Buying a new backpack

Pleasant Mountain summitOn vacation in Maine recently I visited with Hyperlite Mountain Gear in person at their cool HQ and got fitted by the founders themselves with a new multi-day pack, their Windrider 3400 and even got to try it out on a hike before buying.

Granite Gear Blaze AC60

Granite Gear Blaze

 

The pack I used on the AT in the end was a Granite Gear Blaze AC60, a long-standing stalwart product which often serves as a bridge for people looking for a lightweight pack but unwilling to risk losing too much of the comfort and perceived safety they are used to from a traditional heavy load carrier such as an Osprey or Gregory pack. The Blaze offers lots of padding, medium weight fabrics, a light/medium-grade frame and has two strange colour schemes to choose from.

The Blaze saw me through the next 700 miles but once I had the time and space I wanted to look again at the ultralight market for packs since my base weight is 12-14 in pounds (6-7kg in metric) and so I don’t require a pack capable of hauling 35lb plus a kitchen sink.

When I originally selected the Gossamer Gear Mariposa the second pack on my shortlist was actually the Hyperlite Mountain Gear (HMG) Windrider 3400. In common with the Blaze and Mariposa it has been around in a similar form for a few years and has a great reputation.

HMG Windrider 3400

HMG Windrider 3400

At around 908g (2lb) the Windrider 3400 sits a little above the 777g Mariposa in weight but significantly below the ~1300g (2.9lb) Blaze. I was looking for a pack that would be comfortable with loads up to 30lb (with 6 days of food, fuel and 3 litres of water) but much lighter in itself than the Blaze. Although the Mariposa was updated this year I couldn’t risk the same problems occurring with it if I was try again with the new version and so the HMG Windrider became my target. For completeness let me also mention that the ULA Circuit in cuben at 1000g (2.2lb) is now second on my shortlist and I would have been happy to go with that instead since I’ve actually tried that on in person and it felt great.

I was fitted with the Blaze at the Mountain Crossings outfitter in Georgia and was reluctant to buy any pack without being to try it in person. Hyperlite Mountain Gear are based in Biddeford, Maine and do not have any distribution in the UK so purchasing online would have involved taking a shot in the dark regarding size and whether it was the right product for me at all, plus extensive shipping and import duty costs and customs fees and if I had needed to return it then that would have been expensive and a hassle also. As a rough guess the pack cost of £180 for the pack would have been increased by £30 for delivery and then £60 for customs duty and charges, adding 50% to the normal cost.

But luckily I was actually in Maine for a vacation (in nearby Portland) recently so I seized the opportunity to visit them. Perhaps even more important than saving money was the chance to be fitted by the experts in person and ensure no repeat of the Mariposa fiasco.

So I took a 20 minute trip from Portland down to Biddeford and visited HMG at their HQ and manufacturing facility in a huge former paper mill, North Dam Mill, that now houses around 100 small creative businesses plus residential apartments in a campus called Pepperell Mill Campus. I had emailed HMG beforehand to check it was ok to visit in person and they said it was no problem at all. The mill is an amazing – and large – building complex inside and out and it took a while to even find HMG! In fact, for anyone else thinking of making the same visit take note that the entrance for HMG is actually on the right of Laconia St about 200 yards down from Main St and not the main mill entrance on Main St. There, I just saved you 30 minutes albeit a fun time of browsing small businesses!

Main car park - you're in the wrong place!

Building 18 parking – you’re in the wrong place!

Just a small part of the North Dam mill complex

Just a small part of the North Dam mill complex

North Dam Mill chimney, presumably no longer in use!

A chimney, presumably no longer in use!

On the right track!

On the right track. Note the ceiling height!

HMG entrance - found it!

HMG entrance on left – found it!

 

I met with CEO Mike St Pierre and his brother Dan (CFO) and explained why I was looking at a Windrider from their range and what my specific concerns and issues were. It’s fair – understated in fact – to say that Mike in particular was confident in his products compared to the competition and that their packs would not cause me the same circulation problems. They tried me with a couple different sized packs and eventually we settled on what they think is the right size of Windrider 3400 (a Large torso and Large hipbelt). Packed with 25lb of test weight I then trotted around being nosy for a while to see if there were any obvious problems. There were none.

Discussing options with Dan and Mike St Pierre

Discussing options with Dan and Mike St Pierre

 

The HMG packs feature fairly lightweight padding on the shoulder straps and hipbelt, which is sufficient for the expected loads, plus a frame consisting of a stiff thin CCF pad (not accesssible) combined with removable two metal stays to transfer the load to your hips. The main body fabric is a hybrid cuben fiber / polyester with a reinforced thicker base. Due to the use of cuben fiber the pack is considered to be effectively waterproof, or at least rainproof, and no pack cover is required (saving yet more weight over other packs). The pack also will not absorb as much sweat from the hiker which – as well as being more pleasant – also reduces weight.

