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Moonbow Gearskin Backpack REVIEW

Product performance review of the Moonbow Gearskin frameless pack - a unique harness/compression system that acts like a pack.


by Doug Johnson | 2005-05-10 03:00:00-06


Moonbow Gearskin Pack REVIEW - 1

The Moonbow Gearskin is a truly unique pack. More accurately, it is a "harness/compression system that acts like a pack." Instead of using a large sack that is filled from the top or sides, the Gearskin folds around your shelter, sleeping bag, and other items and compresses them into a pack-like load.

The Gearskin system has some strong advantages. It is the fastest packing system I have used. All you have to do is open the pack, lay down your pad, roll up your shelter with sleeping bag and other items inside, attach and tighten the compression straps, and go! Using this system, we were able to break down camp and be on the trail in record time. Further, the Gearskin system can expand to handle very large loads - up to 6,500 cubic inches! This is a custom product and built with very high standards of quality. It is also very lightweight at 1 pound 9.8 ounces (0.73 kg).

However, this system also has its disadvantages. Because the Moonbow Gearskin pack has no side or top protection, your gear is at risk when hiking through underbrush or scrambling. With your sleeping bag rolled up inside the shelter, any leftover condensation on the shelter comes into direct contact with the bag's insulation, possibly decreasing its loft. Although the Gearskin can handle very large loads, it handles small loads poorly, allowing gear to shift and smaller items to fall out between compression straps. Of these concerns, the first two can be easily addressed by using a pack liner and waterproof sleeping bag stuff sack, although they add to the Gearskin's weight and eliminate some of its simplicity.

The Moonbow Gearskin is a pack that does some things extremely well and delivers a unique range of options. For a backpacker who wants to maximize trail time, hikes in drier climates, sticks to trails, and wants a pack to handle a wide range of load volumes, the Moonbow Gearskin pack is a quality item that does the job differently than any other.


• Backpack Style

Frameless, unique harness/compression system

• Fabric Description

200d, 4 oz/yd2 (136 g/m2) Oxford used on main pack body, heavy mesh used on optional outside pocket. Also available in 1.1 oz/yd2 (37 g/m2) silnylon, 1.9 oz/yd2 (64 g/m2) coated ripstop, and 400d, 8 oz/yd2 (271 g/m2) pack cloth.

• Sizes

Custom sizing. To order one, you send a torso outline and body measurements and Moonbow makes the pack to your specifications. Size reviewed was for a 19.5 in (50 cm) torso.

• Volume

Variable from 2,500 - 6,500 ci (41 L - 106 L). Extra back pocket adds approximately 700 ci (11 L) and hip pocket adds approximately 35 ci (0.6 L)

• Weight

1 lb 9.8 oz (0.73 kg) as measured, 19.5" torso; manufacturer's specification "around 1 pound" (0.45 kg), however, this is widely variable based on fabric selection and options.

• Volume to Weight Ratio

Variable from 97 to 252 ci/oz due to expandable volume (based on 2,500 - 6,500 ci volume and Backpacking Light measured weight of 1 lb 9.8 oz)

• Load Carrying Capacity

Backpacking Light maximum carrying capacity: 30 lb (13.6 kg). Backpacking Light comfortable carrying capacity: 20 - 25 lb (9.1-11.3 kg). No carrying capacity given by Moonbow.

• Carry Load to Pack Weight Performance Ratio

18.6 (based on Backpacking Light maximum carrying capacity of 30 lb and Backpacking Light measured weight of 1 lb 9.8 oz)

• Model Year



Manufacturer's suggested retail prices start at $180. Cost as tested (with removable hip pocket and large mesh back pocket): $213

Frame and Suspension

According to Moonbow, "A Gearskin is a harness/compression system that acts like a pack." This is entirely accurate; the pack is essentially a compression "burrito" with shoulder straps, a waist belt, a sternum strap, and load lifters, all custom-sized for your back. I found the padded shoulder straps comfortable, as was the 4.5-inch wide, padded hipbelt, which transferred heavier loads onto the hips. The load lifters require a very full pack before they become effective, as the gear is needed to form the virtual frame in the upper portion. The virtual frame is created by way of an extensive compression system, consisting of ten quick-release adjustable straps (four on each side and two on top). While the compression system can accommodate a very large load, undersized loads may shift inside the tightened straps.

