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Lightweight Packs for heavy loads

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Offline mule ears

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Lightweight Packs for heavy loads
« on: September 17, 2008, 09:04:18 AM »
This just in from Backpacking a new review of packs for heavy loads like water in the desert.

Backpacking Light is a subscription site to access many of the articles (not all) and is well worth the $25 a year fee especially initially to glean lots of great information. This article is a members only access so I have cut and pasted the pertinent parts.

Sorry the charts didn't copy well but you can see how they compared by the scores in bold.

Light Packs for Heavy Loads: State of the Market Report
Chris Townsend reviews the options in lightweight packs for heavy loads.


by Chris Townsend | 2008-09-16 00:05:00-06

Back in 2000, I was looking for a pack for along the Arizona Trail that would handle up to 65 pounds (30 kilograms) reasonably comfortably, as I would be carrying three gallons of water and a weeks food at times. Lightweight packs available back then couldn't carry that amount of weight without hurting, and after trying several, I ended up taking my old Gregory Shasta, despite the weight of 6.9 pounds (3.15 kilograms), knowing that it would be comfortable with heavy loads.

Fast forward four years, and I was planning a 500-mile hike in the High Sierra on which I would carry ten days food at one point. With bear canister and camera gear as well, that meant a maximum load of 45-50 pounds (20-23 kilograms) though mostly I would be carrying 30-35 pounds (14-16 kilograms). Large volume lightweight packs had appeared by then, and I chose one of these - a GoLite Trek weighing an ultralight 34 ounces (970 grams) with a basic capacity of 4088 cubic inches (67 liters) and a maximum capacity of 5614 cubic inches (92 liters).

The Trek was easily big enough for the ten-day load, but the simple lightweight back system - an unpadded hipbelt and a soft, thin padded back - was inadequate for the weight, and I had the choice of crushing my shoulders or my hips. I partly solved the problem by cutting the corners off my foam pad and duct taping them to the hipbelt for extra cushioning. What this somewhat painful experiment showed me was that for heavy loads, a pack with a substantial supportive was still needed. I'd have been much more comfortable with the Shasta, despite it weighing over three times as much as the Trek.

As lightweight backpacking has grown in popularity, the challenge for pack makers has been whether they could reduce the weight of packs for big loads from the 5.5 to 6.5 pounds (2.5-3 kilograms) average, to something that could be called lightweight. Happily, several have done so, and in this feature I look at what's currently available.

The Need for Heavy Loads
The idea of heavy loads doesn't seem to fit with the principles of lightweight backpacking. But there are times when, even with lightweight gear and clothing, weights creep well above 30 pounds (14 kilograms), which seems the absolute maximum for comfort with the lightest packs. Winter trips with snow and ice gear, climbing trips with ropes, harnesses,and protection, desert trips with gallons of water, photography trips with heavy camera gear, long trips in remote country with supplies for a week or more - these can all pile on the weight. Following lightweight principles can still mean that loads are relatively light. For instance, 40 pounds (18 kilograms) is preferable to 50 pounds (23 kilograms).

Frames and Hipbelts
The technology for carrying heavy loads is simple: a padded hipbelt to support the weight and spread it over your hips and lumbar area, plus some form of stiffening in the back of the pack to help transfer the weight to the hipbelt and stop the pack from buckling under the weight. External frame packs do this well, but are heavy, bulky and unstable (though some would argue otherwise - a photographer friend in Colorado swears by his old Kelty Tioga external frame pack even for bushwhacking and climbing).

Internal frames are more stable and the choice of most backpackers. Unfortunately, since they were first introduced, extra padding, thicker fabrics and heavier, more complex frames and adjustable harness systems have piled on the weight. The first internal frame was developed some forty years ago by the Lowe brothers when they put two parallel aluminum stays into a frameless pack so it would support a heavy load, yet still be stable and close-fitting enough for climbing.

Lowe Alpine was set up to make the packs, and that original design has been the standard ever since and is used by many companies. It still works for lightweight packs, as long as the components are light - narrower, thinner stays, smaller buckles, lighter fabrics - and features are kept to the essential. A second type of back support, which first appeared in the late 1970s, is the framesheet, a piece of malleable foam or plastic that fits in the back of the pack.

Framesheets vary in stiffness and may have stays inserted in them. Often framesheets and stays are removable, so the weight of the pack can be reduced for light loads. Padded backs prevent pack contents or the frame from poking you and can help reduce moisture build-up, but too many internal frame packs have masses of thick back padding that looks cushy and comfortable but is often completely ineffective and superfluous and just adds useless weight and bulk. Sometimes the padding doesn't even touch your back.

"Virtual" frames - whereby careful packing, sleeping pads and compression straps can be used to create a firm pack back - can help support a minimalist frame so it will carry a heavier load comfortably. This is not for those who like to chuck their gear in and go.

