C’mon now, really. How often does a credible new pack company come along? It seems that relatively few makers delve seriously into backpacks, and fewer still into packs that would interest those of us in the ultralight and, increasingly, the broader backpacking community. When I first heard of the Boreas Buttermilks 55 I had little to go on: I knew it was a 3 pound 1 ounce, framed, 55 liter pack (much to their credit, my sample only weighed 2 pounds 12.5 ounces. The pack cover itself weighs an additional 3.6 ounces). At the very least it sounded worth a try!
A clean and stream-lined pack that still has user-friendly features and a full-on frame.
After receiving the pack, my initial impressions were all favorable. First, let me quell the fears of those who tremble at the mention of an unfamiliar company: this ain’t no rinky-dink pack. They did quite a nice job. The pack design is simple and stream-lined, yet comprehensive. There is a large but “fitted” spandex-y center back pocket that proved excellent for swallowing rain gear and such. Two compression straps are thoughtfully placed on each side, the lower strap either overlaying or routed under a stretchy side pocket. The top of the pack is a simple roll-up with a strap buckling over the top. There is a single medium-sized zippered pocket that the factory rain cover was stashed in; I found the horizontal pocket, located just above the back stretch pocket, perfect for my little “daily” sundries.
The little stash pocket is in a perfect position for quick and easy access, with no fumbling about or spilling of contents.
The lines of the pack are clean, devoid of unnecessary or showy color-contrasting curved panels. Turquoise webbing, neatly placketed on each side of the back, and a single centered piece securing the top, are really the only accents. There is a hydration port on each upper corner of the pack, though I just strap my bladder on top and find the ports superfluous.
The back-side of the pack, or rather, the working side, or if you want to get confusing, the front-side, the part interfacing with your sweaty body, inspired both confidence and quizzical considerations. The upper-most portion of the back, the “shoulders” of the pack if you will, are as clearly defined and toned as an athlete’s. There is a slight curvature away from your body behind the head, and a relatively tightly-radiused curve of the upper frame rod down into its effective stay on each side of the pack. Those stays radius body-ward from the upper-most stretch, until about 5 inches down, where they curve back away, following the curvature of the back. The space or panel in this entire upper region of the pack is smooth and semi-rigid, and gives the appearance of a pack frame that will provide more than adequate support for its loads. I liked that there is a solid 5” gap between the attachment of the load lifters at the top of the frame, and the attachment of the shoulder harness at the top of the back pad. That kind of differential in rise affords ample range for the lifters to, you know, lift. (Nice detail: hypalon-ish thumb loops on the load lifter straps.)
Taut frame, ready for duty
The back pad itself was not quite as confidence-inspiring as the upper reaches. It isn’t the pale blue of the foam, nor the holes punched in the foam, nor the corrugations of the foam, nor the curvature or even shape of the pad. But something about the combination of all those things is slightly off-putting. I have been trying to “reason out” this subjective impression, and I believe that part of it is because the pad and panel seem quite counter to the under-stated design of the rest of the pack. But logic does abide in this impression, as well. The curvature of the pack’s lumbar region is over-exaggerated, in my opinion. There is a bit too much protrusion of the lumbar pad, not consistent with the slightly less pronounced though perhaps slightly over-bent upper back contour. (More on this later.) I found that I also was questioning the utility of combined hole-punches and corrugations, which seemed born out later in testing. All that said, it is a fine and professionally executed back panel.
A curvy and waffly back panel, plus an unencumbered view of the hipbelt wings.
The shoulder harness is perhaps a little straighter in appearance than I would expect, with slightly less curvature around the neck than seems standard, but was reasonably comfortable. The foam is die-cut. Not sure if this helped with airflow or not, to tell you the truth, but could also be to address foam compressibility and weight. The uncut foam seems a little thicker and stiffer in-hand than others… just an observation during overviews, not something noticed on the trail.
That brings us down to the hipbelt. From what I’ve seen on the retail floor, many consumers expect a far beefier hipbelt than necessary. There seems to be a desire for hulking Hummer-esque hipbelts. But as many of us in the ultralight world have found, a much lighter-duty hipbelt can do the trick perfectly. When I first saw the Buttermilks’ hipbelt, I’ll admit that at absolute first-blush it struck me as flimsy and a wee lame. Then I felt ashamed of myself, and allowed that it would probably work just fine. The zippered pocked on each side is large enough for a compact digital camera or a few energy bars.
On the trail with a full load. My 14-year old pup gets spoiled with her own Therm A Rest, plenty of show, a long tether for camp, and a bit of insulation for night. Great for testing packs, not so great for base weight!
On-trail I found the Boreas Buttermilks 55 a relatively comfortable and delightfully appointed pack. The features were exactly what I want and need in a pack, nothing more or less. The pockets were all well-sized and practical, compression straps all worked well in both actual compression and physical operation. I found myself using the hipbelt pockets more than I ever have before on a pack. It was a relief not having a floppy ol’ lid on top, getting in the way. The small zippered pocket was perfect.
