Outdoor Retailer Summer Market '05 Trends: Backpacks

According to the Chinese calendar, this is the Year of the Rooster. But in the "outdoor" world, it's clearly the Year of the Backpack. It's been many a moon since backpacks created such a buzz at the Outdoor Retailer show. After all, hardgoods haven't been the backbone of retail sales for a long time now.
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The SNEWS® team of editors, powered by caffeine, chocolate and beer, ducked and weaved around the trade show floor over the course of Outdoor Retailer Summer Market to ensure we could bring you the most comprehensive take on trends, directions, colors, styles and innovations in stories that will run until we pass out. No, each report is not complete and we apologize in advance if a company feels its product was not mentioned when it should have been. We're only covering product that stood out to us, so if you're not mentioned, we were either too hyped up on caffeine to see you, we didn't think your product stood out sufficiently, or we were just plain clueless -- you pick one. With that in mind, here's our take on trends and new products for backpacks:

According to the Chinese calendar, this is the Year of the Rooster. But in the "outdoor" world, it's clearly the Year of the Backpack. It's been many a moon since backpacks created such a buzz at the Outdoor Retailer show. After all, hardgoods haven't been the backbone of retail sales for a long time now. And retailers have wisely dedicated more floor space to apparel. Also, manufacturers have paid little attention to larger packs the past few seasons as they focused on the "light and fast" trend. Nevertheless, several brands introduced a lab full of new technologies this year and expanded their lines of larger packs.

So, why all the action in the pack market, especially with larger models? Are we seeing an influx of backcountry travelers who stay out for days on end? Well, not really. But here's a theory: Perhaps manufacturers decided that they needed to inject some energy into their pack lines and update the styling to draw consumer attention. We've seen this happen with apparel as companies generated buzz by moving away from traditional cut-and-sew construction toward lamination processes. And now these technologies are making their way into packs. Actually, if you just glance at some of the new packs, you'll notice that, in terms of style, they're more similar to outdoor apparel than in the past. A good example is Arc'Teryx.

Arc'Teryx introduction -- evidenced by all the booth attention and buzz on the floor -- apparently made the biggest splash at the show with its new alpine and trekking packs featuring Advanced Composite Construction. The new AC2 packs have components that are actually fused together to reduce materials, shave weight and create products that appear extremely simplified and clean. For example, all of the parts of the back panel -- the plastic framesheet, aluminum stay compartments and EVA foam -- are fused together to form a single component, dubbed a "monoframe." In effect, this reduces the amount of material between a person's back and the pack. And the most efficient way to carry a load is to have it close to your back. The monoframe, with fewer sewn parts, also results in a product that's more durable. Also notable is the waistbelt, which clips to the back at one central point via a unique plastic disc, so the belt rotates with a person's hips. Indeed, we're seeing a widespread trend toward waistbelts that move like independent suspensions. Another main selling point is that the AC2 packs are waterproof, with urethane treatments on both sides of the fabric and sealed seams. The 420-denier fabric also has been made so that buckles are glued to the pack fabric rather than sewn. Arc'Teryx worked about five years to develop this method in which the glued components are extremely strong. The only drawback to all this technology is that it's expensive. We question whether retailers can sell a significant quantity of these packs, considering that their retail prices are from $325 to $475.

Along with Arc'Teryx, the most frequently mentioned new pack introduction at the show belonged to Mountain Hardwear.
The company unveiled the innovative pack line -- also the debut of
packs for the company in North America -- with the Exodus line. The
concept is to provide a pack frame that moves with the wearer and
offers complete unrestricted mobility. In essence, with a combination
of waist belt materials that conform to the user and a unique shoulder
harness combined with a pulley system for on-the-fly torso adjustment,
the pack -- when sized well and properly worn -- fits like it was made
for the person wearing it and allows full freedom for scrambling or
skiing, for example.

Gregory is another company that has introduced packs with a rotating waistbelt. It has six men's and women's packs that feature the new Response suspension. The most notable feature of the Response system is that each side of the waistbelt is attached at a pivot point (rather than a single pivot point like you'll see on the Arc'Terys packs.) Gregory's belief is that the two pivot points adapt to a person's hip angle, rotate with the hips, and maintain a person's center of gravity. Where the top of the shoulder straps attach to the pack, there is an "auto cant" system, allowing the straps to pivot here as well. The Escape and women's packs with Response are available in sizes from XS to L, and retail from $199 to $269.

While big packs drew more attention at this show, the lightweight trend continues to be the focus at The North Face. The Flight Series has expanded with the addition of the women's Akila 40. Available in sizes XS to M, models weigh 2 pounds, 3 ounces to 2 pounds, 10 ounces and range from 30 liters to 40 liters. The company is still finding ways to shave ounces off its packs, and the Akila has a perforated framesheet as well as perforated foam panels, which also increase airflow. You'll also see the pivoting waistbelt trend continue in the company's larger packs. The Pivotal Suspension, which won a Backpacker Editor's Choice Award in 2005, is included on two new packs, the Catalyst 75 (avg. weight 6 pounds, 6 ounces) and Catalyst 60 (avg. weight 6 pounds).

As we've see in with TNF, companies are still expanding their offerings for women. Mountainsmith this year moved beyond men's and unisex packs to offer several women's-specific models. Its All-Terrain line now has five new women's packs -- the all-new Alpine series has four new styles, while the new TrekLight series, designed for through-hikers, includes the women's CDT 45. Mountainsmith's women's packs have back panels that are shorter and more narrow than those on men's packs, and shoulder straps are designed specifically for women. Also, take note that the company redesigned the suspension system on the All-Terrain packs. Its new Load Dispersion Technology is supposed to better distribute weight from the front of the pack to the waist. The aim is to get as much as 70 percent of the weight to the waistbelt.

