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Granite Gear Virga Review

Review of the Granite Gear Virga frameless backpack.

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by Alan Dixon | 2004-06-26 03:00:00-06

Granite Gear Virga Review

Overview

The Granite Gear Virga combines an innovative compression system (with eight separately adjustable compression straps) with a well-padded harness to create a frameless pack capable of comfortably carrying 25 pounds. When packed properly, the compression system, harness design, and load lifter straps work well together - an impressive feat for a frameless pack. While testing the Granite Gear Virga along the Uinta and Wind River High Routes, which required difficult off-trail travel over rock, ice, and snow, the Granite Gear Virga offered a level of fit and stability that we have not commonly found in frameless backpacks.

The Granite Gear Virga’s suspension system is built on shoulder straps that are more comfortable than those used in most ultralight frameless backpacks, and a light webbing hipbelt. The anatomically curved and padded shoulder straps are a boon as pack weight increases and more weight inevitably gets transferred to the shoulders. The Granite Gear Virga is made with more rugged fabrics than many packs in its weight class, with substantial fabric reinforcements in abrasion-prone areas of the pack’s bottom panel, lower sides, and rear panel. All of the pack’s high stress areas, like the shoulder strap and compression strap attachment points, are also reinforced with Cordura. The Granite Gear Virga is suitable for backpacking, off-trail scrambling, and alpine climbing. The pack’s major weaknesses include shoulder strap attachment points that are too low in relation to a hiker’s shoulder crest resulting in poor load transfer when the pack is under packed, and lack of external pocket storage for commonly accessed items. (Admittedly, climbers and minimalists may love the pack’s current pocket configuration.)

Specifications

  • Backpack Style - frameless top-loading backpack with roll-top closure
  • Fabric Description - 210 denier, 6.1 oz Cordura in high stress (shoulder strap and compression strap attachments) and high wear (rear pack panel, bottom of the pack) areas; 70 denier 2.4 oz silicone coated nylon in the packbag. Durastretch (four way stretch nylon) side pockets.
  • Sizes - Short, regular, and long, to fit torsos from 14 to 22 inches. As tested: size M fit our reviewers with 18 - 20 inch torso lengths.
  • Volume - 4800 ci, 56 L (3200 ci main + 200 ci pockets); extension collar adds 1400 ci
  • Weight - 20.5 oz (580 g) as measured, size M (manufacturer claims a weight of 21 oz)
  • Volume to Weight Ratio - 234 ci/oz (based on 4800 ci and a measured weight of 20.5 oz)
  • Load Carrying Capacity - 25 lb (13.6 kg) as estimated by BackpackingLight.com (20 lbs as rated by manufacturer)
  • Carry Load to Pack Weight Performance Ratio - 19.5 (based on 25 lbs and a measured weight of 20.5 oz)
  • MSRP - $100

Features

Numerical ratings follow on a scale of 1 to 5 (1 = poor, 5 = excellent).

Frame and Suspension - 4.0

The compression system is at the heart of the Granite Gear Virga’s virtual frame. Two catenary cut compression panels, combined with eight compression straps (two straps on each side panel, two on the back, and two that cross the rolled top), when tightened down, combine with a ground pad rolled as a cylinder inside the packbag to create a relatively rigid virtual frame. By comparison, most frameless packs lack compression systems as substantial as that of the Virga, and thus, are more sensitive to load distribution anomalies. With the Virga, even an under-volume load can be sufficiently stabilized.

the pack

Virtual Frame: The catalog picture shows the pack with good vertical stability.

The Virga’s anatomically curved shoulder straps are more padded (0.5 in / 1.2 cm thick) than those found on most lightweight frameless backpacks. With the pack properly loaded and compressed, the load lifter straps pull the pack close to your back for optimal pack stability and balance while hiking or scrambling on rough terrain. Shoulders straps are attached to a hinged, reinforced fabric yoke on the back of the pack. Granite Gear claims that the yoke construction offers more durability than the standard bar tack attachment method for securing shoulder straps that is used in most backpacks.

