Fast Trekking Packs

I’ve been spending a lot of time getting ready for one of the panels I’m on at DetCon1 next week and as a result I’ve been looking at many pictures of endurance races. Thus I’ve also been exposed to the great variety of new gear that is forever coming out. Anyone who has ever run a self-sufficient stage race or attempted to through hike a great distance knows that your pack is the foundation of your whole world. If you forget something, lose something, or break something while underway you will soon gain a deep and unrelenting understanding of the term SOL.

To make matters worse, for both of these endeavors, everything you take with has to fit into your ruck. You cannot strap an iron skillet to the outside of your pack. You’ll go insane before you pass 20 kilometers. Tidy, comfortable, well balanced, padded in all the right locations your pack has to move with you and it should feel like this piece of nylon is handing you the thing you need right when you need it.

Currently my kit does not do this. Even for extended day trips I can never reach what I need when I need it and my selection of packs seems optimized for a much slower and mode of travel.  The Pacific Crest is starting to open up and I really want to spend what little free time I have on the trail there, not fighting with my gear.

The idea of getting back out on the trail using a series of LT24Os is also something I’d like to make a reality. We’re coming up on August quickly and I’ve already volunteered to raise money for Washington Trails Association during the Hike-A-Thon. But this post isn’t about raising money for one of the best stay-at-home causes I can think of (although you should expect one soon). Rather it’s about considering options.

I have been, for some time, smitten with packs purpose designed for this kind of work. If someone were to ask me this morning, “Matt, if you could get any self-sufficient race pack on the market, which one would you chose?” I would have replied the WAA Ultrabag 20L MDS, don’t hold any of the fixin’s. I discovered soon after this conversation however, that a lot has changed since that black and orange wunderbag caught my eye as I watched the Marathon des Sables a year ago.

The problem at this point is not that there isn’t innovation being made here. It is that all the innovation that has taken place occurred in Europe. Mostly in France. Very little about these sports or this gear seems to make its way across The Pond. If you’ve watched even a little of the World Cup recently you may now agree that this is a shame. North Americans, and in particular citizens of The Good ‘Ol US of A, have largely ignored some of the most independent and free form racing sports ever invented.

Below I’ve begun to compile a list of packs that might fill the bill. As I’ve mentioned, this August I’ll be running trails a lot. My intent is to get out on the dirt most, if not every, day during the month. Some time down the road Nolan’s 14 still resides within my bucket list. And when I break out my Tour the Divide maps it’s not to plot a course for my bike (gratz again Jefe), but rather to plan out how to make this possible on foot (although that is looking increasingly like a bulki run).

I’m shooting for packs that carry a fair amount of water. Approach about 20 liters of carrying capacity. Aren’t too heavy. Aren’t horribly expensive. Are designed to ergonomically move with the wearer/runner. Look sorta cool. And packs that can carry my kit (which is tiny).

One more thing, water and balance are always problems for me. I usually prefer to carry more water than I think I’ll need because I always drink it. August in Washington State is dry. There are significant dry stretches along the Tour. You get the picture. Two handhelds, two shoulder stashed liters and at least two liters in the bag on the back is what I plan for on most occasions.

Balance? I prefer to have the option of a front pack for a variety of reasons. All my snacks and such are easily available. I get the forward leaning balance weight. I have a place to sew patches. I can “wear” electronics closer to my core. For some reason North American designers have overlooked this prime real estate opting instead to preserve that window of chest hair. Thus, bags that either come with or can accommodate a kangaroo pouch will get extra special attention.

If you’ve used any of these packs and want to pass along your kudos or frustrations I’d really appreciate your advice. Also, if there’s something missing from my list please feel free to clue me in.

Right now my top contenders are listed below. Their benefits and drawbacks are included.

WAA Ultrabag 20 MDS

2014 WAA UB 20l
2014 WAA UB 20l

Still number one my list is the French designed and manufactured WAA. It has an excellent reputation (from what I can translate) and is used not only on routes like the MdS, but can be found in in races like the Everest Ultra series and the Indo Asian. This pack has a front pack as well as bottle holders and can accommodate a sizable bladder on your back. The gear tie on straps (for things like the sleeping mat) are more than just a couple of elastic strings and because of the squared off main compartment the ability to strap additional gear such as a bivy or a sleeping sack to the top are now an option.

Chief disadvantages for this pack at this time are that it has to be shipped a very long way to make it into my hands. WAA sells these, and, per their web site, it appears that they’ll ship it to the US. But there’s no indication of how long it might take to get here. Also, it is expensive.

RaidLight OLMO PACK DESERT 20 + 4 L


Again, my skills of translation, may be failing me here, but this ruck system was for a long time known as the Raidlight uniform. Everyone was wearing it. Now in later versions it shares many of the same positive attributes found in the WAA. The kangaroo pouch is hung much lower (on the waist line) and while they’re rated the same size this one just looks bigger to me. It’s price is average compared to the others.

This pack is not squared and has mesh pockets instead of tie-on straps. It would be difficult to impossible to strap a z-foam mat to your back with the RaidLight. Again, French and only sold in Europe with potentially stupid wait times.

Osprey Rev 24

Osprey Rev 24
Osprey Rev 24

The Osprey has the most space out of this selection. It lacks gear tie-ons and instead uses elastic cords. Running with a sleeping mat bungied to the back would likely drive me insane. I might as well develop a speed habit. And it does not have a kangaroo pouch.

It does have some very likable attributes. Starting with the DigiFlip phone case that attaches to a shoulder strap. Another project I’m currently working on is forging the One Device. Seriously, I carry too many electronics and being able to get the functionality I require out of a single multi purpose device is where I’m headed. Being able to flip it open from its protective case while running? That’d be a huge point in its favor.

Also, it is important to note that this pack is both available in the US of A and priced very competitively.

Salomon Skin Pro 14+3

Salomon Skin Pro 14+3
Salomon Skin Pro 14+3

Front pack? Check. Balanced and form fitting? Check. Tested on long duration races? Check. Salomon get’s some high marks with this one, and right now, if you order online from them directly you’ll get 30% off the base pack. This makes them competitive on another plane.

The big down side to this set up is that it’s just so small. Fourteen liters is perfect if you’re fast and can run 100 miles in under 24 hours. This will get you there. That person isn’t me, hasn’t ever been.

So while it’s sexy, well manufactured and used by the best it may be that it’s also targeted at the best. Or at different sports.

Ultimate Direction PB ADVENTURE VEST 2.0

Ultimate Direction PB ADVENTURE VEST 2.0
Ultimate Direction PB ADVENTURE VEST 2.0

Part of UD’s signature series this is the second design iteration of Peter Bakwin model. This pack suffers from many of the same problems that the Salomon suffers from. It’s just too small. I’ve been using UD products for a long time (still have a collection of their first version rubber nipple water bottles) and so I know that they’re making quality goods.

If UD took this design opened up that back compartment to 20 liters and added an integrated kangaroo pouch they would immediately accomplish two things. First, they would fill a market gap in North America with a wonderful product. Second, they would add a new member to their growing signature series, the Ultimate Direction MT Self-Sustaining Vest 1.0.

Could I get mine in gray please?

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