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Reviews > Packs > Frameless Backpacks and Day Packs > Terra Nova Laser 20L Pack > Test Report by Rick Dreher

Terra Nova Laser 20L

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Test Series by: Rick Dreher
LONG-TERM REPORT

INITIAL REPORT - October 24, 2009
FIELD REPORT - December 13, 2009
LONG TERM REPORT - March 01, 2010

TESTER INFORMATION

NAME: Rick Dreher
EMAIL: redbike64(at)hotmail(dot)com
AGE: 56
LOCATION: Northern California
GENDER: M
HEIGHT: 6' 0" (2.10 m)
WEIGHT: 175 lb (79.40 kg)
FOOT SIZE US mens' 11.5
TORSO LENGTH 19.5 in (50 cm)
YEARS HIKING 41

I enjoy going high and light and frequently take shorter "fast- packing" trips. My longest trips are a week or so. I've lightened my pack load because I enjoy hiking more when toting less, I can go farther and over tougher terrain, and I have cranky ankles. I use trekking poles and generally hike solo or tandem. I've backpacked all over the U.S. West and now primarily hike California's Sierra Nevada. My favorite trips are alpine and include off-trail travel and sleeping in high places. When winter arrives, I head back for snowshoe outings in the white stuff.


INITIAL REPORT

Product Information and Specifications

Model: Laser 20L Backpack
Manufacturer: Terra Nova
Year of Manufacture: 2009
Manufacturer's Website: Terra Nova UK Website
MSRP: £55
Listed Weight: 328 g (11.6 oz)
Measured Weight: 323 g (11.4 oz)
Listed Capacity: 20 L (1,220 cu in)
Other details: Frameless, single main compartment, seven pockets, hydration sleeve and hose ports, load control bungees, waterproof zippers, sternum strap with whistle.

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Small pack, many pockets.


Initial Impressions

Product Description

The Terra Nova Laser 20L is a frameless, midsize day pack aimed at lightweight alpinists, hikers, adventure racers and the like. It has a teardrop shape single main compartment accessed via a vertical zipper centered in back and several pockets, as follows:

* Two zippered waist belt pockets
* Two open-top waist belt bottle pockets
* Two side mesh "stow" pockets
* One zippered "change" pocket in the main compartment
* Inside hydration sleeve

Other features include twin back load control bungees, a top load-lifter strap (webbing handle), two hydration tube ports, a reflective back tab and a removable sternum strap with whistle buckle.

Materials and Construction

The Laser 20 is made primarily of thin ripstop sil nylon. Certain high-wear areas are of heavier urethane-coated nylon and part of the back panel, the shoulder straps and the waist belt wings are foam-backed mesh for breatheability. The side and water bottle pockets are non-stretch nylon mesh. All zippers are waterproof and have easy-pull tabs.

Assembly appears flawless, with neat, even stitching and most exposed seams taped. The few exposed fabric edges are clean and appear heat-cut. Most stress points appear to be stoutly stitched, including bar-tacking. Not all are directly visible, however.

Overview

The Laser 20L straddles the line between lightweight and feature-rich. True, it's a single-compartment lightweight rucksack but it has a functional hip belt (not a simple waist band) and lots of pockets and small features. Terra Nova's goal is a pack that serves lightweight adventurers reliably while staying out of the way. It will be interesting to discover whether this featherweight is up to the task. How light? Terra Nova's weight spec overstated the measured weight by a whopping five grams (less than a fifth of an ounce). The whole pack is 323 grams (11.4 oz). Nice going, folks!

A good many of the Laser 20L features revolve around quick access to water, snacks and small items on the go. Rather than limiting me to an internal hydration reservoir and drink tube it also holds a bottle on each side of the padded waist belt. In front of each bottle holster is a zippered pocket and additional mesh pockets are on each side of the main compartment. Hopefully, all six will prove both easy to get at on the go as well as prove to secure their contents.

The main compartment is accessed via a vertical center back zipper-a somewhat unusual arrangement but one that minimizes weight and complexity. Inside, the compartment is unadorned except for the sewn in reservoir pocket that holds a container against the back panel. This pocket is open at the bottom on either side, so won't double as a way to separate small items from the rest of the interior. A clothing item or two could go in there, as could a foam pad to increase back protection from the contents.

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Three pockets on each side, including bottle pockets.



Mesh and foam padding on the waist belt wings, either side of the back panel and shoulder straps is thin and quite flexible. It provides no stiffening or mechanical load control. Load control instead will rely on packing carefully so the Laser 20 maintains its shape, and then fitting the waist belt and shoulder straps correctly. The back panel bungees are intended to aid load control by compressing the pack volume. Time will tell whether this strategy has merit.

The waist belt connecting the "wings" is narrow 20 mm (3/4 inch) nylon webbing with a simple plastic buckle. Shoulder strap ends use the same webbing. The waist belt strap ends are folded over and sewn to keep them from slipping out of the buckle but the shoulder straps are not, leaving them free to slide completely through—something to keep in mind if using the one-shoulder carry (I've had shoulder straps separate unexpectedly).

