Tuesday, 8 June 2010

On Rucksacks.


It's perhaps unsurprising that one of my first observations on kit, solely for this journal, is on rucksacks. There can be few more pivotal components of a comfortable hill day, or longer, than a correctly-fitted and appropriately lightweight rucksack.

I started off, in the Brecons in 2008, with a Berghaus Crag. The only successful aspect of that choice was the size - 45 litres. That remains the theatre of operations for my weekend rucksacks & will even be so when we do the Tour du Mont Blanc in August this year. Other than that, it is not a pack suited to hillwalking nor is it lightweight.

I have always been an admirer of Pete MacFarlane, known better as PTC*. It was his suggestion I try the OMM Villain. At £100, when it arrived, I thought it was some kind of joke - a promotional freebie from Primark. It seemed so insubstantial; the load stays are cord rather than strapping and there is nothing in the way of lining inside. Yet, over the last two years it has been a friend. It fits well, weighs a respectable 1025g following some aftermarket butchery, swallows everything I ask of it & has only the features I might use. Dyneema is bombproof & not once have I feared the Villain might rip, tear or puncture. I find the Multi-Sport Compressor pocket to be too tight to hold much but the hip-belt pockets & side pockets are thoughtfully tailored. The contoured shoulder straps fit comfortably as does the slightly moulded hip-belt. It does not cling to your back like a startled monkey which is how I feel my Osprey Aether 60 fits but it's good enough.

However, at 1025g, I admit to being seduced by the featherlight rucksacks coming out of the US, a trend beginning with the Go-Lite Jam and now progressingly seemingly almost daily with the offerings of Gossamer Gear, Mountain Laurel Designs, Six Moon Designs & Ultralight Adventure Equipment. 

The attributes behoving all these new packs is the lack of a lid and a frameless back system usually supported by a sleeping mat of some kind (Thermarest's Z-Lite seems to me perfect for this role & subscribes to the dual-use philosophy of ultralight backpacking). The Villain, for example, has a pocket to use a sleeping mat as a back system & you could, with judicious use of a Stanley knife, remove the lid. The lumbar pad, like so much on the Villain is also removable. It would then slim down to a paltry 750g or so. It still does not get quite close enough to the new breed of UL pack & the roll-top closure for the main compartment of these new packs is more likely to protect your gear in a freak shower.

MLD, SMD & Gossamer Gear's Gorilla all use 210 denier fabrics in a rip-stop weave. MLD & SMD use dyneema, a fabric I became aquainted with on the OMM Villain. Gossamer Gear's Gorilla uses a 210 denier rip-stop nylon. 

MLD seem to be producing the lightest, yet high quality, packs in the Prophet, Exodus & Ark range, all hovering around the 450g for a pack with features you'd expect. Add a two-fold Z-Lite (52cm x 26cm) at about 60g and you have a 510g pack. Fully custom-built, there is often a 6-7 week build time in the summer but Martin Rye has one & it looks superb. The SMD Swift 10 comes in at 510g with hipbelt pockets sewn in and the Z-Lite fits taking it nearer 570g. The reasons I'm using a two-fold Z-lite as an example are these: The Gorilla comes with a sit-light pad similar to two folds on a Z-Lite (c.25cm x 52cm) so for comparison purposes it makes sense and it seems most of the UK hillwalking community are taken by the NeoAir or similar mattresses rather than the UL Ridgerest/Z-Lite equivalents. Thus, a cut down version of these for pillow-rests, sit-pads or footpads if, like me, you use a short Neo Air, can be used as a back system.

Gossamer Gear's Gorilla comes with curved aluminum stays which, on every evangelical review I've read (and there are many), provides a very comfortable carrying position. These add 96g which put the Gorilla about 658g. They can removed for sub-9kg loads (which seems to be the advised cut-off point for frameless packs but I would find frameless uncomfortable before that - probably around 7-8kg) but the flexibility is a boon. The Gorilla, like its lighter and larger cousin (70 denier nylon which is lighter, but probably not as strong), the Mariposa Plus, has a sitlight pad as a back system but the advantage is that the egg-box stippling sits outside the pack in secure mesh pockets providing airflow. See here for a UK user of the Mariposa Plus.

