Gear Guy

What do you think of packs with separate suspension systems?

All-knowing Gear Guru, I intrigued by Dana Gleason's concept of separating a backpack's suspension and pack into two separate components. Is this idea worthwhile? Also, Kelty is "the first licensee" of Gleason's Mystery Ranch System, and Kelty's line is significantly cheaper. Is there any difference? Dion San Francisco, California

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Separating packs from their suspensions is an idea that seems to make a lot of sense. You buy a single pack suspension-the shoulder straps, hip belt, back piece-then attach to it a bag that is suited for a particular trip. Weekender? Then a 3,500 cubic inch bag. Two-week trek? Load up with 6,500 cubic inches. Of course such a device is also a clever marketing tool. You buy the frame, then you’re on the hook to buy all the other bags.

And consumers seem to resist that, which I understand. About five years ago, Mountainsmith came out with a pack called the Revolution, which was a riff on the one-frame-many-bags theme. It lasted one season, and I never have seen one in actual use. Two years ago, Dana Gleason, founder of Dana Designs, weighed in with his new Mystery Ranch (now called The Works) pack line. This is a full line of packs, from day bags to expedition-sized monsters, built on two basic suspensions. They’re beautiful packs, of course-Gleason is a genius at pack design-but wildly expensive. The Alpacka, for instance, is a 5,600-cubic-inch model that sells for $515, with suspension.

Gleason has since sold rights to his packs to Kelty, a mid-range pack maker that doesn’t compete directly with Mystery Ranch. And its better access to low-cost suppliers and manufacturers (and less compunction about using same) allows it to shave big bucks off the price of a pack. The result: The Kelty Bigfoot 5200, a very nicely designed pack for weeklong trips, costs just $250.

Is there a difference? Of course. The Mystery Ranch packs will have better construction, heavier materials, and more attention to detail. But Kelty packs are perfectly good for 90 percent of backpackers. Combine their standard construction with the good Gleason suspension design, and you have an excellent pack.

I don’t know off hand if any of these packs are really selling all that well but my feeling is that this could be one of those sounds-good-over-a-beer ideas, like surfing the Web from a wireless phone, that consumers have simply decided they can live without.

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