Outfitted for a seven-day trip with an ultralight pack (left) versus a load monster (right).

by Andy Dappen

Prelude: This pack review was originally prepared for Backpacker Magazine. A group of us did the ‘research’ in 2002 and the article was published in 2003. Most of these packs (or an improved version of them) were still available, so I’ve added some updated information at the end of each pack entry. Here’s the story.

PACKING HELIUM: The Ultralight Pack Challenge

The six packs in the pile seemed to be little more than stuff sacks with shoulder straps; none of them weighed more than two pounds; yet, if you believed the manufacturers, each was the perfect choice for ultralight treks and thru-hikes. That suggested the packs should be compared. An e-mail was dispatched announcing that I was looking for a few good masochists willing to join me on a 100-mile circuit around Washington’s Glacier Peak. We’d be carrying sub-30-pound loads (the upper limit of what the packs were designed to carry), walking 15 to 20 miles per day, and bagging peaks along the way. Each day the masochists would wear different packs, each evening they would fill out forms. Five friends, most of them enthusiasts of many outdoor sports, answered the call and volunteered to help with the Ultralight Pack Challenge.

Start of the test at the end of the White River Road (the original slide is reversed).

DAY 1: Kiskil Sports, Mithril, 20 oz
We meet at the White River Trailhead on the southeast border of the Glacier Peak Wilderness and spend several hours sorting group gear and eliminating excess baggage. We leave the cars carrying an average load of 31.5 pounds—this includes food for eight days, clothing for the frigid nights of mid September, and climbing tools for the peaks we will scale. The trail starts flat, but after four miles is strewn with salmonberries and deadfall to be pushed through. The Mithril pack I’m carrying is easily tough enough for this prickly trail; it is made of super-tough Spectra 1000. Because the nearly bulletproof Mithril is all white, Chuck nicknames it the Norwegian Army Camo Pack.

The Mithril ($225) was custom made from an outline of my torso and, having used many stock lightweight packs, I opted to test this one when our loads were heaviest—I wanted to know whether custom fitting really made a difference with “suspensionless” packs. Of course, the manufacturer argues that the Mithril does have suspension. By placing an ensolite (or Therm-a-Rest) pad inside the pack to form a barrel and then stuffing this barrel tightly with gear, the pad stiffens the pack so that the load can be transferred effectively between the shoulders and hips. Indeed, I found the Mithril comfortable and most of the testers with similar-sized torsos liked the way it carried. We also liked how it loaded–Gary’s comments that the many pockets made for easy packing was echoed by all.

We did, however, find some devils in the details of the Mithril. Though well made and the most durable pack we tested, we balked at the cinch straps connecting the upper pack to the shoulder pads—the pack must be removed to reposition these for load adjustment. There was no way to compression the bottom of of the pack to reduce volume during day trips. The top flap should be slightly larger to spill rain when the pack is filled to capacity. And Gina, commented that the white fabric “looked dingy by the end of the trip.”

The hefty price of this pack—expensive because of the customization and specialty fabric—drew a split decision. Steve felt it was not a good value. Chuck believed that the security of knowing your pack would not disintegrate in the field was worth a premium and said, “The extra cost may bear out with additional years of use.”

2010 Update: This is the one manufacturer from this review that doesn’t seem to be producing packs anymore—a quick web search didn’t lead us to the manufacturer or the pack. That web search did make us aware of the Six Moon Design’s Starlite Pack (4,200 cu in, 1lb 9 oz) that has been well rated in other tests.

DAY 2: LW Gear, One Pound Plus, 30oz
Fifteen drizzly miles up the White River Trial we enter the sub-alpine zone and intersect the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). Half an hour later we encounter PackMan, a solo hiker carrying a 75-pound load. We chat and learn that our paths will intersect again as we circle Glacier Peak in opposite directions. He plods off slowly while we bolt.

The One-Pound Plus on right and the Virga (next entry) on the left.

Today I’m carrying the One-Pound Plus ($114), which should really be called the Two-Pound Minus. The pack’s body is made of a 1000-denier nylon mesh, as are its two side pockets. The mesh gives an appearance of flimsiness but the three longitudinal compression straps stiffened the load nicely. Meanwhile, most of us agreed with Witt who said the cinch straps connecting the pack to the shoulder straps and hip belt made the One-Pound-Plus extremely comfortable to carry. This product exemplified how judicious weight additions improved functionality, comfort, and versatility.

However, those of us from the wet, brushy Northwest agreed with Gary who said the pack used the poorest material. In some climates the mesh would allow dew-dampened sleeping bags dry in transit, but during the drizzly day I carried it, I had to plastic bag my load. Later, Witt tore several strands of the mesh while bushwhacking, and Gina commented the mesh would collect and hold snow on winter trips. Several of us would have rated this our favorite pack had it been made of 210-denier Spectra.

2010 Update: The One-Pound Plus has morphed into the Katahdin Pack (weight 22 ounces), which use silnylon rather than netting and fixes the shortcomings of the netting. This is a good application of silnylon, but I think a Spectra-version of this pack would rock.  Contact: LW Gear, www.lwgear.com.

