Saturday, 5 May 2012

Multi-stage race backpacks (part 1)

This is the first installment in a series of reviews of multi-stage backpacks (part 2, part 3, part 4).

Deciding what pack to use during a multi-stage race is one of the most difficult and important decisions to make before the race. The pack needs to hold all your required gear and food, it needs to be durable enough to last throughout the race, and it needs to fit you well so you're comfortable while running.

There were a wide variety of packs in the Atacama and I wanted to find out which packs worked well and what specific features were appreciated by runners. I asked a few friends from the race to give me their feedback. This is a two part article with a post on the packs of Joel and Argi first and then a post on Massi's and my packs coming later.

Joel Meredith and the Salomon XA25 WP


1. What pack did you use during the race?
I used the Salomon XA25 WP (waterproof). It had a 25L capacity with 3 rear zippered pockets, the main compartment being rubber-lined and waterproof, one large open mesh pocket on the middle back, and 2 mesh side pockets. The pack also featured side pockets on either waist-belt and was compatible with Salomon's advanced accessory line of add-ons (i.e. front pack, bottle holders, gel carriers).

2. Did the pack have enough capacity for all your gear?
Even though I overestimated the amount of gear I needed, the XA25 did a very good job of expanding to accomodate the added bulk. I probably stuffed 28L into a 25L pack. Conversely, it also did a very good job of compressing down as my gear bulk dissipated later in the week.

3. What was the final weight of your pack and hydration system (without water)?
The final weight of my race pack was 9kg, including everything but water.

4. How did the pack fit and ride while you were running?
The pack fit me very well during active movement. However, the XA25 has more of an elongated shape as compared to other models. When fully packed, it would rub just above my tailbone, leaving a nasty scar. The only other issue that I encountered with this pack was its tendency to loosen while running. I noticed this primarily with both shoulder straps and, eventually, with the sternum strap. During training runs and while fully packed, the should straps would require re-tightening every minute or two. I easily remedied this by adding a triglide to each of the shoulder straps and the sternum strap. By adding the triglide, the strap would not loosen, but they were also non-adjustable while on the move. Once you strapped in for the day, you were fixed. This was never a problem for me - better too tight than too loose. The pack also featured a fantastic back ventilation system that aided in keeping good airflow and reducing the heat that is sometimes generated with less well ventilated rucksacks.

5. What did you use for hydration (front bottle, bladder, etc)?
For hydration, I fixed one of the add-on bottle holders from Salomon to each of the front shoulder straps. I also carried a 2L Platypus bladder in the reservoir pocket...which I never used. I simply carried this to meet the 2.5L fluid carrying capacity required by the RTP staff. I used the Salomon 600ml 3D bottles in the holders. These are pyramidal shape, so they sit flat against your chest and stay put. Very well engineered piece of kit. Next time, I will nix the bladder and take a collapsible Platypus bottle with bite valve. It's packable and I can use it as needed or when more fluid is required to be taken at the various checkpoints.

6. Did you use the external pockets on the pack? What for?
I definitely used every pocket on the XA25. I stuffed my packets of recovery drink into the rear, large mesh external pocket. They were flat so they stacked easily and the pocket held them stable with zero problem. The side pockets on the body of the pack were used for socks, toilet paper, and waste bags. You can easily reach these side pockets while running, making them very accessible. On the front, I used the waistbelt pockets for my on-course nutrition. The left side was a single zippered pocket in which I carried my camera (tight squeeze). On the right, there are actually 2 pockets, one zippered and a mesh unzippered one on top of the zippered. I carried the gels, bars, and drink mix I would use for the days run in the right-side pockets. In addition, the bottle holders also had open mesh pockets on them, as well. I placed my iPod in the left and my electrolyte pills in the right. These worked great.

7. Did anything break on your pack during the race?
I made the mistake of training with my pack daily for 4 months leading up to the race. I didn't inspect it before setting-out or I would most likely have noted that it was pretty worn out. 10 minutes into the first stage of the day my sternum strap pulled out of its railing. I remedied this with a zip-tie and had no further problems with it. However, both shoulder straps quickly began to pull away from the body of the pack, possibly due it being completely stuffed, but I think that it was most likely due to rotten stitching from me sweating in it during training. Zip-ties rescued me again here and I had no further issues.