In our opinion, the shoulder straps are attached too low, as evidenced by our observation that the pack’s torso length (and virtual frame) collapses with low-volume pack loads, which negate the ability of the load lifter straps to maintain stability (tension) in the yoke. This collapse is more pronounced if you do not use a rolled up ground pad inside the pack - a vital component of the frame and compression system. Fortunately, this problem can be alleviated in large part by properly adjusting the pack’s volume with its compression system to create a tall, narrow cylinder that forces load distribution evenly throughout the pack’s vertical length, rather than allowing the load to droop to the bottom of the pack.

creek jump

Collapse of the Virtual Frame. Here we illustrate the importance of properly packing the Granite Gear Virga in order to achieve a stable load. Note in this photo (of a pack carrying about 20 pounds) that (1) the ground pad is not rolled up inside the pack to create structure, and (2) the too-low shoulder strap yoke causes slumping of the pack, transferring excessive weight to the hips, and causing total failure of the load lifter straps. The point at which the yoke attaches to the pack results in a virtual hinge point about two thirds up from the bottom. Such virtual hinges can largely be avoided by increasing pack compression (reducing volume), thus shifting the load distribution closer to the back.

We found the 1.5-inch (3.8 cm) webbing hip belt to provide acceptable load transfer for loads of up to 25 pounds. For those ultralight hikers used to carrying backpacks with minimal, or no, hip belts, such as the GoLite Breeze, you will appreciate the richly padded shoulder straps while having the flexibility to take some load off the shoulders with a lightweight hip belt.

Usable Features and Ease of Use - 3.0

The Granite Gear Virga has a hipbelt, elastic side pockets, sternum strap, load lifters, and rear compression straps to hold bulky and large items like a wet tarp, or additional sleeping mat (e.g., on a snow trip). The side pockets and side compression straps are suitable for long, skinny items like tent poles, a fishing rod, trekking poles, or snow anchors. The Virga’s dual crossing top compression straps compress the top of the pack better than most of the top closure systems we’ve used. One gripe: the lower side compression straps cross over the top of the side pockets, making it difficult to remove and replace a water bottle or other items while hiking.

The Virga has most of the features one would want in an off-trail and alpine climbing backpack - durable fabric in high wear areas, dual tool loops, a reasonably slim profile for good balance and arm swing clearance, large capacity, a versatile compression system, and easy climbing rope attachment using the top and side compression system. When the Virga was properly packed with a full load, its load control and pack stability were among the best tested for off-trail scrambling, bushwhacking, and climbing.

For some trail hikers, the Granite Gear Virga is a bit minimalist and may not have enough external storage options to organize gear effectively. While the compression straps on the center of the pack are useful for storing soft goods (tent and poles, a rolled up sleeping pad, or raingear), you’ll have to use the side pockets for small items that you want close at hand while hiking.

Load Volume Flexibility (Compression) - 5.0

The Granite Gear Virga’s effective compression system allows it to carry a load greater than the manufacturer’s rated capacity. In addition, the careful backpacker can utilize the compression system to keep even day-sized small loads stable and under control. The Granite Gear Virga’s eight compression straps and two catenary compression panels result in the ability to stabilize a load that cannot be matched by any other frameless backpack on the market. The dual top closure straps compress the top of the pack effectively, which plays an important role in maximizing the effectiveness of the shoulder strap load lifters.

creek jump
Pack stability - Creek Jumping on the Wind River High Route: When correctly packed, the Granite Gear Virga provides a stable pack, with loads secured close to the torso. The result is balance and mobility for the wearer. Here, Alan Dixon saves time by not taking his shoes off as he hops his way across a small creek while keeping his feet (almost) dry.

