Granite Gear Virga Backpack Review

An old stalwart among frameless backpacks, the Virga has remarkable fit and comfort, but it has a few quirks as well.

Overall Rating: Above Average

The Virga’s fit and comfort are remarkable compared to many other frameless backpacks, but that is offset by the pack’s excessively long extension collar that gets in the way, as well as the scarcity of outside pockets.

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by Will Rietveld |

Introduction

The Granite Gear Virga, introduced about ten years ago, has become a stalwart among frameless backpacks. It’s a fairly Spartan pack, and retains a plain webbing hipbelt when other pack manufacturers have added a padded hipbelt. But it has Granite Gear’s DNA - a great fit, comfortable shoulder straps, and a load lifter design that really works. How does the veteran Virga compare with newer cutting edge frameless backpacks?

Granite Gear Virga Review - 1
A distinctive feature on the Granite Gear Virga is a cradle on the front of the pack for attaching a tent or other gear.

Specifications

Year/Model 2011 Granite Gear Virga http://granitegear.com
Style Top loading frameless backpack, rolltop closure with two top compression straps
Volume Size Long Torso tested. Specified volume 3200 cubic inches (52 L); measured volume
3940 cubic inches (65 L) including pockets and extension collar
Weight Measured Weight: 23.5 oz (666 g)
Manufacturer Specification: 19 oz (539 g)
Sizes Available Unisex Short, Regular, Long Torso (Long Torso will be dropped in fall 2011)
Fabrics Pack body is 70d ripstop nylon with 210d Cordura nylon reinforcements, pockets are
stretchwoven nylon
Features 1.5-inch (4-cm) webbing hipbelt, thick firm shoulder straps, two large side stretchwoven pockets, front cradle with two straps for attaching gear, two compression straps each side,
sternum strap, 18-in (46-cm) extension collar, rolltop closure with two top compression
straps, load lifters, two ice axe loops, haul loop
Volume to Weight Ratio 168 in3/oz (based on 3940 in3 and measured weight of 23.5 oz (size Long Torso)
Maximum Comfortable
Load Carrying Capacity
28-lb (12.7 kg) estimated comfortable load for an average person carrying the pack all day
Carry Load to Pack
Weight Ratio
19 (based on 28-lb load and a measured weight of 1.47 lb)
MSRP US$110

Description

As with other packs in our frameless backpacks roundup, we are discovering substantial discrepancies between our measured pack volume and the manufacturer’s specified volume. In the case of the Virga, the specified volume is 3200 cubic inches (52 L), and our measured total volume is 3940 cubic inches (65 L) which includes all pockets and the extension collar. That’s a difference of 740 cubic inches (12 L), which is the approximate volume of the pockets plus extension collar, which are not normally included in total volume according to the ASTM standard. However, for frameless backpacks, the traditional method is to include all pockets and the extension collar in the total volume, and itemize the volumes by component because lightweight backpackers want that information.

The Virga’s measured volume bumps it into our larger volume packs category, which is frameless backpacks suitable for lightweight backpacking. As will be seen in this review, the Virga simply has too much volume to be used for ultralight backpacking.

Granite Gear Virga Review - 2
Views of the Granite Gear Virga: The frontpanel (far left) has a cradle with two straps for attaching a sleeping pad, tent, or other items. The backpanel (second photo) is fabric against your back. The Virga has a 1.5-inch (4-cm) unpadded webbing hipbelt. Each side (third photo) has one large stretchwoven pocket and two compression straps. The lower compression strap can be routed under the pocket. The pack’s top (far right) has two compression straps.

Granite Gear Virga Review - 3
Suspension: Granite Gear does not skimp on the shoulder straps (left); they are thick and comfortable. The Virga has a yoke at the top of the pack (right) that works in conjunction with the pack’s load lifters to effectively pull the top of the pack against your shoulders without adding pressure.

Granite Gear Virga Review - 4
Features: Close up view of the pack’s front cradle (left) for attaching a tent or a gear bag to the front of the pack. The side stretchwoven pockets (right) will easily hold two water bottles, rainwear, or a hydration reservoir.

Performance

Granite Gear Virga Review - 5
I tested the Virga on a six-day spring backpacking trip in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park carrying 26-28 pounds (11.8 to 12.7 kg). I am carrying 28 pounds in this photo; although there is significant pack torso collapse, the Virga carried the load comfortably because of its good fit and comfortable suspension system.

Although the Virga lacks some of the amenities of the newer packs, its fit and comfort are remarkable. The Virga has a yoke at the top of the pack that works in conjunction with the pack’s load lifters to effectively pull the top of the pack against your shoulders without adding pressure to the shoulders. The shoulder straps are well padded, and the 1.5-inch (4-cm) wide hipbelt is comfortable.

