Tuesday, April 28, 2015

GEAR REVIEW: Gregory Baltoro 65 (2014)

One of the difficulties in properly reviewing this equipment is that to get the full impression of how gear handles, you need to use it out in the field. And some times, as in the case of this pack, that ends up meaning that you deliver a review for the 2014 edition of a product in 2015. (Also, I didn't blog about this sort of thing back when I first bought the pack.)  I can as a result though, tell you that I am very happy with this bag and it's performance in the field. I can tell you that I know that it fits, but just barely, in most Amtrak overhead storage. You'll have to contort the waist belt a bit to squeeze it in, and you'll have to detatch the gear-tied-on foam roll, but it'll fit up there! Really though, take the foam off before you board, it'll barely make it up the train's stairs. I lived out of this bag for a month, in which I camped, hiked, partied and traveled by train. And the bag did not disappoint.

First, the small flaws in the bag, most of which have been resolved in the 2015 edition. What bugs me the most, is the pitifully small waist belt pockets. They're tiny! I keep a ton of junk on my keyring, and I can barely fit my keys into one of them. I'm not certain what the designers had in mind here, but it sure wasn't anything of substance. Fortunately, I have heard from a redditor with a 2015 version of the pack, that the pockets are more useful on the new edition. I'm jealous! Second, the trekking pole stowage is pretty much inaccessible while wearing it. There are velcro loops included on the back of the pack to attach your poles. You might even be able to reach them while wearing it, in order to disengage them. But you won't be able to put the poles back in, unless you've got arms longer than mine, and a wicked case of double jointedness. Again, I have it on authority that for 2015 they've switched to a system that lets you stow your poles at your waist. This was a feature I thought worthwhile on the pack I thought I was going to buy, the Osprey Aether. So, I'm impressed that Gregory has improved their pack since I bought mine, and a little jealous of the 2015 buyers.

One thing that doesn't seem to have changed, is that if it still has a pocket for a hydration pack (like a Camelbak or Platypus bladder) that it's still an internal one. One thing I liked about the Osprey Aether was that it kept the hydration pouch in a space created by the mesh suspension that keeps the pack from riding directly against your back. This seemed like a better place for it, since then my gear wouldn't be pressing against the bladder and making it difficult to get the bladder in and out of the bag.The work-around is that I'll probably just wind up pumping water directly into the camelbak hose, and refilling the bladder that way.

One thing that HAS changed, is that now the Baltoro series comes with an integrated pack cover. I'm not certain how to feel about that, if it got punctured or otherwise compromised, it'd become dead weight, or require me to replace the pack. I just obtained a separate gregory-made pack cover (their Large size seems to fit the Baltoro 65 well) and that would be independantly replaceable in the event of a problem. But, I also had to pay extra for it, whereas the integrated one is built in to the cost of the bag, and a guaranteed fit, too.

I can tell you though, that the pack still feels great even loaded down with 50lbs of gear and provisions. I can tell you that if you have to stand by the doors, waiting to load onto a train you arrived just in time to queue up for, that you will not regret buying this pack. I can also tell you that if you DO miss a train, and have to ride a little shuttlebus from Portland to Eugene, that the bag does take up roughly the size of another person, which could be good or bad, depending on if you want to monopolize a row all to yourself and have something to lean your head against as you fall asleep. And it wears just as well on the 20 minute hike from parking to campsite at Flint Ridge. Even with everything I was carrying, the bag felt like an extension of my body.

Fitting all that gear in did necessitate the use of a couple of compression bags. I picked up a couple of Sea To Summit large compression sacks, the blue colored ones. I used one for clean clothing, and another for dirty, but I've since heard a suggestion that I think I'll employ in the future, to put the clean clothes first into a trash compactor bag, and then put that into the compression sack, to help keep the clean clothes dry and clean. Then put the dirty into either a second bag, or loose in the same compression sack. Either way, I've got two for whatever I need. There's a bottom compartment that's just the right size for a Kelty Cosmic Down 20, or a Polar Fleece Sleeping bag. I have a hard time imagining, even in a compression sack, fitting in my big synthetic cold weather bag. The lower compartment is partitioned with a small nylon separator, but with that out of the way you can also access it from the top down, in addition to the exterior zippered access they provide. There are two side pockets, but they tend to expand into the pack itsself the more you put in them. If I grow sick of the interior pocket provided for my camelbak, I can however fit the bladder in one of them pretty easily. There's an exterior pouch on the back of the pack suitable for smaller items, and it does not impinge so badly on the interior space. A mid-level zipper arrangement allows access to the pack without removing the lid, with the zippers running around the sides of this rear pouch. As I mentioned before, there are also loops on the back and on the bottom for attaching additional gear, and there are ice axe/trekking pole velcro attachements that I don't think terribly highly of. I was able to use the exterior loops to gear-tie on my Foam Roll, and the adjustable exterior straps just outside the sleeping bag compartment were the right size to attach a rolled up L L Bean tent my Dad had purchased in his backpacking days.

Additionally, there's a two-compartment lid segment, that can be removed to serve a fanny pack if you have someplace to go, but don't want to carry your whole bag. a belt stows in the underside of the lid when not in use. The main compartment is accessible by reaching over your shoulder while wearing the bag, making it a good place for your phone, your maps, a knife, anything you might need to access without taking the pack off. Adjustable straps allow you to fit something in between the lid and the bag if you wish, and similar straps allow you to tighten the sides of the bag to keep the contents in place. There is a clip on the chest buckle that holds your hydration pack's mouthpiece nearby.

I've yet to take it on a 10-20 mile trail day, and perhaps I'll learn some new things about it when I do but I feel confident that it is more than ready for the experience. Also of note is that since I have the Large version of the pack, the volume is closer to 68 liters than the advertised 65.

Would I recommend it? I'd definitely recommend trying one on! It would have to fit you well, to get my full endorsement. Mine fits me great, but don't let that stop you from finding YOUR backpack the right way.

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