Tuesday, 21 October 2014

What works for me: Rucksacks, backpacks

When I first started backpacking with the Boy Scouts I carried a pack, but I cannot recall what it was. But I do recall my first A framed pack which was similar to this one.

A frame pack

I recall happily using this pack on a number of trips in the mid sixties until the next best thing came along “The H frame”,  a better load carrier. The pack was a Flinders Ranges H frame Venturer pack, as shown below. It worked well, but as was normal at that time the hip belt was a thin leather strap and the shoulder straps were also minimalist and I can recall making foam pads to protect the shoulders.

H Frame 1

For those wondering, I am behind the camera, and cannot recall the names of those in the photo.

An improved H frame pack appeared on the scene from New Zealand which was available from an independent retailer Loch Wilson, (a picture of the Mountain Mule, can be found by scrolling down on the following link Mountain Mule Picture ). Reading the history of the Melbourne Bushwalking club, I came across an interesting quote regarding H frame Packs “Because heavy loads could be carried more comfortably in an H-frame pack, their advent turned the emphasis away from lightweight bushwalking. Before then it was a matter of pride how lightly one could travel. Really keen walkers would trim excess straps and would even cut down the handles on their toothbrushes.”  See the following link H frame and UL hiking. Indicating something we already knew, that Ultra light hiking is certainly not new, and the quote perhaps also indicates that evolution in pack design impacted on the weight carried.

The Gear chapter continues on to describe the construction of an UL H frame pack by 2 members, using an aluminium frame and a “Terylene spinnaker fabric” (p.126) I wondered if these were the first Spinnaker fabric packs made in the world?

Anyway I digress, it was about this time I took a hiatus from “Bushwalking” before returning in the mid 80’s, By now the H frame pack had been replaced by internal frame packs and I acquired my first Macpac (a look at some historical photos from "Compass: Charting the Evolution of Outdoor Gear”) , it was a revelation with a padded hip belt, frame and padded shoulders but it was big, I carried approximately 35 kg in it around the Western Arthurs in Tasmania, which was something I would prefer not to repeat.

Soon afterwards I was heading to Europe and then the USA. I started with my Macpac, but once in the USA I experimented with many packs, including the ULA packs, which at that time was owned by Brian Frankle, as well I tried Six Moon Design Comet (shown below), GoLite and others.


I tried the BPL Arctic Ultra , now known as the ULA Epic, I found it to be okay, and certainly your gear stayed dry, I eventually sold it, as it was “overkill” for my needs also recognising that frame sheets did not suit me.


I finally decided to invest in a McHale, custom made pack, it was not lightweight but fitted well and carried even better, so well that I ended up with 2.

AppalachianTrail - 307-imp

This pack accompanied me on many trips in the States as well to Norway. But I always felt it was overbuilt for my needs and I contacted Dan and had him make me a minimalist pack using Black Dyneema, in hindsight “this is the one that got away”, it was a favourite and only recently its new owner took it to the Swiss alps.

McHale on the Lighthouse track.PEF-imp

At the time, however, I was planning long trips in Lapland and needed a good load carrier for my less than perfect back. Along came Aarn packs and I purchased and used the Natural Balance for weights of 20 plus kg, it worked and was very comfortable (or at least as comfortable as 25kg load can be.) the pack still hangs in my cupboard for the next BIG trip, though I am not sure there will be one requiring such a load.


Looking over Virihaure-imp

Meanwhile my enthusiasm for Aarn spawned further purchases especially the Featherlite Freedom. No matter which Aarn pack I used, I was impressed by the hip belts which fitted well and were not overly padded, the shoulder straps which likewise were not overpadded but were very comfortable. Similarly, the frame design with ventilated mesh was comfortable no matter what the temperature was and the structure easily supported the loaded pack. Below is the Marathon Magic 33, in Valadalen in Sweden.


The only issue with the Aarn packs is the weight, though now it is possible to purchase a Cuben pack some of which include Titanium in the frame.

Living in Scandinavia the home of Haglöfs, Fjällräven etc. I had the opportunity to try out the Haglöfs LIM 45, a pack which impressed me, especially with its internal frame design, however, like many things it was just not quite right so I kept looking.


Recently the HMG Porter appeared on the scene, and for me there was a lot to like about it, the weight, the simplicity of design (the reason I liked McHale packs) the simple frame of 2 stays with a padded back panel. Soon I was investing in one and have not looked back. Perhaps Jörgen’s comment best captures the fit on me when he stated “It fits you well” and it does. As a consequence I have used the Porter on two trips to Lapland as well as a few shorter trips.

Saraelv NP and Porter-imp

A note of caution, in my experience even with taped seams and water resistant fabric, can still be some seepage through the fabric in extended rain. I assume the seepage occurs because of cracks in the laminated layers, not really a problem, as you can use a trash bag or other as a liner. (See Mike St. Pierre blog post on a discussion of the waterproofness of HMG packs)

End of the Hærvejen-imp

Such is my faith in the style and the sizing of the HMG packs I recently purchased a HMG Windrider 2400 for trips up to 5 days in length.

Following is a list of my observations on the HMG packs gleaned from approximately 100 trail days amounting to approximately 1500kms in the Nordic countries.


1. Lightweight
2. Simplicity of design
3. White colour, easy for packing but does stain and show dirt.
4. Comfortable to carry with up to 20 kg in the Porter 4400.
5. The frame consisting of 2 vertical stays seems to flex as you move, and I feel in part this is why it is comfortable for me.


Suggestions for Improvement

1. I would like to see the wings of the hip belt extended a a couple of inches (5 cm) or so.
2. The hip belt pockets are okay, but really should be larger perhaps similar to the new SMD packs.
3. Maybe a more pronounced S shape could be integrated into the design of the shoulder straps.
4. Add Ice Axe (pole) loops either side of the rear pocket on the Windrider, the current one loop in the middle of the rear pocket is impractical when the pocket is fully loaded.


Do I see my HMG packs as being my “final pack”? yes, no, maybe. If not, what would I like to try?

I am continually drawn to the comfort and fit of the Aarn packs and I would love to try (without paying for) a new Cuben Aarn. Or maybe I will invest in a Black HMG pack for those stealth trips where white is a little obvious.

Final Reflections

Over the years I have used many different packs as I sought out "The One”. However, in reality there will never be “The One", because at some point a pack will feel uncomfortable, it will feel heavy and it will never carry you along the trail.

Stepping back a little, I have come to realise "What works for me as pack” can be described in the following criteria.

1. I prefer a framed pack, albeit a minimalist frame.
2. I prefer a simple “bag” design, with no extra compartments etc.
3. I prefer a lightly padded wrap around hip belt.
4. Similarly the shoulder straps should not be overpadded.
5. I prefer roll tops to any other form of closure.
6. I prefer mesh side pockets, for the storage of a tent and water.
7. I prefer a rear pocket for wet gear.
8. I prefer reasonable sized hipbelt pockets for snacks and sundry items. The HMG packs are deficient in this area in my view.

However, I have also come to realise that packs are like shoes, you need to try before you buy and in the internet age trying on XYZ brand, which maybe the best pack ever is problematic. I for one have resolved that unless I can try a particular pack (or at least the brand) then I will not buy. If the purchase of a new pack will only cost me shipping from a dealer then that maybe okay, but anymore e.g. import duties I will not bother. What does this mean for the future? I know and trust HMG packs with their sizing, similarly for Aarn, as for other companies it is a little more of a challenge. Consequently, it would appear that I either stick to what I know, or find a way of trying the fit and style of packs without having to pay up front, an interesting conundrum. You will need to keep reading this blog to see what the future brings.