Everyone needs a daypack. Something simple, tough, and in the ~1000 cubic inch range with the ability to both carry almost nothing comfortably, and load up on random technical stuff as needed. My go-to this summer has been the Hill People Gear Tarahumara.
HPG claims the Tara holds 750 cubic inches, which is very conservative. The Tara is one of those great designs which swallows a lot more than seems possible, and generally carries smaller than it measures. It’s made entirely of 500 denier cordura, with an against the back footprint of 17 by 9 inches. The side panels are four inches deep toward the bottom, and taper smaller towards the top. As can be seen in the above photo, the front (zipper) panel is tapered, which combined with the rounded corners of the side panels makes the whole rig very slick in use. It slides through brush and over rocks exceptionally well. There are two side/wand pockets, a single #10 zip centered in the front panel, and two one inch buckles which wrap around the sides and front of the pack.
The back panel contains 1/4″, rather stiff foam, which helps the pack keep shape when partly filled, and forms a slot pocket against your back.
These compression straps, as well as the shoulder harness, are removable. Along with tabs along the sides, top and bottom of the pack, this allows the Tara to be a component in the HPG pack system. I don’t use that system, but the stout webbing and strong stitching does allow these tabs to be rigged into just about any sort of carry or compression rig you could imagine.
My Tara, in the fetching ranger green color, weighs 21 ounces stock. It currently retails for 125 dollars.
The HPG shoulder harness is the heart of the Tara, and the component which defines its performance. The ingenious single piece of flat, contoured, lightly padded fabric is an extraordinarily comfortable way to carry a backpack. It is up to just about any weight you could stuff in a ~1000 cubic inch pack short of filling it with buckshot. At nearly four inches wide, it is the widest shoulder strap system I’ve ever used. The harness attaches via two one inch webbing tabs on the pack and corresponding triglides on the harness. Torso fit is important with small packs, as it allows the load to sit right in the small of the back: the most stable location (see top photos). The HPG system allows for a huge amount of adjustment in this regard, particularly for longer-torsoed (22″ or more) folks typically left out by major manufacturers. Indeed, the only people who might not fit the Tara are the particularly short torso’d. Depending on where they like their pack, those 15″ and under might find the Tara doing the butt bump.
The stock harness comes with a 1 inch, non-elasticized sternum strap. I like a bit of give here, and found the stock size too clumsy, so as pictured above I replaced this. Aside from cutting the center 1.5″ triglide off the harness (I won’t use this, as it’s intended for larger packs), this is the only mod I’ve made.
At first I thought it was almost inevitable that such wide shoulder straps would pinch my neck and generally be in the way. Remarkably, they almost never are. When reaching high for a hold, and stretching back behind my bike saddle on a steep descent, the harness makes itself known, but not in an annoying fashion. I’m not an especially large person, and do have some decent shoulder musculature from climbing and carrying lots of packs. I wonder that the slim and bony might find the width intrusive. On the other hand, I can’t think of a better shoulder system for people who are susceptible to pack pressure on their clavicles.
The Tara is very easy to live out of for a day. I’m sold on the big, straight center zip as the best option for a daypack. It provides reasonable access to all corners of the interior without excessive zipperage, and between the heavy gauge and straight run I have no concerns about longevity, save extreme abrasion against the teeth (i.e. canyoneering). Because the pack is small its easy to flip around and carry on the front temporarily, and because the bottom panel tilts up towards the zip, you can unzip and rummage around with total security without breaking stride.
The side pockets are not elasticized, holding with HPGs philosophy of making gear which takes decades to wear out. They have minimal slack built in, no more than one inch wider than the side panel. This means that they’ll hold water bottles, but only if the pack is a fair bit less than full towards the bottom. The virtue of the design is that if you want the pack full and pockets out of the way, you need to do nothing. You can get a thinner (bike, small nalgene) bottle out of them with the pack on, but just barely.
The full wrap compression straps will hold all sorts of things. Most of the time I leave the upper at home, as the bottom one provides all the load stabilization a partial load might need.
Most significantly, the Tara is made of top-quality materials in a manner several standard deviations above that associated with the best mainstream pack makers. 500D cordura is not a sexy material. The stuff HPG uses has a PU coating and DWR which are both much better than what you normally associate with the stuff. The Tara is not cheap amongst daypacks, and the best reasons to spend the extra coin are not things easily depicted in a webpage.
There are downsides to a simple design executed from burly materials. It’s heavy by modern standards. It is not specialized, meaning that a particular application might require a bit of planning for ideal execution. There are exactly three pockets, so interior organization will have to originate from the user, rather than the pack. Most seriously, once the cordura gets wet from sweat it stays that way for a while, and thus the pack can feel a bit boggy on a long, humid day. The slack in the harness attachment (I have about an inch between the pack bag and buckles) can be a problem mountain biking, as a lighter pack will slide forward against the harness, pushing it towards your neck on steep descents. A rigged hipbelt would solve this last issue.
These downsides included, the Tara is still the best overall solution I’ve found to the one-daypack question. Stoutly built and elegantly simple, it can do just about anything 1000 cubic inches can do.
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