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Gear review: Winter daypacks

In the first of a new series of reviews of outdoor clothing and equipment, Walkhighlands’ gear editor Phil Turner takes a look at rucsacks for the winter season.

Warm jacket, spare hat, goggles, ice axe, crampons, flask of hot rum tea, spare gloves, bothy bag, snowshoes – it’s easy for a winter load to take on gargantuan proportions and swamp that lightweight mountain marathon pack that seemed cavernous in the summer. To accommodate this increased load I prefer a pack around the 40 litre mark – increasing to 45 or even 50l if I’m carrying group kit. In addition to the increased capacity it’s important to consider the mitten faff-factor – or how easy it is to use when wearing thick gloves or dachsteins in a howling gale. Tiny lightweight toggles are out, big positive buckles and knotted cord zip pulls are very much in. When trudging headfirst into aforementioned howling gale it would be quite nice to do so without being flailed by straps, bungees and the contents of a multitude of external pockets.

These criteria tend to favour a climbing-oriented pack – handy for hillwalkers who want to look gnarly but also offering desirable features such as removable hipbelts and lids. The upside down teardrop shape keeps everything streamlined and light but durable fabrics should withstand wayward glissades and unguarded pointy hardware. With these specifications in mind I asked manufacturers to supply packs ranging from 30l to 46l with the winter Munroist in mind, loaded them up with my standard winter kit and put them through their paces.

Vango Boulder 35RRP £38

This is a wonderful price for a pack – I’ve seen it for £20 in some outdoor retailers – from Port Glasgow company Vango. The hardware and materials reflect this low price and there is a noticeable profusion of large (but glove friendly) plastic fittings and overly-robust fabrics, but all the basic features are covered including removable back panel, wand pockets, side compression straps and even a double spindrift collar under the fixed lid. A single buckle offers access to the main compartment and a non-branded (I would prefer YKK) zipped compartment provides decent storage in the lid. A small pocket beneath the well-padded and ventilated Airforce back system houses a hi-viz orange rain cover – great if you like that kind of thing – but if, like me, you find them a total waste of time it can be easily unbuckled. Oddly Vango have made an attempt at wand pockets, but they seem too big for this purpose and too small to be effective bottle carriers. Ice axe loops, a sliding chest strap with integrated whistle and a minimalist fixed waistbelt complete the features of a good value and generally robust pack, though I suspect that the budget fittings may be a weak point.

Body Material: Excel® 600D Volume: 35 litres Weight: 1.29 kg Volume to weight ratio: 13.6l per 500g

Jack Wolfskin Mountaineer 46RRP £130

Despite a massive presence in mainland Europe, Jack Wolfskin are yet to really penetrate the UK outdoor market despite their high-profile sponsorship of Fulham and Liverpool football clubs and opening a flagship store in London in 1990. The Mountaineer 46 features a propriety lightweight but rugged 420 denier fabric which is extremely well stitched though a little prominent in the supplied Peak Red colour scheme. As you’d expect from such a sophisticated pack the harness is extremely comfortable – the removable hipbelt (with handy pocket) transfers weight superbly and the thick shoulder straps and thin back padding keeps the pack in close contact to prevent the pack moving independently from the wearer. A chunky double zip around the front panel allows easy access to the pack contents without having to open the lid, though the glove-friendly buckles securing a floating lid are hardly a chore. The pack comes with an instruction manual and this is entirely necessary due to the huge number of features including a helmet harness that emerges from a dedicated zipped pocket in the lid and a reinforced front pocket that is ideal for crampons. All these features add weight and this has resulted in a particularly heavy pack. By removing the lid, aluminium-framed back panel and waistbelt this can be reduced by a few hundred grams, but if you don’t need the features it would be wise to consider a simpler and lighter pack.