So, for a 210 denier frameless rucksack, which is very durable given the weight, you are looking at an average of 450-550g (+50-60g for a multi-use back system), a huge drop from the traditional, lightweight rucksacks around. It was observed recently in a BPL review by Will Rietveld (13th October 2009) of the Gossamer Gear Gorilla, that pack manufacturers have different priorities now. No longer is the abiding rationale to use the lightest materials - strength is still key & dyneema will likely be used for a while - it is useless features that take up weight. Take Osprey's Exos pack - there are so many tiny widgets that many hillwalkers will simply not use and add weight, yet it will continue to be popular. I love Osprey packs, they are a class act but for 3-season trips, especially those of us who can still be comfortable with a minimalist approach, simple packs are going to have a strong presence. At the moment, however, they require porting from the US which incurs import tax, VAT, shipping & Royal Mail's extortionate £8 handling fee. Until someone imports them to sell to the UK market, like Winwood Outdoor do with Gossamer Gear, they'll have very little presence in the UK as cost will prove prohibitive for most.

I have a Gossamer Gear Gorilla arriving imminently and will review it when I get back from the Lake District in mid-June.


For independent travel, the most effective course is a c.60 litre rucksack for trips measured in weeks or months rather than days and, given the manner of travel (buses laden with chickens, sacks of rice and so on), the way in which a pack will be treated by all and sundry and the amount of kit required for RTW independent travel, a more robust pack, not made of UL materials, is a far better choice. That said, it would be perfectly feasible to travel UL with a 50 litre rucksack and a minimalist approach but my feeling is, even though some UL principles apply to independent travel, it is a matter of personal preference as to what you're looking for and how light you actually want to travel. Sometimes, when travelling/backpacking independently, space-age base-layers and UL insulating layers don't necessarily fit well with the mood! You'll be in different cultures, climates, terrains and varied cities - UL principles simply do not, when applied strictly, stretch to that sort of diversity. You'll also need space to bring back ridiculous trinkets and wooden curiosities carved solely for the garish tourist markets wherever you are going. A larger pack will give you more options, but too large a pack will simply be unwieldy and heavy it and of itself. The Osprey Aether 60 is, for me, one of the perfect examples of a rucksack suited to independent travel. It is superbly comfortable to carry, tough enough to deal with being slug atop buses in South-East Asia, falling off tuk-tuks in Nepal and chained to whatever is available on trains traversing India. As I have said, the myriad pockets, nooks and crannies to be found in lots of Osprey packs are not present here and, where they are, they are useful. I am not personally ever going to use the top lid as a bum-bag but some might. The back-system is about as breathable as any rucksack of that size, carrying 10-15kg, could possibly be and at 1.8kg, it does not get any better.

6 comments:

  1. Enjoyed to read your "evolution" =)

    I'm using a Laufbursche huckepack rucksack, from a cottage manufacturer in Germany which will open his online shop in August. It is a great pack, 334 g with all bells & whistles and from Silnylon, he also makes a Dyneema version which is a bit over 400 g. Topnotch quality!

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  2. Might be worth trying to get one here in the UK to test! I am holding myself out as willing to test any kit anyone wants me to review... ;-)

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  3. This was recently posted in the UL/SUL page but it seems well put here:

    "Godber: Do you know if the modern no-framed rucksacks are suitable for those of us who suffer from back problems, or by the nature of its design does this sort of pack put more strain on the lower back to carry the load, rather than a frame to redistribute the weight?

    I presume that I could use something like the Gorilla (nice review btw) with no problems, as long as I ensure that I don't overload the pack in terms of weight and perhaps make more liberal use of the hipstrap to keep the pack positioned correctly.

    You talk about the "back system" on modern rucksacks. Could you explain this a little more for the less educated (i.e. me)? I'm guessing it's the "curved aluminium stays" that you talk about in your Gorilla review.