Although the Virga’s volume is specified at 3200 cubic inches (52 L), which would put it in the category of frameless backpacks for ultralight backpacking, it is in fact a larger volume backpack that is more suitable for lightweight backpacking. It simply has too much volume for ultralight backpacking, except perhaps for carrying an extended food supply.

The Virga is solidly constructed using fabrics that are a good balance of lightweight and durability. However, one thing I noticed is the fine dust in Utah canyon country really sticks to the fabric, so the pack needs to be rinsed after such use.

The measured torso length of the Virga in the Long Torso size is 20.25 inches (51 cm) by the BPL method (inside of shoulder strap to center of the hipbelt), and 21.25 (54 cm) by the conventional manufacturer method (top of shoulder strap to bottom of the hipbelt). It’s a great pack for a tall hiker. Unfortunately Granite Gear plans to drop the Long Torso size in fall 2011.

In our pack compression/volume reduction tests, reported in Part 2A of our frameless backpack state of the market report, we found the Virga can be reduced 42.5 percent in volume, which is quite good. It has two good compression straps on each side that work well, although the two lower ones pass either over or under the side pockets and interfere with pocket access.

From our pack load carrying capacity tests, reported in Part 2B, we estimate that the Virga can comfortably carry around 27 to 28 pounds (12.3 to 12.7 kg). That corresponds exactly with my field experience, where I carried the Virga loaded up with 28 pounds (12.7 kg) quite comfortably.

Granite Gear Virga Review - 6
An unusual feature of the Virga is its huge extension collar, 18 inches (46 cm) high, which nearly doubles the pack’s volume. In my opinion it’s much larger than needed, and it gets in the way when loading the pack. In a pinch the pack could be used as a half bivy!

I’m a pocket freak; I like to have ample outside pockets on a backpack so items needed on the trail are handy and I don’t have to enter the pack’s main compartment during the day. The Virga is deficient in that department; there are only two stretchwoven side pockets and that’s all. Granted the side pockets are large, but they are not enough to meet my needs, especially if I have a water bottle in each one. Rather than the cradle on the front of the pack, I would much prefer a large stretchwoven front pocket that matches the side pockets, and perhaps a top lid on the pack with a zippered pocket. Also, it’s hard for me to live without hipbelt pockets for my digital camera, snacks, and other trail necessities. Granite Gear has add-on hipbelt and shoulder strap pockets available, but they are a bit on the heavy side.

Comparisons

Comparative specifications can be found in my Frameless Backpack State of the Market Report 2011 Part 4. The closest comparisons are the Mountain Laurel Designs Exodus and GoLite Pinnacle.

Assessment

The Virga surprised me with its remarkable fit and comfort. I prefer a pack with a tall torso, and the Virga delivers. The pack hugs my back very well and the suspension system is very comfortable. These features allow this frameless backpack, without removable stays, to comfortably carry a hefty load. Granite Gear really knows how to design a comfortable pack that is also durable and lightweight.

The drawbacks of the Virga are in its features. In my opinion, the huge 18-inch (46-cm) extension collar is overkill and a nuisance when loading the pack because it gets in the way. If the Virga is filled to the capacity of the extension collar, it would be top heavy and beyond its comfortable load carrying capacity. I would recommend trading the long extension collar and front cradle for a large front stretchwoven pocket with one strap connecting it to a top lid with a pocket. For me, that would be a more useful design, because it would provide the outside pocket space that the Virga needs.

Granite Gear seems to like a pack design with a cradle on the front to attach a tent or sleeping pad, because that feature is common in their pack range. With that design, the Virga is a capable load hauler, so it’s a good Sherpa pack for carrying a high volume/moderate weight load. However, for loads over 30 pounds (13.6 kg), a lightweight internal frame pack would be preferable.

In my opinion, the Virga is a frameless backpack that could be great. It fits and carries very well, but its feature set needs to be more fastpacker friendly. With a few revisions it could become one of our favorite packs.

What’s Good
  • Good volume reduction system
  • Durable fabric
  • Very comfortable shoulder straps
  • Comfortably carries moderate loads
  • Large stretchwoven side pockets
  • Excellent construction, very sturdily built, with adequate reinforcements
  • Load lifters work very well
  • Fits surprisingly well
What’s Not So Good
  • Pack has 23% more volume than specified
  • Huge extension collar gets in the way when loading pack
  • Unpadded webbing hipbelt
  • Only two outside pockets
Recommendations For Improvement
  • Eliminate the long extension collar
  • Add a large stretchwoven front pocket and top lid

Disclosure: The manufacturer provided this product to the author and/or Backpacking Light at no charge, and it is owned by the author/BPL. The author/Backpacking Light has no obligation to review this product to the manufacturer under the terms of this agreement.


