As part of our traditional coverage of summer Outdoor Retailer, I would like to summarize our current favorites and discuss some expected changes and new introductions in the backpack category. We currently have lots of excellent choices for built-in internal frame backpacks, convertible packs with a removable frame, and ultralight frameless backpacks. Nevertheless, we always look forward to new products entering the market and upgrades to current models, and we especially enjoy comparing them to our present favorites. For us gearheads, it’s always fun to find out what’s new and cutting edge.
Osprey re-enters the lightweight backpack category with the Exos 58 backpack for spring 2009, weighing just over two pounds. The Exos will be available in three sizes.
Many larger companies, which are well represented at OR, have a lightweight product line that we focus on at OR, and many new technologies are announced at OR. So we are always there to report on the cutting edge of technology. However, our coverage is not limited to the Outdoor Retailer trade show, because many new lightweight and (especially) ultralight products of interest to us come from small companies who typically are not present at OR. We want our coverage to include some of these products as well.
Built-In Internal Frame Backpacks
This category has a built-in internal frame that the rest of the pack is designed around, and the frame is not removable. A backpack of this type with a volume in the fifty- to sixty-five-liter range is very popular for lightweight backpacking, carrying a total weight of twenty-five to thirty-five pounds. Our weight limit in this category is three and a half pounds. These packs are generally better padded, sturdier, and capable of carrying a heavier load more comfortably.
My current favorites are:
- Granite Gear Vapor Trail (59 L, 37 oz, US$160)
- ULA Equipment Catalyst (75 L, 43 oz, US$225)
- REI Cruise UL 60 (60 L, 50 oz, US$130)
- GoLite Quest (72 L, 51 oz, US$175)
- Gregory Z-55 (55 L, 53 oz, US$199)
- Granite Gear Nimbus Meridian (60 L, 56 oz, US$250)
Please note that total pack volume can be very misleading, because it doesn’t indicate how much of the volume is contained in outside pockets versus the main compartment. The actual pack size/volume can be significantly larger or smaller than expected. I strongly recommend comparing packs in detail before making a purchase. Factors that contribute to weight - but also to comfort - are adjustability and padding. The Granite Gear Nimbus Meridian is the heaviest pack on our favorites list, but it is also the most adjustable and arguably the most comfortable.
Osprey Re-enters the Lightweight Pack Category
A new addition to this category, and one sure to hit our favorites list, is the new Osprey Exos 58 (38.5 ounces, US$199) which will be available in spring 2009. The popular Osprey Aether and Atmos packs have been previous favorites, but their weight increased with each upgrade to push them beyond our weight limit. We are pleased to have Osprey back in the lightweight backpack category with their new Exos pack.
The Exos is a top loader with a full feature set that includes nine pockets, air suspension backpanel, and a “Stow on the Go” trekking pole carrying system. The contoured tubular frame is made of 6061-T6 aluminum for strength and light weight. Weight reduction on the Exos is achieved by using lightweight durable fabrics, mesh pockets, die-cut Biostretch EVA foam in the suspension system, and lightweight straps and connectors. The new AirSpeed backpanel is a trampoline type, but the air gap is reduced from previous versions to reduce its interference with pack volume and put the center of gravity closer to the user.
Osprey’s new Exos 58 internal frame backpack is a pound lighter than many of its competitors. The frontpanel (left) has a large stretchwoven kangaroo pocket, and there are two large mesh pockets on the sides. The backpanel view (center) shows the pack’s lightweight contoured peripheral frame, AirSpeed mesh backpanel, and mesh hipbelt pockets. A close-up of the backpanel shows the reduced depth of the AirSpeed backpanel, which brings the pack’s center of gravity closer to the hiker. The Exos does not have an adjustable torso length, so it's important to choose the correct pack size.
I have been testing the Exos 58 for a couple of months and have found it fully capable of comfortably carrying loads between twenty-five and thirty-five pounds. With a large main compartment and nine spacious pockets, I found the Exos 58 overly spacious for my gear kit most of the time, so I advise readers to take a good look at the Exos 46 (30 ounces). It may seem to be too small, but it is in fact a very roomy pack for a weekend trip or longer when using lightweight gear. It’s important to purchase a backpack that is properly sized for the volume of gear that will be carried. Most backpacks carry better when they are fully expanded, but not overstuffed. The smallest pack in the new Exos series is thirty-four liters (28 ounces).
