Seek Outside Revolution review

For the two years that I’ve had it the Seek Outside Revolution frame has been absolutely indispensable.  A solid, comfortable load hauling frame is very nice to have for hunting, and this fall I put it to particularly good use, but for family backpacking a true hauler has been something I cannot imagine us living without.  The Revolution made many trips, outings I’m confident will remain among the most precious for decades to come, possible.  As it existed in the first iteration the Revolution was not without flaws, minor and profound, in both design and execution, but overall it is an admirably simple and functional pack, with much of the virtue being derived directly from that simplicity.

Contrary to other claims*, all things (frame height, features) equal it is the lightest load hauling frame currently available.  And in my opinion the most functional, if some of the recent changes to the harness and hipbelt work for you.

*Get a scale that works, Kuiu.

Screen Shot 2017-11-26 at 12.36.15 PMHauling an elk out of the Bob, November 2017.

DSC09871Family packrafting on the San Juan River, April 2016.

The original Paradox Packs Evolution frame, first sold in 2013, was a quite complex solution to the problem of how to attach a harness and compression straps to the frame and hipbelt.  A mesh section connected padded wings which sat in front of the frame towards the bottom, and the upper encasement was in turn connected to this with straps and buckles (see this image).  The design was time consuming to cut and sew, put weight into un-needed padding, and there was no rigid horizontal element to resist barreling when loaded.  The Revolution is quite different.  It is one piece of 500 denier Cordura with a bunch of stuff sewn on, the most prominent thing being two horizontal sleeves which hold aluminum stays.  These stays are 7075 aluminum, and given a subtle curve.

IMG_5549IMG_5547My Revolution frame as it exists today.  Pictured are all the modifications discussed below, and a 27 inch frame.  The tan webbing sleeves hold the cross stays.

The cross stays were a vital, defining addition to the design.  For me, there are two reasons I use a pack frame like the Revolution versus an integrated frame and bag like the Divide.  First, to carry meat between the frame and bag while hunting.  Second, to haul weird crap that just doesn’t begin to fit into any standard pack.  Aside from these two uses, a standard pack makes more sense, as it will always be lighter, cleaner and simpler.  Companies like Kifaru who sell only separate frames and bags, but do not heavily endorse a meat shelf as a design feature, promote separating the elements as a way to make switching bags easier, as well as (implicitly) a way to make sewing their packs cheaper (it’s simpler to sew stay channels and padding when you don’t have to then sew to to a bag).  The Revolution, and Seek Outside packs generally, are by comparison simple enough that this economic argument just does not apply.

What meat shelfing and hauling odd and awkward loads have in common is that they must both be compressed aggressively in order to maintain stability.  If meat isn’t held rigorously in place it tends to slide down, ball up towards the bottom, and make for much worse load geometry.  If the cargo between the kid carrier and a frame isn’t compressed as much as possible the kid carrier swings around and the load becomes more unstable than weight and size already necessarily make it.  The Evolution left a lot to be desired precisely because it did not fight this very well, when a load was compressed hard between the frame and bag it bulged into the middle of the mesh and pressed out against the wearer, which was at best uncomfortable and at worst un-wearable.  The Revolution isn’t entirely immune to this because of the distance between the stays, but unlike a plastic framesheet the stays do not flex outward at all, and realistically provide more function for the weight and bother, insofar as this particular application is concerned.

I do think the Revo stays would be more effective if they were each about 2 inches lower, but to a certain extent that reflects my bias as a long torso’d person.  I run my Revo with either a 27 or 28 inch frame, all the time, which places the stays higher on my back than someone using a 24 inch frame height.  This ability to change frame heights easily and even in the field is massively handy, and one of the major reasons to choose a Seek Outside load hauler.

Screen Shot 2017-11-26 at 12.42.23 PMMuddy bike pushing with the Revo at 27 inches.  For me, with a 21 inch torso, 27 is just enough to get lift at massive loads, without inducing head bang while bushwacking and riding a bike.  My advice to the Revo buyer is to get two sets of extensions, and don’t be hesitant with the hacksaw.  Multiple sets of extensions can even be stacked, and the stock straps on the encasement will allow at least a 30 inch frame, which would not be overkill for a 23 inch torso’d hunter.

After this fall I am convinced that meat shelves are the way to go for hunting, compared to carrying meat in the bag along with the rest of your gear.  While it is possible to keep your gear clean by putting the breathable meat bags in something like a garbage bag or light drybag, that comes with problems.  It is another item to carry, for one, and the lack of air circulation is less than ideal in hotter weather.  More seriously it is quite difficult to pack your gear such that consistent access to a variety of things is possible.  Keeping blood partitioned inspires confidence in Grizzly country, and having access to layers and snacks is pragmatic during long walks out.

