TrailLite Designs Bandoleer pack review
Back in the spring Thom Darrah at TrailLite Designs offered free review prototypes of a new superultralight pack to members. I was fortunate enough to be selected. Unfortunately, our late winter and training for the Classic didn’t let me use it too much. The Bandoleer pack is an exacting, specialized tool. It is designed for, and works exceedingly well with, a light and spare backpacking kit. It did not allow me to haul the packrafting and snow travel gear I needed on all my bigger trips, even through the end of June. Since I got back from Alaska summer backpacking season has been in full swing, and I’ve gotten to know the Bandoleer pack very well.
The one shoulder strap is a unique concept, and even though I’ve hauled a messenger bag around for year to school and work, the execution hear is totally different. I’ll review the design of the pack itself first, before discussing the one-strap design in detail.
As my introductory video shows, this is a small pack. 1500 cubic inches seems like a good estimate. The flat, rectangular bottom measures 5″ by 10″, the pack is 27″ base to tip of extension collar, and the collar is 25.5″ in diameter at the drawcord. The body is artfully cut so that it’s a bit wider and flatter at the bottom, and tapers to be fatter and narrower at the top. The pack has two side pockets and a back pocket. The side pockets just fit a standard bike bottle when the pack is full. They’re tall enough to secure taller bottles. I found it hard to get a bottle out without swinging the pack forward, but that is a forgivable flaw on a pack whose load will always be light. The back pocket is also well designed, and even with the main pack stuffed full the back pocket holds a lot. A poncho tarp or rain jacket and rain pants (assuming they’re on the lighter, smaller end of the spectrum) fit into it securely. All three pockets have corner drain holes.
The pack came stock (see photos in the first link, above) with a bunch of elastic cord woven though small loops sewn into the seams. The stock system allows for good compression, and user customization. After the first few trips with the pack, I did away with virtually all of the cord, leaving only a bit of the stock cord threaded through the tops of the side pockets, and some thicker cord through the top of the back pocket. I never used the pack when it wasn’t full or nearly so, and thus compression didn’t seem necessary. Eventually I cut off the loop located near the strap which allowed for top compression, to save grams and make things a bit cleaner overall. I also added a 1/4″ drain grommet to the bottom of the main compartment, as well as replacing the stock drawcord with aircore and a microcordlock. The bottom and back of the pack are VX-21, while the remainder is heavy gauge cuben fiber. They’re cutting edge, durable, highly waterproof materials. The seams and top hole will leak under sustained rain, but the fabrics themselves will not, even if blasted with a hose (I checked). The upside of this is that the pack gains almost no water weight when soaked. I submersed the stock pack in a bathtube for an hour, shook it free of standing water, and it gained about a half ounce before it had any time to air dry. Impressive.
The materials are well chosen. VX-21 isn’t the most durable material around, but is more than adequate for this application. The thick cuben impressed me, shrugging off thick brush and sharp limestone easily. I think the sick face helps here. I’ve been a skeptic of cuben in things like packs, but the Bandoleer made me a believer.
As good as the design of the pack is, the construction is at least it’s equal. Chris Zimmer sews for TrailLite, and his growing reputation for custom packs on BPL is if anything understated compared to what it should be, if this pack is any indication. Packs have always been one of the areas of gear with which I’ve been most interested, and my recent forays into pack construction and professional gear reviewing have (I like to think) given me an especially exacting eye for pack construction. I found two flaws in Zimmer’s work: the draw cord sleeve on the back pocket was only bonded with tape, not sewn, and started to peel back at the upper edge after a bit of use, and the bartacks holding the strap on were a bit hastily done and thus of uneven thickness (more on this below). These are both exceedingly mild critiques, and overall the Bandoleer was as well-built as any pack I’ve ever used, and better than the overwhelming majority, including some from the biggest names in the business.
In summary, the only limitations of the Bandoleer pack are inherent to its design. The pack is meant for short trips with a compact kit. If terms like base weight and skin out weight are foreign to you, you need not apply here. If you want an exceedingly well-designed and constructed pack for ultralight backpacking in milder conditions, this pack is the pinnacle of the market. I refuse to believe any other is better constructed or designed, and none is made from better materials. For quick overnights, it is ideal. As a backpacking pack, it won’t get used around here too far outside summer. It’s been great for trips like this one, but the bulky synthetic insulation I use during the fall just won’t fit, to say nothing of winter gear. It will likely make a great winter daypack. It’s a specialized pack, with no compromises nor apologies made. I respect that.
Keen observes may have noted that in both of the above photos I have two shoulder straps on my pack. The bandoleer single strap and I just never got along, and to do the design full justice I had to make sure it was only the one strap which bugged me, rather than the pack itself.
Zimmer used appropriately burly thread building this, and getting the strap off required a fair bit of careful work with a seam ripper. The bartacks holding the strap on were a bit thin in spots, indicated a rushed feed, but there were more than enough of them for this purpose (certainly more than you’d find on any daypack from a major retail brand). I removed the strap and the reinforcing bit of webbing, then opened the seam between the cuben and VX-21 at the top of the backpanel, and sewed in a pair of old Talon 22 straps which I beefed up with yoga mat long ago. They’ve proven their suitability for decent loads and my shoulder shape by being on several packs over the years. I like the pack better with these traditional shoulder straps.
The bando strap is itself well designed. As can be seen above, it made full wrap and contact with my shoulder very well indeed. The dual lower straps provided an impressively stable load carry. At first I wanted to cinch both straps tight, but found that a loose arrangement was more comfortable and no less secure.
I’ve owned conventional two-strap packs which never seemed to carry as well as they should, for reasons that were never quite quantifiable, and the bando strap fit right in. It never felt less effective than the conventional straps I later installed, it just didn’t feel as good.
Oh, and the pack was 9.6 oz at the end of all my modifications.
-The design, materials, and construction of the pack make it an impeccable choice for shorter, ultralight backpacking trips.
-The bando strap is well designed but just didn’t suit me.
-Make it available in one or two strap models.
-Put some stitching on the top of the back pocket drawcord.
-Keep the waist strap attachment. I never found it necessary or even desirable, but it’s a good option to have.
-Possibly lower the side pocket edge closest to the user back by an inch, to make bottles easier to grab.
-Use a suitably weight-weeniesque cord and cordlock for the main closure.
-Make sure it’s available by spring. It should prove quite popular.