Women Outside, Fall 1998
Pardon us, if you will, for co-opting this bit of marketing jive: You don't carry a backpack; you wear it. Because origin be damned, there's plenty of truth to this bromide. Perfect fit has become the grail for designers of the almighty internal-frame pack, men and women who firmly believe that their most important mandate is to deliver us a product infinitely more customized than small, medium, and large.
The difficulty in realizing this goal has always been the astounding range of human torso lengths. To address this, manufacturers are now producing packs with an array of bags in different sizes, as well as adjustable shoulder yokes to further hone the fit. What's more, freedom of choice among shoulder straps and hipbelts is now the norm: You can, for example, find a belt with just the right flare to fit your anatomy and then combine it with straps of just the right width to hug the contours of your chest. Some offer even finer micro-adjustments. Given all these variables, it's best to find a shop with a pack-fitting expert and let the pro do the work.
Still, the basic design for the internal-frame backpack remains intact. One or two stays, extending from the top of the bag to the hipbelt, match the shape of the spine and transfer weight to the hips. Typically, a flexible framesheet of high-density polyethylene (HDPE) distributes weight across the back. Advances include structural hoops or rods of Delrin, a type of nylon, that extend around or along the sides of the bag; under tension, they snug a load closer to the back and bring weight to the sides of the hips. There's also a trend toward firmer foam: The best packs sandwich the stuff in layers of varying density so that belts and straps compress and disperse the load progressively — much like a shock absorber. In the case of the ten packs we've reviewed here, that load could occupy between about 4,000 and 6,000 cubic inches — plenty for a week-long trip.
Arc'Teryx Bora 80
The Bora 80 ($325) incorporates what you might call a greatest hits of structural devices — V-shaped aluminum stays, external fiberglass-composite rods, and an HDPE framesheet — that in combination manage 50 pounds in such a way that you can stride along almost unaware of your load. It doesn't hurt that the hipbelt is thoughtfully shaped to cradle the iliac crest of the hips and fashioned of a firm yet comfortable layer cake of closed- and open-cell foam. You may find the denser, compression-molded foam back panel a bit too firm at first, but you do get used to it over the long haul. The 4,800-cubic-inch pack, divided into two horizontal compartments, conveniently separates room from board, while a vertical zipper allows easy side access. A V-shaped front pocket with a drain keeps lightweight necessities, such as rain gear, close at hand.
Dana Design Alpine
At $415, the rather pricey Alpine probably shouldn't be anyone's starter pack. But if you've humped a wide variety of models over the years, you're sure to appreciate this, the apotheosis of the breed. The laminated foam padding is of the highest quality, and the construction of the belts and straps is impeccable, with nary a binding wrinkle in their durable nylon casings. Quite simply, the harness will support the biggest of loads without going mushy or, alternatively, bruising a hip bone. And Dana offers more hipbelt choices (six) than any other maker. Once you find the belt for you, the 5,000-cubic-inch Alpine will hug your back like a pet monkey. The pack features a shovel pocket versatile enough to carry a sleeping pad or even a snowboard, and a lid-cum-lumbar-pack that uses the bigger pack's hipbelt as its own — a hassle making the swap, but worth the added comfort.
Gregory Wind River
The Wind River ($305) is nothing if not a study in backpack evolution. Take its new-generation hipbelt, which adjusts for "cant": Women can flare it out to accommodate their more severe hip-to-waist angle; men can reel it in to keep full contact. Meanwhile, the shoulder pads are comfortably shaped, and the lumbar pad and back panel are as breathable as such padding can get, thanks to the reticulated foam. The 6,100-cubic-inch bag trumps Gregory's earlier top-loaders with a front pocket that yields access to the main compartment and a convertible lid that stows most hydration systems. As for performance, the Wind River's narrowish cut and V-configured stays create a nice harmony between flexibility and big-load haulability.
The Slickrock is a fine value at $225, but its many novelties are what will capture your attention. You can't help but notice the exposed, grooved aluminum stays — stronger than flat stays but half the weight. And though it doesn't come in different sizes, the entire shoulder harness can be repositioned to match a wide range of torso lengths. The 5,500-cubic-inch Slickrock also has nifty plumbing: an inside pouch for a hydration system and a slit that lets the drinking tube drape over either shoulder. The hipbelt could use a bit more starch for longer outings, but you have to love the ingenious adjuster that lets you snug it down by pulling each strap away from your stomach.