Field Performance

Pack Load Carrying - 3.5

When using a standard sized sleeping pad rolled inside the packbag as a cylinder, and packed at least to its non-extended capacity, the Granite Gear Virga gets high marks for the ability of its virtual frame to provide load carrying comfort. The Virga’s compression system can compress the packbag to form a nearly rigid pack that efficiently transfers the load between shoulders and hips. The pack remains rigid enough that the load lifters on the shoulder straps work similarly to load lifters on internal frame packs, pulling the pack tight to the back.

Granite Gear rates the Virga’s load carrying capacity at 20 pounds (9 kg). They admit that this is a conservative number, designed to compensate for people who randomly throw stuff in the pack without taking the time to make a proper virtual frame. When properly packed the Virga’s effective virtual frame and comfortable harness resulted in our ability to carry loads up to 30 pounds (14 kg) with no severe consequences (with some of that weight on the shoulders). As such, we feel that properly packed, the Granite Gear Virga will provide acceptable load carrying comfort up to 25 pounds (11 kg) for most hikers, with the ability to carry 30 pounds (14 kg) in a pinch for those long, waterless stretches of trail.

Unlike Granite Gear, however, we feel that the hiker that randomly throws gear into the pack, failing to properly use the load compression system or take advantage of the virtual frame support provided by a rolled sleeping pad, will not achieve comfort even at loads as low as 15 pounds (7 kg) - for any frameless backpack, and the Virga is no exception. In fact, the Virga may suffer more than other frameless packs because of the need to maintain a rigid virtual frame through the shoulder strap yoke and load lifter area to prevent frame collapse and properly keep the pack weight’s moment arm from exerting excessive torque on the shoulders.

Durability - 4.0

The only thing holding the Granite Gear Virga back from a higher durability rating is the use of silicone coated nylon fabric in the pack body. Even so, fabric reinforcements in key areas make the Virga suitable for alpine scrambling and bushwhacking where you won’t constantly drag your pack against sharp rock or plow pack first into groves of slide alder. The Granite Gear Virga uses a more tear and abrasion resistant 2.4 ounce silnylon as compared to the more common 1.3 to 1.7 ounce fabrics used by other manufacturers. Cordura (6.1 oz) is used in high wear areas, such as the bottom, back panel, and much of the rear panel. The Durastretch side pockets protect the silnylon on the lower side panels. Still, the pack has some of the lighter fabric exposed, and as strong as it is relative to lighter silicone coated nylons, it won’t withstand long-term abuse by repeated abrasion against granite or lengthy bushwhacks through slide alder or brambles.

Value - 4.0

At only $100 we think the Granite Gear Virga is a good value. For its weight, the Virga creates an effective virtual frame, offers a comfortable harness, is durably constructed, and offers a versatile compression system suitable for a wide range of load sizes. The Virga’s durability, climbing friendly amenities, stability, and minimalist design will appeal to aggressive off-trail travelers and fast and light climbers who don’t overly abuse their packs.

Recommendations for Improvement

  • The Virga’s lower compression straps run over the top of the side pockets. If the compression straps are tightened down, they need to be loosened to access pocket contents, a nearly impossible task to perform while hiking. We suggest moving these straps up to clear the top of the pockets.
  • The lower portion of the pack is prone to abrasion (e.g., sliding down a steep slope) and would benefit from tougher fabric in the region below the lowest compression straps.
  • While adaptable to a wider range of torso sizes than other frameless packs, the Granite Gear Virga’s shoulder yoke-and-load-lifter system is quite sensitive to torso collapse when the pack is under-loaded or improperly packed, making the Virga more appropriate for intermediate and advanced lightweight hikers who pay a reasonable amount of attention to packing their pack. Eliminating the yoke and load lifter system in favor of shoulder straps that attach slightly higher than a hiker’s shoulder crest would be the optimal situation, but it would also require a greater range of pack sizes that would likely increase the cost for the manufacturer and for the retailer who is required to stock more packs.

Citation

"Granite Gear Virga Review," by Alan Dixon. BackpackingLight.com (ISSN 1537-0364).
http://backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/granite_gear_virga_review.html, 2004-06-26 03:00:00-06.

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