Hipbelts need to be substantial to support heavy loads. Thin belts with minimal or no padding are inadequate, as I found in the High Sierra. The heavier the load, the thicker and wider the belt should be. For really heavy loads - over 50 pounds (23 kilograms) - a stiff outer material to stop the belt twisting and deforming is helpful.

While some weight can be saved in the harness, it's in the packbag that savings can really be made, and here the influence of frameless and ultralight packs can be seen in lighter fabrics, mesh pockets, narrower webbing, smaller buckles and all round simpler designs. That said, some lightweight internal framed packs could be lighter still if some components were reduced in number or removed completely. Lower compartments are not essential. Neither are solid fabric pockets.

Which features are needed depends on usage of course. Attachment points for skis, ice axes, ropes and other equipment are necessary for skiing and climbing trips, but not for trail hikes, where the extra weight will be water or food rather than technical gear. Of course unnecessary features can be chopped off - just be sure you won't need them in the future. Some packs have detachable components so you only need carry those you will use.

Which materials are best for lightweight packs also depends on usage. The lightest - silnylon and other thin ripstop nylon - are fine for trails, but not for bushwhacking, scrambling, or climbing as the abrasion resistance isn't adequate. I've rubbed holes in a few silnylon packs testing this. Reinforcements can help - and are essential for the base - but overall I'd avoid such materials for rough usage.

Next up in durability are heavier polyurethane-coated nylons and polyesters, often called packcloth, such as those used by GoLite, Lowe Alpine, Lightwave, and Osprey. Toughest of all is Dyneema Gridstop, used by ULA, Mont-Bell, and OMM in the packs listed here. Dyneema Gridstop has a ripstop grid of 215 denier Dyneema on a base of 210 denier high tenacity nylon. Dyneema is ten times as strong as steel, according to the makers. I've certainly found Dyneema very durable, and it's my favorite pack fabric.

Heavy loads normally mean bulky loads, so packs need to have relatively high volumes. Overloading small packs makes for an uncomfortable carry. I'd say a minimum of 3500 cubic inches (57 liters) including pockets, pouches and extensions is needed. As there is no standard for volume measurement and some makers methods produce bigger figures than others, stated capacities are relative rather than exact. I loaded the seven packs I've tested with the same gear and my comments on their volume are based on this.

Rating packs for the load they will support is difficult and inevitably subjective. A pack one person finds comfortable with X pounds may be uncomfortable for someone else with less weight. A good fit is essential - some packs are more adjustable or come in more sizes than others and so will fit more people. Some people tolerate pressure on the shoulders or hips more than others. Different brands fit different people better than other brands, too.

I have used the packs in the ratings chart extensively. Only two of the seven packs have previously been reviewed by Backpacking Light - the GoLite Quest and the Granite Gear Vapor Trail - and those reviews are taken into account here. The ratings are relative rather than absolute, and others may have different experiences and come to different conclusions. They are intended as a guide only and not a substitute for trying on loaded packs and finding your own comfort level.

Ratings Chart
 Model                 Frame/Suspension Features Volume Load Carrying Durability Value Average Score
Granite Gear Vapor Trail           3.5       4.0        3.5          3.5           3.0       4.0     3.6
OMM Mountain Mover              3.5       4.0        3.5           3.5           4.5      4.0     3.8
GoLite Quest                         4.0       4.0        4.0           4.0           4.0       4.0     4.0
Lowe Alpine Contour 60+10 Hyperlite 4.0 3.5      4.0           4.0           4.0       4.5     4.0
ULA Catalyst                         4.0       4.0        4.0           4.0           5.0       4.5     4.25
GoLite Odyssey                     4.0        4.0        4.5           4.0           4.0       4.0    4.1
Osprey Aether 70                  4.5        4.5        4.0           4.5           4.0       4.0     4.25
« Last Edit: September 18, 2008, 04:42:54 PM by mule ears »
temperatures exceed 100 degrees F
minimum 1 gallon water per person/day
no shade, no water


Offline TexasAggieHiker

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Re: Lightweight Packs for heavy loads
« Reply #1 on: September 17, 2008, 10:33:10 AM »
good read


Offline jeffblaylock

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Re: Lightweight Packs for heavy loads
« Reply #2 on: September 17, 2008, 11:23:42 AM »
I have the Odyssey and used it to haul 3 gallons of water plus gear for 2 nights in Big Bend. It carries it well, although I recommend carrying an extra hip belt buckle. It is a 1" plastic piece and I suspect it will give at some point down the road.
Jeff Blaylock
Austin, Texas

"We'll be back, someday soon. We will return, someday, and when we do the gritty
splendor and the complicated grandeur of Big Bend will still be here. Waiting for us."--Ed Abbey

Re: Lightweight Packs for heavy loads
« Reply #3 on: September 17, 2008, 09:24:57 PM »
I have the vapor trail and it has carried 35 comfortably...or as comfortably as one can be beats 50 lbs for 6 days/5 nights....without all the water it was 24 lbs...carried that great.



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