Buying a backpack for me was a big decision. It was big because I was buying it online so I had no idea how big, heavy, or well balanced the pack would be. True there were specifications and dimensions, but this was my first pack and I had no idea what to look for, or what the parts of a pack were called. I kept postponing and reading reviews of packs but could come to no conclusion as to which pack would be right for me. Making a wrong choice now could turn out to be a costly mistake and I would be stuck with what I bought for a long time to come. There were so many features, contradictory user reviews and such a wide range of prices that I was totally confused. I tried in Delhi and Dehradun but was unable to locate packs with an adjustable back.
Finally I could wait no more, after Googling for the umpteenth time and browsing through various sites I came across Moosejaw.com and found a Lowe Alpine pack on sale. I trusted Moosejaw as I had previously bought my tent from them. As it was on sale, I had no choice of colours and had to choose the bright red/black pack although I wanted green. Moosejaw shipped it promptly in excellent packing and it arrived in great shape. This was about a year back and I had purchased the Lowe Alpine TFX Tundra which came in a 65 + 15 liter capacity. Along with shipping to New Delhi, India, it cost me roughly around Rs. 13000/-
I haven’t had a lot of time to go camping in the last year but I took it along on three extended trips and used it well enough to be able to write a review of it. The pack itself comes in two versions, the mens pack and the womens pack. I suppose the only difference would be in the fitting and probably the colors. For the record, this review is of the mens pack which comes with the TFX 5 adjustable back system.
The padding, especially at the hip belt is excellent, and a properly packed and adjusted TFX Tundra is a pleasure to carry. My 3 liter Camelbak bladder fits well in the space provided for the water bladder. The pack can be filled either from above or it can be opened from the front facing side of the pack which makes it very easy to pack or find packed things as it opens up more or less like a suitcase. A partition on the bottom of the pack can be zipped or unzipped to create a 15 liter compartment at the bottom for placing soiled clothes, shoes or any other item like a sleeping bag or a compact tent.
This zipping/unzipping is however a difficult task -more so when the pack is full and the weight of the contents are on the partition. It makes it considerably difficult to unzip or zip the lower compartment to take out or put in stuff. However it is really convenient to have the separate compartment for things you need to keep segregated. The rear side of the pack has two longitudinal aluminum (probably alloy) strips of metal which are bent like leaf springs. This absorbs some of the flex of the the bag when walking with the pack on. It also has two two wire loops running perpendicular to the above strips one on top of the pack and one on the bottom. This keeps the loaded pack from flexing too much from side to side. Right on top it has a detachable top pouch which can be used to store items which are regularly accessed. It is also a good place to hold your first aid kit. In addition it has a carabiner shaped key ring to hold your keys. On the rear it has a zippered pouch for any papers and a pictogram depicting different mountain distress signals and also some emergency numbers although it has started wearing off in only two trips! All the materials feel very good to the touch and are of high quality.
The zippers have YKK stamped on them and the zipper pulls are very easy yo use. It must be mentioned though that in some places like where the zipper turns, it is very difficult to zip or unzip on a loaded pack. On my second trip, the vertical side zipper of a narrow vertical (side) pocket which holds my tent pegs and poles snagged in the bag material. It took me nearly an hour to free it and the zipper got damaged in the process. I managed to get it into working condition although some of the teeth are now crooked. The plastic clips are of good material and lock with a positive click. Although it is branded with the Lowe Alpine logo, the rear side says D-Flex stealth, D-Flex probably is short for Duroflex. The clips do make less noise than the clips on some of my other packs. The back adjustment was quite easy to adjust and the provided documentation was good. It has an integrated bright orange rain cover in one of its pockets which can be used when it rains or as a distress signal in an emergency.
