Selecting and Buying the Pack
A few months ago, and in contemplation of walking the Cambrian Way this year, I started looking around for a replacement large capacity backpack. That is a replacement for my old workhorse Lowe Alpine Khumbu 65:80 which I picked up cheaply in Decathlon a couple of years ago (also in anticipation of doing a long distance walk) and which has been my default large pack ever since. For all its comfortable carry of the heavier loads typical on such an expedition, the only flaw with that pack is its weight – at nearly 2.3kg it’s twice or even thrice the weight of some lightweight models out there. So I was on the look out for something to take over.
I did my usual screening process on the contenders – this consists of a spreadsheet comparing the attributes of the candidates against what I have now and against my “ideal” (a blend of the most desirable traits – in this case capacity, low weight, relative sizes of main and secondary compartments, versatility etc – a blend that isn’t actually achievable but which still gives me a way of measuring how the possibles match up). If nothing else, the process of putting this comparison together focuses my thinking on the key attributes I’m looking for and the key things I’m choosing between. I used this technique very effectively when choosing a new tent (resulting in buying a Scarp 1) and a new 3(ish) season sleeping bag (resulting in a Cumulus Quantum 350), and am convinced I made the right choice in both cases. So much so that I now don’t buy major items of kit without doing this exercise.
This was the most difficult one yet, and I found myself choosing between low pack weight, high capacity/load weight and some of the additional features on offer. Knowing how challenged I’d been sometimes to cram everything into my old LA pack, capacity was key and the weight of the pack only became a factor when it started creeping over 1kg. I set myself an absolute limit of 1.2kg, representing a minimum weight saving of 1kg over my existing arrangement.
Ultimately, and very much against the prevailing choices of much of the UK backpacking community, I went for the ÜLA Epic pack. What won out here was the capacity, the fact that the few resources I could find online confirmed it could handle a heavier load than most, and the intriguing features – essentially it was designed to be completely waterproof and because it was essentially composed of a dry bag, provided options for use in a range of scenarios by using different size dry bags.
It wasn’t cheap, and nowhere in the UK stocks it, but I managed to avoid the hassle of adding to the price of $275 importing from the US, by finding a European supplier http://packrafting-store.de/. At €299, this wasn’t much cheaper overall as the import duty is factored into the higher price they charge, but the delivery costs are lower and coming from Germany I expected to get it a bit quicker (and of course avoid the extra irritation of the Royal Mail handling fee). In the end, I probably didn’t save much on either score due to a weak dollar and strong Euro and the fact that ÜLA managed to ship product to Germany without including the hip belt buckles, leaving me waiting for them to be subsequently shipped first to Germany and then on to me from there.
The Pack itself
My requirements were essentially driven by capacity and the ability to handle a load of up to around 20kg. That obviously sounds high and certainly more than most backpackers would ever want to carry in the UK, but reflected two key considerations: firstly that I have carried loads like that, and if I’m going to shell out loads of dosh for a replacement big pack, then I at least want it to not restrict me on load carrying. Secondly, with a few stretches of my planned Cambrian way route being 4-6 days with uncertain resupply, I might have to carry that many days food – and at a rough weight of 1kg per day, it starts to add up. The Epic was the only pack, apart from my existing one, that could do this – indeed I even seriously considered staying with what I already had.
The pack arrived, and I unwrapped the package to relief that the Sea to Summit Big River 65L dry bag included was a “safe” shade of blue, and not the bright yellow that the product images show. Moreover it was an identical colour to the Sea to Summit 35L dry bag I’d bought separately as my smaller pack option. It all looked a bit rickety when I tried it on – the bag is strapped into the harness via side straps but clearly it’s not as solid as an all in one design. None of this was helped by not being able to do up the hip belt for a further couple of weeks.
But leaving that to one side for the moment, what do you get ?
Well, first and foremost, the Epic was designed for packrafting expeditions and is designed with (a) getting wet and (b) carrying a packraft in mind. The first of these is covered in the fact that the main compartment is just a giant heavy duty dry bag, and the second in the ability to sling a raft below the main bag itself – I looked at the latter as a possible way of carrying a tent. ULA packages the Epic with the 65L Big River Dry Sack from Sea to Summit, and can also be used with the smaller size 35L dry bag from the same range (which I bought separately). In theory a dry bag of up to 70L can be used with the harness, giving a stated maximum capacity of 82L, taking into account the alleged 12L of exterior pockets. This was way more than any of the other options I looked at. Reviews I’d seen online (few and far between) reported people successfully and comfortably carrying up to 60lbs. Not that even I would dream of carrying that much.
The manufacturer’s stated specs include:
- Internal Frame
- 65L Sea to Summit Dry Sack (included, no choice of colour usually)
- Contoured Shoulder Straps
- Zippered Mesh Front Pocket
- Dual Hipbelt Pockets
- Side/Top Compression Straps
- ULA 210 Robic
- Removable aluminum stays (2.25oz ea)
- ULA 210 Ripstop Side-Pockets
- Main Body: 30 – 75 L,
- Front Mesh Pocket: 6.5 L
- Hipbelt Pockets: 1.5 L
- Side Pockets: 1L ea (removable)
- Total volume 38 – 82L
- Rec’d Max Load: 40 lbs or less
- Rec’d Base Weight: 20 lbs or less
- Weight (Torso-M, Hipbelt-M): 32.5** oz excluding dry sack
Options when buying are for back length (S, M, L and XL) and for hipbelt (XS, S, M, L and XL) and a choice of either “J” or “S” shaped shoulder straps. Of course, if buying locally from Europe, which of these options are stocked may be restricted.