Any pack is only as good as its suspension, and the Seek Outside frame remains a favorite.  Making the uprights rigid and integrating flex (at lighter loads) with the bottom joint helps saves weight, as rigid aluminum tubing is vastly lighter than the 1/4″ bar stock one needs in a load hauling frame.  The SO frame does flex vertically a bit when loaded with 100+ pounds, but in a way that is quite controlled and manageable.  Such a load is well within the packs comfort zone.   Seek Outside has had what I would characterize as issues with the their belt and harness over the years; the first few generations of belts had dual density foam which gave them a maleability I loved, while the more recent ones were relatively thick single density foam that was for me far, far, far too stiff.  The initial harnesses were narrow and for me too flat (my shoulders not being parallel to the ground), but this was manageable.  The recent harnesses got wide, both with respect to padding (a good thing) and spacing (for me no good at all).  I chopped the 2016 shoulder harness to make it fit perfectly, and my understanding is as of mid-2017 the harness spacing has shrunk a bit, along with the belt padding getting thinner (but not softer).  My customized harness, along with the old belt, let me carry out a whole elk 12 miles by myself over 2 days with no bruising or chaffing, so for me that box is ticked.  I haven’t used the new harness, but have used a prototype of the new belt, and while an improvement the single density foam is still (for me!) significantly less comfortable under 40+ pound loads.  I used it on a family backpack in July, with a load around 55 pounds max, and my hips suffered.

IMG_5561IMG_5551IMG_5558

Other than this my Revolution, which was one of the pre-production protos, has held up quite well.  I was concerned about the stays wearing through the ends of the webbing sleeves, but that has proven to not be a factor (first photo).  The PU coating on the bottom load sling is starting to wear off, but given the abrasion and dirt this has been subject too over the past 2 years, that is to be expected (second photo).  Making this part Xpac, or double layered, would help delay that, but realistically there is little performance benefit to be had from this.  The dynamics of load compression tends to cant the bottom cross stay a bit upwards, which has created a wear point on the user side, against the bottom edge of the stay (third photo).  This will eventually fail, but that is quite a long ways off, enough that the case for reinforcing this point is not especially strong.

IMG_5553IMG_5556 2

A more substantive durability and design concern is the user-right stay pocket, which as can be seen in this top photo is beginning to fail at the seam.  Seek Outside uses two layers on the user side, hypalon inside, with a 500D Cordura cover, as Hypalon has great puncture strength but poor abrasion resistance.  The problem here isn’t the fabric choice, but the fact that the only thing capturing the top of the pocket (aka the pressure point) is the seam which runs through grosgrain and captures the top of the main fabric panel.  If the seam allowance is a bit small, as is likely the case here, the fabric will eventually creep out from between the stitches.  The philosophical problem to which I vehemently object, namely relying purely on stitch strength for a major structural piece of a packs, has three potential solutions.  Any of them would be sufficient, though I’d prefer to see at least two put into place simultaneously.  First and simplest, the seam allowance at the top of the panel/stay pockets could be doubled to at least 1 inch.  Second, the stitch length could be tightened up.  Third, the stay pocket design could convert to a double layer fold of fabric with no seam at the top, anchored on either side of the stay top by stitching and bar tacks.  This last is how I’ve made all of my personal Unaweep-style integrated bags on the Seek Outside frame.

If you buy a Seek Outside pack and have this happen it is a warranty issue and you’ll be taken care of no problem, but keep an eye out.  My original Unaweep went out of commission due to the same issue.

Screen Shot 2017-11-26 at 12.38.10 PMIMG_5563

My last gripe is a long standing one, the simple but floppy way Seek Outside chooses to attach bags to the Revo frame, by having two 3/4″ straps from the bag run through tri-glides on the frame, to meet in the middle behind the users head and be cinched tight by a quick release buckle.  It’s a logical system, very simple to execute, and full of redundancy (the buckle serves as a spare for other straps, for instance).  It also requires the use of the top straps to keep a moderate to large load from flopping around, which is something I strongly dislike having to do.

My preferred method is to attach the bag via a large sleeve, much like Kifaru and Exo Mountain Gear, among others.  To do this requires cutting off the stock haul loop, and sewing in a length of fabric between the tops of the stay pockets.  It would also be possible to avoid this last step, and make a Stone Glacier style arrangement where the individual stay channels fit into separate pockets on the bag, and the load lifter buckles used when not meat shelfing are sewn to the bag, rather than the frame, but I like the security and abundant stitch real estate of the sleeve.  As seen above, I flat fell the side seams, into which the sides of the sleeve go, and bartack the hell out of 1″+ seam allowance.  The fabric will rip far before anything else fails.

IMG_5564IMG_5567IMG_5569

A hunting bag intended to haul meat with a shelf should be designed for that purpose, namely, so that gear inside the bag will be accessible and not totally crushed by a full load of meat compressed hard.  Pictured is my favorite back yet for this, a ~7000 cubic inch roll top bag with a center zip and wrap around compression.  The side compression straps hold meat in place, with the center straps relieving zipper stress, holding a rifle, bow or sleeping pad, and allowing full access to anything while meat and or antlers are in place.  The top 4 inches close with velcro, so that the pack can be rolled three times for waterproof security and the zipper can be used at the same time.  I bartacked the compression straps right through the fabric, with double layers of packcloth for backing.  This makes it much stronger than something just sewn into a seam, but as is shown above that much stitching does cause the film on the X50 fabric to delaminate, after a bit of use.  No free lunch there.  There exterior abrasion in the second photo was from the swinging elk antlers, and is only 12 cumulative miles of abrasion.  Another 30-40 and I think I’d have had a hole, which just illustrated why hunting pack fabrics should probably be a bit on the overkill side of things.

