I've never had a frameless pack or one that used a sleeping pad as a back pad/frame. With a bad back and two bad shoulders, I was very apprehensive about shifting to this new paradigm, and it took me a full year of research and advice on this forum before I pulled the trigger.
On paper, this was definitely the right pack for me. It's big (by UL standards), lightweight (came it at 31.0 ounces with hoop stay and large hip belt with pockets). Reviews said it transferred weight really well and could handle the occasionally 30+ pound load. Bonus was that it was a panel loader (I absolutely love panel loaders). Still, a bad back, no true frame, and $230 makes for a very nervous purchase.
Ultimately, SMDs excellent return policy, the Christmas sale, and prompt, honest answers to a dozen different questions is what put me over the edge. I've seen them take back other packs that were months old for no reason other than "wasn't what I was looking for", so when I was told to load it up, put a few miles on it, and send it back if it doesn't work out, I was confident that the worst I would lose is round trip shipping.
Already a little nervous about the idea of a frameless pack, my first impressions when opening the box left me worried and a bit disappointed. Thankfully, every one of those first impressions was dead wrong.
The first impressions:
1) It just seemed way smaller than advertised. There's no way I'm getting all my gear in there, especially with a partially inflated pad in the back panel.
2) When unloaded, it felt like there is no way the hoop stay would help transfer any load to the hips. With only an air mat to use as a back panel, the bottom will collapse with even a light load.
3) If it does transfer weight, that thin hip belt will be uncomfortable.
4) When worn unloaded (with no back pad inserted), the top cross-bar on the hoop stay hit me square in the back of the head.
5) I will be fussing with it for the first dozen loads to get it to fit right, by which time, I won't be able to send it back in good conscience (though I bet they'd still take it).
So disappointed was I that it took me two days to decide whether I was even going to do a trial run. Ultimately, I figured I had about 10-20 miles to decide, and I had already come this far, so I may as well give it a shot. I loaded it up as I'd read so many times on these forums (one big pack liner, un-stuffed sleeping bag in the bottom, everything piled on top), and off I went.
All I can say is WOW! My first impressions could not have been more wrong. I am so very glad I took it for a test hike. Every single concern was proven to be completely off base.
Volume: Plenty! It swallowed all my gear and asked for more. 14-15 pounds of base weight including 40 ounce double-wall tent and 40 ounce sleeping bag. I threw in a weekend of consumables (2lb of food, 12 ounce canister of fuel, 1 quart of water), and still had to put the tent inside to fill up the bag. Even then, there was room left over (and two empty side-pockets).
Load transfer: Awesome!! Once loaded and tightened down, I could literally take the shoulder straps off and transfer 100% of the load to my hips indefinitely. I hiked half a mile with the straps completely loosened, letting the pack lean away from my back, no load on my shoulders. This is with a semi-inflated POE Insulmat (6 longitudinal chambers, folded 2 tubes wide, then in 1/4s length-wise). I can't imagine a CCF pad doing better.
Hip belt: Surprisingly comfortable. Even being a third the thickness of any other pack I've owned, it felt just the same. I don't know if it's because of the lighter load, the extra padding I already come with, or just the misconception that I needed that much padding to begin with.
Cross-bar: Non-issue. With just a bit of air in the back pad, the cross-bar was relocated to the perfect distance back. Looking straight up at the sky and stretching my neck a bit, I could just barely rub the top of my head on the pack/load lifters. I've never had a pack with THAT much head clearance.
Proper fit: Perfect! This test hike was after my very first attempt to load it. I did have to re-fold the pad to get the valve in the right spot for inflating after being inserted. I had a completely arbitrary "couple-three" breaths into the back pad. The shoulder straps came adjusted for a slightly taller person, which I prefer so left them as is. Loading was as simple as "throw it all in, cinch it down". I'll tweak and tune over the next few months, but if this is as good as it gets, I will be completely satisfied.
Of course, there are a few things I wish were just a little different.
I wish the shoulder straps allowed the sternum strap to slide about three inches lower. With the shoulder straps tight, my chin rubs the whistle/buckle when I looked down. With the shoulder straps loosened to allow the pack to fall away from the back, the buckle would have to be opened or it would choke me. I'm used to sternum straps with a degree of adjustability. This one has none in its stock location, but can be removed and repositioned lower. Once repositioned, I don't know if it will hold its new location without sliding down.
I wish the zippers on the hip belt pockets had a firm backing. As it is, it's difficult to open and close the zippers with one hand, and I don't twist well enough to reach all the way over with both hands while the shoulder straps are on. The solution, of course, is to lose some weight so those pockets move a little closer to the front of the belt!
I wish the hoop stay were a true rectangle (instead of an inverted "U"), with the bottom cross-bar being attached/velcroed directly to the hip belt. Maybe a two-piece hoop with the bottom piece being a short, wide "U" that the existing inverted "U" slides into? I have no complaints at 20 pounds, but for an extra ounce or two, it would give me piece of mind that I could go heavier than 35 pounds when necessary (very rarely).
I wish it had side compression straps. As it is, I had to move my tent and raingear inside to get close to full (still surprised at that). That is with a full three-season weekend load. As I go more UL, this pack may be way too big, but I can't afford another pack any time soon.
I wish the zipper on the back mesh pocket weren't anchored to the panel. This results in a pocket that can hold things far larger than will fit through the zipper with the pack loaded. I've found that if I open the main compartment I can get larger things into that mesh pocket, then close the main pocket again.
I wish it had water bottle holsters behind the hip belt pockets. I can't reach the side pockets with the pack on (true of almost every pack I've ever owned). I may add these, hanging from the hip belt stabilizer straps (which I didn't know it would have!).
I wish I had about a yard of matching Dyneema X to make some nifty matching accessories (water bottle holsters, floating top-lid/fanny pack, etc.)
An interesting note... I took my daughters' yap dog with me on that first hike. It likes to run in circles. This is the first full pack I've had that I can pass the leash behind my back under the pack.
Over the last year, I've had a lot of questions for Ron and Brandon at Six Moon Designs. They've always been very quick and helpful with the responses, both via e-mail and in the forums here. I ordered my Traveler very early in the morning on New Year’s Eve. It was shipped an hour into the first business day of the new year.
All things considered, I'd call this pack a winner! I'm looking forward to updating this thread after I get some real miles on the pack, but as it stands, I am truly impressed.