth spending to save a bit of weight, or are the extra features of some of these packs worth buying. I reckon I need something that will hold 5 days food so I’m being really cautious with the loads that these packs claim to be able to carry. And I haven’t even thought about labelling myself as UL, or SUL or whatever. Simply if I can get lighter kit that meets my needs then I do.

      Thanks also for liking my Facebook page, and I love your avatar 🙂

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  4. Is it too late to reply to this thread? My Golite Pinnacle needs to be replaced after 10 years of good service. I too am interested in a large volume pack and was considering the HMG Southwest 4400. Thoughts? Thanks.

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