So I bought this backpack at the REI in San Diego roughly 70 miles in to a PCT hike last year. The Granite Gear pack I had was a perpetual pain in my shoulder. OUCH! I tried on TONS of packs at REI and used my actual backpacking gear that I had with me to do all my testing. In the end I settled on this pack for comfort. I absolutely refuse to be uncomfortable while backpacking. The sales fella recommended selecting for comfort over looks - which in this case is a big deal - this pack looks like a house - it's HUGE and I don't have big or bulky gear. As a long distance backpacker I tend to have smaller, lighter stuff, but the lightweight backpacks are dreadfully uncomfortable. So, I bought the pack that will always fit a smorgasbord.
The sales guy made an impassioned pitch about how REI staff had recommended to the pack designers that there be a side access zipper to the body of the pack. I wish they hadn't. For one, the zipper is located under the compression straps which makes it difficult to even use when the pack is packed & cinched. Secondly, I always line my backpack with a trash compactor bag because it's the best way to waterproof (and there's never a need for a pack cover this way). Once the pack has the vapor barrier of the trash compactor bag both the zippered access to the "sleeping bag compartment" and the full-length side access zipper are pretty much dead weight that I can’t jettison.
Speaking of the sleeping bag compartment: Have you seen it? It’s HUGE! REI doesn’t even sell sleeping bags that could completely fill that space, do they? I undo the divider between the sleeping bag space and the rest of the pack so I have a continuous cylinder to fill up.
Now that gripe is done I’ll give some shout outs to the real strengths of the pack. The extension collar is ample, and I like the way it nests inside the outer closure. I love the four-way stretch pouch on the front of the pack that has the two zippered pockets attached to it. That pouch is handy and designed in a way that stuff doesn’t escape. I have mixed feelings about the twin zippered pockets on the front. I like the organizational aspect of them, but the curve in one of the zipper’s path has failed me where the teeth have separated from the rest of the zipper fabric. I toy with whether or not I actually need or want these pockets on the front.
The pocket on the hipbelt is handy. As someone who didn’t use a water bladder and tube for 1,000 miles on the PCT I hiked I really really appreciated the water bottle pockets on this pack. I could actually load and unload my water bottles from the pockets while hiking without getting assistance from others. J The adjustable tension on the pockets, their angle, and their girth are big pluses.
This pack easily carried the large bear canister I had with me through the Sierras. I could even lay it down rather than having to carry it vertically the way a number of smaller, lighter packs require.
I’ve tried a number of women’s specific packs but they rarely feel good on my shoulders. Either my shoulders are broad or pack designers are making packs for a mini-me type female standard. In either event it is hard as hell to get a salesperson to even let you try on a men’s pack much less sell you one. In this regard this pack has a descent span between the shoulder straps so it’s not creeping up my neck and giving me aches. I prefer to carry any load on my hips and this pack allows me to opt to do that or to transfer and distribute between my shoulders and hips.
I guess that’s my overall impression of this pack. As much as I’d love to see things improved or changed with this pack ultimately it is a great pack. It’s comfortable. I can cinch it down to fit my load. It’s made of durable material. My head doesn’t hit the back of the pack (yay!) leading me to jut my head forward.
Personally, I wish that the width of the pack was narrower. While I have wide shoulders and womanly hips, my middle isn’t too big and when I swing my arms they don’t clear the pack. So, in short (after all that!) this would be a dream pack if it lost the side access zipper, the sleeping bag compartment zipper, were narrower, and if the twin pockets on the outside didn’t have a curve in the zipper function.
Oh, and PS – one last piece of important information – my load. Fully loaded with five days of food my pack weighed in at 32 lbs. (which includes the 4.5 lbs of this pack – without the top pouch that I’ve never carried).