DAY 3: Granite Gear, Virga, 20 oz
“The last time I traveled through here, I was a third the age carrying three times the weight,” Gary says. In high school, Gary guided groups of Boy Scouts up the 10,500-foot volcano before us, humping 80-pound loads. Today, we travel cross country over grass slopes, talus fields, and blue glaciers to reach the South Ridge of Glacier Peak. Once on the ridge, we fly uphill, flash past a group of Outward Bound Instructors visiting from Minnesota, and stand on the summit under slanting September sunlight. “This style of travel is waaay more fun than how the Boy Scouts did the peak,” Gary concludes.

During the ascent I used Granite Gear’s Virga ($85) and appreciated the way it clamped to my back as we scrambled through steep pitches of unstable rubble. Here a fall would have been dangerous and balance was important. Later, as we glissaded the Sitkum Glacier and boulder hopped down to lower elevations, the Virga’s stability was much appreciated.

I was not alone in rating the Virga my favorite pack—we all gave it a first- or second-place rating. We liked the rugged 420-denier Rex-Twill fabric (a nylon-polyester mix) reinforcing wear areas . We liked the shoulder-cinching straps and sternum straps. Most of the tested packs lacked top lids and the majority agreed with Steve, who thought the Virga’s crossing top straps was the best closure-system tested.

Everyone liked the pack’s versatility as well. The compression straps can hold wet tarps, skis, and pads outside of the pack. And Chuck noted, “When we needed a pack to compression down small for side trips, everyone asked, ‘Where’s the Virga?’” However, the vote was split on the pack’s pockets made of Durastretch-Vapex, which kept the pack streamlined when pockets weren’t needed yet stretched to hold a surprising number of sundries. Chuck noted, “really liked this approach,” while Gary wrote that he preferred baggy fabric pockets.

The group did agree on two points of criticism. The 1.5” webbing used for the hip belt stabilized loads but Granite Gear could take a lesson from either GVP Gear or GoLite by employing fabric gussets to improve comfort without boosting weight. And then there was the name. It’s hard to imagine how the marketers at Granite Gear missed the visual similarity between Virga and Viagra. Like a boy named Sue, a pack named Viagra was the butt of many jokes.

2010 Update: The Virga is still available and still and excellent ultralight pack. At the end of this article I discuss what our testers thought would make the perfect ultralight pack (a larger and slightly enhanced Virga). Currently, Granite Gear’s Vapor Trail is awfully close to that mark. Contact: Granite Gear, www.granitegear.com.

DAY 4: GVP Gear, G4, 16 oz
It’s a trail-only day as we reconnect with the PCT and stomp up several 2500-vertical-foot ridges and trudge down trenches equally deep. For 20 miles, we are either ascending or descending. And my feet are torturing me. The group is calling me Tin Man because every toe is cocooned in silver duct tape.

What didn’t hurt was my back. The G4 pack ($85) I used had a Z-Rest sleeping pad stacked right against my back. Most of us rated this one-pound pack (our lightest entry) extremely comfortable for trail walking. We liked the large mesh pockets that kept items handy for the day. We felt the pack would be excellent for long-distance hikes where comfort, large capacity and weight savings were coveted criteria.

As multi-sport enthusiasts, however, we found the G4 lacking. It did not compression well and drooped dismally when we used it to carry necessities on peak-bagging excursions. The rolling top closure did not go far enough; as our food supplies dwindled, it took some improvisational lashing to keep the pack taut. The 2.2-ounce ripstop nylon used on the non-wear areas kept the pack light but came with a pamper price, as we discovered when the ice axe strapped to the pack punched several holes though the fabric. Finally, the hip belt attached to the bottom center third of the G4 (rather than to the outside edges) allowed the pack to pivot nicely when hiking (a benefit) but contributed to erratic weight shifts when scrambling.

2010 Update. The G4 Pack is now distributed through www.GossamerGear.com.

DAY 5: Ultralight Adventure Equipment, P1, 27 oz
We spend part of the day on the PCT, part of the day bushwhacking up the old Middle Ridge Trail in pursuit of one of Steve’s favorite past times—finding and following abandoned trails. The P1 I’m using is well suited to the endeavor and hugs my back snuggly as we climb over logs and push through chest-high huckleberry thickets. Reinforced in wear areas with 210-denier Spectra, I’m not worried about puncturing the fabric. On the first day out, a taped seam by the small of the back unraveled and inspired Gary to quip, “A pack that gets lighter with every step.” But Gary also rated the P1 his favorite pack, noting that it was well sewn and that the failed seam was a fluke.

As a group, we liked the top closure of the P1 ($150) which allowed excess space to be rolled up and snapped into a tight wad like a whitewater bag. This wad could be further compressed by means of a strap over the top. We liked the pack’s mesh pockets with their one-handed drawstring closures. And most of us liked the hip belt—a lot. It was padded but light, and the zippered pockets sewn onto the belt gave immediate access to candy bars, point-and-shoot cameras, and blister supplies.