Lightwave Introduces a (Nearly) Waterproof Backpack
Although not available in the United States, another internal frame backpack of interest is the new Lightwave Wildtrek (60 liter men’s/55 liter women’s, about 2.3 pounds), available now throughout Europe. Although they are traditional top-loading designs, the distinctive feature of these packs (besides their light weight) is they have welded and taped seams that make the packs mostly waterproof. The backpanel seams are not seam taped, but they are protected to a large extent. The packs have an internal M-frame made of 7001-T6 aluminum.
The new Lightwave Wildtrek 60 has welded and taped seams that make it nearly waterproof while hiking in the rain.
Gregory Further Expands Their Popular Z-Pack Series
Gregory will be introducing the men’s Z-65/women’s Jade 60 (65/60 liters, sub-4 pounds, US$229) in spring 2009 to provide a larger version of their popular Z-Packs. These packs feature Gregory’s Jet Stream suspension technology, top loading and frontpanel access, and six pockets for convenient access to gear. In addition to these larger Z-Packs, Gregory is also introducing the Z-35/Jade 35 and Z-25/Jade 25.
Gregory’s new Z-65 and its companion women’s Jade 60 extend the volume range in their popular Z-Pack series.
Updated North Face Skareb Backpacks are Better than Ever
The North Face will have twenty-one new or updated backpacks for spring 2009, and we obviously can’t cover all of them. Lightweight standouts are the Skareb 65 and 50. The name remains the same, but the packs will receive a complete makeover for spring 2009, which will consist of new lightweight durable fabrics, improved X-Radial frame (that weighs only 2.5 ounces!), a fast opening top access, outside access, improved molded EVA padded backpanel and lumbar zones, stretch nylon side pockets, large stretch-woven front pocket, and a lightweight but comfortable suspension system. The wide hipbelt has a pocket on one side and accessory attachment loops on the other. There is even a loop on the left shoulder strap to conveniently carry a water bottle adventure racer style. The Skareb 65 (65 liters, about 54 ounces, US$249) and Skareb 50 (50 liters, 48 ounces, US$219) are cutting edge internal frame backpacks that pack a lot of features and comfort into their sub-3.5-pound weights.
North Face’s Skareb 65 (left) and Skareb 50 (center) will receive a complete makeover for spring 2009. Backpanel padding and ventilation are provided by a molded EVA lattice (right), and the left shoulder strap has a built-in water bottle holder.
Backpacks with a Removable Frame
These packs are very versatile because they can be used as either an internal frame backpack or frameless pack. The stays or framesheet slip into a sleeve on the backpanel and are easily inserted or removed. I put these packs into a separate category so as to compare apples with apples. These packs are also popular with many lightweight backpackers because they provide the capacity to carry a twenty-five- to thirty-five-pound load when needed. However, they are arguably more comfortable for loads in the twenty- to thirty-pound range. The lightest pack in this category (by Gossamer Gear) is an ultralight frameless pack when the stays are removed.
My current favorites are:
Gossamer Gear Mariposa Plus (60 L, 19.3 oz, US$155)
Six Moon Designs Comet (60 L, 29 oz, US$160)
Six Moon Designs Starlite (67 L, 30 oz, US$165)
The weights include the stays. The Gossamer Gear Mariposa Plus is made of durable 2.2 oz/yd2 coated rip-stop nylon and has straight carbon fiber stays that are not bendable. It replaces the current Mariposa and Miniposa packs (made of silnylon) that are being discontinued. The Six Moon Designs Comet and Starlite differ in volume and design, are constructed of durable 210 denier Dyneema Gridstop, have half-inch wide aluminum stays that can be bent to match the curvature of the user’s back, and are available with different hipbelt sizes and styles (with or without hipbelt pockets).
REI’s New Flash Ultralight Backpacks are Spot On
REI’s in-house gear and apparel development program continues to crank out new well designed, durable products with a great feature set and value pricing. Their new Flash backpack series for spring 2009 will replace their Ultralight series, and includes the Flash 65 (65 liters, 50 ounces, US$149) and Flash 50 (50 liters, 42 ounces, US$129). Their HDPE framesheet and top lid are removable to yield a frameless pack that weighs two pounds or less. These packs feature a wrap-around front kangaroo pocket with its own front zippered compartment, water-resistant zippers, mesh side pockets (four overlapping side pockets on the Flash 65, two on the Flash 50), and a large top lid. The suspension system is well padded and comfortable without being too weighty. The Flash packs have a fixed torso length, so getting a good fit means choosing the correct pack size. Both packs are available in men’s and women’s small, medium, and large.