Usable Features and Ease of Use

Moonbow Gearskin Pack REVIEW - 2 Moonbow Gearskin Pack REVIEW - 2

Moonbow Gearskin Pack REVIEW - 2 Moonbow Gearskin Pack REVIEW - 2 Moonbow Gearskin Pack REVIEW - 2

Packing the Moonbow Gearskin pack, left to right from the top.

The Moonbow Gearskin pack utilizes a unique system to load gear. Instead of having an enclosed sack into which you put your gear via a top entry or side zipper, the Gearskin wraps around your rolled-up load and compresses it into a large fold, simplifying the process of packing up. We used the following steps when packing up the Gearskin:

  1. Lay out the Moonbow Gearskin pack by releasing the side-release buckles on the compression straps.
  2. Set your folded sleeping pad against the back panel of the pack.
  3. Collapse and roll or fold-up your shelter with the sleeping bag still inside and lay it on the pack.
  4. Insert other items into the fold of the shelter including poles, stove kit, and clothing.
  5. Buckle the compression straps. Add any other items you need on the trail such as a clothing stuff sack or water bottle. Tighten the straps, and you're ready to go.

Packing up camp with the Moonbow Gearskin pack was very quick and easy with one roll and no stuff sacks needed. It was one of the fastest packing systems we've seen. Many variations on the packing system are possible including using stuff sacks or a large packliner (see Options below). It is also possible to leave the pad inside the shelter but we found our described method easiest.

While the Gearskin system is very quick to pack, there are some caveats. First, it leaves your shelter exposed and unprotected - a real problem when hiking off-trail or canyoneering. Further, because the sleeping bag is left inside the tent, any leftover condensation comes into direct contact with the sleeping bag's insulation. Because of this, we recommend using a large waterproof sleeping bag stuff sack.

Because of its open design, it is simple to slide a hydration bladder into the Moonbow Gearskin pack, but with no side pockets, water bottles and small bladders must be cinched down in the compression system, making it impossible to access them on the go. Long items like tent poles can slide out of the side compression straps but are quite secure in the center of the pack, compressed within the Gearskin.

As tested, our Moonbow pack came with the large back mesh pocket and a single, removable hip pouch. Because the Moonbow Gearskin envelops most of your gear in the folded shelter/bag/pad roll, these outer pouches made it much easier to access daily items such as camera, rain gear, and lunch on the trail. You need to unclip and unroll the whole load to access large items while on the trail.

Load Volume Flexibility (Compression)

The Moonbow Gearskin pack does an excellent job of handling large loads. Even with a HUGE amount of gear (up to 6,500 cubic inches), the compression system expands to accommodate and compress the load. This pack can easily carry a winter load when extra insulation would have most ultralight packs bursting at the seams. However, the Gearskin does poorly with small, dense loads. When we tried to use the Moonbow pack with our normal stuff sacks or as a daypack, items shifted and even fell out between the compression straps. It is important to use the Gearskin as directed with a shelter and sleeping bag enclosing the load (or with larger stuff sacks that don't compress gear in order to fill the pack's minimum load volume). By switching to this style of packing, and not mistaking the Gearskin as a summit or daypack, it was able to carry minimal loads in comfort.


Because it is custom built for you, the Moonbow Gearskin pack is available with many different options. In addition to different fabrics, you may also select a large back mesh pocket, single or dual back fabric pockets, ice axe loops, hip pouches, a mesh pocket against your back for a towel, or a packliner to keep your load fully enclosed. Further, to fully incorporate the pack into a Powerpac system, you can have the Gearskin permanently or semi-permanently (with Velcro) attached to a shelter to become an integral part of a shelter or bivy system. Beyond that, design changes are up to you and Moonbow is known for their custom work.

