Grey rainy days and long dark evenings are here, so it’s time for gear blogs. Do I hear cheers and applause? Ah, well…
Montane is a decent company, conscientiously making innovative, functional gear. Packs are a pretty personal thing and it’s just bad luck I happened to buy one of theirs and personally dislike it. For you personally the Ultra Tour 40 might be the best pack in the world. I found it uncomfortable.
I won’t repeat the manufacturer’s features, specs, etc., as you can find all that on their website, but, in passing, this pack is a very generous 40 litres. I walked the Pennine Way with it carrying three season camping gear and was never limited for capacity. This was partly thanks to the external mesh pockets which are very stretchy and cleverly designed to retain a lot of stuff, although they’re not hard-wearing.
Consider (above) this line-up of suspects, arrayed left to right in decreasing order of floppiness. In this photo each has an identical small cushion stuffed into its bottom, as if prepared for a spanking.
On the left my Berghaus Roc, my dear old friend, ca. 1999 and still going strong, veteran of two Pennine Ways and many other adventures. No frou-frou pockets or dangly dongles, tough as old boots, made from gnarly mil-spec cordura. This is the backpack you want to fling onto the roof of an Indian bus. I love it and still find it very comfortable. The elephant in the tent is that it’s heavy, by modern standards, and my knees aren’t what they used to be. This is a fully framed pack; internal metal struts make the back panel completely rigid. Hence, as you can see, it stands up by itself even when mostly empty.
On the right, my new best friend, a vintage GoLite bought for £48 on eBay. Absurdly simple, literally just a sack with straps. Veteran of the Scottish National Trail and several other adventures. I love this pack too, I’ve walked over 800 miles with it carrying full camping gear and find it very comfortable. It’s utterly minimal and has no frame whatsoever, its only structural element is a skinny and completely flexible foam layer inside the back panel. I wish you could still buy these elemental, reliable and frankly rather stylish packs.
In the middle is the Montane Ultra Tour 40. As you can see it’s a third way pack, neither fish nor fowl. It’s called ‘frameless’ but they’ve hedged their bets by inserting a sheet of semi-rigid plastic, like glorified styrofoam, into the back panel. I bought the medium/large size, by the way, as despite being only 175 cm tall I have a torso length of 51 cm (I blame short legs for my inability to run).
Consider a fully-framed backpack (below). The length of the back panel, distance D, is fixed. It’s determined by the frame and cannot change, however you adjust the straps or load lifters.
Consider the Montane Ultra Tour 40 (below). Lacking a rigid frame, its equivalent distance D is inherently variable. For the pack to fit properly, ride comfortably and behave predictably over long distances we need to constrain distance D to a fixed length and as everyone knows the only way to do this with a frameless pack is by carefully packing and firmly compressing the contents.
In the photo above the contents are insufficiently compressed and the shoulder straps are too tight. You can see some of the problems that arise. When you tighten the straps, to stop your load flopping about, distance D shortens. The back of the hipbelt is pulled up so it’s no longer effectively load-sharing. Creases form at A and an annoying fold at B. Notice in passing that the load lifters are as good as useless. All they do is pull the top of the sack forward towards the back of my neck at C. I found this annoying rather than helpful.
So what you’re supposed to do is pack your load intelligently, using one or more of several strategies to impose structure on the pack. One popular suggestion is the ‘burrito method’, using a CCF sleeping mat to form an internal cylinder. I found this method hopeless.
A 10 mm mat gives reasonable structure but it’s far more hassle than you need on a wet, cold morning in the hills to get it to expand fully and it takes up far too much room in a 40 litre pack. I also found it ‘burrito’d’ my pack into such a firm cylinder that the shoulder pads were forced away from my shoulders, pressing the curved back of the pack directly onto my vertebrae.
A 5 mm mat leaves more room but isn’t really rigid enough to impose adequate structure and anyway isn’t warm enough for three season camping in the British hills. In both cases it becomes impossible to pack optimally. Furthermore the bottom of the Ultra Tour 40 is not flat. As you can see above, even when you force the CCF cylinder down as far as it will go against the outer panel, there is still a floppy section of the inner panel creasing against your lower back. And I don’t even like CCF mats.
So you end up having to consider and optimise several parameters simultaneously.
One is the way your pack hangs. Rather than getting the hipbelt sitting just right, then adjusting the straps and lifters to match, as I was used to doing with a framed pack, I found you need to first allow the weight of the pack to hang freely from the shoulder straps, so it stretches the back panel fully. Then you tie the hipbelt at the level it has naturally fallen to.