    Any advice on for better posture/technique of carrying the pack would also be most welcome.

    I'm wondering given the improved technology in terms of the fabrics used, if there are any situations where a framed pack would still be useful? I'd be interested to hear your (and anyone else's) comments on this..."

    I obviously have no chiropractic background so these are my own observations. If you have a lighter pack, with lighter gear in it, the weight is such (5kg is perfectly plausible before food & water, and those could be only 1kg for a weekend with my set-up) that the back is under far less strain so that the usual triggers of back pain do not exist. Secondly, 80% of the weight should be on the hips when compared to the shoulders which are for stability only. Thus, the strain on the back is again, consequently, reduced. I prefer a frame but the Gorilla has the advantage of being able to remove that frame to experiment. Secondly, although very effective, the frame is minimal (less than 100g). Backsystem is a term I use the describe the entirety of the system coming into contact with the back and the frame setting the structure of the back if there is such a frame, but more specifically the area that is permanently in contact with your back and most likely to require some sort of breathability. With the Gorilla, for example, it is provided by the Sitlight pad, or another sleeping mat, which comes with it. The "egg-carton" stippled effect assists air flow as well as being the usual format for CCF (Closed Vell Foam) sleeping mats like the Thermarest Z-Lite and the Gossamer Gear NightLight. In a more complicated backsystem, like the Aether, it will be very different and usually permanent. Frameless packs are still required for heavier loads - in my view anything over 6-7kg requires a frame if you're not used to frameless packs.

    ReplyDelete
  4. This was recently posted in the UL/SUL page but it seems well put here:

    "Godber: Do you know if the modern no-framed rucksacks are suitable for those of us who suffer from back problems, or by the nature of its design does this sort of pack put more strain on the lower back to carry the load, rather than a frame to redistribute the weight?

    I presume that I could use something like the Gorilla (nice review btw) with no problems, as long as I ensure that I don't overload the pack in terms of weight and perhaps make more liberal use of the hipstrap to keep the pack positioned correctly.

    You talk about the "back system" on modern rucksacks. Could you explain this a little more for the less educated (i.e. me)? I'm guessing it's the "curved aluminium stays" that you talk about in your Gorilla review.

    Any advice on for better posture/technique of carrying the pack would also be most welcome.

    I'm wondering given the improved technology in terms of the fabrics used, if there are any situations where a framed pack would still be useful? I'd be interested to hear your (and anyone else's) comments on this..."

    I obviously have no chiropractic background so these are my own observations. If you have a lighter pack, with lighter gear in it, the weight is such (5kg is perfectly plausible before food & water, and those could be only 1kg for a weekend with my set-up) that the back is under far less strain so that the usual triggers of back pain do not exist. Secondly, 80% of the weight should be on the hips when compared to the shoulders which are for stability only. Thus, the strain on the back is again, consequently, reduced. I prefer a frame but the Gorilla has the advantage of being able to remove that frame to experiment. Secondly, although very effective, the frame is minimal (less than 100g). Backsystem is a term I use the describe the entirety of the system coming into contact with the back and the frame setting the structure of the back if there is such a frame, but more specifically the area that is permanently in contact with your back and most likely to require some sort of breathability. With the Gorilla, for example, it is provided by the Sitlight pad, or another sleeping mat, which comes with it. The "egg-carton" stippled effect assists air flow as well as being the usual format for CCF (Closed Vell Foam) sleeping mats like the Thermarest Z-Lite and the Gossamer Gear NightLight. In a more complicated backsystem, like the Aether, it will be very different and usually permanent. Frameless packs are still required for heavier loads - in my view anything over 6-7kg requires a frame if you're not used to frameless packs.

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  5. hi, could you fit a z-lite inside the villain?

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  6. Certainly not a full size Z-Lite (if you mean in the small pocket that takes the Platformat). If you cut it down to 2 sections, it would still be a tight squeeze but I think that would be pointless anyway. You might be able to strap a full Z-Lite to the pack using the MSC Compressor, securing it at the top with the cord that comes with it.

    ReplyDelete