My previous long-distance-backpacking pack is more than 10 years and thousands of miles old. That’s a lot for a lightweight pack. I’ve used it until it’s so worn out that it’s not usable anymore. This to show how much I liked this pack and to point out how much of an outstanding event buying a new pack would be. It’d be fun and also my chance to get the perfect pack but the standard set by the old one was high. It wouldn’t be easy to improve on it and I knew that.
Where I come from
Granite Gear Virga, circa 2004 version, later retrofitted with a supporting waist belt. This was my first serious, lightweight pack and it turned out great:
- Just the right size.
- An excellent compression system also useful to strap bulky stuff outside (a bear can, snowshoes…)
- Great shoulder straps with excellent padding and an outstanding design that wraps the shoulders on 180º exerting an upwards (not outwards) pull in the pack body.
- Load lifter straps -that I find a great feature.
- A cylindrical shape that fits perfectly the closed-cell foam pad roll strategy so the pad is inside and helps with the virtual frame feature.
- A properly sized extension collar for the occasional overload.
- A top loader with a simple and effective closing system: a cord lock and two crossing straps.
- Lightweight nylon in half+ of the pack body with heftier fabric on the higher friction areas like back and bottom.
- 835 gr. with the added waist belt for a great compromise between weight and function, a great compromise between simplicity and performance.
I’ve carried as much as 43lb on this pack (with 11 days worth of food and snow gear). It wasn’t ideal but still reasonable.
I wanted a new pack that would keep all these features that I liked and then a few more:
- A sturdier pack fabric that lasts longer without weighting more, if at all. This is aligned with the current, beyond-ultralight trend where the focus has shifted slightly from weight to durability. It’s a trend I somehow share: we love our ultralightness but we don’t want to get too disposable.
- A (mostly) waterproof pack: ditch the pack cover and/or the waterproof liner but above all ditch the complexity of using rain protection.
- Might consider a minimalist frame. The virtual frame for the Virga works but it’s certainly not like a real, rigid frame. I’m still torn about this. I thought I’d give a real frame a go if I’d find a pack where all the other factors were right.
I could have got another Virga but this was a perfect chance to get a new toy and the research process itself is fun and very instructive.
Hyperlight Mountain Gear 3400 Southwest
I keep quite up to date with the market so it didn’t take long to find the target pack. This is how it looked on paper:
Space-age fabric with a yet short but very positive use record, the Hybrid Cuben is meant to meet the best of both worlds: the light weight and monolithic waterproofness of Cuben and the strength of woven polyester. Hybrid Cuben is very strong and still reasonably lightweight. It meets the requirement for a pack fabric that may last for a long time.
The Hyperlight MG packs are also meant to be waterproof. They’re built with a minimum amount of seams to minimize weak points in that field.
The Southwest model comes with a minimal, yet rigid frame implemented by two vertical stays. They’re removable so it can be turned into a true frameless pack.
I saw this pack as a top loading, monolithic sack. It’s as simple as it gets, which is exactly what I look for. I’m fine with investing some ounces in making a pack more durable but not in making it more complex. Not only because I don’t want the extra weight but also because I want it simple.
The hip belt in the Southwest is barely padded and just wide enough. It’s perfectly capable to support the weight.
The only features in the Southwest beyond the bare minimum are all fine with me: fabric side-pockets are nice for accessing stuff on the go, without taking the pack off, even if through a bit of wrestling, and that’s where I usually carry my water bottles. The front pocket, I could do without but I acknowledge it may be useful to keep things like wet items. Its weight penalty is small. I definitely prefer fabric over mesh: more robust.
The hip belt pockets are a near must, I consider them the most useful pockets a pack can have: they allow easy access on the go. This small feature was one of the final pushes for this pack over others.
The closing system is a roll-top, which is by far my favorite: simple, effective and easy to use. The side closing buckles are more debatable but even if the design could have done without them the added weight is minimal. The added complexity in use may be not so minimal though. There is also a top strap and buckle, which is somewhat redundant with the side ones but I actually see this closing strap as the most important one.
The compression system is implemented through side straps. This is, once again, my favorite: it’s effective at compressing loads and it performs double duty for attaching bulky stuff outside. The sides are a potentially better place for this than the far back, where the added load affects center of gravity.
Still on paper, there are a couple of drawback points:
No load-lifter straps. As much as I’m unable to find a proper physical explanation for the utility of this feature, I like load-lifter straps. I find I like the way they help bringing the center of gravity of the hiker+pack block closer to where it belongs. The lack of these straps was close to become a show-stopper.
The other, minor drawback is the one only ice-axe loop. I don’t expect to carry more than one ice-axe while backpacking but I also attach hiking poles here when they’re not in use (while in town or taking motorized transport) and the penalty for adding a second loop is negligible.
Weight (in my scale): 930 gr (33 oz)
Volume (as per manufacturer): 55 L (3400 ci) not including pockets
So the HMG Southwest 3400 would appear just one tiny and another not so tiny step short of being the perfect long-distance-pack for me. I placed the order.
(note to those in Europe: arklight-design.com, located in France, sells this pack at a reasonable price. No need to deal with customs)
I’m a medium size for most things. According to the size charts for the Southwest, I needed a L, which was a surprise: US sizes usually run large as compared to european ones, not the other way around. I was relieved that the pack delivered was a good fit, the belt resting correctly on my hips.