X- Packs

November 8, 2008

How do you define an expedition sack? Well, firstly it must have enough capacity to hold the largest load because on a big trip you’re not only carrying camping gear but climbing equipment as well. You need enough space to swallow up a week or more food, along with a big modern rack, expedition weight clothing, tentage and bivi gear. This kind of rucksack needs a size of between 70 and 100, and have a harness system and body construction that can stand up to this kind of sick load (30 to 50 plus kilos), along with the ruff and tumble of expedition life. There are plenty of big backpacking sacks on the market that fulfil this criterion, with enough room to park a car inside and a harness so cushy and comfortable you find it hard not falling asleep standing up. Unfortunately, the expedition sack also has to be super light, a requirement completely at odds with the typical big sack, whose empty weight will often top three or four kilos. Finally, the expedition sack must not only fulfil this carrying role, balancing weight, comfort and strength, it must also be unobtrusive enough to be used as your primary climbing sack. All in all a difficult brief for any rucksack designer.


So you need to buy a beast of a sack for lugging that load all the way to Paine base camp or up the Baltoro. Here are a few design notes to make your choice easier.


You don’t want to spend a fortune on the lightest gear known to man only to pack it in something that when it’s empty feels like it’s got a family of pigmies squatting inside. Also, your pack doesn’t want to be so featherweight and flimsy it’s disintegrated by the time you see the mountains. The best way to achieve lightweight without sacrificing strength is to keep the sack simple. This doesn’t necessarily mean the sacks main fabric should be some featherweight cloth better suited to children’s kites, as most of the weight in a sack comes not from bulletproof Cordura but half a mile of webbing and kilo of foam sewn to it. Saying that many light fabrics, such as 500 denier Nylon, down to the very light rip-stops used on running sacks, are actually far tougher than you’d imagine. whether it’s a Ballistic cloth or a plastic bag, if a sharp object presses against it from the inside while the fabric is in contact with another sharp object (hauling, climbing, vibrating aircraft cargo holds etc) then the object will penetrate the fabric.


That oh so comfy padding we have grown used to on most modern backpacking sack is not what you want on an expedition sack. This foam provides only a marginal comfort increase at the price of weight, complexity of construction (price AND more weight) and makes it harder for the wearer to lock it in close while climbing, with the foam being nothing more than dead weight once it no longer has a hefty load to cushion. The best compromise is to have a harness that is simple yet robust, with a fixed back length, which also gives strength, and top quality, sculptured, low profile straps and belt. There should be top and side stabiliser straps that both help control the load and shift inevitable pain around the body. The back system should incorporate either one or two staves (removable for climbing and reducing weight) and enough cushioning (plastic frame sheet, closed-cell foam sheet) so that lumpy objects won’t press through into your back. The foam used within the shoulder straps and waist should be hard enough to absorb and spread the load without deforming and be of the highest quality so it won’t break down under the above-average workload, a point you’ll only be able to judge by either personal testimony from fellow climbers or going by the manufacture’s reputation. The successful use of the harness depends a great deal more on sensible packing, a sound understanding of how to carry a load and an acknowledgement that sixty pounds will always feel like sixty pounds (i.e. there WILL be pain). You must also remember that this minimal comfort sacrifice will be worth it as long as you’ll only be using it to lug loads around for less time than you’ll be climbing.


Packing a heavy bag is a science. Your main aim is to have most of the weight at shoulder level, and as close to the body as possible. First of all, lay the sack down flat with the back panel and straps facing the ground. Place a layer of heavy gear inside so it’ll be close to the back when carried, then fill in the outer area of the bag up to half height with your sleeping bag and clothes. Standing the sack up, fill in the top half of the sack with the rest of the heavy stuff, putting the heaviest items close to the shoulders. Don’t place heavy items above shoulder height. If your running out of room then put your sleeping bag in last, using the extendable lid to compress it even more. This way the sack shouldn’t be top-heavy and unstable. Try to balance out the weight of gear strapped to the sides so the sack doesn’t become lopsided. Coil ropes in the ‘old school’ way, in a single loop, and secure it through the sacks top internal lid strap and the left and right top compression straps. Axes should be stowed on the side if possible, and always clip everything together (crampons, rope, tent poles) so there is no chance of losing anything. I’m not promising that doing any of this will make life any easier, but having carried sacks that weighed over 50kg for several days I know it will make that death march just that little bit more bearable.


Probably the most important feature of an expedition sack is that its original design must be drawn from those people who actually go on big trips, as it’s only these people who understand what’s needed, not what’s thought is needed. A classic example of this, and a minor point to a designer who is not a user, is all straps must be longer than usual as sleep mats are bigger and tents, wands, snow stakes, skis along with axes, crampons and helmets are usually strapped on the outside for the approach. There is nothing worse than a sack with side compression straps that have seemingly been designed more for carrying an umbrella on the tube rather than your sleep mat. The general use of a shock-cord panel on the front of the pack, or the ability to install one (threaded through the side straps) is a real boon for carrying awkward items, like crampons and axes or that firewood for the celebratory barbecue. There are also a few features that are nice if present, but not really missed if not, like axe holsters, reflective patches, internal pockets etc. Remember the more whistles you have the more you’ll be blowing’ when you’re slogging up those hills.


So what’s a hybrid expedition sack? Well over the last few years manufacturers like Arc’teryx and Macpac have rethought the best way to fulfil the basic design criteria by building flexibility into their expedition specific models, giving the user a full spec load monster for the approach that can be transformed into a super light, super alpine climbing sack. The more climbers become aware of these new model the more mainstream they will become.


