04 December 2012

ode to REI's UL45 of 2006

Once, when I was poking around the Arcadia REI's backpack selection, one clerk came over and showed off what was the pride and joy of her own collection of gear, the UL45.  "And it collapses down to nearly nothing by just pulling the cord, then you can just use the pocket for a day hike" she said, demonstrating what continues to be a very unique compression system.  I thought this might actually be a compression system that works for me, but what really caught my eye was that this neatly removes what I see as a design flaw that is repeated across the industry: the compression strap that crosses over the top of the bottom pocket.  I don't even use these pockets except for picking up trash along the trail and once for a water bottle when I found I'd left the drinking tube at home, but this detail deeply irks me.

A few months later, I decided I wanted a pack devoted to day hikes rather than dumping out my books and pens and using that one.  I looked at a lot of day packs that were over 3 lbs.  Why would you need over 3 lbs for a day pack?  They didn't have anything except tough fabric and lots of padding on the back and more pockets than I had things to put in them.  Tough fabric is nice, makes things last.  Padding in a day pack, which tend to be frameless, is generally a thick slab of heat that covers the whole back.  Pockets are just more fabric.  I also noticed the UL45 tucked away in the overstock and discontinued section.  A real pack with an actual frame that comes in at slightly over 2.5 lbs.  It also comes in a 30L size for day hikes and a 60L size for extended trips, unless you have the poor sense to be a woman.  I wasn't completely sold on the notion that I need different shoulder straps, but I decided it would be nice to try for overnights instead of my rather bulky bag that could probably swallow up a fully loaded UL60.  Also, the details are green instead of orange, and I don't like orange.  The sale price was somewhere south of $50, so it wasn't even more expensive to go for the real pack.  It took a while, but that clerk made a sale.

Women's UL45 somehow still with all the bits.

 This is what I got.  Except for the straps, the back, the bottom, and a tab at the top of tough nylon, it is all sil-nylon.  The scrunched fabric in a big X across the bag show where the cord for the very odd compression system sit.  It turns out this is just one of few oddities of this bag.  It has a couple mesh pockets on each side, the bottom ones quite deep.  It has a pocket on the front with a vertical waterproof zipper.  It has a top pocket with another waterproof zipper that is surprisingly large.  It has handy small pockets on the belt.  All quite nice.

Suspension system for the UL45.

Flip it over, and there's something strange about the suspension.  It has load lifter straps as one might expect, but it all sits on a single stay.  There is a bar and a U at the top to help the pack keep its shape, a bar at the bottom to hold out a couple plastic loops for the strap system, and another U at the bottom to help spread out the weight sitting on that single stay.  The hip belt has a massive bit of padding under the stay and it needs it.  Everything is sitting on the bone, but with a light enough load, this seems more comfortable and balanced to me.  The shoulder straps and hip belt has minimal padding, but it really is intended for lighter loads so this is fine.  The sternum strap hits at my neck even at the lowest position, but I never like those anyway.  The padding on the back has been left off in a lot of places, but this oddity takes no time at all to get used to if your crew, say, decides it would be a good idea to head for Condor Peak in 90°F.  That space is pure airflow.

Suspension system details.

One thing that doesn't stop being odd and not quite right is the way the straps are attached.  This system has some name and can be found in other packs.  The bottom of the straps are attached to each other and run through loops to hold them out to where they would usually be attached.  The bottom can slide to either side a little, allowing the pack to move a bit more with you, and does have its positive aspects.  The loops on the side are on somewhat too long leashes and don't pull the base of the straps out as far as I would like.  This sometimes gets annoying as the straps slide against my sides.

Hip belt of the UL45.

The hip belt has a couple of small pockets.  On my left, a great spot to stash chapstick.  On my right, the perfect pocket for the right camera.  It held my old Pentax and my new Canon SX230 but not the old SX110.  The zipper has held up to the thousands of picture taking moments.  The cloth is failing from wear by swinging arms.  The few elastic spots aren't holding anything tight anymore.  The fit is the usual for REI packs.  If I place the stay along my back where it belongs, the hip belt hits at my waist.  There are a few people who like it like this, I'm not one.  I maneuvered the belt downward with some velcro adjustment and the rest of the funny fit is just more airflow.  The torso isn't quite long enough, only going to 17" max, but it didn't come in a large.  Apparently, not only do women not need a smaller or larger bag, they also don't have very long torsos.  This actually should be long enough for me, but there must be something else funny with the fit.

Inside, there is a sleeve for a water bladder.  I can even squeeze in two of the Platypus 2.4L bags for those particularly long or hot trips.  With the single stay system, the way the pack sits on my back doesn't change any with stuffing in water, something I've found in packs I've had since.  Typically, the compression system is cinched down to the water, jackets stuffed into the bottom, food and art supplies in the top, and first aid and bandannas and bug repellent in the top pocket.  Sometimes maps and my flattened cup for watercolor in the front pocket.  It easily expands out to hold whatever I feel I need to be safe and happy, and has done so for over 1000 miles, quite probably.

Pocket for stay detaching from hip belt.

So it's no wonder that it is about to have a major failure.  I noticed a couple hikes ago that half the stitches were out of the plastic piece that holds the stay at the bottom to the hip belt.  I knew when I got it that the lighter weight materials don't last as long.  It is a trade-off.  This can be fixed, so I'll do that, but as I look over the rest, I see a lot of thin spots.  It may be about to disintegrate.

Top pocket, holed a few places and still marked by sooty branches.

Considering how I've treated it, it should be shredded by now.  I have really grown to love this strange pack.  At first, I was careful because the fabric is so delicate.  Once in a while, I threw it into something I knew I shouldn't and had it come out with no damage.  Now I take it for granted as I squeeze through the willows or under tree branches.  It is still wearing the marks from Whitaker Peak.  A few holes have been punched through the top, a lot of snags are showing.  It hasn't been waterproof for a few years, I bet it can be treated with silicon grease or whatever makes sil-nylon again to help that out, even with the holes.

So that's REI's UL45.  Perfect in summer with the airflow, perfect in winter with the space, overkill for spring and fall because spring and fall are so perfect on their own.  When it breaks for good, I don't know what to replace it with.  They only made it in 2006.  The next year bag returned to traditional design and is heavier.  They decided it needs to be made out of tougher fabric and the compression system vanished again.  Everyone seems to be going to a single loop stay, which doesn't allow for quite the same real airflow and leaves the water bulging into the wearer's back.  And they still generally have a strap across the top of the bottom pocket.

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