A weekend (2 days and 2 nights) out in mild, post-summer conditions is not the most demanding use case for a pack this size. The Southwest was not fully loaded with only two days worth of food and minimal spare clothing, base weight below 4 kg. Yet it was my new toy and I was eager to try it. This is how it turned out.
First noticeable change from my previous pack is at the loading stage: the Hybrid Cuben fabric is fairly rigid and the extension collar stands up to a considerable height:
This makes loading/unloading more difficult than it was with my previous pack, where the collar was just as high but more flexible and wouldn’t stand in the way.
Next is the actual body pack shape: even though it’s a fabric cylinder, the frame provides rigidity and shape to the back. A closed cell foam mat roll does not conform perfectly well to the pack body. This somewhat complicates filling the pack properly or as easily as I was used to with purely frameless, cylindrical packs.
Let’s take it outdoors now…
Once in use, I can check the power of a rigid frame: fasten the belt and take virtually all weight off my shoulders. This is somewhat achievable with a frameless pack by the virtual frame strategies but it is certainly easier and more effective with a real frame.
During this first serious trip, the Southwest performed well. It did all that it was expected to do and my experience was overall positive. The most remarkable features that would take it a step beyond my previous pack (durability, waterproofness) are still to be checked. Meanwhile, I’ve got a few comments…
Shoulder straps not wrapping shoulders
This is a problem common to most packs: shoulder straps are sewn to the upper end of the pack body at roughly shoulder height. The strap comes down over the shoulder and rests mostly over the collar bone. This is not comfortable: the collar bone has no muscle over it, it’s basically skin and bone. Weight in that spot turns painful in the long term.
If the strap is sewn to the pack body further down the back, the strap wraps around the whole shoulder and the weight is supported mostly by the trapezium in a downward pull.
This is a notorious issue with my Southwest. Little weight is supported by the trapezium and most of it loads the collar bone. Over the two day trip, this caused pain and a skin rash over the said bone.
In the end, I may have got a too large size: with a shorter pack body, the strap to pack attachment would probably fall lower in my own back and the strap would wrap my shoulder better. I can’t really tell without trying a smaller size. At the time of buying, I took great care of taking proper measures and follow size charts and the result was a clear, upper end L.
This problem can be greatly minimized by resting most of the weight in the hips. The hip belt in the Southwest is good enough and the frame performs the weight transfer well. This is actually the best way to carry the weight anyway but the pack is less stable as it doesn’t fully rest on the back. I’d sometimes miss having it better wrapped onto my body.
I love belt pockets. The only actual reason why I’d use pockets in a pack is to have stuff accessible on the go, without taking the pack off, and belt pockets are the ones. The built-in belt pockets were one of the positive aspects of the Southwest.
I found the belt pockets in the Southwest smaller than I’d like and a bit difficult to access. I understand size is a compromise, too big pockets would get in the way. The limited size is probably what makes access tricky.
Side closing straps
These are the straps that buckle the sides of the top opening after rolling it down. They’re sewn to the pack body side in a direction that’s not aligned with the free end when it’s buckled. It should be sewn vertical for a good alignment with the roll top end but it’s sewn at an angle instead.
This is a very minor detail. It just means extra stress in a seam that’s not meant to take a big load.
Oddly enough, the alignment is mostly correct if I don’t roll the top but fold it forward instead. I bet this is not the way the pack is meant to be closed.
Side straps have no release buckle
Side straps have a fastener but no release buckle. They can be easily loosened but not opened unless taking the whole strap out of the fastener, then threading it in again, which is a bit of a pain. As side compression straps, they’re fine like that but if attaching any item to them (skis, snowshoes…) a release buckle is worth it’s weight in gold.
The Southwest is a great pack. It’s light, minimalist, robust and it’s well made. It remains to be seen how the Hybrid Cuben will age. So far, it looks solid, its (heavy) paper-like feel being a step away from woven nylon. All the issues found are either minor or debatable. It’s meant to be my main, long-distance hiking pack from now on and I hope it is so for a long time. I still have no long term experience neither have I tried it in the rain. Time will tell.
Then, there is the cool factor. Nobody in my locale has a white pack. It’s got style.
Suggestions for improvement
They can be foreseen from my comments above. To sum it all up:
- Second ice-axe loop
This one is easy: sew two loops, one on each side of the front. Virtually no penalty in weight or in the manufacturing process.
- Release buckles in the side compression straps
The little added weight and complexity are well worth it as soon as you need to strap something to the side of the pack.
- Belt pockets easier access
I’d suggest making the pockets a bit bigger, extending not outwards but up and/or downwards beyond the belt’s limits so the zipper length could wrap around the sides more than it now does, offering better clearance.
- Load lifter straps
I know this is debatable. I like them.