The new REI Flash 65 (top left) and 50 (top center) are exceptionally well-designed, durable packs with a great feature set and value pricing. The suspension system (top right) is comfortable and light. These packs use a contoured HDPE framesheet (bottom left) that has been die-cut to reduce weight. With the top cap and frame removed (bottom right), the Flash packs become a frameless pack weighing around two pounds.
Six Moon Designs Introduces a Travel Pack
The new Six Moon Designs Traveler (62 liters, 31 ounces, US$180), available now, addresses the needs of backpackers who use public transportation to get to their destination. It’s a panel-loader with a zippered top pocket and zippered front mesh pocket. The other features are basically the same as the Comet (adjustable torso length, hipbelt sizes with optional pockets, one tall mesh pocket on the left side and two mesh pockets on the right side front compression straps).
Although the Traveler has design features to help it survive public transportation abuse, I don’t think I would ship a backpack with gear stuffed into mesh side pockets. I have had much better luck with wrapping my pack in plastic or placing it in a duffle bag to keep it clean and unscathed. Actually, the Traveler is a wonderful design for normal backpacking without using public transportation. Its design borrows a bit from the revised SMD Essence pack, which really works well for comfort and convenience, especially when the pack is fully expanded.
The new Six Moon Designs Traveler pack is a panel loader with a zippered front mesh pocket and zippered top pocket.
The Super Scrambler from Mountain Hardwear
For spring 2009, Mountain Hardwear will be introducing a larger version of their popular Scrambler backpack, called the Super Scrambler (51 liters, 35 ounces, US$130). Size large bumps the volume up to fifty-six liters and fits torsos longer than 18.5 inches. This pack has a unique corrugated thermofoam framesheet that can be removed, along with a foam back pad and the top cap, allowing the pack to be used as a conventional frameless backpack with top compression strap. Inside there is a large internal sleeve that allows the use of a sleeping pad for additional backpanel cushioning/support.
The 2009 Mountain Hardwear Super Scrambler (left, 51 liters, 35 ounces, US$130) is built to be versatile. It has a removable corrugated framesheet (right), back pad, and top cap to convert it to a conventional frameless backpack.
These backpacks, as the name implies, have no frame at all. For back padding and to stiffen the pack, it’s standard practice to create a “virtual frame” by placing a closed cell foam pad against the backpanel or coiling it in the main compartment.
My current favorites are:
Mountain Laurel Designs Prophet (2750 cubic inches/45 L, 5.9 oz, US$130)
Six Moon Designs Essence (3100 cubic inches/51 L, 13 oz, US$120
GoLite Jam2 (3100 cubic inches/51 L, 21 oz, US$100)
GoLite Pinnacle (4400 cubic inches/72 L, 25 oz, US$130)
Pack weights vary because of fabrics, features, and size, and do not include accessories, such as a hipbelt and sternum strap. I included the GoLite Pinnacle because it really shines for carrying high volume/moderate weight loads, such as winter backpacking where a bulkier sleeping bag and more insulated clothing are needed.
Gossamer Gear Murmur Replaces the Whisper
Gossamer Gear’s popular Whisper Uberlight pack is being replaced by the Murmur Hyperlight pack (1700 cubic inches/28 liters, 7.5 ounces, US$90). The Murmer is constructed of 1.1 ounce/yd2 spinnaker fabric and has 300 cubic inches less volume than the Whisper. It also gains some features and more than doubles in weight (from 3.5 ounces to a whopping 7.5 ounces!). The additional weight comes from the addition of a waist strap, sternum strap, and two side pockets. The Murmur has a total of three outside pockets - one front mesh pocket and two side spinnaker pockets - while the Whisper only has one front spinnaker pocket. Overall, the Murmur has a feature set that most hikers prefer, and provides more utility in a pack that is still outrageously light. For gram cutters, the waist belt and sternum strap are removable.
