Rating: 4 / 5
Austere and Spartan+ROBUST fabric+no "frills" = a solid 4+ (4.5 given this pack's design intentions).
IMHO, slightly better weight carrying ability would push this rating to a 5, and, to my way of thinking, would be acceptable if the pack's weight didn't rise more than, let's say 2-4oz to accomodate the improvements in suspension - so it would be in the SMD Starlite "frameless"-mode weight range - the generally accepted "pack mule" of sub-32oz and 32oz packs. some might consider the SMD Starlite, in frameless mode, a competitor due to the use of a somewhat similar Dyneema grid fabric, however the Starlite has ~15% less volume than the Gust. this is NOT to disparage the Starlite, which is, from all accounts, a stellar performer given its intended Thru-Hike design intentions - it certainly can carry heavier loads than the Gust, as well as having more features (suspension and external pockets) than the Gust.
[Note: unless i'm mistaken, so don't take this as "Gospel", the SMD Starlite and Comet packs may be getting those nice hip-belt pockets that the new SMD Essence pack has - sometime in the spring '06. "pj, how do...? - don't ask. i, for one, hope that this occurs.]
while there is at least one similarly large volume pack which is 4 or so ounces lighter (GG G4), this pack's Spectra/Dyneema rip-stop grid is much more robust. also, the GoLite Trek, while similarly large, and more feature laden, is a bit heavier at ~28oz sans the silNylon top-pocket (on my scale), and a Mfr claimed 32oz with the top pocket in place, and so is significantly heavier than the 19 or 19.5 oz that the Mfr claims this pack to weigh for model year that i have.
its simplicity is its beauty. although, quite honestly, i would have appreciated some mesh side pockets so that frequently accessed items could be retrieved while "on-the-move". also, an exterior mesh front pocket (like on the Breeze and G5 packs) would have been appreciated for drying my poncho after the inevitable New England rains. but...
then, adding these features would cause the Gust pack to cease to have the "character" that this elegantly simple (or is it simply elegant? - perhaps, both descriptions are correct) pack possesses in its minimalist configuration.
personally, i found that it carries quite well with 20lbs in it. for me, though, its chief virtue is NOT its weight carrying ability (it is after all a frameless rucksack), but its voluminous interior - it almost seems larger inside than outside (sic)!!!
mine is a black medium (got it on sale for only $60 - an '03 model i believe; a leftover purchased in early '04 - so it's ~0.5oz lighter than the last 2 or 3 yrs models of Gust pack). a medium-sized Gust pack is perhaps slightly too large for my 18" torso (18" being the minimum torso length/height recommended for this pack in size medium) - they had no small sizes available on sale. therefore due to, the torso length (i couldn't afford any collapse of the virtual frame), together with the interior circumference of this pack, i always needed to use a 59"-62" sleeping pad in order to achieve an adequately strong virtual frame. with a pad this size, good thing the pack had such ample volume. i rolled the pad into a cylinder, so there MUST be some overlap of the pad inorder to achieve a reasonably strong virtual frame, i.e. the pad must form a complete cylinder, so minimally, a bit more than 360 deg. of wrap (more is better) is req'd based upon my experience with this pack.
subsequently i found an '04 small on sale for $30 and scooped it up. my mistake though, i thought the Forest Green color was the Moss color of my GoLite Dawn pack. big mistake! i don't know what "forest" has this near-psychodelic, virtually-flourescent green color (10-mile green i fascitiously call it), but no forest i ever saw in Hobbiton of the Shire ever had this color of green to it. if the Incredible Hulk ever decides to go UL, then this "Forest Green" would be his color choice for a pack!!! if a forest plant or herb was this "warning" shade of green, it would be a "dead give-away" that it was poisonous and inedible!
a medium sized Gust pack is voluminous. when my gear was more voluminous (particularly because of the 20deg synthetic sleeping bag and "lightweight", sub-3lb, dbl-wall one person tent) this was the pack that would fit it all plus my food, hydration bladder, 2+lb Med kit, and BO Nova stove with fuel bottle. you can tell that I was only beginning to wise up and lighten up. obviously, given this type of gear, only treks of shorter duration were possible given this pack's load (i.e. weight, not volume) carrying capacity.
given my diminutive stature, it almost could serve as a half/demi-bivy sack for me in an emergency.
sadly, it doesn't find much use now, as both me and my 5-8lb base load of gear would "get lost" inside of its cavernous interior. but i'm hanging onto it in the event i ever need to pack a -40 deg F expedition sleeping bag up to northern Maine, near the Canadian border, some winter.
volume would be impt for instance, when an extremely cold weather sleeping bag might be the requirement - you certainly don't want to compress the bag too much considering that you're bringing such a cold weather bag for one specific purpose - it's very cold out! for me, the time elapsed between setting up bivouac and climbing into the bag is not very long (generally, cooking and eating is done earlier 2+ miles away before making camp - even if no bears are expected), so my bag doesn't have much time for loft to restore before i expect it to keep me warm.
if you need both volume and robustness in a maximum of 20-25 lb load, then this pack is a serious "contenduh", IMHO.