Something a little special for the New Year and a confession: I’ve got a lot of climbing packs. Given that the manufacturers have been making climbing specific packs for nearly a century now (possibly longer) why haven’t I found my ‘perfect’ pack? Well some of it comes down to the fact that there will never be one pack that works for everything and there’s the fact that we all have personal preferences, our own way of doing things. Then there’s the issue that manufacturers have to make commercially viable products. Happily in recent years a growing number of manufacturers have started to make what are arguably more niche specialist Alpine sacs. Perhaps this reflects the increasing number of users who are more discerning or just the growth in numbers full stop. In the arena of Alpine and Scottish winter I’ve ended up with three sacs that have been keepers but none of them are quite right – room for improvement as the school report would say.
Looking around at what was available I came across the Alpine Luddites site. A quick look around and it was clear that John’s pack design philosophy mirrored many of my own ideas regarding sac design. The clincher was when I saw the replica Purple Karrimor Alpinist and later the Tami Knight patches.
John has four main product ranges: specialist Alpine packs, classic (replica) packs, bikepacking bags and custom packs. Being a low volume high quality producer I was thrilled when John offered to build a pack for us to review, after all its not like he has a multi thousand dollar marketing budget – building a pack for review literally costs him time and money. One thing that John wanted to make clear was that he doesn’t just build packs but offers a full custom service – in fact custom sizing is a no cost option on all his packs. This is just one of many things that sets Alpine Luddites apart.
So how do you get a custom pack?
Well first of all let’s differentiate between ‘full custom’ and ‘custom sizing’. As previously mentioned John will custom size any of his packs beyond the standard size options offered free of charge. With this in mind he offers a variety of specialist Alpine packs ranging from sub 30 litres to over 60 litres, with roll top style dry bag closures or hybrid roll top and drawcord, with and without lids (two main lid designs), waist belts that are padded, removable or just plain webbing, traditional axe loops or modern tool pockets etc. The list is pretty comprehensive and we’re still not talking what John would term a fully custom pack. To be honest the standard options will probably cover 95% of peoples’ needs. However if you need something a bit different or you want to tweak things a little further there is the full custom option. Looking over the packs that were available one model was pretty close to my ideal, the New Day Rising (don’t forget to check out the song) but I didn’t want a lid and I did want a (reasonably sized) internal pocket.
Perhaps now is a good time to describe my idea of a good Alpine or Scottish winter pack. It needs to be pretty light, ideally south of 800 grams stripped down. I like my pack to sit clear of my harness and not block my head when on a route so it can’t be too long. I don’t want an integrated padded back – a removable bivi pad is fine. I like a pocket but am not that keen on lids – they add weight for limited utility and on route they just get stuffed into the pack. Additionally lids have to be extendable to work with an overstuffed pack and/or rope across the top otherwise they get in the way of your head looking upwards which makes them more complex and heavier. However if it’s one of THOSE days on the Ben I like to be able to seal out most of the spindrift so there must be some way of fully closing the sac beyond just a drawcord. In the Alps some routes might require a bivi so the ability to overstuff/pack is sometimes useful. There needs to be some way of quickly and securely attaching ice tools and crampons too (though often the crampons will be inside). At belays I need to be able to access food, drink and probably belay jacket quickly, maybe even a topo but that’s more likely to be in a jacket/trouser pocket (as will be some of the food). The pack that has come closest to this for me so far is the Arcteryx Alpha 45FL (Kev reviewed the Alpha 30FL here) it carries well, is dead simple and fulfils most of my criteria. But. It is a little large or seems so, though nominally only 30L (45L extended) and doesn’t pack as well as my smaller Blue Ice Warthog. The bungee retention system works great with a fairly full sac but not a fairly empty sac and likewise a fairly empty sac is a bit flappy, not compressing down well. There’s a simple foam pad but it’s welded/glued in place so you have to double up for a bivi. Finally the pocket is a pain, too small and pretty hard to access with a packed sac. None of these factors are that serious and I can live with them and work around them but they’re not insoluble either.
Following on from John’s offer the upshot of these musings was some very amateurish design work on the laptop and a three page PDF. In less than 24 hours I had a reply with a detailed assessment of my suggestions, a few questions seeking clarification and one much better idea for implementing the internal pocket. Fantastic. Looking back at the emails I can see John has written over 1200 words which goes to show the sort of attention to detail he puts into his work. This attention to detail is equally evident in his build quality – have a read of his words on pack construction to get John’s take on these matters.
If you do go for a custom sac it is worth bearing in mind that there has to be a level of trust on both sides. You will be putting your trust in John to deliver the goods and on that side his experience and reputation speaks volumes. But John is also trusting you if you go full custom, a bit like having a bike frame or suite made to measure, time and money are put into making you a satisfied customer. This is not REI or Go Outdoors where if you change your mind on a whim the product can be easily stuck back on the shelf. Manufacturers like Alpine Luddites live by their reputation and stand by their products but don’t abuse the trust be certain it’s what you are after. A final consideration is the waiting list – if you decide you want one of John’s sac for your trip to the Andes next week you’re likely be disappointed, current waiting time for custom packs is around 10 to 12 weeks.
The final sac is based on the Alpine Luddite ‘New Day Rising’ but with a Cordura reinforced base for better abrasion resistance (and it’s purple), no lid but an internal ‘floating pocket’ that is accessible via a zip from outside (my idea so any failures in this area are mine and not John’s), removable compression straps, metal g-hook buckles where possible (to idiot proof it from me!) and a simple removable webbing waist belt. The purple theme was a bit of fun intended as an homage to the Karrimor Alpinist. I’ll go into specific features and details when I review the sac but here’s a picture to whet your appetite:
The second part of this feature will be a review of how the sac performs in use. I can’t wait!
Richie is the enthusiastic amateur of the team. Enjoying all aspects of climbing but especially alpine, winter and his local grit . Having managed to survive the vagaries of both fluorescent Koflachs and rainbow tights in the 80s he looks forward to an even more stylish future. A shady past in mountain marathons and adventure races, including the Marathon des Sables, means he’s an advocate of fast and light. Though the former is debatable if you’ve seen him on a tricky lead!