Lowe Alpine Netherworld 90
Lowe pared down the standard internal-frame structure in its Netherworld ($199) to offer an even more flexible alternative. With two aluminum stays but no rigid framesheet, it's the most malleable pack we reviewed — which makes it less than ideal for hauling heavy loads but a very nice choice for any outing involving 40 pounds or less. The 5,500-cubic-inch bag is well thought out, with two side pockets, a front pocket, and a front mesh pouch. At this price you give up some fit precision — there's just one size for men and one for women, but both have shoulder harnesses that can be repositioned to match different torsos. You forgo upper-back padding, too, but that shouldn't be a problem if you pack wisely — and besides, it allows airflow to keep your back cool.
Mountainsmith Revolution 55
Though it brims with innovative features, the Revolution 55 ($469) would be a fine pack even reduced to its essentials: a framesheet connected by two stays to a hipbelt that might seem too soft were it not backed by an HDPE stiffener. Two diagonal trim straps pull the load close for an exceptionally stable ride. Then there's Mountainsmith's famous inter-changeability: It's not enough that the lid doubles as a lumbar pack; it actually triples — via a telescoping sleeve — as a 1,700-cubic-inch daypack. The pack has a shovel pocket that, of course, detaches to make room for any number of accessories. If those permutations don't blow your mind, consider that you can remove the entire pack bag from the frame and sub a separately sold bag of a different size (from 3,500 cubic inches to 7,500 cubic inches), or even a baby carrier. The system certainly adds complication, but rest assured, wearing the Revolution doesn't feel like a compromise.
Natural Balance Trekker Light
Boulder up a talus field, stage an impromptu stone-skipping contest, dance a jig, whatever — no pack permits greater freedom of movement than the Trekker Light ($275), thanks to a clever design that allows its shoulder straps to swivel with your body as the pack stays still. The webbing slides behind the padding so that one side can lengthen — the other will draw tighter — as the corresponding shoulder swings forward. Slick mechanics aside, it's the shape of the pillowy hipbelt that will win you over: It forms a lip that hooks securely onto your skeleton, so there's no need to constantly hike the pack up and snug the belt ever tighter. The 5,000-cubic-inch bag is your basic top-loader with a lower bunk for a sleeping bag — no side or front pockets or convertible lid, but plenty functional.
With a Gore-Tex bootie sewn into the lining, the Sloppy packers rejoice: The Advent ($269) has a clever compression setup — dubbed the StraightJacket system — in which the sides of the single-compartment pack bag, stiffened with dense foam, envelop your load like a giant tortilla. The result is that even the most jumbled array of goods will cinch down for steady hauling. The voluminous top-loader clearly has capacity beyond its stated 4,500 cubic inches, but you always have access to your buried treasures through a horseshoe zipper on the front panel. You give up water-bottle and gizmo pockets, but the spare Advent handles a heavy load with a deftness that's impressive for its price.
The North Face Badlands
The Badlands is all the pack most of us will ever need, with an efficient, stable frame and an exceptionally convenient pack bag. Its rigid framesheet features extensions at the sides of the hips that act like flying buttresses to spread weight, and stiff aluminum stays give you excellent load transfer. The 5,500-cubic-inch pack is a delight on trails, but you do give up some flexibility: It holds you back from acrobatic shoulder movements, so you can forget the off-piste scrambling. The divider shelf between compartments retracts via a drawstring — easier to open or close than the zippered type — allowing you to leave a hole for long items like tent poles. And once you're packed, you cinch down the internal compression strap and voila: A neat little cavity appears so that the pack doesn't bump you in the back of the head.
VauDe Grand Canyon
Anyone who's been stuck on, say, Kauai's Na Pali Coast without a stack of Hefty bags will appreciate the Grand Canyon's standout attribute: waterproofness. You won't care that the bag's polyurethane-coated Cordura is stiff and somewhat crinkly, because it turns back water better than carnauba wax. Its fused seams are waterproof, too, and its zippers are protected by storm flaps. But the Grand Canyon ($389) is more than a foul-weather friend: A molded-nylon framesheet transfers weight to a dual-density hipbelt that's stiffened with a strip of polyethylene, and you can reposition the shoulder straps both horizontally and vertically to tailor it to your upper-body. The clean, pocketless lines of the 4,600-cubic-inch pack make it weigh about a pound less than most — something you'll appreciate regardless of the forecast.
Robert Earle Howells is the editor of the annual Outside Buyer's Guide.
Photographs by Clay Ellis