The Epic is an update of the Arctic 1000, and was carried on The Backpackinglight Grand Adventure in Alaska, More recently; Andrew Skurka carried the updated Epic for portions of his 4600+ mile circumnavigation of Alaska.
The First Use
After all of all of the hassle getting the pack, I then found it wasn’t big enough for my winter trip to the Lakes in March and I ended up taking the LA with me. The same happened for the Cambrian Way in late April. In both cases however, I regretted the weight and load I was carrying and subsequently vowed to make it fit in the Epic, somehow.
So it was June before I got out using the Epic in anger. My annual birthday camp with my son gave me an opportunity to do a hill walk and for one night not be at all constrained by how much I needed to take. It took a bit of care loading to get the weight distributed properly and to fill up the gaps, but I found it stayed quite stable on my back. Best of all the detachable side pockets which attach to the straps holding the sack in the harness, were such that I could reach back to grab a drink bottle and put it back afterwards without removing the pack. You’d be surprised at how awkward I usually find this with all of my other packs.
Pleased with the first test, particularly surprised at how comfortable it was, I vowed to force my gear to fit my pack rather than my pack to fit my gear going forward.
A More Thorough Test
The weekend before last, I’d arranged to meet up with a friend to backpack around 28 miles of the Pennine Way, and with a forecast for rain and assorted gloom, the Epic was the obvious choice of pack. This would give a good opportunity to test it in the conditions I’d bought it for, and if I couldn’t make it work on this adventure then I would certainly have wasted my money.
I managed to get it all in, if you count having to leave behind the beer I’d planned to take as a surprise for Stuart, my walking companion for the weekend. The pack swallowed, sleeping bag, inflatable mat, Scarp 1, Caldera Cone, fuel, a smallish bag of clothes and 24 hours of meals plus 48 hours of snacks, my electronics bag etc. Plus not forgetting the litre of pre-mixed gin and tonic I took in place of the beer.
This was a bigger load than on the first outing, but the carry was good, secure and best of all, didn’t feel that heavy. Although going only for a couple of nights, the load was such that I could visualise the effect of adding some extra food and a couple of extra bits of clothing for a longer trip. Simply walking to the station brought some confidence that maybe I could make this pack work.
The Friday afternoon and evening was one of mizzle as we climbed out of Edale onto Kinder Scout, pitching out tents athwart the main route. The pack was damp on the outside, obviously but everything inside was fine. The next morning, however, some damp had crept into the bag, which I’d left in the porch overnight as too wet to cuddle. This incursion of damp was most likely because I simply hadn’t closed the bag properly. Certainly I had no more issues of that kind on the trip.
The half hour rain shower we had on the Saturday afternoon, made the bag good and wet, but it had virtually dried out by the time we made camp 4 hours later – so much so that I had it inside the inner tent with me. Everything inside remained dry.
I experimented with various packing arrangements over the weekend, including carrying wet gear on the outside – most especially the tent – and I started to appreciate the versatility the pack offers. I actually carried the tent on top of the pack to start with, moving it later to a more secure position vertically behind the outer mesh compartment. I didn’t dare use the packraft carrying sleeve, because I was concerned about the weight bearing down on the struts and poles of the tent, and what would happen when I crashed the pack to the ground everytime I took it off.
The hip belt pockets were good, holding between them a day’s worth of cereal bars, a bag of Haribo (a critical motivational tool when out walking) and even at one point half a pack of Hob Nobs. Basically, the whole day’s nibbles without having to open the pack itself. With water bottles reachable whilst walking, I never had to stop and remove the pack, except at proper rest stops. With the range of light mesh attachments provided with the pack, it would even be possible to use one as a hydration bladder holder, but I would be concerned at the flimsiness of the attachment – certainly those holding the side pockets on were showing strain from the weight of my water bottles. if you filter water as you go and don’t carry much, I don’t think any of this matters.
The front mesh pocket I found to be very useful – holding wet gear, my rubbish bag, and the key things I might want to take on/off during the walk. I’ve also tried it with a crampon bag, which fits too (although clearly that wasn’t on this walk!)
The more I use this pack, the more I’m liking it, and the less I’m starting to care that it looks a little odd. Assuming I can continue to be ruthless with my packing (the main casualties of which were my Kindle and the aforementioned beer on the most recent outing), there’s no reason why I can’t use this pack for all of my longer trips – indeed whilst walking last weekend, on several occasions I found myself imagining what it would have been like on my Cambrian Way trip if I’d used it. One thing’s reasonably sure, I wouldn’t have been faffing about with rain covers. I also would have had to be more selective about my food and luxuries and probably would have enjoyed the trip more as a result of the lighter load. I was overcautious on that trip, but this pack seems to give me more confidence to have faith in my gear and only take what I need.
Is it for everybody though ? Clearly not. Lighter weight backpackers than me will probably find other packs do a perfectly good job – a good example is the Gossamer Gear Mariposa which I ruled out purely on the basis of its stated maximum load weight (I tried really hard to make that one come out well in the scoring, but to no avail). Clearly packrafting isn’t that big in the UK either, so there’s not even much of a market there. ULA aren’t going to sell many of these in the UK. But that’s fine by me – I quite like the idea of having a pack that’s a bit on the rare side as long as it meets my requirements. Which this seems to.
***This pack was bought with my own money (yes really, I did spent that much on a pack), and I have no relationship with either ULA or the Packrafting Store, other than as a normal customer***