I must say I was initially a bit sceptical about the Large size prescribed for me because I’ve never been a Large in anything and with my last two packs I’ve ended up with a Small hipbelt once I’ve lost some weight while hiking. However the main pack size is dictated by your torso size which is quite independent of your height or build. My ‘Regular’ Blaze was set up for a 21″ torso (cleverly, it’s adjustable by several inches) and HMG’s packs are sized Large for torsos between 19″ and 20″ so it makes sense.

If you buy a Large pack then you get a Large hipbelt as standard (you can order a custom combination though that has to be custom built of course so takes longer). While my other two packs have had replaceable hipbelts the HMG pack belts are all fixed and this still makes me a little nervous. Mike measured the length of spare nylon webbing remaining outside the belt buckle at 6″ and we agreed I couldn’t lose that much waist even on a thru-hike. Still, it’s a niggling concern as I experienced 10 days of carrying 25lb of pack mainly on my shoulders while waiting for a replacement Blaze belt. And it wasn’t pleasant.

I checked out the sibling Southwest range but still chose the Windrider. Again, it was good to check them out in person and there’s nothing wrong with them. The only difference between the two ranges is that the Southwest range has solid fabric pockets while the Windrider has stretch mesh. In fact the mesh has quite an open weave (i.e big holes), so I’m not sure if that will catch on things like the corner of a water bladder when they are stuffed in, but the stretch material means it can take more items in more flexible configurations (a fancy way of me saying stuffed items can really bulge out!).

HMG's main manufacturing room

HMG’s main manufacturing room – love the mill flooring

HMG front office

HMG front office (stock room in back)

 

At that point I thought it would be decision time – buy now or think on it some more, perhaps returning later in the holiday to make the purchase. But Dan actually came up with the offer to give me a used loaner pack to try on some day hikes so I could get much more experience with the pack and thus reduce my risk before committing to buying it – how great is that!

They gave me a Windrider 2400 pack in the same Large size to borrow. It’s the exact same product as the 3400, just with a few inches of extra rolltop fabric to provide the extra 15L of capacity. The frame, belt, pockets, straps, etc. are identical.

At this point let me explain that 2400 means “2400 cubic inches” which in turn means 40 litres while 3400 equals 55 litres. That actually is the quoted capacity of the main ‘sack’. The front and side pockets on either pack add a further 10 litres. Personally I find 40+10 litres to be a bit of a squeeze on a thru-hike (great for weekends though) where you need to carry 6-7 days of food at a time but also I think 55+10 is pretty big. In an ideal world I would choose 48+10 but whatever, it’s fine and I’d rather have a bit of extra space than run out. I weighed an actual Windrider 3400 at 917 grams (it lists at 907g) though there are a few bits and pieces I could trim off. The 2400 lists on the website at 108g less. Since my Blaze is about 1.4kg with two after-market Equinox hipbelt pockets added this is a 500g (1.1lb) saving.

So I left HMG with a loaner 2400 and the very next day packed it with 18lb of weight and set off on a challenging 5 mile hike up Pleasant Mountain on Bald Peak trail which has tricky footing and steep climbs and descents, including one 1500′ ascent over 1.2 miles. It’s the highest peak in the area so promised good views. The pack carried well, not moving around sideways or bouncing up and down. I had no problems with my shoulders or hips. The integrated hipbelt pockets were easy to open and they hold their shape well once opened so the contents don’t risk dropping to the ground. Perhaps they could be slightly larger in an ideal world. The only real issue was feeling quite hot and sweaty on my back as this pack has no space between itself and you. While this keeps the load close to your body, a positive thing, the extra heat over the Blaze was especially noticeable on a day in the 70′s Fahrenheit (mid-20′s Celsius).  Still, if that’s the only problem I’ll be a happy hiker.

Windrider 2400 at Pleasant Mountain summit

Windrider 2400 at Pleasant Mountain summit

Panorama looking north to the White Mountains

Panorama looking north to the White Mountains

After a descent that was much harder on my knees than the climb (probably because I was not using trekking poles) it only remained to return to HMG another day, return the loaner pack and pay for a 3400 Windrider of my own. 

Overall it was a fun and enjoyable experience to see a small gear manufacturer up close and personal, to meet with the very people that founded and run the company, witness gear actually being made by hand and of course be able have the confidence that a major purchase will likely work out well.

3 thoughts on “Buying a new backpack

  1. Interesting to see the reality behind a brand. It’s a hard, competitive business designing and manufacturing outdoor kit. Thanks for sharing.

    The pack looks slick but not sure about no ventilation for the back. Having said that, I tend to end up with a drenched back no matter what and have recently swapped away from the wind-tunnel designed packs that not only hang the weight somewhere far from your spine but also fall over whenever and wherever you put them down. Now using a more traditional pack with less ventilation (still some though) but much better carry shape.

    Hope the 3400 proves to be a trusty hike-friend.

    1. Some big-name packs now have so much airspace it is clearly detrimental to actually carrying the pack and is a sales feature. But on a light pack, like a day pack, go for it. Anyway, I sweat buckets either way! :(

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