Sadly I found that in order to stretch the back panel fully, my hip belt had to descend uncomfortably low, strapped well down around my hip bones rather than resting correctly just on top of them. This despite my torso length being well within the design range for this size of pack, as confirmed by the outdoor shop I bought it from with their nifty backpack measuring gauge. I felt in the end I might have been better off with the small/medium size instead of the medium/large, but if that’s actually the case then Montane’s size guide for these packs is completely unhelpful.
The other parameter is how your contents are stowed. You’re supposed to place long, stiff items against the back panel and then compress the whole caboodle firmly with the side straps. This is all very well, except I didn’t have any long stiff items (my tent uses my trekking poles). I tried putting my Thermarest in the water bladder pocket (I never use unhygienic and pointless water bladders) but it made absolutely no difference. I stuffed and compressed the pack as hard as I could, but after three miles or so of walking it was always unbearably uncomfortable due to a sharp crease in the back panel.
This crease forms at the point of fold (B in the photo above, two orange arrows in photo below) and it’s really acute, almost sharp. I found it would literally draw blood from my back unless I sorted it out rapidly. The only way I found of sorting it out was to ram my actually rigid plastic first aid and tech box hard down behind my other stuff, so it was firmly jammed within my pack at precisely the point of fold. If I hadn’t happened to have that one completely rigid item in my pack, I’d have been in big trouble.
You might reasonably say, well, this could equally be a problem with any frameless pack. Except that… I subsequently had no such issues with my GoLite. I found I could chuck my stuff into that completely unstructured backpack pretty much randomly. I didn’t need to pay much attention to packing distribution or compression, it was always comfortable. Somehow the clever design of the GoLite enables the weight of its contents, however incompetently packed, to stretch the back panel nice and smooth, free from uncomfortable, chafing creases.
Unfortunately the same cannot be said of the Ultra Tour 40 and ultimately it seemed to me that the well-known disadvantages of a completely frameless pack are made much worse by the semi-rigid back panel fitted inside this one. Rather than helping matters, this panel actually makes things worse by creasing. Small creases do sometimes form in the GoLite but as its back panel is completely flexible and memory-free they soon release if you redistribute your stuff. In the Montane the more rigid back panel material has memory and the crease quickly becomes permanent.
The creasing problem seems to me exacerbated by the design of the hipbelt. As you can see from the three photos below, in the Bergaus Roc and the GoLite the hipbelt is attached at only a little more than ninety degrees to the back panel. In the Ultra Tour 40 the hipbelt hangs down at a much more obtuse angle, almost pointing at your knees when undone. This means that when you pull the hipbelt up into a horizontal position to do it up, it forces the back panel of the rucksack to cinch and fold, making the painful crease at B far worse.
It may be that I was using my Ultra Tour 40 wrongly, in which case I’d appreciate advice. Like most outdoor gear these days, it came with no meaningful instructions or indeed meaningful information of any kind. As usual the swing tags were purely decorative, their wording just marketing blurb equally useless in several languages.
This pack may initially have a slight water sensitivity and need to choose from the water-free menu, but waterproof it is not, certainly not after ten days on the trail. Like all backpacks of my experience it’s incorrigibly hydrophilic; drybags inside are a must. The fabric of the main pack is tough, but the stretch pockets are not, they easily catch and tear on fences and their hem stitching came undone after a couple of weeks. I couldn’t really work out what to keep in the floppy little shoulder pockets, they’re the wrong shape for a phone. In the end my Sprayway hat lived in one of them.
I never really know what to do with hipbelt pockets either, these examples are not the slightest bit waterproof and once filled with random stuff I then had no idea where to find they jammed annoyingly in narrow kissing gates. People say they like all these fancy pockets so they can access mission-critical accoutrements without taking their pack off. Personally I cannot understand this aversion to taking a rucksack off. If your backpack is difficult to put on and take off, it’s too heavy. I like nothing better than taking my rucksack off, in fact I fling mine off with glad abandon at any opportunity.
You’d think other reviews of the Montane Ultra Tour 40 might be available, but in fact they’re distinctly scarce.
Here an enthusiastic young man who works for some outdoor shop recites the exciting features you can see for yourself on the maker’s website. Don’t you love ‘reviews’ like that?
On UK Climbing somebody says “the back system does have the propensity to ‘ruck’ above the waist belt if not fully loaded; this doesn’t appear to cause my partner problems (though might for others).” Fair enough. Live for the Outdoors while trying to make an honest living selling you the thing does admit that “the level of comfort is below that of other packs, if you pack this badly or carry a heavy load, as there is no stiffening in the back, and the load does not transfer easily to the hips” Reasonable, although perhaps not explaining the problem very well.
I managed an entire Pennine Way with the Ultra Tour 40, so I suppose I got value for money as it’s not an expensive backpack. But rather than a life-enhancing companion and helpmate, as a rucksack should be, it was an annoying extra worry. Having subsequently learnt how comfortable a good frameless pack can be, I won’t be using it again.