Yeah, youre right. Its true that todays lighter loads (smaller tents, more compact sleeping bags, etc.) and the demographic trend toward shorter trips has somewhat reduced the need for ginormous, continent-swallowing, pack-enough-kit-for-a-month backpacks. But theres still a place for that carry-anything pack, especially if youre stuck performing as pack mule for others.
These days a safe default choice for such a pack is the Marmot Astralplane ($399; marmot.com), based on the classic Dana Gleason design from the 1980s. Its still an extremely effective load-hauler, with a whopping 7,000 cubic inches of capacity in the medium-sized pack. The shoulder pads and waist belt are interchangeable for a semi-custom fit. And its Arc Flex frame system remains one of the most effective out there.
Gregorys Whitney ($340; gregorypacks.com) is another worthwhile big-pack contender. While not quite as cavernous as the Astralplane, at 5,450 cubic inches its still a big pack. It sports lots of pockets and tie-down points for packing efficiency. Most importantly, it has a way-above-average suspension, with light aluminum stays and a frame sheet for extra support and to protect your back.
A pack that doesnt get enough attention in this category is the Cirrus Access FZ 7000 ($420; granitegear.com) from Granite Gear, a relatively unheralded company that makes top-notch stuff. The FZ 7000 matches the Astralplane for gear-gulping capacity, with a little more modern design that incorporates a carbon frame sheet for light weight and efficient load transfer.
Dana Gleason, the wizard behind the Astralplane, is still around. His current company is Mystery Ranch (mysteryranch.com), based in Bozeman, Mont., from whence he launched Dana Designs back in the early 1980s. His flagship pack today is the G7000, an Astralplane-sized monster that looks an awful lot like the Astralplane, with its top pocket, long vertical back pockets, and big sleeping bag compartment. Gleason touts the packs lumbar wrap" that helps stabilize and distribute loads of up to 80 pounds. Eighty pounds! Thats half a Gear Guy! I hauled that much to the Enchantment Lakes once. Never again. This pack aint cheap at $550. But it can carry the freight.
Check out the new 2007-2008 Winter Outside Buyers Guide, packed with reviews of more than 300 new gear must-haves. Its available on newsstands this month.