8. Was there any specific feature that you particularly liked?
I really liked the multiple compartments available on this pack, especially the large waterproof pouch. Though I didn't have to deal with wet things or wet conditions, I can easily see how this pocket could be of great value. I also liked the way that the pack compressed over the week. Even though I ended with only 8 liters of gear or so, it was nice and tight.

9. Was there anything that you would change about the pack?
I didn't like the length of the pack. As cited earlier, it gave me quite a rub on my back. I would like it to sit a bit higher. Otherwise, great pack.

10. Would you recommend the pack and would you use it again?
I would certainly recommend this pack to others. However, I won't be using it again. I plan to pack far less for the next event and want something that sits higher on my back. I've decided to use the Salomon XA20 with optional XA5 front pack for the Sahara race. The XA20 retains many of the features that I liked about the XA25, yet with a much smaller volume, which will force me to travel with less gear. I also like the addition of the front pack. It gives me access to more gear while on the go.


Argiris Papathanasopoulos and the OMM Classic 25l


1. What pack did you use during the race?
This year I decided to try the OMM 25L, after reading some good reviews on the internet. In 2006, during the MDS in Sahara, I had an unpleasant experience with RaidLight Front and Rear version, so I thought that it would be better to try another company’s product.

2. Did the pack have enough capacity for all your gear?
I love big rucksacks which can fit all the equipment and food required for such a big race like the Atacama Crossing. The OMM 25L definitely has the ideal capacity. It compactly fits everything I needed for the 7 days, without any excess of space, though.

3. What was the final weight of your pack and hydration system (without water)?
The final weight was 8.5kg.

4. How did the pack fit and ride while you were running?
As long as the terrain was flat and smooth, the pack fitted perfectly. Once we started crossing through the infamous Salt Flats, the pack was bouncing and hitting my lumbar spine constantly. The following day, I noticed a huge swelling around the soft tissues of my back and this was causing me a lot of pain for the rest of the Race. When I returned to the UK, I got an Ultrasound done of the soft tissues around the area which was causing me pain (it was still swollen after 2 weeks!), I found out that I had sustained a proper rupture of the paraspinal muscles!

5. What did you use for hydration (front bottle, bladder, etc)?
The mandatory minimum requirement of 2.5lt fixed by the organiser is too much for my personal needs, considering that I can do my long runs (4h) without drinking any water at all! The idea of bringing a bladder never excited me due to the difficulties to filling it up. I used two Raid Light bottles (1.5lt), fitting them snugly in the bottle holders of the OMM, which worked really well for me. The remaining required 1lt was contained in a plastic bottle which I squashed in a way to save space and connected conveniently with a smart tube. I never really used this 1lt. It was just kept in my pack to fulfil the requirement of the organiser.

6. Did you use the external pockets on the pack? What for?
The hip belt came with two zip pockets, big enough to fit all my snacks. However, when I tightened the waist strap, it was very difficult to get anything in and out of the pockets.
I used the two mesh side pockets with elasticated drawcords to keep my squashed bottle on one side and for electrolytes and nuts on the other side.
I did not use the mesh pocket on the front, and a Velcro-closed pocket on the top. Instead, I used the convenient zippered pocket on the hood, filling it with my sunglasses and suncream.

7. Did anything break on your pack during the race?
One of the strongest points of OMM, is its durable and compact design, resistant enough to any damage. After 7 days of race, apart from some dirt, my OMM still looked brand new!

8. Was there any specific feature that you particularly liked?
I really enjoyed the fitting of the bottle holders. They never gave me any problem.

9. Was there anything that you would change about the pack?
Definitely, the product needs a revision and change on the back of the pack, which has caused me so much pain and a swollen back! Contrary to most of the other packs, which are designed with nice soft padding on the back to absorb all the bouncing which comes with running, the OMM has a very thin back with harsh material and surface. However, the evil of it all is an unnecessary, protruding sewing at the bottom back, which attaches some mesh material to that area. It was this protruding material which has caused the friction between the heavy pack and my lower back. Unfortunately, during my training in UK with the pack, I had not realised this problem, due to the fact that in the UK, I had often worn a winter jacket when using the pack and the jacket could have reduced this friction which has caused the irritation of my soft tissues at Atacama.

