I’ve had this pack for a few weeks now and have taken it out on two long runs to give it the once over. I wouldn’t normally just sling on a new backpack for a 65km run, but that’s what I did with this one so confident was I that it would be brilliant. And I wasn’t wrong, this is an outstanding pack.
The phrase, “fits like a glove” is the only way to describe this running vest, which is essentially what this is. However, it’s surprising just how much gear you can actually get in it, along with the copious amounts of pockets it has for storing food. The only slight reservation one may have about this is the ability to carry enough water. This will be very telling in the Australian summertime, as the temps rise and the need for more water increases. 1.5l is not going to be enough to get you through 28kms of GNW section in 35 degrees of heat. But, fear ye not… I have a cunning plan which I’ll tell you all about.
As I packed this bag the night before I first took it out I was amazed at how many little pockets it has for storing food. I was off on a 65km run along the GNW (so nine hours or so), and I needed to make sure I had food for the entire time I was on the run. Yes we were stopping for some water halfway, but there would be no crew to come and meet us and pander for our needs, so going off the average amount of calories I’d need for a nine-hour run (approx 2,500 or so), that’s a fair amount of food.
I needn’t have worried though, I had ample space. I could even fit my lightweight Montane jacket in the back too. So, here’s how I did it.
First up, the Skin 5 s-lab has two very obvious bottle holder pockets at the front of the pack. Now, given I like a combination of water in the bladder and Perpetuem in the bottles, but with the ability to put food in one of those holders I have a bit of a dilemma. But again, no issues for the s-lab. As it’s currently winter here in Australia, I can afford to go a little lighter on the old fluid intake. So in the bladder I placed my 1.5l of water and in the front of the pack, the two bottles of Perpetuem. The beauty of these pocket holders is that a Nathan 600ml bottle fits in the front. It’s a little tight at first, but after a few goes, the pockets stretch a little and there’s no dramas. I thought there would be issues too, with my arms brushing against the bottles, but no such dramas at all.
Next up, just like our other favourite backpack, the Nathan Endurance Vest, it has a pocket on the shoulder strap for your salt tabs – but wait, it’s a much bigger pocket that the one on the Nathan, which means not only room for your salt tabs, but if you’re a drug junkie, room for your pain killers too.
On each side of the pack are two other pockets, where you can comfortably fit 4-5 gels in each, which at 100 calories per gel, is another 4-5 hours worth of food you need for a typical section on the GNW, that’s of course of you need gels and you’re not running off Perpetuem for example. The only bugbear I had with these is that they’re pretty hard to access, you have to bend your arms right around and know where you’re going, or get a mate to open it for you. If you prefer, you can always just use one bottle in the front pockets, and use the other food, which I did on our run on Saturday. Another great design is a removable velcro pocket that can fit another 2-3 gels or bars in too. Also great for putting car keys in as well. This sits nicely on the left shoulder strap and is easily accessible whilst on the run.
The beauty of this pack however is the pocket that lines the entire back of the pack. The design of this pack is extremely clever. The water bladder effectively ‘sits’ in a separate compartment, contained in a foil-lined pocket, which is extremely easy to access and refill. No unzipping pockets or even removing things from the pack, you simply slide the Source bladder zip off the top and you can refill instantly. You can see this pack has been designed by someone who races, not someone who likes a break and a cup of tea at a checkpoint.
I digress however, the pocket at the back has an immense amount of storage space for a pack of its size. If you’re on a longer run e.g. 10 hours plus. Here’s where you can store the food for the second half of your run. I also managed to get a headtorch, a lightweight rain jacket and some gloves in there too. Additionally, because the material is ‘stretchy’, it means that you could probably squeeze even more in there. My point is this, Kilian, when he wore this for The North Face 100 recently (where you have to carry the entire kitchen sink), more than likely did manage to get all of his compulsory gear in there, albeit kiddies versions of the gear.
In terms of a ‘fit’ on the body, I used the term ‘fits like a glove’, which is exactly how it feels. I had zero issues with getting the fit right pretty much straight away, and it doesn’t feel like you’re wearing a pack, it’s like you’re wearing another item of clothing. It sits nice and high too, which for me is just perfect and doesn’t put a lot of pressure on your shoulders either. The fabric is also soft around the shoulder straps too, which for me is important. Given its vest like qualities, the straps do sit high across the shoulders and close to the neck, something I’ve had issues with on the Aarn pack back previously. Normally I’ve worn collar-necked tops to stop any rubbing on the neck, but for these two trial runs, I wore my Merino wool top which has no collar. While you can feel the straps a little, there’s no rubbing at all, indeed the only thing you can feel is the bladder hose which in the case of the s-lab is very differently fitted to other packs on the market.
The bladder hose is cover in a liner which ‘stiffens’ the entire thing if that makes any sense. It’s then attached to the right shoulder strap and comes upwards towards the face, whereas others tend to be fixed the a chest strap of sorts. I did think this might be a problem to begin with, but you rarely notice it and it’s a great design.
Now, as mentioned, the only thing that bothered me about this pack was it’s 1.5l bladder. Indeed, the reason I held off buying this pack for a few months was this very reason. So, having used it twice, I tried my 2l Nathan bladder in the pack to see if it fits. The good news is that it does, quite easily. The only issue is that you’re going to need to do some manual adjusting of the hose and its length, as the Nathan hose is far too long and is really not designed to fit with this pack. But the good news is that a 2l bladder fits in there, which means you could feasibly carry 3.2l of fluid with this pack with the two bottles at the front. For a pack of this size, this is remarkable. I’m going to do some more investigation with bladders, particularly ‘Source’ bladders to see if can get a good 2l one, with the correct attachments. If I can, this will be the pack for GNW.
The scores on the doors
The question we always ask? Would we buy it? Well if you haven’t guessed already, then heck yeah! It’s pricey though. Even after searching high and low on the Interwebs for a ‘bargain’ I still only got it for AUD$190 (including postage). Is it worth? Big time, yes and for this very reason we’re going to give the pack a score of 5 on our Basecamp to Summit scale. This pack has scaled the heady heights of the mountain and reached the very top.
If you have this pack, we’d love to hear your thoughts. Likewise, any questions and I’ll more than happily ask them too.
Review by Dan Bleakman