Pack Load Carrying

Properly loaded with sufficient volume, the Moonbow Gearskin pack comfortably carries 20 to 25 pounds when using a closed cell foam sleeping pad to create a "virtual frame." Loads up to 30 pounds are bearable for short durations. The Gearskin design results in the load center of gravity being comfortably close to your back. Unlike some other ultralight frameless packs that create a tubular shape when overloaded, the Moonbow Gearskin is able to maintain a rectangular shape (bird's eye view), keeping the load close. That said, this large contact area doesn't allow for breathability and after a long day of hiking, the back of the pack can be soaked.

It is critical that you fill the Moonbow Gearskin pack at least to the minimum capacity. With loads less than 2,500 cubic inches, it is impossible to properly compress the pack, severely compromising the virtual frame. Although the Gearskin has an excellent hip belt and shoulder straps, it is critical to maintain this minimum volume to create a firm enough virtual frame to handle the weight. If the minimum volume is not met, the frame can collapse, exerting excessive torque on the shoulders. For comparison, packs that have pad pockets like the Six Moon Designs Starlite and Gossamer Gear Mariposa (with pads in the pockets and optional stays removed for a fair comparison) do not compress smaller loads well either, but because the pad pocket locks the pad to the harness, the virtual frame is maintained.

As load volumes increase, the Gearskin's compression system becomes a real asset. During one testing session, we loaded the pack with bulky winter clothing, a -10 °F sleeping bag, a winter tent, and all other necessary winter gear. The compression system easily accommodated this large load (approximately 5,000 cubic inches) and it carried very comfortably. While the compression system can handle these bulky loads, keep in mind that they have to remain relatively light to remain at or below the comfortable carry capacity.


Each Moonbow Gearskin pack, hand-sewn by Rhia at Moonbow, is a beautifully constructed piece of equipment. The stitching on the pack is top-notch with double bar tacking at every compression strap and haul loop contact, felled seams to prevent fraying, and extra reinforcing at shoulder strap attachments. There are quality YKK zippers on the zippered hip pockets and ITM Nexus buckles throughout. Our Gearskin came in 200 denier Oxford cloth which, although heavier than other ultralight options, showed no signs of wear after scrapes against brush and granite cliff faces during a scramble in the Cascades. The mesh used in the optional large exterior pocket is also extremely tough and resisted wear from tent poles, stakes, and sharp rock samples.

Although the Moonbow Gearskin is very durable, it does not fully enclose your gear in its tough fabrics. Using the suggested packing system, your shelter is fully exposed along the sides and top when on the trail. While the pack remained unscathed throughout our testing, my exposed tent rainfly became heavily abraded during some off trail jaunts. It is highly recommended that durable stuff sacks or a pack cover/liner be used with the Gearskin during conditions such as these.


At $213, as tested, the Moonbow Gearskin pack is one of the more expensive frameless packs. However, it is a specialty pack that is of the highest quality and comes to you EXACTLY as you want it. This is a high-quality piece of equipment that is durable enough to last many seasons. If a faster packing system and the ability to carry an extremely wide range of pack volumes is what you're looking for, the Moonbow Gearskin may be the year-round pack that will best accommodate your needs.

Recommendations for Improvement

This is a unique design that has its own advantages and disadvantages. It packs very quickly and can handle an extremely wide range of larger volumes. However, it lacks the ability to handle smaller volumes, has no side or top gear protection, and the problem of tent condensation coming in contact with sleeping bags. These concerns are simply the tradeoffs of the system. Using a packliner and stuff sacks can solve the concerns of gear and sleeping bag protection, but this reduces the packing-up-speed and simplicity of the pack. Wrapping items more securely into the tent can eliminate the problem of small items falling out between the side straps; however, this further limits accessibility. It is possible that by adding overlapping fabric flaps on the side of the Moonbow Gearskin pack, the problems of gear protection and smaller items falling out could be minimized.


"Moonbow Gearskin Backpack REVIEW," by Doug Johnson. (ISSN 1537-0364)., 2005-05-10 03:00:00-06.