I did find a few concerns in terms of carry comfort. The most obvious warning flag was that I found myself fiddling with adjustments quite regularly. Constant fiddling is a good sign that something about the pack doesn’t fit well. Properly fitted and adjusted, you should be able to pretty much put on a pack, fine-tune your adjustments, and hike away. You should, essentially, be able to forget about the pack, its burden, and its contact with your body… as much as possible or realistic.
Evaluating the cause of my fiddling found a few contributing factors. First, I felt that the upper region of the shoulder strap does need more clearance around the neck. Second, I found a pervasive pressure on my lumbar region, countered by the most mild of pulling-away sensation toward the upper back (yes, even with the load lifters fully engaged). I believe that the lumbar pad is curved and formed as to be too bulky, and that this character might be influenced by the overall curvature of the frame. I would recommend a little less “stylistic” curvature of the frame, slightly less differential in the convex lumbar region versus the concave upper back. That said, I think that the primary reason I noticed these points was because of the hipbelt.
Can you imagine… 55 liters of buttermilk?!
Although I have used packs with flimsier hipbelts and found those belts perfectly adequate for ultralight loads, this hipbelt is not particularly well designed. The first problem is that it is too stubby. It would probably fit great on a pubescent teen or the uber ectomorph. The problem caused by the stubby belt is that it does not wrap around the iliac crest enough to lock the belt in place on your skeletal structure. End result, the pack keeps slipping down. I could not keep the pack in place. It would relentlessly creep down below my iliac crest, and I would again hoist the pack and cinch the belt and feel the creep back down. If the hipbelt were slightly stiffer, or had some structure above and below the center of the belt, it might grip the small section of iliac crest available to it sufficiently enough to hold the pack in place. But if I were doing a re-design, I would both lengthen the belt slightly and create slightly more structure above and below the center of the belt.
The last concern I had was the sternum strap. Either the specs of a sternum strap component are off, or the curvature of the lower part of the harness exerts too great a force on the sternum strap, because the strap does not stay in position. I found that the sternum strap consistently crept upward from whatever lower position I used. There is both a surprising amount of (relative) curvature at the low end of the shoulder strap, and the slider adjustment (while smooth) needs a little more friction; in short, I think both contribute to the creeping sternum strap. The creeping isn’t a deal breaker, but was one of the more irritating aspects of the pack on-trail. If I position the strap to pull tension in an area, I don’t want it to go back to position “A” all the time!
The sternum strap slider is remarkably, wonderfully easy to reposition. Unfortunately, it also just as easily UNpositions itself.
Boreas’ Buttermilks 55 strikes me, in many regards, as an ideal “jack of all trades” pack for the light to ultralight crowd. The design is uncluttered, but still manages to provide key features and more conventional suspension. I think that the perception or experience of some people with ultralight packs is that of packs that have no frame and use socks as shoulder-strap padding. This is not that kind of pack. The shoulder straps and padding are “real.” The hipbelt, well, is verging on “real.” I would not recommend this pack to someone who might consider themselves stocky. Actually, I would primarily recommend this pack to those who consider themselves thin… at least until Boreas adds a little length and structure to the belt (not the webbing, there’s plenty of webbing to go around… just more of the actual support part of the belt is needed).
What stood out the most during field testing was the mismatch of the pack frame to the pack hipbelt. The frame on the Buttermilks is pretty darn substantial for an ultralight pack. I am confident that the frame could handle just about any typical load I squeezed in there. The hipbelt, on the other hand, is not capable of supporting nearly the same amount of weight that the frame can carry. The end result is the somewhat peculiar feel of a frame that can, and is trying, to transfer weight to your hips, but a belt that won’t…. quite… get the weight… locked in place. The pack could be substantially improved by making the hipbelt a little longer and stiffer, having a little less differential between lumbar and upper-back curve, and by tuning the sternum strap so that it doesn’t slide unless moved by the user.
Ignoring my 12-pack, you can see the brevity of the hipbelt wings here. Also note the wrap of the shoulder straps and load lifter angle. Lastly, note gap at upper/mid back… partly frame curve, partly from downward slippage.
In case my above remarks make this sound like a not-quite desirable pack, let me be clear: The Buttermilks is a great pack. It is far better than many others I have carried. It is built to last, with materials and stitching that inspire confidence. The design element included and excluded are spot-on. And the pack carries pretty well. I hate to say it, but I’d be thrilled if I could slap a Granite Gear hipbelt on here and safety-pin the sternum strap in place. As it currently stands, I would highly recommend this pack for those who are slight-of-build. For those of medium build, I would recommend it as a pack to consider and try. If you’re on the stockier-than-average side, this is probably not your dream pack (but then, how many ultralight packs really are). I look forward to future iterations of this pack, and of the products Boreas continues to bring to market. I think they’re a company to watch.
Ready for the trail!