Ok, so I know that a couple of people who read this post go hiking. Who knows, maybe more of you do and you might find the following information useful too. If not, feel free to ignore this post – I’m sure you will anyway, but just don’t feel even the teensiest bit guilty about it
Over the last 15 years or so, there have been a lot of changes in packs – options, fit, etc. For example, you never used to be able to get a women’s fit pack. I don’t know if the manufacturers didn’t get that women are different shape or just didn’t care. Thankfully, that’s now in the past, but all of the options available does make it a tricky question when trying to decide which is the best pack to get. What I was after was one for multi-day trekking. And what you want in this sort of pack is very different from what is more important in packs for day walks or mountain climbing.
The fit is the most important concern, regardless of which type of pack you want, but if you’re going to be carrying a lot of weight for several consecutive days when on a multi-day hike, the fit become crucial. This is where if you’re a female, look at the female packs. Some sales assistants will try and tell you that there are unisex packs. No. This just means that the manufacturer hasn’t advertised a male and female version of the pack, and this pack is a male one.
So what is different about a female pack? Well, the biggest point is that they start with shorter torso length. But they also generally position the shoulder straps closer together, as women generally don’t have as broad shoulders as men. The chest strap is also in the right position for us, given we’re not flat chested. And even those of us who don’t protrude in the chest area as much as some, will be grateful that the strap doesn’t sit/rub on more tender areas. Each manufacturer has their own take on the female frame and might make other slight alterations to the structure of the pack to suit us better than the packs designed for men.
So other than going for a female pack, you also want the right size. It seems that the good packs will come in either two sizes (short/medium or tall/large) or three sizes (small, medium and large). Now this sizing is just a starting point. What you really want is a pack that can be adjusted to fit you.
Here’s where I introduce the packs that I was looking at. During my online research on packs, I found a great site that ranked mens’ backpacks for multi-day trekking: outdoor gear lab. Looking at the top three, I found the female versions of these. So starting the day of pack shopping, we had:
1. Arcteryx Altra 62 Women’s
2. Gregory Deva 60
3. Osprey Arial 65
I should probably point out that the order of these packs listed here is also the order of their price (highest to lowest).
Snow and Rock stock Arcteryx and Osprey, so I headed to their huge store in Covent Garden to try these. Before I mention the packs, I have to say that the staff at Snow and Rock were great. So very helpful, knew their stuff and were very friendly.
Arcteryx Altra 62 Women’s
The Arcteryx pack comes in two sizes, so we started with the short/medium pack as I have a short torso, and am not all that tall to begin with. What is great about this pack is that it has fully adjustable shoulders. They can actually detach and be moved into one of three height positions and one of five horizontal positions for each shoulder strap. Yes, the shoulders are two separate pieces. This pack definitely wins hands down for adjustability. We managed to get a pretty good fit for my frame. It has a comfortable hip strap that is one piece but sits on a swivel, so moves with your body as you walk. There was a gap between the small of my back and the pack, which should allow for nice airflow during a warm walk, but didn’t feel like the gap shouldn’t be there.
In addition to adjustability and the swivel hip belt, this pack also has a good number of straps around the pack for compressing the load. It’s really important when you’re walking, especially over uneven terrain and when traversing climbs/descents, that the pack is packed tightly. You don’t want anything moving around and getting you off balance. Also, the tighter the load is packed into your back, usually the closer it all is to your centre of gravity and therefore the load doesn’t feel as heavy and is more manageable (and comfortable) to carry. Packs can be notoriously hard for getting things in and out of, with the old packs requiring you to empty everything out each evening to be able to cook dinner. This pack has a great zip that opens up along the length of the pack like a suitcase, allowing easy access to everything.
When getting a pack fitted, it’s also important to try it with some weight, not just a stack of padding. Snow and Rock were able to put 12kg into the pack, which will be less that what I’ll be carrying most likely but gives me a good idea of how it feels. With this pack full to the brim and fully compressed using all the straps, I tried it out. The pack was comfortable and didn’t feel heavy. The top was swaying a little as I walked but I put that down to the weight added in the top to get it to the 12kg and figured this would be fine when I’m actually hiking as I won’t have anything heavy up the top of the pack.
