Every few years, a new modular backpack system hits the market, though most have experienced a short life span because they're not well executed or simply just too confusing to use. It is also important to note that with a modular system, it has to be easy not only for the consumer, but also for the poor retailer who now must stock and understand how to use and integrate multiple components with various sizing options – potentially a merchandising and stock management nightmare. But we digress.
TrailFlex is the latest company to give modularity a go, with a product line for backpacking that includes a base harness, separate panel-loading and top-loading backpacks, plus an assortment of 20 attachable accessories. The company also has modular products targeting the fly fishing and hunting markets, with more planned for mountain biking, dog training, and tactical markets due out later in 2007.
We were eager to test the new backpacking set-up thanks in large part to the company's promise in promotional literature that says, in part: "TrailFlex users take their skills to the next level with the most flexible personalized carrying system ever introduced. You'll never have to buy another specialized backpack when you own the TrailFlex Modular Pack System. No longer will you have to wrestle with your pack while on the go. The TrailFlex Modular Pack System adapts to you and your activity, not the other way around as with conventional backpacks. Adjust the size of your pack to your activity; no more excessive pack weight."
The set-up we tested included the base harness, the panel-loading backpack (3,204 cu. in.) and accessories, including a camera bag, bottle holder, organizer pocket and waist pack. Over the course of several long day hikes, and over a month of playing around with the system in our offices and testing rooms, we have to say that while the promise is indeed there, the delivery still is a work in progress.
Setting it up. While modular systems provide flexibility and choices, they also pose challenges for newcomers to backpacking who aren't used to adjusting their gear. Just as gear heads love the challenge of piecing together a modular puzzle and tweaking it to best meet individual needs, newbies can feel overwhelmed as they try to figure out what goes where and why.
In some ways, the TrailFlex system may confuse people. For example, there are 20 different attachments to hold various accessories. We received these packaged individually in cardboard holders with stickers indicating what the accessory was—Multi-Purpose Organizer, for example. But the attachments themselves were not labeled, and soon our living room floor was strewn with a bunch of nylon pouches that we couldn't identify. "OK, now what's this again? Is this the camera bag, or the binocular pouch or what?"
Other aspects of the TrailFlex proved difficult to use as well. For example, TrailFlex offers the TF 500 base harness in two sizes, medium (for torsos 15-19 inches) and long (for torsos 19-23 inches). But the packaging for the harness did not indicate whether it was the medium or long. If a customer had the wrong size and didn't realize it, he or she could spend quite a bit of time fussing with the harness and never achieve a good fit. One tester struggled to make the shoulder straps lie flat against the back of his shoulders (this could be due to the wide yoke), but he was not able to determine whether he had the proper harness size.
Also, to fit the base harness to the torso, you adjust two wide strips of material that connect with Velcro. OK, cool. Seems like a simple enough system. However, there are no markings on the adjustable strips of material to serve as reference points. Of course, a reference point really helps as you make small (or big) adjustments. Basically, the TF500 requires the user to keep eyeballing their adjustments, and this is frustrating. Certainly, if a pack wearer had a friend to help them fit the pack, rather than, as we did, put a pack on, take it off, make adjustments, put it back on, take it back off…fitting would be a whole lot easier.
Function in the field. One of our testers loaded the TrailFlex panel-loading pack with about 30 pounds of gear and reported that it rode comfortably and effectively distributed weight to his hips. The company's literature claims that the pack can hold 50 pounds, but we had a hard time shoving that much weight in (well, without using bags of metal shot). Our testers did like the waist belt fit and comfort owing to a construction that is nice and wide with a liner to wick moisture. And the shoulder straps are constructed well, with a contoured shape and just the right amount of padding to be comfortable but not bulky.
While the pack fit well (and frankly, any pack worth the time of a review should at least pass muster with a basic fit test), we would alter certain features, starting with the water reservoir and its carrying pouch. The system is configured so that you can carry the reservoir on the harness itself, or place it in the backpack. Unfortunately, the reservoir is too small. We were able to fill it with about 50 ounces of water, and this is simply not enough. Other manufacturers make packs smaller than 3,000 cubic inches with reservoirs that hold much more—up to 3 liters. We suspect that the TrailFlex reservoir is small because it has to fit into the limited space available on the harness. But, here, function has been sacrificed for form.
Unfortunately, we couldn't put a 3-liter reservoir of our own into the TrailFlex backpack because the reservoir sleeve was too short. Many people carrying a pack this size will want to carry more than 50 ounces of water, and this is a significant knock against the TrailFlex system in our view.
The actual attachment system for the accessories also needs some tweaking...either that or the instructions need to be reworked a bit. Basically, each accessory has one or two plastic slots that slide onto hubs that are permanently affixed to the harness. While the accessories do attach with an audible "snap" and seem secure at first, one of the two attachment points for the water bottle accessory came undone repeatedly for one of our testers. Also, the company's literature says, "Once connected, pouches can be positioned to eight different angles." However, none of our testers could figure out how to do this. For example, the Multi-Purpose Organizer pouch has one point of attachment, and when snapped onto the harness it cannot be secured at eight angles. Actually, it just spins around 360 degrees. As for other accessories that have two attachments points, well, they can't be attached at eight angles either—they can go right side up or upside down. And it's not a good idea to place your gear upside down, or you'll wind up doing a modern day "Hansel and Gretel," with your GPS and camera serving as expensive bread crumbs.
Based on our testing, the TrailFlex system and its packaging are still a work in progress, but despite the knocks, we feel the company is sufficiently on the right track as evidenced by the overall fit and comfort of the pack harness and how the pack carries once accessories are securely snapped into place. Plus, the company clearly understands how to build in flexibility where possible in our view—check out the nifty waist pack accessory that attaches to the base harness or can be used on its own.
While the TrailFlex system is far from perfect it has enough positive aspects to hint that it may not wind up in the product design graveyard as other modular attempts before it have. As for the future of TrailFlex, success will depend on whether people feel that the product is understandable and invokes a sense of freedom, or whether it's just one more source of frustration amid a promise of convenience and multi-function.
SNEWS Rating: 3.0 hands clapping (1 to 5 hands clapping possible, with 5 clapping hands representing functional and design perfection)
Suggested Retail: Base Harness, $89.95; Modular Backpack, $69.95; Accessories, $7.95-$24.95.
For more information: www.trailflex.com