Hello from the town of Bishop, CA! We are taking our time in this town a few days early after another unexpected gear failure. Yes, I had to replace my pack some several hundred miles back, and wouldn’t you know that Nikita ended up having to do the same!
The upside to this is that we now both have the exact same backpack, the Osprey Exos 58. Matchies!
This wasn’t intentional- when I had to go find a replacement around mile 450, this pack was the best option the Northridge REI had at the time. It has proved to be a good pack so far, and Nikita made a similar choice after weighing the options at a local outfitter here in Bishop.
The upsides to this pack? It’s super light. We both shed about 2 pounds off our base weight by switching to the Osprey Exos. This pack is minimalistic, so we’ve had to deal with the loss of some features, but it makes up for it in the weight and design department. Aside from some packs made by specialty ultralight brands like Z-Packs or Gossamer Gear, the Exos is one of the lightest and best options for thru hikers.
But enough of that, let’s get into the details of how this all happened.
How did our packs break?
Though we both had two different packs from different brands, we both experienced complete failures less than 1,000 miles into our Pacific Crest Trail thru hike.
Deuter ACT Lite 60 + 10
My pack became unbearable after a slow decline starting around mile 200. The frame of the pack, probably the most critical part of the pack that gives it structure and supports the weight, was a contoured piece of hard plastic, surrounded by ample padding. Somehow, the plastic frame around my lower back had started to warp, and began popping out of place. Over the course of a few hundred miles, the problem worsened until I had a veritable mountain range of plastic resting on my lower back.
Desperate measures to pad the frame with pairs of socks and to duct tape the edges of the frame back together weren’t enough to save it. When we resupplied at mile 454, my pack was suddenly much heavier and the poking in my lower back was so intense I was in tears through much of a 12 mile stretch.
We got off trail after that and made it to an REI. I threw my pack down in front of one of the staff and asked her how something like this could happen. Her only guess was maybe it had gotten too hot in the sun. Being in the desert, that’s entirely possible, but because I carried all of our food through that section, I almost never left my pack in the sun so none of it would melt.
There’s also the fact that lots of hikers have the very same pack. It’s heavier than most, but it’s a popular choice because it’s so comfortable. No one else had the problem I had. What gives?
Gregory Contour 60
For Nikita’s Gregory Contour 60, the pack became unusable after the right hip belt started to rip away from the pack itself. The hip belt is a crucial part of the pack, as the heavy loads hikers usually carry should always be supported by the hips and legs, and never the shoulders.
We didn’t discover the extent of the damage until we were well past a place to exit the trail and get into a town. Because we were already in the Sierras, where the trail becomes exceedingly remote and resupply and town options are limited, we had to backtrack about 10 miles. Despite being a serious pain at the time, it turned out to be the right choice, because the hip strap broke completely in town the very next day.
We’re pretty sure that Nikita broke his pack by lifting it incorrectly. Heavy packs should be lifted by the handle on the back of the frame, never the shoulder strap, which is what he was doing. I don’t think that this should have rendered the pack useless so soon, however.
What can you do if your pack gets damaged?
If you’re not actively hiking a long trail, or if you are and you have plenty of time to spare during it, you can usually send the broken pack to the manufacturer to get it repaired. However, completing a 2,650 mile hike usually means that you don’t have time to wait on repairs to gear (much less wait on it to be mailed to the manufacturer, be repaired, and arrive back in the mail).
What we both wanted was a refund.
Unfortunately for me, REI has just changed their infamous “any and all returns” policy, so that gear must be returned within a year to get a refund- my Deuter pack was 4 years old. And unfortunately for Nikita, his pack was purchased on Amazon.
Due to time constraints, I didn’t want to deal with contacting Deuter and trying to get a new pack in the mail, so I just chucked my broken pack into the trash on my way out of REI. I checked Deuter’s warranty later and found nothing about refunding money for products, only for repair services. Similarly, Gregory will not offer a refund for Nikita’s pack, but instead a repair service that he is attempting to initiate with them via e-mail.
I’m sure that the pack repair service takes weeks- sadly not an option for us.
How often do packs fail?
When we finally accepted that I needed a new pack, we chalked it up to being some kind of freak event. Hiking packs usually come with lifetime warranties. They are built to endure years of abuse, and should not become unusable after less than 1,000 miles of use. When Nikita’s brand new pack broke around mile 750, our minds were pretty much blown.
Our budget has been blown as well.
Backpacks are one of the “big 3,” the top 3 most critical and expensive items for hikers, and includes the tent and sleeping bag. We definitely were not prepared to have to replace one of these, it’s just not something any thru hiker factors into their budget. Replacing shoes, definitely, but the backpack? Hopefully not. It should last the whole way, and then some.
Tips for Ensuring the Life of Your Pack
- Never lift your pack by the shoulder straps. When putting your pack on, grab the back handle, hoist the pack up onto your thigh, and then pull the straps over your shoulders. It’s also better to clip in via the hip straps first, and then the smaller shoulder strap clip.
- Don’t leave your pack in the sun. I don’t think plastic frames in outdoor hiking packs should degrade due to temperatures from constant sun exposure, but this was the advice I’d been given.
- Properly load your pack. Place the heaviest, densest items along your spine, and pad the rest of the space around them with lighter items.
Have stories of broken packs/dreams? What about tips for pack repair or replacement? We’d love to hear about your experiences with this in the comments!