The rise of the (larger) vestpack

Outdoor retailer is upon us, and as usual a modest array of interesting things have come bubbling to the surface of the internet. One emerging trend I find more interesting than most is the rise of larger vestpacks.

Years ago I had a first-gen Nathan HPL020, which was an impressively stable and accessible way to carry a days worth of stuff.  I maxed it out doing a Grand Canyon double crossing, mainly because the tap on the North Kaibab was turned off and I had to carry lots of water.  I got out of running shortly thereafter and sold the pack.  Since then, copycats of comparable capacity have multiplied.

Such small packs don’t interest me much, but there are two features intrinsic to such vests which will hopefully make their way onto and improve larger packs suitable for multi-day wilderness adventures: improved wearer/pack interface and stable front storage.  For 2013 there are two larger packs which promise to bring both, the Mountain Hardwear Summitrocket 20 and the Ultimate Direction Adventure vest.


Photo via OutdoorTest.  See a bit more at GearJunkie.


Photo via Trailspace.  See more on the whole line at said link.

The adventure vest is similar to (though perhaps a bit lighter than) extent offerings from Salomon and Camp, while to my knowledge the SR 20 is unique.  The smaller Aarn packs are perhaps analogous, though as always they are heavy and complex enough to be off-putting.  On the one hand these packs could be a tool for self-supported, multi-day, very fast and light adventures.  Ideally without the hacking which needs to be done to make existing options workable.  On the other hand this trend might lead to the integration of bottle and pocket space on to shoulder straps of larger packs.  I’ve concluded that this is the ideal place for snacks, map, compass, water treatment, and so forth, as well as a water bottle for those locations with sources abundant enough to make less than a liter the ideal amount routinely carried.  The needs of ultrarunners and fast backpackers, for water which can be drunk and refilled without removing the pack, are here the same.  My current system of voile-strapping a bike bottle to a shoulder strap works pretty well, but I’d love a system which is both more stable and with easier (one-handed) access.

In summary, I look forward to seeing what these packs have to offer.  And since the two highlighted here won’t be available for a while, and because the genre is quite expensive, will of course be experimenting with my own creations.  Talking with Meghan (author of the above Inov8 review) on our backpack a few weeks ago has me interested in fast/light trail stuff again, maybe even (surprise) in running.  Time to get ready.


4 responses to “The rise of the (larger) vestpack”

  1. Dave,

    We seem to follow a similar thought process with our ever-changing gear preferences, albeit you seem to execute them more thoroughly than I.

    Just today I was checking out the straps on race vests to mimic for my next pack. I think I’ll be doing wide straps with 3D mesh. A bottle pocket on one side and zippered pocket on the other. Rather than a sternum strap, it’ll have just the middle torso strap and no hipbelt.

    I’m debating doing some straps like that MH pack, we’ll see.

  2. I will run with you and I think I might also need to reconsider yoga.

  3. Yes – the Aarn packs are somewhat over-engineered and heavy (and are using increasingly outdated materials). But I know from experience that the balance pocket principle works exceptionally well and saves a great deal of energy. I can now carry alpine trekking gear + 5-10 days of food for weeks on end entirely free of shoulder and back pain, and I very rarely fall because balance is better.

    The balance pockets look awkward to wear, but in practice they are fine and you soon forget they are there. Testing has proved that the extra weight is handsomely offset by the 20% efficiency gains once loads go north of 15 pounds or so. I also love the ready access to everything needed for the day – I’ve sometimes walked 14 hours straight without ever taking my pack off.

    I simply don’t understand why more people aren’t playing with the idea of a counter-balancing front pack. Matching our natural centre of gravity with the load’s centre of gravity is surely a fundamental principle and it seems that he’s the only designer that understands this.

    But I’m rather less enamoured by the detailed implementation of the packs and the structure of the range. My current project is to combine the best ideas from Aarn (balance pockets and flow shoulder straps), McHale (waist belt design and Talon-style compression pockets) and Paradox (minimalist Alu frame), The trick is to keep the whole thing light and simple, but I think it’s doable. The result should be unusually comfortable and balanced.

    The information in your MYOG packs is the best I’ve found – thanks so much for sharing it! I’ll be using some of your ideas and construction tips.

    The point of this rant is to suggest that the body pack idea is something you might want to explore, especially if you are toting a kid around on your back – now that is a seriously unbalanced load! It will make more of a difference than you think. Now your designs are so refined, it’s the only way I can see that offers you significant scope for improvement.

    1. I remain intrigued by Aarn, just not enough to spend the money.

      It’s interesting that you mention carrying the kid, as having him in first a sling and now a front pack is my only real experience with serious weight up front. Based on that I’m really not at all convinced, on anything but a nice trail I’ve been consistently impressed with how much the weight messes with my balance, and how much not being able to see my feet bothers me. I’m sure my physiology would adapt in time, but the barrier of entry is substantial.

      It is worth noting that since I wrote this post I tried, and shortly sold, the Ultimate Direction Fastpack 20, which is for the moment the definitive pack in this genre. There’s a lot to like about it, mainly to pocketing, but UD so thoroughly punted on both the shape and compression that in spite of great shoulder straps load comfort was just not where it needed to be.

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