Kelty, like Mountainsmith, has made a major push to better serve the women's market. It launched nine new women's packs, including Ultralight models, the Trail series for shorter journeys, and large Backcountry packs for extended trips. Two nice examples of the larger packs are the Backcountry 4000, which weighs 5 pounds, 4 ounces, and retails for $180; and the Trail Red Cloud 5000, weighing 5 pounds, 13ounces, with a retail price of $185.

Deuter has had women's packs in the past, but this year it added women's-specific models across its entire range of products -- hiking, trekking, alpine and hydration. The nine new packs in the Women's Fit Line have all the features of the men's packs, but shoulder straps are closer together and narrower, the straps are enclosed in a softer material for more comfort, the length of the back portion is shortened and the hipbelt is not only canted more, but also has extra padding. When investigating Deuter's Women's Fit Line, begin with the Futura 34. With 2,100 cubic inches of volume, it weighs 3 pounds, 4 ounces and retails for $115.

From sandals to backpacks, thermomolding was a bit of a trend last year. Osprey reports that 70 percent of its dealers are now outfitting customers with the company's thermomoldable hipbelts. In addition to the BioForm CM, it now offers the IsoForm CM hipbelt, which is included with the new Aether Series and Airiel Series for backpacking. The updated Aether packs have some improvements, such as stretch woven pockets on the sides (rather than mesh) to improve durability. This series includes three packs (each in two sizes) from 3,700 cubic inches to 5,200 cubic inches, and retails from $199 to $269. The Aeriel series includes three packs from 3,200 cubic inches to 4,600 cubic inches, retailing from $199 to $259.

There may not be a better test for a pack than having Ed Viesturs haul the thing to the summit of Annapurna. And that's exactly what happened with the new Jansport Endeavor 8000 pack ($375). Made of lightweight, super durable sailcloth, the Endeavor weighs only 4 pounds, 4 ounces, with a volume of 4,250 cubic inches. We've got the pack in our testing labs right now -- not that anyone can perform a better test than Ed -- and it does appear, unequivocally, that Jansport is back in the pack biz with a product that commands respect and notice.

Sure, not every company can turn to Ed Viesturs for gear testing. But that's OK when you have a gear tester who goes by the name Trauma. To test its lightweight packs, Granite Gear has turned to through-hiker Trauma, who racked up about 4,000 miles of hiking this year. We caught up with Trauma at the Granite Gear booth and, of course, inquired about the origin of his name. Apparently, he got it after being attacked by ravens on the trail. Ouch! While the company did not launch a new "peck proof" pack, it did show us the new Nimbus Latitude Ki (3,800 cubic inches, $240 retail), its first ultralight pack made for women. We were shown all its bells and whistles -- 3D framesheet, high-tenacity fabrics, internal compression system, all that good stuff -- but we simply couldn't concentrate as we imagined poor Trauma fleeing from a murderous flock of ravens.

On a more sane note, GoLite continues to fill out its pack line with models that are beefier than those introduced in its early years. Made for backpacking, mountaineering and climbing, the new Perspective pack ($200 retail) has comfy features like a sophisticated frame sheet and foam in the back panel. Available in S, M and L sizes, it has 3,930 cubic inches of volume, and weighs 3 pounds, 4 ounces. A smaller version, the Intuition, is 3,000 cubic inches, weighs 3 pounds and retails for $170. Stepping away from larger packs for a moment, the company is also still courting the adventure racing market with the new Multi-Sport pack ($100 retail). It sports some creature comforts, like contoured, padded shoulder straps, yet it's streamlined enough to weigh only 1 pound, 5 ounces with 1,900 cubic inches of volume.

There are all kinds of theories on whether a pack should have a back panel made of mesh, thick padding or nothin' much at all. Lowe Alpine is moving away from mesh back panels, stating that mesh actually reduces air flow across the back by as much as 57 percent. So, in packs such as the best-selling Walkabout, it has added the Pure Air Zone system that suspends the pack load away from the back for ventilation. Lowe has made another significant change as well. It previously offered Narrow Dimension packs for women and people of smaller stature, but it now has nine models designed for women. The flagship women's model is the Zanska. Designed for big loads, it has a volume of 4,900 cubic inches and weighs 7 pounds, 7 ounces.

Worth more than a casual peek were Macpac's Amp packs -- lightweight adventure sport packs that are made from 420-denier nylon, reinforced with 70-denier ripstop in key fray areas. They have multiple mesh pockets for storing essential items and a shoulder holster for easy access to water. The larger 35 Amp weighs only 2 pounds 5 ounces and has a removable waist belt. The smaller 20 Amp weighs 1 pound 9 ounces. In the larger packs and travel line, retailers we spoke with told us they appreciated the unique AzTec fabric – a smooth, cotton-canvas-like hand that inspires an "ooooo" from most who reach out and touch it. AzTec provides supreme durability and weather-resistance, is proprietary to Macpac, and is used throughout much of the company's pack line.

Beyond Backpacking....
Outdoor Research turned our heads with its nicely designed DryComp Summit Sack. With Hydroseal coated nylon and taped seams, it's waterproof and has a no-frills roll-top closure. With padded shoulder straps, it looks to be comfortable, but the hardware is stripped down -- small buckles, thin cinch straps, minimalist daisy chains and ice axe loops. It has 1,885 cubic inches of volume, but cinches down nicely when you're carrying a small load to the summit. And at 12.2 ounces, the pack itself adds very little to your load.

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