The Great Run Commuting Backpack Shootout of 2012

August 16, 2012 — Leave a comment


I always have the best intention of running early in the morning when it’s nice and cool and the city is still asleep. In reality, though, I often find myself groping wildly to silence my alarm at whatever perverse hour I optimistically set it for the night before, so I can blissfuly return to my slumber. The downside of this pattern of delusion is that I end up doing a lot of my runs after work, which when you factor in my commute home means I’m not eating dinner until after 9 PM some nights, or I’m rushing to get a workout in before social engagements. My solution to the time crunch—run commuting. I’ve gotta get home anyway, so why not kill two birds with one stone and save myself some time in the process, right?

Depending on where I’m working my route home ranges from 5-10 miles. Most days I just throw some cash, my keys, and cellphone in a spi-belt and slog over the Manhattan Bridge, making a game out of identifying the competing odors emanating from Chinatown (a real treat in the summer!). There are occasions when I need to schlep more than the bare essentials and my hydration pack just isn’t up to the task, so I decided to find a proper backpack.

My future pack would have to be very comfortable with an easily adjustable fit; not make my back sweat like a banshee; carry all my gear snugly; have a versatile array of pockets; hold extra water bottles in addition to a hydration bladder; be very well made and durable; and not be pig ugly. Size-wise, this meant I needed a pack with a capacity of 16-20 liters that had both waist and sternum straps. Copious amounts of internet research yielded the following list of suspects:

I loaded each bag up with a dummy load and then took a quick jog around the hood to see how they fared. Here are my impressions:

INOV-8 RACE PRO 18: This pack felt pretty light, weighing in at 1 lb. 6 oz. I liked that it took a lumbar-style hydration bladder, as I’ve gotten used to how comfortable those are with one of my hydration packs, the Camelbak Octane LR. Unfortunately, this meant my only option for holding a water bottle was to purchase a separate holder that attaches to the shoulder strap, which isn’t my favorite configuration. The build quality was nice, and the capacity was perfect, but there weren’t many options to further compress the pack’s load via compression straps or cinches. It’s purported to be weather proof which is a big plus, but in the run test I found it didn’t contour to my back as much as I would like. Bummer, because this thing looks cool! Definitely the best looking of the bunch.

GREGORY MIWOK 18: I wanted this pack to work, because the straps felt very comfortable and I loved the quick-pull compression cords on the bottom that allowed you to snug the whole pack against your back. It did feel a bit heavy compared to some of the others (1 lb. 10 oz.), and the aesthetics weren’t my favorite. The main problem was that during the run test I couldn’t really get a consistently comfortable fit, and the pack kept creeping up my back, despite really tightening the straps.

SALOMON XA 20 M: The Salomon bag definitely won on weight, clocking in at a trim 15 oz. The downside to being so light is that the material, while rip-stop, did seem a little flimsy. I’m familiar with Salomon products as I sometimes use their Advanced Skin S-Lab hydration pack. Both packs fit snug, almost like a vest, and while this is a plus for their hydration pack, I found the day pack just felt too tight. The waist and should strap pockets are well designed and allow you to easily access all your goodies. In the run test it didn’t bounce at all, but the small size of the pack on my back made me feel restricted and a little claustrophobic. Keep in mind I have a long torso (but short legs), so this might not be an issue for you if you’re built more proportionally. It’s lines are pretty euro and technical looking, which makes sense considering it’s from Salomon. All-in-all this was a very good looking, well thought out bag that would have been ideal except for the fit issue.

CAMELBAK OCTANE 18X: Kudos to Camelbak for being the only brand I tested that includes a 100 oz. hydration bladder; unfortunately, there are no pockets for extra water bottles. The bag is very light, similar to the Salomon, but that left me with the same concern over the thin material not going the distance. I felt like any sharp object coming within 10 feet of the bag would leave me spilling out my goods all over the streets of the city, like some urban Johnny Appleseed. There’s also a funny zipper running down the length of the front of the bag that was kind of a drag to use, and compression straps with clips with have been more practical. Running with it was fine, but I found the shoulder and waist straps loosened a little too easily. The open mesh pockets around the waist were at a funny angle and I had concerns about my phone getting soaked if I had to run in the rain. Camelbak usually makes some fine products, in terms of ease-of-use, but I’m always left feeling a little cold by their design. This bag just looked kind of schlocky, and the boring colors aren’t really helping the situation. Pass.

MOUNTAIN HARDWEAR FLUID 18: If I were judging these packs by the spec. sheets alone, this pack would probably figure somewhere in the middle. It’s tied for heaviest with the Gregory at 1 lb. 10 oz., it dosen’t offer integrated hydration hose management, and it doesn’t have much by the way of organization in the main compartment (just an open well and a small mesh camera/key pocket). I was skeptical when I first put it on, because it has a wavy plastic framesheet between the compartment for the hydration bladder and the open mesh that sits against your back. All doubts were put aside during the run test. The plastic frame sheet (the rippled orange part in the picture below) contours nicely to the back and makes the load feel more evenly balanced; it also prevents any bulges from digging into you during your run, which is particularly helpful with larger loads. Sometimes when you have a pack that’s too empty your contents slosh around inside, making for a bouncy journey, so I did a second test with a smaller load and with the framesheet removed, which significantly lightened the pack’s overall weight. The Fluid 18 passed the second test with flying colors, thanks to on-the-fly adjustable rear compression pulls and shoulder straps that tighten at the bottom and the top. The waist pockets are made of solid, stretchy material that kept my rapid-access items snug and dry. The front compression pocket expands to hold a bike helmet, which is great, although I don’t love the metal hook they’ve used to keep it closed because it does open if the strap isn’t fully cinched. Again, not a deal-breaker, but a simple clip would have been more functional here. The water bottle pockets are also made of stretchy material and are deep enough that my water bottles didn’t threaten to pop out during my run. There’s even a small strap on the bottom to secure a safety light, which will come in handy in when the daylight disappears in  wintertime. I preferred the colorway of the Inov-8, but this pack was a close second. Mountain Hardware clearly wants this bag to be around a while, as all zippers, straps and fabric are of the highest quality. It feels very well-built and that adds to its beauty.


The Mountain Hardware Fluid 18 shown with plastic framesheet

I’m sure you can tell by now that I ended up choosing the Mountain Hardware Fluid 18. Its highly adjustable and consistent fit, rugged good looks, and high build quality made it the clear winner in the end. I certainly didn’t feel that any of the other packs would be poor choices (although I had my doubts about the Camelbak), but they didn’t work as well for me as the Fluid 18.

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