A climbing expedition doesn’t have to be a big-budget 8000-metre snow plod, but any trip where you must get all your crap from A to B and a duffel bag won’t suffice. Expedition sacks are perfect for Winter and Summer climbing trips in the UK where you plan to bivi or camp and you don’t want to buy a classic backpacking sack and your cragging sack is too small. In fact, an expedition sack is perfect for anything where you simply need a big hole to dump your stuff into. I’ve used expedition sacks from everything from classic expedition load humping and climbing to carrying loads up and down from big walls, winter climbing trips to remote chores and alpine winter routes where a big sack is easier to pack on cramped bivvys. For active climbing, the expedition sack fulfils many roles and soon becomes indispensable.



Price: 189.99. Weight: 2.4kg/1.3kg stripped down. Capacity: 75 + 20 Litres
Made in New Zealand

In the past, expedition sacks were built by manufacturers as loss leaders, designed and built for high profile expeditions and usually only expected to last for one or two trips. Mapac on the other hand, with its usual sensible grassroots approach to the mountains, have built an expedition sack designed for more long term action, something that will last years rather than weeks. This sack has no doubt come about through Macpac’s very strong links with some of the worlds most successful, and more importantly, active, high altitude and polar guides, people who want simple, light and practicable equipment that lets them get on with the tough work of safely working in a hostile environment. Taking the basic design of the ultra-classic Ascent sack Macpac have beefed up the already excellent harness, building in more comfort and stability for the approach, and expanded the sacks load capacity. The body of the sack is made from Macpac’s tough and waterproof ascent fabric which not only protects your gear from the elements better than Cordura but is also less affected by UV which will weaken standard nylon sack over several years of climbing. High wear areas are protected with a bombproof Kevlar fabric and all foam is top quality and won’t degrade through heavy use. The main feature of the pack is the hefty hip belt can be removed, being replaced by a lightweight webbing belt which both saves weight, reduces bulk to a minimum and allows access to your climbing harness. The lid can be removed to reduce weight further or to form a workable bum bag, not that gimmicky a feature if you adopt the system where the second carries the sack, while the leader carries just the lid which has enough room for a duvet and water bottle. The sack has the usual hydration system capability (hydration bag comes fitted), along with workable holsters sewn in beside the wand pockets which keep your tools away from your legs while walking. A strong front and rear haul loop provides not only a suspension point (try to avoid hauling any sack) but more importantly gives you a convenient handle for moving the sack around, whether you’re manhandling it onto a bus or along a bivi ledge.


If your planning on climbing technical routes while wearing your rucksack try and use a harness with gear loops sewn into the bottom of the belt, not the top. This way the loops hang below the sacks belt, making load-carrying more comfortable and allowing you to get to your gear. Another option is to use a bandoleer, or better still tie two clip loops into your shoulder straps that go from shoulder level down to the strap buckle. Gear can be clipped onto this easily, plus it won’t hang down as badly as a bandoleer does on slabby ground, obscuring your feet.


When actual climbing the best way to improve headroom is to stow the lid of the sack into the sack itself. This also solves another problem as often when the climbing gear has been removed you have a lid that is rammed full on a sack that’s half full, making the lid lurch about. Another good trick is to place the sack above the belay if there’s a chance your partner might drop ice or rock down on you, providing a little shielding just in case.


Price: 189.95 Weight: 2.5kg/1.4kg Stripped, Capacity: 75 + 20 litres.
Made in Sheffield, UK.

Having seen a gradual decrease in the interest in big heavy sacks over the last few years POD took a close look at the expedition market and designed the X-POD improving on the best ideas around and building a sack to POD’s usual high standards. As usual POD’s simple approach belies the complexity of design and thought that has gone into this sack, featuring one of the best harnesses around, with a great deal of thought going into the tailored laminated straps and formed plastic reinforced hip belt. The main body of the sack is a simple black hole, the only extravagance a front and rear haul loop and shock-cord patch. The side straps are long, with the top straps featuring fastex clips to allow the easy storage of skis. Like the Macpac XPD the lid can be removed, with the POD design having a slightly better bumbag design. The waist belt is more easily removed than the Macpac design and also has a cleverer secondary waist belt design. The back panel, comprising of a plastic sheet and two alloy staves, can also be removed, making the stripped-down sack extremely light at only 1.4kg, a great size and weight for climbing.


Price: 219.99. Weight: 1.75kg/1kg stripped. Capacity: 65+ 15 litres (This is the actual capacity, which is larger than the stated capacity of 55 lit/res.)
Made in Canada

The more Arc’teryx gear I see, the more I suspect those Canadian boffins must be using alien technology. It seems that they have the uncanny ability to re-think traditional, tired, old gear concepts and come up with something new and exciting, combining state of the art manufacturing with practical, functional design. The Nozone is their take on an expedition sack and was perhaps the first sack to break the mould in this highly specialised area. The sack has every feature you could imagine, including a removable super-tough snow patch with a built-in shock cord patch, the best hip belt you’ll find and an excellent formed plastic back panel with built-in staves allowing heavy loads to be dragged around the hills in relative comfort. The body of the sack is constructed from a super tough heavy-duty Kevlar ripstop (not just a Kelvar ‘effect’ rip-stop like most manufacturers use) and ballistic nylon. When stripped down, with a hip belt, lid, back panel and snow patch removed, the sack is THE model when it comes to climbing. This is due in part to the unusually soft, open-cell foam used in the shoulder straps which compress when climbing giving total flexibility for the arms. Unfortunately, this also makes the sack the poorest performer for monster load carries and makes it more suitable for ‘mini’ expeditions such as long alpine trips or trekking peaks.


Lowe Alpine, The North Face, Berghaus and Aguille all make traditional expedition sacks of various sizes, weights and prices.

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