Buying Right: Roomy Packs for the Lower Back

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Review, June 1997

Buying Right: Roomy Packs for the Lower Back
By Nancy Prichard

Waltz into any reputable gear shop and announce that you're looking for a fanny pack, and you'll be politely corrected: They're called lumbar packs, if you please. It's a good distinction. Instead of resting on your fanny, lumbar packs use sophisticated suspension systems to draw the load into the small of your back, distributing weight over your pelvis. The upshot? With this season's large-capacity (850 to 1,400 cubic inches) lumbar packs, you can travel nimbly with cargo you'd otherwise need to throw into a more cumbersome daypack.

Increasingly, lumbar packs are tailored for specific activities, but however you muck about, you'll want a few standard items, such as a durable plastic frame sheet, stays, or a semirigid plastic rod to help maintain the pack's shape, and an adjustable suspension system. If you're hauling more than ten pounds, you'll need ample cushioning at the small of your back and compression straps at each hip to snug it all in tight. Features like water bottle pockets, ski slots, ice ax loops, optional shoulder straps, and exterior flaps are nice, and the number and combination of these will help you settle on the pack for you. Among the following six packs that we tested (with 15 pounds of gear) is one that should suit your needs.

Cascade Designs Seal Pak
The Cascade Designs Nylon Lumbar Seal Pak ($67; 800-531-9531) is essentially a boater's dry bag encased in a wide, nylon waist belt. Ideal for river-runners and foul-weather folk alike, the 860-cubic-inch Seal will keep your lunch and cell phone dry whether you're piloting a raft or hiking in a monsoon. The mesh waist belt dries quickly, but it lacks the necessary padding and rigidity to haul much more than ten pounds of gear.

Dana Designs Gallatin
The lightweight Dana Designs Gallatin ($69; 406-587-4188) is named for one of Montana's famous fly-fishing rivers, but it's much more than a glorified tackle box. It employs an abbreviated frame sheet and stabilizing plastic rod, which provide excellent support for the pack's 900-cubic-inch main compartment. A nice touch for short-waisted folk is an adjustable, padded waist belt that slides vertically to provide a custom fit. A rubber front flap to haul snowshoes and the like adds to the Gallatin's versatility.

Gregory Mirage Mojave
If staying hydrated is of major concern, consider Gregory's Mirage Mojave ($95; 800-477-3420), a 900-cubic-inch pack with an insulated, 3.5-liter drinking system. It supports its load with a waist belt reminiscent of those on Gregory's sturdy daypacks: heavily padded, thoughtfully contoured, and comfortably cool, thanks to a sweat-wicking liner. It takes some experimenting to figure out how best to secure the drinking tube, but you'll appreciate not having to reach for water.

Mountainsmith Backcountry Courier
The biggest of the bunch at 1,414 cubic inches, the Mountainsmith Backcountry Courier ($110; 800-426-4075) is a true SUV of the lumbar pack scene. It boasts an exterior mesh gear hammock, water bottle pockets, and gear attachments galore, making it game for almost any outdoor activity. Two internal stays keep the Courier's upright shape from flopping over, and a wide nylon waist belt transfers weight surprisingly well, although it could feel a little slight if you intended to carry 40 pounds — its official capacity.

Osprey Flash
Big but not bulky, the 1,000-cubic-inch Osprey Flash ($89; 970-882-2221) is just what you need for most outings. Stuff it full of fleece and PB&Js and the Flash remains streamlined enough for tree skiing or negotiating tight singletrack. And while it has water bottle pockets and a flap for lashing gear, it's not entwined with unnecessary straps. A combination of a plastic frame sheet and a Delrin loop distributes weight evenly, and a generously padded waist belt does a commendable job with lighter loads.

Treknology Double Diamond
The Treknology Double Diamond ($99; 800-873-5725) is a favorite of the Moab Mountain Bike Patrol, and for good reason. Similar in size (1,375 cubic inches) and shape to the Mountainsmith Backcountry Courier, the Double Diamond uses detachable, padded shoulder straps to provide a little breathing room on long climbs: Just loosen the padded waist belt and let your upper body shoulder the load. Skiers will love the Treknology too, thanks to side channels that stabilize boards better than any other design I've tried. Bonus: The foam cushioning for the frame sheet doubles as a backcountry bleacher pad.

Photographs by Clay Ellis

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