After having completed all my previous walks with classic backcountry backpacks (I used my
Deuter Aircontact 75+10L for 6 years), adding a packraft to my packlist forced me to reconsider my backpack choice because of two reasons: (i) adding nearly 4kg of weight to my packlist, I had to economize elsewhere. With an empty weight of well over 3kg my Deuter pack was an obvious candidate. (ii) I needed a way to keep my gear dry on splashy Nordic rivers.
There are a few possibilities to achieve these goals. One could pick a light, frameless backpack (for example the GoLite Pinnacle) and pack all gear in waterproof bags inside the pack. Second option could be to put such a pack as a whole into a very large waterproof bag (80+ L) which you can then attach to the packraft. In this case, however, you will need smaller waterproof bags for your gear during rainy weather anyway. Finally, some backpacks offer an integrated solution, consisting of nothing more than a back panel and some straps, in which you can buckle a large drybag with all your gear.
Because of its versatility I eventually opted for the last option and purchased a ULA Epic pack. When buying it directly from the manufacturer, the Epic pack goes with the Sea to Summit 65L Big River Dry Bag. The combination goes for 275$ on the manufacturers website.
Backpack: ULA Epic
There are some very good online introductions (for example this video by Hendrik Morkel) to the Epic pack and I won’t go into detail about the overall design here. I stripped down my pack to the minimum before leaving on this trip by removing the Side pockets and the small mesh pocket attached to the top of the back panel. The weight of my backpack thus became a mere 1074 grams, plus another 306 grams for the Big River Dry Bag. That is nearly 2kg less than my previous pack.
The back panel contains 2 Aluminium Stays, which can be removed (about 140grams). I kept mine as I knew the weight of my pack would be well over 20kg on some remote sections in Northern Scandinavia. I found the mesh pocket at the front very handy to put away some stuff (e.g. litter) during the walk without have to open my main dry bag. The two hip pockets are pretty large and easily fit compact camera’s. I used one to have some daily essentials (water purifier, compass, cloth to dry feet after river wadings, cookies for during the walk) close at hand, and put my GoPro camera with head strap in the other. The straps at the bottom were perfect to attach my packraft.
I tested the combination on a few trips preceding my long walk. Having all your gear in one big bag is something you have to get used to, but after a few days I did no longer experience this as a disadvantage.
ULA states the Epic pack supports Dry Bags up to 75L. This is just a general value – the maximum volume mainly depends on the design of the drybag itself. The dimensions of the Big River Dry bag are 38x25x83cm (15x10x33 inch). When completely full, I had a lot of spare length on the side buckle straps, but only about 10 centimeters on the main top buckle. If you want to use a bigger drybag, you should thus mainly search for a broader one – the maximum height will be about 80-90cm depending on the diameter. Would be cool though if ULA could make the top strap a bit longer – the pack would then fit virtually every drybag up to 80L.
For backpack weights up to about 20kg (which corresponds to 7 days of autonomous backcountry hiking/packrafting in Nordic autumn with my current gear list), the ULA Epic is the most comfortable pack I have ever walked with. It fitted me from the very first day. Can’t tell much more about that, really. Only when my pack became even more heavy, a more robust frame would have been nice.
As from a durability point of view, the ULA Epic has outperformed my expectations. I have now subjected it to about 135 days of heavy duty use and most of the pack is still in perfect condition. Only the fabric overlying the Aluminium shafts and the hip pockets show some visual weariness. One seam of the mesh front pocket loosened during my trip.
The only small design flaw is that the side straps can easily turn inside out in the side release buckles because the latter are too broad. During the first days I used the pack, one of the male parts of the side buckles became bended (could still open/close the buckle though as it is designed to keep working with only one side fitting). I mailed ULA about this problem and they immediately sent me some free spares by post, good customer service.
The ULA Epic is not a cheap pack, but it is the best pack I have ever used in nearly every aspect – and in my opinion thus worth the money.
A cheaper “clone” of the ULA Epic is the NRS Paragon Pack, but I have no idea how it performs.
Drybag: Sea to summit 65L Big River Dry Bag
As mentioned above, I used the Sea to Summit 65L Big River Dry Bag. At 306 grams this is not the lightest drybag, which is because of the very heavy 420D Nylon fabric (10000mm waterhead). The bag has one main longitudinal seam at the back and a seam connecting the body with the bottom panel. 4 lash loops are welded to the side of the bag – I did not use those though.
The very heavy fabric is, despite its weight, the main reason why I opted for this drybag. Unlike most (poly)urethane coated nylon or silnylon drybags it is virtually invulnerable to abrasion by for example bushwhacking through thick vegetation. And indeed, it is hard to notice any scratch after all those months on the trail. The bag clearly lived up all expectations from a durability point of view.
However, after just a few weeks on the trail, I started to notice moisture on the inside of my bag in rainy weather. First just some drips, but after a while the dry bag really started leaking in a very annoying way which forced me to double-seal all my stuff in plastic bags. I sealed all seams with silicones on a rest day, but the problem remained. Apparently it were not the seams, but the fabric itself which was leaking. With over 2 months of hiking and packrafting in rainy weather and splashy rivers left, I was facing a major problem.
I sent an e-mail to Sea to Summit and got an immediate reply. After some e-mails to and fro, a new drybag was sent to me directly from the Sea to Summit headquarters in Boulder, Colorado towards a post office in Sulitjelma, Norway. I picked it up a bit over three weeks after our first contact (weeks during which it fortunately hardly rained). I found this pretty exceptional customer service and would like to thank Sea to Summit for that.
I used the second bag for another six weeks, and it performed as promised: no leaking. I will thus give this drybag the benefit of the doubt – and suppose the first bag had a construction error.
—- Edit 29/01/2013 —-
I received an e-mail from the Sea to Summit customer service about my problems, which I will copy/paste below:
“I would like to share the opinion of our product developers, that the delamination of the TPU film from the inner face of the fabric was in all likelihood due to it remaining wet for a prolonged period, and that this would have similarly affected any other urethane coating or laminate under the same conditions. Please know that we have never had a Big River Dry Bag returned due to a ‘construction error’; never. In the five+ years of selling this product, we have been made aware of three Big River Dry Bags which experienced TPU film delamination – two of these were sent back to Australia where it was confirmed that the laminate had softened due to prolonged water exposure. The third is the original dry bag which you had.”
What about you? Questions or remarks? Any experiences with this gear? Please comment!