A revised backpack combination for desert racing

Finding the right backpack is one of the most important considerations for a multi-stage desert race and there is no testing ground as thorough as a race. It's possible to minimize the uncertainty around how your gear will work in training, but learning from one event to the next is the most important way to improve.

Joel and I raced together in the Atacama and he contributed to the backpack review that I wrote after the race describing his experience with the Salomon XA25 pack. He is now preparing for the Sahara race and testing out some new packs. I think his trial process provides valuable information about a different pack combination and the search to find the perfect gear. Here he provides his thoughts on the Salomon XA20 and frontpack.

Backpack update by Joel Meredith

Since returning from the Atacama Crossing and starting the training process for the Sahara Race, I decided I wanted to run much lighter and therefore chose to go with a much smaller pack. I chose the Salomon XA 20. Having had good results with Salomon gear in the past, I felt that this was the obvious choice.

As the name denotes, the XA 20 is a 20L pack. However, I feel that this number is a bit misleading. The total carrying capacity is 20L, yes. But, the main compartment is actually only 14L. Despite this, I am able to fit all of my essentials into the main compartment, without much need for using the external pocketing system. Furthermore, I also chose to incorporate the use of a front pack. The Salomon XA 5 is specifically made to fit the XA series of Salomon packs. It attaches to the top of the shoulder straps on both sides and secures in the front by allowing the waist belt of the backpack to fit under 2 ribbon-like straps located on the back of the small front pack. The front pack seems spacious enough to fit plenty of gear into AND have very easy access to it.

The 2012 Salomon XA20 pack.

While I’m only in the training phase with this pack, my current pack weight is just at 14 lbs. (6.3 kg). I am trying to keep my final pack weight for the race (sans water) under 15 lbs.

The fit and feel of the XA 20 while running is light years beyond that of the XA 25. The 20 sits higher on my back, whereas the 25 sat just above my tailbone. That, coupled with the addition of the front pack, allows my center of gravity to be less affected by the extra weight. Wearing the 25, I always felt like my pack was pulling me up and backwards. I feel that my running gait is much less affected, which allows me to move faster. The shoulder straps fit further apart on my frame than the 25 did. If I were relying on shoulder strap-mounted bottle holders, this could be an issue, but I’m not.

My hydration system did not change much between packs. I am using front loading bottles, just as last time. However, I am loading the bottles into the side pockets of the front pack instead of the shoulders. I’m also adding the use of a soft platypus foldable bottle to make the fluid capacity RTP requires. Using a bladder would not only be far too time consuming, but virtually impossible, as the 20’s bladder pouch is far too small to fit a bladder of any real capacity. I should note here that there are variations between the 2012 packs and those made from 2011 and earlier. The front pack made in 2011 and before features much larger side pockets for water bottles. Fitting almost any bottle is not an issue. However, the 2012 version is VERY small (same size main compartment but smaller side pockets). They’re even too small to carry the Salomon-specific 3D bottle system. I contacted Salomon about this and, as usual, they were completely unaware of any incompatibility. Fortunately, I have both versions of the pack.

The Salomon XA5 frontpack.

Thus far, I have not used any of the external pockets on either the front or rear pack. All of my in-race nutrition will go in my front pack and is easily accessible. The remaining pockets will only be needed for overflow from the main compartment that may be needed early in the race when gear is at its maximum.

The pack seems to be holding well after about a month’s hard use. The only issue that has arisen is the wear on the front pack. As stated earlier, the front pack secures frontally by working the main pack’s waist belt through 2 ribbon-like straps on the back of the front pack. After inspection, I noted the the belt was wearing through the ribbon. I caught this before they were completely shredded and detached. I was able to hand sew webbing on the inside of the ribbon to hopefully reduce friction and wear on the front attachment points. I’ll note here that I do get quite a bit of motion while running with the front pack. The weight of the water bottles gives it a pretty good side-to-side motion which increases wear. I have not been able to really test how this fix is working yet, but will see over the next month.

Wear and tear on the pack after a month's use.

I think the best thing that I like about this pack is the way it sits up high on my back and doesn’t really move much at all. The straps seem to stay put and do not loosen while on the move. There isn’t much that I don’t like about it. At first, I didn’t like that I couldn’t fit a large bladder into the pack, but this forced me to use the bottle system which was necessary for me to train more realistically for the race. In as far as the front pack goes, I think they may need to add a mid waist/chest attachment point to reduce motion.

I think that this pack is going to be far superior to the 25 and will hopefully contribute to me getting an even better result in the coming race. I am currently ordering the Raidlight Evolution 2 pack so that I can compare the two and then make a final decision on which to race with. If the Raidlight is equal to the Salomon, but can provide less motion with the front pack, then I will go with the Raidlight. Otherwise, I feel that the Salomon pack will work just fine.

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