Screen Shot 2017-11-26 at 12.39.39 PM

Load hauling packs are the rightful subject of much vociferation, in both the hunting and backpacking worlds.  Hauling a heavy pack is hard, and fitness doesn’t change that, it just allows you to go faster while suffering the same amount.  Anything about your load hauler which doesn’t work close to perfectly is magnified under a big load, and while your soul is being crushed, your mind will have plenty of time to contemplate the exact origin of each misfortune.  These packs are also quite to very expensive, and as Scott Reekers wisely said in an article still worth reading; “The higher the price tag, the more likely a buyer is to defend it.”  Today, a Revolution setup with both sizes of extensions will cost $331 plus shipping, a lot of money for a piece of metal and a piece of cloth with a bunch of stuff sewn to it.  Comparable products from Stone Glacier and Kifaru cost just as much or a good bit more.

If these pack frames work for you there is no question they are worth the money.  Modern hunting load haulers work so much better than any backpacking pack with which I’m acquainted the fact that people still buy something like an Arc’teryx Bora just has to induce cognitive dissonance.  Why pay comparable money for a vastly inferior product?  First, a “big load” for most people is still barely 45 pounds, more than enough to stress the more fanciful internal frame, but not enough to flatten them.  Second, the cultural gulf between the Cabelas and REI crowds is still quite robust.  Third, modern hunting load haulers, especially those from Seek and Kifaru, are severely lacking in curb appeal.  My hope, if nothing else, is that the load hauling technology pioneered by these companies will keep making inroads into the broader outdoor market.  A lot of backpacker would benefit from it.

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13 thoughts on “Seek Outside Revolution review

  1. This is fantastic, and perfect timing. I just bought a Revolution frame and two yards of X42 to make my own packbag (for a variety of reasons, I’m not a fan of the current offerings). If all goes well, I’ll make a smaller one for hiking/packrafting and a larger one for hunting.

    Quick question, do you shape the side panels to match the curves of the Revolution frame, or do you sew the seam straight and let the bag conform on its own? Based on the pictures on SO’s website, it appears they do this. Though, I have an older Fortress bag (ca. 2014 or ’15) on loan, and the seams are straight in this version.

    Thanks again for this thoughtful, detailed evaluation.

  2. Dave,
    Excellent review, as usual.
    As a good friend of mine said about very heavy hunting loads “They still suck, but with a good pack, they suck less.”

  3. “Hauling a heavy pack is hard, and fitness doesn’t change that, it just allows you to go faster while suffering the same amount.”

    “A lot of backpacker would benefit from it.”
    ……
    Why I read these and enjoy them so. Such wisdom and shameless experience.

    Thx

  4. What about the recent change to gatekeeper buckles? I see the new encasement has substantially fewer straps flopping around, though the gatekeepers seem to generate strong emotions. I can open and close one with fencing gloves (I deal with barbed wire a fair bit for work) but never tried with mitts. Basically, I could cut the webbing, bartack it into loops and be off, but it is a one way street with no option to go back… I would definitively like having at least the feeling I can keep the webbing tighter and not flopping around as much.

    The way you attach the bag to the frame removes the V notch. Doesn’t the bag or the frame hit your head when cycling? The original evo encasement did for me, and the V notch makes a huge improvement.

    1. Incidentally, the first point of failure for me has been the shoulder harness. It stopped staying put to the height I set it in, but it would creep up on the right (the side I grab the pack on, and lift it to put it on). I managed to fix that with some rerouting of the extra webbing through the metal triglide, to increase the friction.

    2. The gatekeepers worry me. Kuiu used them for a while, and still uses them for accessory straps, but discontinued them from main straps due to breakage. I’ve snapped the plastic noses off a few in normal use. Their utility is undeniable but unless they’ve become mysteriously stronger I don’t see them as robust enough, especially on a load hauling pack.

      1. Any idea of their failure rate compared to metal equivalent (say, bachelor buckles)? I presume those do fail at some point. I can carry spares, but gatekeepers are fiddly to thread on the webbing, and at well below freezing it is not a fun activity. Anything like a bachelor buckle that is not as dam long? that is their main drawback in my eyes (not as bad as normal buckles though).

        1. In brief, no. I’ve given the buckle question a lot of thought as another project I’m involved with gives us the option to (for instance) 3D print something that would be a better alternative to existing hardware.

          I like the B buckles and use them a lot. I suspect in even abnormal field conditions they are unbreakable. If you mate them with a 13-14mm webbing loop the problem of them flopping loose when untensioned or jumping out under dynamic load (dropping ones pack off a short cliff, for instance, or dragging in a packraft flip) is pretty well solved. But if you sew the loop short it doesn’t work at all, so no free lunch.

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