Body Material: NAILHEAD 420D Capacity: 46 litres Weight: 1.86kg Volume to weight ratio: 12.4l per 500g

Berghaus Arete 35RRP £60

Walkhighlands Recommended

A perennial favourite, the Arete 35 from Sunderland-based Berghaus epitomises a UK winter pack – rugged, simple, lightweight and cheap (much like a few UK mountaineers I know) and for that reason scoops the Walkhighlands Recommended award this month. There is little superfluous on this pack – a single large buckle offers access to a toggle-cinched main compartment with rope strap, and other than twin ice-axe loops, side compression and ski carry straps and a couple of gear loops on the hip fins feature-fans are going to be disappointed. Admittedly the pack is supplied with a length of bungee cord and a toggle to allow the terminally-organised to create a cats cradle or something via the small loops on the front panel and lid, but those that appreciate the streamlined inverse teardrop aesthetic will probably lose this in a drawer fairly quickly. Thin shoulder straps and minimalist contoured back padding encourage lightweight loads, though the simple waistbelt is forgiving of the occasional heavy load. Actually, it seems a shame to save this pack for winter.

Body Material: Esdura 600D Capacity: 35 litres Weight: 0.85kg Volume to weight ratio: 20.6l per 500g

Berghaus packs are available from BlacksSimply HikeCotswoldMilletsOutdoorGear UK
Buy the Berghaus Arete 35 from Amazon

Mountain Hardwear Direttissima 46RRP £150

Upon delivery this pack is almost bewilderingly complex – with straps, buckles, zips and bungees galore. After making use of the bottle openers built into the lower ice axe loops and the QR code on the swing tag, things made a bit more sense and a well designed and flexible pack began to emerge. Features common to several packs are included – double buckles securing a floating lid with zipped pocket, side compression and ski straps, ice axe loops and removable back panel and waistbelt. Common features they may be, but they’ve been executed beautifully by Mountain Hardwear. The lid buckles are easy to operate with thick woollen mitts, similarly the sleeved cord zip pulls and waistbelt tensioning arrangement that looks remarkably similar to Osprey’s ErgoPull system. A neat metal bottle opener has been integrated into the lower ice axe bungees, and all toggles are operable with one hand thanks to small webbing tabs. In common with the Jack Wolfskin Mountaineer the weight is pretty high, but on this occasion significant savings can be made by removing the lid – replaced by a flap that clips over into the now vacant female buckles – and the corrugated plastic back panel. The removable waistbelt can be replaced by the included simple webbing strap or the massive MH FitLock waistbelt (itself around 400g) for large loads. The white panel is a section of bombproof XPly from Dyneema®, more commonly used in yacht sails and ideal for protecting the main fabric from crampons fixed onto the pack by webbing straps secreted behind the front panel until needed. A nice touch that compliments a high quality pack designed for extreme conditions. It’s just all a bit excessive for the average winter hillwalker.

Body Material: 315D SilSeal Cordura® Capacity: 46 litres Weight: 1.65kg Volume to weight ratio: 13.9l per 500g

Buy the Mountain Hardwear Direttissima from Amazon

Salewa Peuterey 32+RRP £120

Sleek, black and compact this pack from German brand Salewa exudes Teutonic throughness with neat understated touches that immediately appeal. Sadly I just don’t consider it a winter pack. Despite the quality and attention to detail the faff-factor is high and adjustments pretty difficult when cold, gloved and wanting to go home. Salewa have used some unusual materials and techniques throughout the pack, including the Comfort Clip – which simply moves the waistbelt buckle to the side in an attempt to reduce the irritation of a central buckle – teamed up with the curious Snaplock buckle. This offers a variation on the standard, well-proven squeeze-to-release buckle that we know and love and introduces more hassle and far more faff. A secure ‘hook’ arrangement , this buckle requires a bit more effort to locate and secure, then a sharp tug in the correct direction to release. The small cord loop fitted to facilitate this tug proved difficult to use with mitts, and being located off to one side as part of the Comfort Clip system made it all the more difficult to operate! Thankfully the waistbelt is removable along with the back panel, which also serves to reduce the overall weight. Elsewhere side compression and ski straps, tidy ice axe stowage, side access zip and a nice organiser system in the floating  lid pocket scream quality, it just feels that Salewa have tried a little too hard to be different at the expense of ergonomics. Still, it’s a very good looking pack and should last forever thanks to tough fabrics and construction. I wonder if I should offer a volume to price ratio though – for such a small pack it’s not cheap.

