Workaday Packs

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, September 1996

Workaday Packs

Expedition-grade features in bags for the short haul
By Bob Howells

I still have the old klettersack that as a mountaineering instructor I used to take on long day hikes, laden beyond the brim with the Ten Essentials and then some. Though it was made well enough to endure 20 years of trail trials, that basic top-loading daypack portaged weight as comfortably as a potato sack outfitted with shoulder straps.

The chore of day-load carrying has evolved considerably, thanks to lessons that pack makers have learned from perfecting expedition designs that place the load on the hips and adjust to fit the user. Hence the modern technical daypack, sized between 2,000 and 3,000 cubic inches (just shy of weekend capacity) and able to convey up to 25 pounds with far better than potato-sack facility.

The best haulers use an internal framework to conform the pack to your body, so that it adheres to your center of gravity rather than establishing one of its own. A plastic framesheet along the back panel and one or two vertical aluminum stays provide structure, and a padded hipbelt prevents the weight from merely hanging on the shoulders. Finer touches add comfort and cost: Trim straps at the hips snug the pack bottom into the lumbar region, lift straps atop the shoulder straps alleviate that downward-tug discomfort, and a choice of hipbelts helps fine-tune the fit. Most of the packs reviewed here come in several sizes as well (our testers are medium types).

All else is design preference. Top-loaders, which have an awning-like lid that cinches down over your gear, can be overstuffed; panel-loaders can be fileted open for easier access. An avalanche-shovel pocket really gives most of us a place to cram a rain jacket or doubles as a convenient sit pad. Lash points and compression straps are receptacles for skis, crampons, ice axes, or whatnot. Don't fret materials, for all these packs are plenty strong and abrasion-resistant.

The Jandd Mountaineering Zoor Alpinist (2,700 cubic inches, $106) and Lowe Alpine Half Dome 40 (2,400 cubic inches, $89) prove that a moderate load--under 20 pounds--can be carried comfortably without a framesheet or stays. Both packs are cut to eliminate the need for such support, tucking weight into the small of the back. The Zoor Alpinist is the choice for bigger loads, not just because of its overall size, but because it has a ten-inch extension sleeve and telescoping top pocket to batten down your overstuffed stuff. Plus, it has a broad mesh hipbelt to disperse the extra weight. The Half Dome, also a top-loader, has a spartan strip of 1.5-inch webbing for a hipbelt, and that's fine for lighter loads. Its light weight (two pounds, five ounces, while most packs here weigh well over three pounds) and body-hugging fit make it perfect for climbing or scrambling.

As a panel-loader, Kelty's Red Wing (2,400 cubic inches, $85) doesn't have expandable capacity, but its easy-access design is perfectly practical for less bulky loading, and the price is right. The suspension is simple--two stays combined with a back panel of injection-molded foam that's dense enough to serve as a faux framesheet--and is comfortable with loads of up to 15 pounds. Most technical daypacks eschew side pockets to preserve balance when climbing or skiing, but the Red Wing has two--perfectly sized to carry a pair of water bottles on a moderate hike.

Though Jansport's Alpine Pack (2,850 cubic inches, $120) has a fairly simple suspension system, it's built more for scurrying in comfort than trudging with big burdens. The framesheet isn't stiffened with stays, so it's flexible but not so adept at transferring weight to the hips, and the pillowy hipbelt is a delight under loads up to 15 pounds but goes mushy beyond that. The panel-opening design has a hinged shovel pocket that folds down to cradle the tail of a snowboard, keeping it from extending too far above the pack.

REI's SnowGhost (2,030 cubic inches, $120) is a panel-loader with an internal frame that can handle significant loads. It has a nifty shovel pocket that drops down for snowboard duty and is padded with thin, dense foam, making it very strong and stable--and perfect as a cushioned seat, with the pack itself the backrest. The SnowGhost's hipbelt is exceptional: It's made of stiff, foam-lined plastic that's slotted along your belt line, leaving an open channel for your hipbones to protrude and allowing it to flex with the rocking of your pelvis, even while supporting a heavy load. The belt also easily adjusts to accommodate both the conical shape of a woman's hips and the straighter shape of a man's.

You won't want to schlepp really heavy loads with the MontBell Chya Chya 35 (2,475 cubic inches, $129), as it lacks a padded hipbelt. It does, however, offer a lot of features for the money. Its two stiff stays (there's no framesheet) form a V from the shoulders down to neatly deposit the pack bottom into the small of the back; carrying 15-pound loads is no problem. The top pocket extends to cover oversize cargo, and if you do overstuff it, a convenient side zipper lets you get inside without embarking on a fishing expedition. The shoulder strap harness can be positioned anywhere along the length of the pack, making the single-size Chya Chya adjustable for most torsos.

My 20-year-old klettersack is a Wilderness Experience model, and although the new King Kletter (2,730 cubic inches, $139) has the same clean, no-frills look, it greatly updates the concept. The padded back, for example, is channeled to keep your back cool and dry--though the foam may be too firm for some. The pack is a top-loader with side panels and lid made of Spandura (Spandex meets Cordura) for a bit of stretch when you really cram it full. It also has a handy vertical zipper along one side of the back panel for a little extra access. A framesheet, single stay, and padded hipbelt carry most any day load, though I missed trim straps to really snug it in tight.

What makes Mountainsmith's Rock-It (2,275 cubic inches, $149) a great climbing bag also makes it a great daypack. Top and panel zippers mean you can easily fish out whatever you need, and a vertical center divider separates rope from rack or parka from lunch. Unlike the others, it's not a ski pack--no ski pockets--but a front pocket, a built-in bungee, and two sets of daisy-chain lash points let you secure whatever else doesn't fit inside. It all rides in comfort thanks to a framesheet and two stays, a hipbelt that's unpadded but broad enough to disperse the weight of the load, and two trim straps to bring it in close. One quibble: The shoulder straps are so thick and rectangular that they dig into my chest.

The North Face consulted scores of ski-patrol types in designing its Patrol Pack (2,600 cubic inches, $150), and it shows. Not only does it carry a pair of skis neatly--front and center, between a small slotted front pocket and the pack body, with compression straps spaced just right to frame the bindings--it comfortably handles a lot of weight (framesheet and stays, padded hipbelt with trim strap). Its surfeit of straps might confuse a casual user, but each has a technical purpose. The result?It'll carry just about anything anywhere. Inside, it's a top-loader with a four-inch extension sleeve. My prototype test pack needed more padding at the bottom of the stays; folks at The North Face say they're on the case.

If I had to carry a couple of bowling balls into the backcountry, I'd put 'em in Dana Design's Big Sky (2,200 cubic inches, $199). No daypack I've used carries a heavy load quite so comfortably--a result of a number of fine touches. Where most packs' shoulder straps basically follow a straight line, Dana's are sculpted to suit a human torso, and their underside is a soft, no-sweat polypropylene. Plus, the shoulder harness adjusts for torso length and shoulder width. The Big Sky has a framesheet and one stay, and the hipbelt, which comes in four sizes, is sewn to eliminate hot-spot-causing wrinkles. As for the bag itself, it's a panel-opener with a daisy chain, trim straps, and Dana's clever Shovit pocket on the front--a great place to secure anything beyond the Ten Essentials.

Bob Howells is executive editor of the Outside Buyer's Guide and a former mountaineering instructor with the Sierra Club.

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