The new Gossamer Gear Murmur frameless backpack (7.5 ounces/1700 cubic inches) is made of spinnaker fabric and is 300 cubic inches smaller than the former Whisper pack.
GoLite Upgrades the Jam2 and Pinnacle for Spring 2009
More evolution will be taking place in the GoLite line of backpacks. After introducing a completely new backpack line a couple of years ago, the Jam2 and Pinnacle will receive an upgrade and the weights will go up a bit (there appears to be a trend here). The new packs will have a conventional zipper and storm flap on the large front pocket (which is how it was on the original Jam and Gust), spacer-mesh padded backpanel, shoulder straps, hipbelt wings, and larger stretch-woven hipbelt pockets and side pockets. The side compression straps will (finally) mate across the front of the pack to stabilize the load or attach larger items to the front of the pack. And the ComPACKtor system for reducing pack volume has been improved. By now, you are probably wondering what the damages (in weight) are; according to GoLite, a large Pinnacle will gain eight ounces and a large Jam2 will gain two ounces. That’s not too bad, considering the gains in comfort and utility.
The GoLite Jam2 (shown) and Pinnacle (which is a larger volume pack of the same design) will receive a substantial upgrade for spring 2009, which will increase their comfort and utility as well as their weight.
Mountain Laurel Designs Replaces the Zip Pack with the Exodus and Arc
The durable Mountain Laurel Designs Zip pack has been replaced by two similar packs that differ in size: the Exodus (3200 cubic inches/52 liters, 11.3 ounces, US$160) and Arc (4200 cubic inches/69 liters, 14.2 ounces, US$170). These packs are constructed of more durable 40 denier silnylon with 210 denier Spectra Gridstop on the backpanel and bottom. Features include three outside mesh pockets, compression straps, top strap, hipbelt, and sternum strap. The main difference between the two packs is their volume, although the larger Arc has wider shoulder straps and hipbelt wings.
The new Mountain Laurel Designs Exodus (left, 11.3 ounces, 3200 cubic inches) and Arc (right, 14.2 ounces, 4200 cubic inches) are more durable frameless backpacks and differ mainly in size.
Terra Nova Expands Into Backpacks
Terra Nova is well known in the UK for their extremely light double wall tents. Starting in 2009, their products will be available in the U.S. through selected dealers and eventually a distribution center. In spring 2009, Terra Nova will be introducing a new line of ultralight frameless backpacks that are designed for adventure racers and fastpackers. The largest of the series is the Laser 35 (35 liters, 17 ounces, US$100), which is a panel-loading pack made of lightweight fabrics derived from their tent designs, and spacer-mesh padded suspension system. The pack has wide side pockets and a closed-cell foam backpanel that is removable.
The Terra Nova Laser 35 is designed for adventure racers and fastpackers and weighs just seventeen ounces.
Assessment and Trends
The weight of lightweight fixed internal frame backpacks is steadily declining while their feature set is steadily improving. The Osprey Exos 58 and 46 are standouts for weight reduction while providing plenty of volume, features, and comfort. Every component of the pack has been fine tuned to provide function with minimal weight, and it adds up to a substantial weight savings. A year ago, our lightest internal frame backpacks weighed just over three pounds; the Osprey Exos beats that by nearly a pound.
Backpacks with a removable frame continue to be a viable category, and the selection is expanding. This is perhaps the most versatile type of backpack. While they won’t carry heavier loads as comfortably as the fixed internal frame backpacks, they easily handle moderate lightweight loads or weekend loads. The packs in this category are diverse, and the final choice depends on the volume and weight of your gear kit and trip lengths. While slightly heavier, the new REI Flash backpacks should not be ignored. They have a wonderful feature set, are more versatile than the Exos because of their removable components, and they are an outstanding value. However the Flash packs are about a pound heavier than the Six Moon Designs packs, and almost two pounds heavier than the Gossamer Gear Mariposa. The Flash packs should be considered for purchase alongside the Osprey Exos packs (and other favorites in that category), rather than the SMD and Gossamer Gear packs.
Many of our readers have a gear kit so light that they will only consider a smaller frameless backpack. The trend in this category seems to be toward more durable fabrics, which adds only an ounce or two to the weight of a pack and extends its lifespan considerably. Removable components are also common, so a hiker can customize the pack to the conditions on each trip.