Citation

"Granite Gear Virga Backpack Review," by Will Rietveld. BackpackingLight.com (ISSN 1537-0364).
http://backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/granite_gear_virga_2011.html, 2011-08-02 00:00:00-06.

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Forum Index » Editor's Roundtable » Granite Gear Virga Review


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Addie Bedford
(addiebedford) - MLife

Locale: Montana
Granite Gear Virga Review on 08/02/2011 13:14:48 MDT Print View

Companion forum thread to:

Granite Gear Virga Review

Jim Colten
(jcolten) - M

Locale: MN
Re: Granite Gear Virga Review on 08/02/2011 15:28:18 MDT Print View

Nice to see "my pack" reviewed!

I've used a Virga for about 5 years and my experience confirms pretty much everything Will reports, including a maximum comfortable load carrying capacity in the 25-30lb range and the excessive extension collar. I know exactly what to do to shorten the collar but just can't seem to make myself take a scissors to it.

I can think of only one improvement ... a better compression system. Frameless packs carry MUCH better when packed "full". As the volume of my kit has shrunk the base weight gear fits into a pack about 2/3 the size of the Virga and I use a modified Golite Ion on short trips. The Virga comes out if I need to carry several days of consumables ... but it won't carry quite so well when there's just 1-2 days of food inside. New Granite Gear pack models have been using compression based on nylon line and lineloc 3 adjusters ... if the Virga had 4 of those adjusters on each side rather than the two straps I think it would remain "full" for a much wider range of volumes.

Einstein X
(EinsteinX) - F

Locale: The Netherlands
Cap? on 08/03/2011 11:10:05 MDT Print View

Hey Will,

Firstly, I'd like to say you're so lucky to be able to hike in Utah. I was there on my US South West holiday last year and Utah is amazing. In fact, otherworldly if you come from Europe.

Anyway I noticed your baseball cap in the first picture. Seems light. What make and model is it?

Eins

Link .
(annapurna) - MLife
Re: Cap? on 08/03/2011 12:51:28 MDT Print View

I am going to guess this is his hat
http://www.montbell.us/products/disp.php?cat_id=88&p_id=1108487

Tim Mullins
(timm02) - MLife

Locale: Brisbane, Australia
Virga on 08/07/2011 01:38:55 MDT Print View

I have been using the Virga for about a year now and found it useful for the follow situations:
- carrying the bulkier items in winter when temps drop below 5 degrees C
- taking my 8 year old on multiday walks

I find the low weight fantasic and the load carrying excellent. I don't like hip belts period, so the webbing ones on this pack I just stuff in the side pockets. I probably should just cut them off.

I use a closed cell foam mat to line the inside of the pack to give it shape and comfort. The extension collar is a bit of pain but occasionally I use it when taking my daughter and we have lots of polar fleece items.

The pack never seems to show any signs of wear, so I expect to be using the pack for a long time to come which is especially good considering the very resonable price.

I have a friend that has the Vapor Ki and I can honestly say there is not one feature on that pack that I would add to the Virga.

Inaki Diaz de Etura
(inaki) - MLife

Locale: Iberia highlands
Superb thru-hiking pack on 08/11/2011 08:51:53 MDT Print View

The Virga has been my pack of choice for years for thru-hikes. I love this pack in almost all aspects and it fits (in the wide sense of the word) me perfectly for the long trips. The one thing I would (and I actually did) change is the waist belt. The provided belt is fine for very light loads but it does little to transfer weight to hips and this pack admits enough stuff to make it uncomfortable if you have to carry most of the weight on the shoulders. I added a wider, lightly padded belt (namely, a ULA belt from another pack) and even though this made the Virga a bit heavier, it turned it into a potential load hauler monster. I've carried as much as 43 lbs. The pack was a solid brick with a rolled CCF pad inside and I could carry a good amount of weight on the hips. It was nearly as comfortable as 43 lbs. can be.

I understand this is not a pack for such a load to be carried consistently but in the long hikes it sometimes happens. That's why I like this pack for this use: it's very versatile. It has the volume and, with the proper belt, the carrying capacity to carry virtually anything.

That's also why I don't find the extension collar as oversized as many. I've used a good part of that length before with just enough extra to give it a couple rolls. The extra fabric is not much weight anyway and I never found it bothersome for load/unload. I must say my Virga is a very old model... maybe it's the perspective but the pic in the article shows a collar that looks longer than the one in mine.