On the first trip I learned the hard way that I should not over pack my rucksack. I put in all my bushcraft books and all my camping gear which I had to review. The only thing that I had time to review was my tent. I had to walk a few kilometers in Sattal ashram up and down an incline and was nearly dead by the time I reached our bus and could barely breathe. On the second trip, last December for Christmas, I went home and I decided to take this pack to get some pics for my review. This is definitely not something to take on a train or bus in India, especially on a long journey. Apart from taking up a large amount of space in my berth with its chunky resilient hip belt, jutting out, I barely got any sleep at night not wanting to cram my pack under the seat for 40 hours and retrieve it later with tea stains and wet with water spills, puke etc by careless co-passengers. Then I had a real mishap on the way to Hazrat Nizamuddin railway station.
I took the local train from Tughlakabad and did not realize that the buckles on the bottom of my pack were not fastened, so both ends of the buckles were trailing on their straps. When the train reached Nizamuddin and I moved my bag towards the door, the buckle slid into one of the narrow slots on which the doors slide. When I got down onto the station, my pack wouldn’t budge and amidst all the chaos and swear words of co passengers manged to free one buckle even as the other slid into the slot. I was barely able to free it amidst the cursing of the other passengers when the train started moving again. I realized what a narrow escape I had as the train would have dragged my pack away. I swore to remember to always check whether the buckles were fastened. However a month later when I returned to Delhi I repeated the same mistake with no ill consequences though. If I forget again, I’ve decided to roll up the straps and tie them up keeping my own safety in mind. I didn’t have this problem on my first trip as the straps were fastened around my tent. From then on I decided to take this pack only for camping and trekking as I felt it was cumbersome for normal travel in crowded places as time and again my pack kept snagging against someone else’s luggage even when walking in and around the railway station and around markets. The waist belt too is quite chunky and wont fold comfortably behind your waist. It has to be worn properly to avoid snagging with other objects during walking in tight spaces. However I have seen many Europeans bring packs of this size on train journeys. These are personal views and have no bearing on the quality or design of the pack. It also takes up a lot of space in the bus, unless you regularly travel by the Volvo luxury buses and don’t mind putting your pack in the luggage hold.
The second lesson I learned was to always check the adjustment of the pack. On my way back, the adjustment somehow went awry and I did not notice it as due to the January fog the train reached 9 hours late and I was in a rush to get home and get some rest before resuming work on the following day. I was happy to be home even though no conveyance was available due to the late hour. In winters, Delhiites seem to retire early… most of them after having had their tots of rum. I had a 3 km walk to reach home and I experienced an intense pain in my left shoulder. I assumed that I had overloaded my pack again. After a kilometer, I realized that if I pulled hard on the strap of my right shoulder, the pack rested snugly and comfortably against my back, the weight almost disappearing. It was only after I reached home I realized that my pack was hanging diagonally from my left shoulder as the right padded strap had loosened by several inches. For the next few days, even though I could move my hands and fingers, I totally lost the use of my left forearm. Looks like I pinched some nerve. This underlines the necessity of adjusting and periodically re-adjusting your pack when on the move.
The verdict? An excellent bag by Lowe Alpine which fits you like a dream. I give it all of 5 stars for comfort and 3 or 3.5 for build quality as I am not too pleased with what happened with the zippers in spite of them being of good quality. Good for winter camping as the extra space can be used for warm clothes. A significant drawback of the pack is that it has no grab handles on any side which implies that if you have to move the pack, you either have to wear it or bear hug it which is awkward when getting in/off a bus or train.
You can see some more pictures of this pack in my review of the PacSafe Exomesh lock which I bought for this pack.
Note: The zipper problem is not so much with the zippers as with the material backing the zipper opening. If it is backed with a relatively stiff strip of material, it won’t allow the bag material or the contents of the bag to foul with the zipper.
Update : 5th Nov 2011 :
I’ve been coming across more and more information about backpack straps getting tangled when walking through crowded areas and in transit. This points to a universal problem and I hope people who read this review do not look negatively upon this pack. The solution would be to use a tough rain cover to cover all these loose ends or in transit or just put it in a duffel bag… which just about means you have to carry another bag with you 🙁
Update : 14th Jan 2013 :
After using both my packs however, I felt that my Disciple bag was more comfortable, fit better and held better shape thanks to all the numerous compression straps it had and have started using it more and more while using this pack less and less as it is less comfortable and a bit unwieldy due to its shapelessness when packed.
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