Body Material: 420D nylon Capacity: 32 litres Weight: 1.1kg Volume to weight ratio: 14.5l per 500g

Osprey Variant 37RRP £110

Osprey are masters of  load-carrying comfort, and with the aptly-named Variant 37 they’ve managed to utilise this expertise in a jack-of-all-trades mountaineering/climbing/ski touring/scrambling/hillwalking pack suitable for both easy hill walks and hardcore big-wall expeditions. Everything just works – from the mitt-friendly buckles and cords to the hip-hugging waistbelt that transfers weight using some form of black magic. This waistbelt can be removed entirely or pulled round to the front of the pack and secured, permitting streamlined hauling up multi-pitch climbs or simply easy stowage on a coach luggage rack. Ice axes can be lashed on securely with the picks protected in a sleeve, and the upper bungees are easy to use and can be moved vertically to tailor the fit. The cavernous front pocket is designed and reinforced to accomodate crampons, but is equally suitable for a snow shovel or simply to stuff your waterproofs into. The usual side compression straps feature – but in this case they perform particularly well to reduce the volume of the pack as well as securing skis in an A-frame arragement. By removing the waistbelt, lid and aluminium-framed back panel the pack can be easily reduced to under 1kg for fast and light summit bids. My one criticism is the sheer quantity and length of the various straps – though these are easily trimmed at the expense of flexibility. If you require one pack to do everything from winter day trips to summer overnighters  this is the pack for you.

Body material: 210D Cordura® Capacity: 37 litres Weight: 1.5kg Volume to weight ratio: 12.3l per 500g

PODsacs Alpine 40RRP £125

With a proud British heritage and loyal following in the climbing community, Pete O’ Donovan (POD) has been making climbing packs since 1983, though the PODsacs brand is now owned by Equip UK. The Alpine 40 retains the simplicity of Pete’s original designs with the addition of some specialist fabrics and manufacturing techniques. In fact, this pack is constructed from a bespoke version of Cordura® that gives the optimum combination of durability, weight and weather resistance – all somewhat useful in a British climate. It’s the standard inverse teardrop shape – nice and streamlined but also easy to pack thanks to the wider opening. In a departure from the normal drawcord the Alpine 40  uses a rolltop closure reminiscent of a drybag to offer superb weather resistance, especially when the floating lid is removed to cut weight. In fact, by removing the lid, back panel and waistbelt the pack can be reduced to basically a drybag with straps weighing well under 1kg. Triple-stiched and bound seams and internally bar tacked stress points aid this weatherproofing and longevity – something PODsacs are reknowned for – though a shiny unblemished rucksack does nothing for your hill-cred. The rest of the pack really is standard fare – though executed very well – including simple ice axe loops, a simple bungee lashing system and compression straps and mesh wand packets. An simple alpine favourite for climbers in the know.

Body Material: 210D Cordura® Capacity: 40 litres Weight: 1.5kg Volume to weight ratio: 13.3l per 500g

Edelrid Mirage 35RRP £120

Everyone likes a scoop, and this is a Walkhighlands exclusive look at the Edelrid Mirage 35, a pack due into the UK in early 2012. Renowned for their climbing hardware it’s no surprise that this is a bombproof but elegant pack from another German manufacturer slowly and quietly making inroads into the UK market with a new range of packs, clothing, stoves and accessories. Even more minimalist than the Berghaus Arete, external features are limited to twin ice axe attachments, simple side compression straps and a single metal clip/buckle securing a floating lid. A basic padded back system and cut-out hip fins keep the pack close to your body to prevent it shifting during that crux move, with weight transfer a bit of a secondary consideration. The waistbelt, lid and back panel are again removable and would have little effect on comfort unless you’re a really bad packer. The 840D body fabric (grey) combined with 420D ripstop nylon (black) seems somewhat overkill and accounts for the high weight, but at least it’ll be rugged enough to cope with the worst that the average winter hillwalker will throw at it.  I was a bit confused by the single cordlock supplied to cinch down the drawcord on the main compartment – it’s tiny. Edelrid did confirm that this is a temporary measure in my advance sample and that production models will be supplied with something much more suitable. A no frills pack, just simple and effective. Watch out for the Mirage in the shops in March 2012.

Body Material: 420D ripstop PU nylon Capacity: 35 litres Weight: 1.3kg  Volume to Weight ratio: 13.5l per 500g

Do you agree with Phil? Discuss your experience of winter daypacks on this forum thread.

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