10. Would you recommend the pack and would you use it again?
It is very difficult for me to recommend a pack to others because I believe that each pack fits each individual differently. Anatomical characteristics (slim, chubby, skinny, tall, short), can change the performance and the fitting of each gear. In my case, it worked decently for most of my basic requirements, but the fact that I came back with ruptured muscles due to the way the back of the pack was designed, makes me decide that I will not be using it again for my next race. I will most likely try a new product.


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4 comments:

  1. I haven't tried an OMM and after reading this I think I'll keep it that way : )
    I have run with an XA25WP, though, and totally agree with Joel that although it has so much going for it, the overall result is probably not as good as you'd like on the run. If Salomon could work out a way to do a credible 25L version of the Advanced Skin bags - namely formfitting, smart access points, good size compartments, minimal movement, and no waist belt - that would RULE!!
    I was mostly happy with my Aarn22 in Atacama. Had a feeling it wouldn't fit everything but it managed to. Just not a fan of waist belts because they seem to just build masses of tightness into the S-I over a few days.
    Curious if anyone knows of Nathan doing a pack in the ballpark of 20-25L?

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    Replies
    1. Hi Roger, thanks for the comment!

      Argi definitely had a difficult time with the OMM, however, there are newer packs in that line that look pretty good like the adventure light 20l. I saw one of the German/Swiss team using one and it looked quite sleek and simple. Maybe they fixed the problem Argi had with this iteration.

      I also tried the Salomon XA25WP and found it too long for me. I used a XA20 which I believe was about 16l or 17l. It was very tight getting everything in, but it did work in the end which makes me think that the Salomon skin pack 14+3 might just be big enough! I haven't actually seen that pack in person, but I might be tempted to have a look at it anyway depending on how brave I am at minimizing my kit.

      I haven't seen a large Nathan pack. However, one of the former designers from Nathan now works at UltrAspire and they have a pack, the Fastpack, which looks like it would be ideal. It has a 17l internal capacity and a big pocket on the outside which could accommodate more gear. I've been trying out some of the UltrAspire gear and really like it so hopefully I'll be able to do a review on the Fastpack when I have one in the next few months.

      I looked at the Aarn packs and worried that there would be too much movement with the front packs when running. Did you have any problems with movement of the front pouches?

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  2. Hi Dan! Just read back over this now looking through your blog. Have used the Salomon 14+3 and can say it's a very handy pack, although definitely not big enough for an RTP multiday. It's adequate for the days in Antarctica though, if you grab a compression sack and minimise the volume of your warm mandatory gear. It's a very versatile and useful bag to have available, though.
    I really liked the UltrAspire Fastpack, though, and it would be perfect except for one fatal error and one easily fixed issue. The minor issue is that the main zip just needs to be a few inches longer for bigger items like sleeping bags and compression sacks stuffed with warm clothes. As it is, there's some real awkwardness involved in accessing and packing such items. The fatal flaw for me was the way the 2 bottles stick out. They were in the exact right spot to catch my arms on the way through and I couldn't correct this by adjusting them. It's an ideal size for going minimal on longer stuff, though, and if they revise it for the 2nd edition I'd play with one again for sure.
    As far as the Aarn 22 goes, it's a great pack and I'd be happy to review it for you same as Joel and Argi have here if you'd like. Movement was easy enough to minimize. Front access is crucial or me when I run and I think the 22 uniquely balances convenience and efficiency.

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  3. Hi Roger

    Thanks for the feedback and information on a few packs here! You've definitely helped with the guidance on the Salomon 14+3 as I thought it just might be big enough, but clearly it's not. Hopefully UltrAspire will make some updates to the Fastpack to address your issues. I've used some of their other packs and really like them so it'd be great to see a desert / multi-day pack from them.

    I'd love to have your review of the Aarn pack!

    Daniel

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