You can find out more about this pack if you’re interested here. In all, I’d say the only downside of this pack is that it doesn’t have an integrated rain cover. Though it’s not that big a deal to get one separately. This pack is pricey, selling at £280 RRP, but that’s to be expected from the top pack on the market.
Osprey Arial 65
The Osprey pack comes in three sizes so we started with a small. This pack does have adjustable shoulder height but the shoulder span is fixed. On the shortest setting, there was still a small gap between my shoulders and the straps. This isn’t a good sign, but there were other fit issues with the pack. This is where it’s hard to describe what was wrong. It just didn’t feel right. Maybe it was because I tried it on after fully testing the Arcteryx, but either way if a pack doesn’t feel right when nothing is in it, it’s not going to feel right when it’s loaded.
The other downside of the pack was that the hip belt was fixed. There will be no movement of this with your body.
We did try an Osprey Xenon 70 as well, but had the same issues. The race was clearly down to the Arcteryx and the Gregory.
But if you want to find out more about the Arial, because it’s a good pack and at £160, is substantially cheaper than the Arcteryx, you can read about it here. Maybe it will be a better fit on you.
Gregory Deva 60
Gregory packs have a good reputation for being able to carry heavy loads comfortably. The Deva has a lot of padding, which makes it a more comfortable wear, but also adds to the weight of the pack. To try out this pack I went to Ellis Brigham, also in Covent Garden. Before I get on to the pack, I have to say that there was a massive difference between the service here and at Snow and Rock. The assistant was not friendly nor was he very knowledgable. I was instructing him that if a women’s fit small pack did not fit, a “unisex” short pack would not fit better. Not to mention what he didn’t know about boots and Goretex vs leather (but lets not go into that here).
So, onto the Deva. This pack has no adjustment at all. I picked a small, but there was no way to shorten the torso length. This left quite a gap between my shoulders and the straps. We managed to offset this a bit with adjusting the straps attached to the bottom and top of the shoulders to get it closer fitting, but still they weren’t right. What I did like was the curve of the frame. It fit my back nicely with the curve moulding in to the curve of my spine. My only concern was that it would get very hot as it was a hard frame along the back and there would be no airflow.
Like the Arcteryx, this pack also has a swivel hip belt, though this time the belt is not in one piece, and instead the two hip parts move independently. This would be very useful over uneven terrain, really moving with the body.
Despite my misgivings about the fit through the shoulders, I decided to try it with some weight. Ellis Brigham was able to load it with 9kg. Oh shit, did that hurt. All of the weight was carried in the small of my back, not my hips as it’s supposed to. Did I think that curve of the pack to my spine was a good thing? Hell, no! As I can only assume that this is why the weight was carried in the wrong place. In less than a minute my back was starting to ache. I couldn’t keep the pack on for 5 minutes and when I took it off it then took the rest of the day for the ache to go away. Massive fail!
I can’t see why this weight distribution problem would only be with me. I’m more inclined to think that it is an inherent flaw of the design, but it was so very noticeable to me because I have lower back problems. So I would not recommend this pack to anyone, even if it doesn’t cause you pain in the shop. But if you are interested in reading more about it, you can do so here. Retailing at £200 it’s also on the high end of pack prices, but still falls far short of the cost of the Arcteryx.
Well, as you would have been able to tell from above, there was a clear winner of these three packs: Arcteryx Altra 62 Women’s.
Yes it cost a lot, but in this instance, the day clearly showed that you get what you pay for. And I can now understand why this brand is known as the top of the range pack. I can tell you that now that I’ve discovered them, they will be the only brand I buy.
I hope this review of my day trying out packs was useful to any of my regular readers to whom this subject matter is relevant, and also to anyone who has found their way here while searching for information about these packs.