UPDATED – To get your hands on one of these in Australia, Footpoint Shoe Clinic has got these on pre-order and with 15% off. Click here to visit the website and go to their online store.
It seems all good things come to those who wait and it would seem that for some very lucky recipients, the wait is finally over. Our good friends at Salomon have really hit the jackpot this time in the form of the new Salomon XT Advanced Skin 12 Litre S-LAB Pack. From our previous review of the 5 litre version, we are already converts of its unique body hugging vest-like design, but were somewhat critical that it could only carry so much gear and fluid so far. It also fell short of lugging the mandatory gear list for races such as TNF100 and Kepler and the significant fluids loads of GNW100 in a practical but also high performing way. This was further backed up by some of the comments we received to this site stressing that we don’t all have the luxury and resources to run with the lightest and smallest of gear so a bigger pack is needed.
And it seems this request for more load capacity was not just a cry from Down Under, the atrocious conditions of last years UTMB made the list of mandatories longer and heavier and the likes of Kilian, Herras and Chorier were not going to settle for anything other than a complete rethink by the boffins at Salomon and so it was time for the engineers to go back to the drawing board and come up with a new design.
I first got a sneak peek of this pack during extensive testing by some of the Salomon International elites when they visited us at the TNF100, I then got a proper play with its prototype cousin during my visit to the French Pyrenees during the Kilian’s Classik in July of this year. As with all S-LAB products from Salomon, there is constant refinement brought about by continuous athlete feedback from one training run to the next and how well they perform during races. The finished result is now available in some markets around the world, more on this later.
So what is so freakin special about this bag that has those members of Ultra168 lucky enough to have their little paws on one so worked up and us seeking special clearance from Salomon HQ to start talking about it way before the Australian launch?
Well to start with it is undoubtedly one of the most comfortable packs I have ever worn. It doesn’t feel like you are wearing a typical pack, but more like a vest or second layer of clothing as if you were wearing a long sleeve top over your running shirt. I suppose it’s called the Advanced Skin for a reason and this is very much evident in the number of ways you can adjust the fit to suit your own body type. At the front it has adjustments for the vertical straps in a standard way similar to most packs on the market, and in addition, a couple of chest bands to get the right fit across the middle. Compared to its smaller brother the 5 L these straps have been increased in thickness to spread the potential for increased load more comfortably. These horizontal straps can be clipped on and off all the way up the vest giving you multiple fastening options to get just the right fit. For example, I managed to position them, so that my heart rate monitor strap could be worn underneath without the pack making any contact with it when fully loaded. This ability to stabilise the pack and the position it sits on your back by being higher up and closer to the centre of your spine allows for some impressive “forget its there” freedom especially on the most technical of downhilling or when in a granny gear grinding out a climb. But most importantly, the potential for energy saving over huge distances by not having any of that up and down sloshing motion that a lot of packs make, has to have some improvement on performance, especially over 100 miles or more.
In addition to the fit, it is the feel it has on that also singles it out as impressive. It is made of a very lightweight mesh material containing the usual recent trends of incorporating an anti-bacterial coating in the form of a bamboo weave to allow the moisture to naturally wick away. I have put approximately 250 kms into this pack over the last 4 weeks in ever increasing hotter conditions and it doesn’t seem to absorb very much sweat or make your back unnecessarily wet probably as it sits higher up and away from the main moisture zones. Cleaning couldn’t be simpler and the quality of the stitching and materials used seem to cope with salt, sand and sunshine with a good hosing off in the shower afterwards. It dries very quickly and retains its shape well which helps when putting it on an off quickly during check points or to dig out gear.
The real kicker for me is how they have managed to create so much carrying and storage space on such a small pack. I am not a pilot but having played on a few flight simulators it goes without saying that the cockpit of a modern airliner has all the most important controls and buttons at your finger tips laid out before you so that you intuitively reach for them. This pack is very similar in its design and layout, they have increased the size and reach of the main side pockets so that they are now big enough to carry additional 1 litre hand helds, they have retained the two front strap pockets where again its possible to carry 650ml bottles with a draw string at the top to hold them in place. It still retains the velcro fitted additional front pocket found on the 5L version, but to date due to all the extra space I have not found it necessary to attach it. The great thing about the two main side pockets is that you can lie your large drink bottles horizontal to they sit just above your waist further reducing your centre of gravity and the ability for them to slosh up and down. I have been using the Amphipod hand helds and with their curved design they seem to sit perfectly inside these pockets. Gone is the need to reach far behind you and grab aimlessly hoping to find your drink bottle as they are just there on your hips like guns in a holster!
The main bladder compartment remains unchanged from the 5L model, with the inverted hose coming directly from the base of the 1.5l Hydrapak bladder allowing for a shorter hose and less suction required to drink. The size of the default bladder is my only main gripe with this set up as it is nice to have the insurance policy of carrying more water than 1.5l on a hot humid day on the GNW100 miler course. We are a resourceful lot at Ultra168 and we have tracked down from Hydrapak their 2 and 3 litre versions. To date I have only tried the 2 litre version and this fits just as well into the pack without any issues, the 3 litre is more of a squeeze with more of the bladder exposed at the top of the pack, but it is workable. But when you factor in that the massive side pockets, coupled with the front pockets and a 2 litre bladder, it is possible to leave for a training run or depart a checkpoint with over 5.5 litres of fluid transported comfortably.
Further to the water lugging capacity, the pack has two separate main compartments which can be further split into two smaller divided pockets. This is where you can pack your mandatory gear in such a way as to have your most frequently used gear at the top and the gear only used in emergencies stacked lower down and out the way. This is where some lateral thinking by the Salomon guys has come in, by allowing the zips to be located on the side of the pack and inverted so that if you need to reach into the bottom of your pack, there is a zip at the bottom left hand side along with an additional zip at the top right hand side to provide easy access should you change your mind. In addition, there is a vertical zip down the back of the pack that opens up to a wide but flatter pocket that can also carry more clothing, maps, food etc and this is located in a more traditional top to bottom arrangement.
Other features include an built in pocket at the top which comes with an emergency blanket which also doubles as padding for the bladder, a built in whistle with smaller pockets on the front for gels, pace notes etc and attachments for alpine walking poles which were definitely out in force when this pack was put through its paces at the recent UTMB.
In conclusion, this pack ideally fills the gap between the use of lighter more sleek packs, belts and handhelds such as those by Salomon, Nathan, Amphipod etc and those more bulky fast packing bags that North Face et al make for overnight trips. Where will I use this pack instead of my smaller 5L version, well without doubt it is ideal for GNW100 and both myself and defending champ Andrew have already ticked this gear choice off our to do list before race day. If we are lucky enough to squeeze through the lotteries for HR100 and UTMB then again this pack will be ideal.
For me this pack deserves 5/5 Everest summit status as long as your are prepared to be flexible with the choice of bladder size.
Finally a caveat, in conversations with Salomon HQ we were asked to keep this initial review short due to the fact that this particular backpack will not be available through retailers in Australia for several months, and as you can see from my response above, this has been very hard to do as we are so excited by it. So at this stage I cannot give any more details on cost, sizing and availability.
All I can suggest is rock up to the next Ultra168 training run and tag along to get a good look of the pack going through its paces and then badger your local store to stock them as soon as humanly possible because I expect these to be pretty popular on the ultra scene in 2012