Despite its many attributes, the ULA created some controversy. Gina was rightfully annoyed that some of her sundries fell out of the oversized drain holes in the bottom of the mesh side pockets (a little hand sewing fixed that problem). Gina also wrote, “The pack pulled my shoulders back, I had pain between my shoulder blades all day.” Gina believes she needed to test the pack in a smaller size, but the fact that she and Gary have similar shoulder, torso, and hip measurements underscores the fact that fitting a pack is one part science, one part voodoo.

2010 Update: The P1 is no longer part of the product line. Currently, ULA has five ultralight packs including the Catalyst (4,600 cubic inches, 2 lbs 15 oz), Circuit (4,200 cu in, 2lbs 4 oz), and the OHM (3,500 cu in, 1lb 7 oz). Contact: Ultralight Adventure Equipment, www.ula-equipment.com.

DAY 6: GoLite, Gust, 20 oz

Today we walk on high-country trails along a bifurcated divide overlooking glacier-smothered summits like Clark Mountain, Luahna Peak, and Kololo Peaks. These mountains are old acquaintances—ones I have climbed on previous trips. Around mid morning, we encounter another acquaintance—PackMan stands on the rock slabs flanking the far side of a very icy snowfield. We don crampons and walk easily across the snow to where he stands. He has no crampons and his progress is stalled—the snow is too hard for leather boots, the rock slabs too precarious to downclimb with his massive pack. I ferry his pack across the snow so that he can scramble the rock slabs unencumbered. Two hundred yards of carrying that crushing load eloquently explains why we have traveled twice as far as PackMan.

I am carrying the largest volume packs today, the GoLite Gust, and although it is a tick beside the cockroach of PackMan’s load monster, we use it to haul bulky gear like the cook kit. Despite its volume, with its contoured cut, durable but light 210-denier Spectra fabric, large back pocket, and comfortable but streamlined hip belt, the Gust ($99) is very close to being an ideal lightweight companion.

Witt, however, put his finger on its shortcomings when he labeled the Gust, “King of the no frills.”

We found the stripping of frills went too far. One afternoon when we scrambled up Napeequa Peak after establishing camp, the Gust hung like a burlap sack because the pack lacked compression straps. Meanwhile, when the pack was full, it hung back from the shoulders and there were no cinching straps to snug the load against the back. Finally, some of us objected to digging into the bowels of the pack for a water bottle. We felt a few key features would transform this middle-of-the-road performer into a top pick.

2010 Update: If you need a fairly large-capacity ultralight pack, the GoLite’s Pinnacle (4,400 cu in, 2 lbs ) is an updated and improved version of the Gust. The Pinnacle appears to be a Gust that addressed the very things we griped about. Contact: GoLite, www.golite.com.

DAY 7

From a timberline camp, we drop thousands of vertical feet into the Napeequa River Valley, wade the river, and ascend thousands of vertical feet to Boulder Pass. From here, it’s an 11-mile downhill push to the cars. Throughout the day we swap packs to fine-tune our thoughts about each. By the time we reach the cars, our feet are weary. Our necks, shoulders, backs, and hips, however, are fresh. That’s convincing testimony about the benefits of ultralight travel…and convincing testimony that, despite our needling criticisms, this is a fine bunch of packs. All of these products will find users who truly believe they’ve found the perfect companion for their ultralight treks.

THE PERFECT ULTRALIGHT PACK

Whittling can go too far. In the sub-two-pound arena of ultralight packs, sometimes pounds of functionality are lost in the attempt to save ounces of weight. The six testers involved in this review put a premium on versatility and our

Top row: Mithril (white) and the Virga (our top pick). Bottom row: Gust (left), P1, One-Pound Plus, and G4 (right).

We disagreed over the pockets—some of us preferred mesh pockets like the P1 or the One Pound Plus, others the stretch pockets of the Virga. And we differed in our thoughts about the top closure—some thought the Virga had it right, but I believed all these packs could take a lesson from the different roll-and-snap closures employed by whitewater bags (the P1 was closest to the mark here).

The omission of a built-in suspension system is a major area where lightweight packs shed pounds of weight. With lightweight packs you build your own suspension by packing them properly. Here are the basic strategies:

1)The Back Pad. Several makers of packs recommend using a Z-Rest sleeping pad as a flat surface against the back—it’s comfortable, hugs the back well, and provides vertical stiffness to support the load. A ¾-length Therm-a-Rest pad, folded in quarters and slightly inflated, gives similar benefits.

2)The Barrel. GoLite and Kiskil Sports recommend using a normal ensolite pad (or a partially inflated Therm-a-Rest) to line the inside perimeter of the pack like a barrel. Pack the area inside this barrel tightly with gear and the pad vertically stiffens the pack and cushions the back.

3)Twin Stuff Sacks. Use a sleeping pad against the back (method 1) and two long, thin, waterproof stuff sacks densely packed with gear (sleeping bag, coat, extra clothes, tent poles…) as side-by-side vertical stiffening pillars. Use compression straps and other gear (canteens, raingear, food, fuel bottles) to plaster these two stuff sacks against the sleeping pad.

This article was originally published in 2003.

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