Another thing I like is the compression system. I don't like shock cord for this. Straps are a bit heavier but I find them far easier to use and more effective too. I also find them more useful to carry stuff (any kind of it) outside. And the strap compression system in the Virga is the best I've used. The catenary cat panels on the front work well to distribute the tensions and avoid concentrating them is one spot which is a common source of problems.

Another brilliant touch which is surprisingly absent in most packs I've seen is the shoulder strap connection to the pack body. It's designed so the tension on the seam when wearing the pack is lenghwise to the stitching so the seam is much stronger because all the stitches work together at the same time and there's not a single row of stitches that takes most of the tension.

The size is just what I need for most thru-hikes; my standard set of gear fills the pack comfortably but then I have the extra room when I need it. It's this versatility that makes it so convenient for thru-hikes, particularly for those with long sections, varying conditions/seasons or just a high degree of uncertainty.

Will Rietveld
(WilliWabbit) - MLife

Locale: Southwest Colorado
Re: Cap? on 08/11/2011 15:29:27 MDT Print View

The hat I'm wearing is the Montbell Stainless Mesh Cap. Its very lightweight and covers well, but guess what -- it doesn't provide good sun protection, the top of my head got sunburned. I haven't worn the hat since that trip. Bummer.

Dan Montgomery
(theDanarchist) - F

Locale: Hampton Roads, VA
More on the Virga on 08/15/2011 07:59:43 MDT Print View

I've had the old, black and gold, Virga for six or seven years. I don't get out as much as many backpackinglighters. Mostly one- or two-nighters, though I just returned from seven nights in Lassen National Park and on the southern leg of the John Muir Trail.

I'm not quite an ultralighter. My usual base weight is around 11 pounds. Get rid of my heavy camera, I suppose, and I'd be there.
Over all these years of changing gear to lighten loads, my Virga is the one piece of gear I've never considered replacing. It is very comfortable on me. I have, and need, a long model.

Some points, working from top to bottom:

-- It is a huge extension collar. This used to bother me, and I've considered shortening it, but I realized one day that I'd simply gotten used to it. And it came in handy on Mt. Whitney, when I was able to easily carry some items for a group member suffering from altitude sickness. I have shortened the closure straps and removed the collar's tightening cord and cordlock to save a bit of weight. By the way, I often use the collar as something as a top pocket by tucking an item into the fold as I roll up the collar (I hope that makes sense).

-- I've replaced the side and front compression straps with very light shock cord of the rubber-bands-for-girls'-hair variety. Instead of cinching everything down, I let my sleeping bag, tent and down sweater expand, or I squeeze them down, as needed, so the pack is always "full." Those familiar with Mike Clelland's book know this as "the cloud." This is one great idea I actually arrived at on my own, and it's worked well for me.

-- Despite being a slob in many areas of my life, I like a tidy, sleek backpack. I do not want more pockets on the Virga. You can get a lot in those side pockets by the way, especially with a soft, cloudy tent and sleeping bag in the bottom of the pack.

-- I've trimmed the load-lifter straps, shoulder straps, sternum strap and hip belt straps.

-- I've used rolled-up closed-cell pads, folded Z-Rest pads and folded inflatable pads inside the Virga. They've all worked very nicely. I currently use a large NeoAir, despite the incredible expense. I do like how the large NeoAir, at 25 inches wide, makes a 25-inch tall framesheet. I usually leave a puff of air in the mattress, which helps stiffen it up when the pack is full.

-- I don't want a padded hip belt. It's not at all necessary on the Virga, unless you are carrying more weight than it's designed for. I might even cut the ends of the belt narrower, allowing for use of a smaller, lighter buckle.

-- I have sewn a Gossamer Gear pocket onto my hipbelt, for carrying my camera.

One small complaint about Granite Gear: When I saw the long Virga on clearance, I asked GG customer service if the Virga was being discontinued. The nice lady said no, it's not. Now I read that the long version is being discontinued. Why didn't she tell me that? And yes, it bums me out a bit to think that the maker of the pack I've been talking up and recommending to other (especially tall) backpackers for all these years feels it's better off without my business, just because I'm tall (and not freakishly tall, just kinda tall).

Here is my Virga at Trail Crest, partway up the Mt. Whitney trail. I used the blue Zip-Sack as a day pack for the final leg to the summit.

Virga at Trail Crest

I'm also happy to report that the Virga withstands morning frost.
Frosty Virga

Edited by theDanarchist on 08/15/2011 08:40:43 MDT.