Reading the Instructions

The pack's hangtag is brief and sales-oriented, describing some but not all of the features. There are no use instructions, but the Terra Nova Web address and phone number are included. My largest surprise on receiving the pack is that it has a hydration sleeve and hose ports, which are not mentioned anywhere in the literature and seemingly supplanted by the bottle pockets. I consider the hydration pocket a significant addition.

At the time of writing, there are no further online hints or literature on the Terra Nova Web site, just the basic pack features and specifications. Given that the Laser 20 is a simple rucksack I don't consider this lack of instructions to be a hindrance, particularly since there's one size and back length isn't adjustable.

Trying It Out

Fit

As noted previously, the Laser 20L back length is not adjustable and comes in one size. On my 19-20-inch (49-50 cm) torso the pack rides low on my back, with the shoulder straps wrapping well over my shoulders and the yoke falling somewhere between the shoulder blades. I must set the sternum strap at its lowest position to get it anywhere near my sternum, otherwise it's a clavicle strap. The strap has an elastic link to provide some give on the go and the buckle includes a whistle—a nice safety feature. The waist belt wings wrap around my hip bones, which should protect them on the go. There's plenty of strap adjustment capacity for both the shoulder straps and waist belt. Small elastic bands keep the waist belt straps from flapping in the breeze.

Capacity

The single compartment is wide at the bottom and narrow on top. I've tested a couple of loads: a 7 lb (3 kg) walk-around combo of clothes and water and a 10 lb (4 kg) bike-commute load of clothing, work stuff and bike stuff, including lock and cable. The walk-around load felt fine and I hardly noticed it, other than a sweaty back on a warm fall day. My bike-commuting load jabbed me in the morning because I didn't isolate hard items from by back. My return ride was more comfortable because I placed a notepad in the reservoir sleeve.

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Back panel features some padding, lots of nylon.



Large items like three-ring binders are a very tight fit in the small pack, but I suspect Terra Nova didn't have those in mind when designing the Laser 20. Packing is critical, but properly done the little pack is comfy enough.

The bottle pockets handle disposable half-liter bottles. The only glitch with the pack so far was pulling first the pull tab, then the entire bungee cord from one of the water bottle pockets. The little overhand knots tied in the thin cord are so small they pull through the holes. I've replaced those knots with figure-eights. If that doesn't hold, I'll think of something else.

Testing Strategy

I'll give the Laser 20L plenty of use the next four months for day hiking, commuting and bicycling. This will provide a variety of loads and propulsion modes. I'll evaluate load flexibility and control, comfort, ease of gear access and wear and tear. I expect to expose it to all sorts of fall and winter weather.

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Single center zip gives access to main compartment.

Summary

The Laser 20L is a very simple small and light frameless rucksack that nevertheless has a lot of useful features. It's made of very thin waterproof fabrics that are reinforced in key areas. It's hard to overstate how compact this pack is. It arrived in a small shipping box that I mistook for software that I had been expecting. It wads up into a very small bundle when not in use.

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to Terra Nova and Backpackgeartest.org for the opportunity to test this backpack!

Please come back in two months for the field report.


FIELD REPORT

Field Locations and Conditions

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Laser 20L tackles the snow, wins.



I used the Laser 20L in a variety of settings and conditions: sea-level urban commuting, northern California regional photography excursions, Sierra foothill and mountain day hikes and Sierra snowshoeing day trips. I was able to take the pack several times each week of the test period, during which weather ranged from warm (65 F/18 C) and dry to cool and raining to cold (25 F/ -5 C) and snowing. My highest elevation attained was 8,200 feet (2,500 m).

Field Performance

Loads

I've toted all sorts of stuff in the Laser 20L. The least interesting but most frequent use was commuting to work, either on bike or combined walking/light rail. I toted all sorts of work and school stuff (binders, papers, pens, books, computer thumb drives, etc.); bike tools, supplies and locks; and clothing, food, etc. For photo trips I packed a digital SLR body, multiple lenses and accessories. For hiking and snowshoeing I packed clothing, "10 essentials," food and water and a small camera. The most I've carried is about 13 pounds (6 kg). My typical hiking load is less, perhaps 10 pounds (4.5 kg) and my commute load less still, but quite varied.

Stowing Gear

Due to the pack design most of my load goes into the main compartment. I use the water reservoir pocket to stow clothing or other large items to isolate the load from my back. A thin standard 3-ring binder just fits, pinched a bit by the pack's narrow top. (As much as it pains me to discuss work items, others might need to know!) Clothing, food and bike cable lock go inside, while tools, lights and spare tube go into pockets.

The pack can hold quite a bit of camera gear—a body, two or three lenses, a flash, and associated bits. Everything must be padded or bagged to prevent from knocking together or jabbing my back. There's no way to strap on or otherwise tote a tripod or monopod.

Which brings me to hiking. I pack spare clothing (e.g., jacket, rain gear, gloves, gaiters, hat, socks); water (1-3 liters); snacks and lunch; 10 essentials; a GPS and a compact camera. For mild weather trips there's plenty of capacity, but for cold weather a couple bulky pieces of clothing can horde much of the space. The belt pockets hold snacks, sunscreen and chapstick. The bottle pockets max out with 3/4 L bottles, while the side mesh pockets can hold more food, a wind jacket, etc. The main compartment's single pocket can hold a GPS, cell phone, compass and similar items. I can also strap light clothing and a sit pad to the outside, beneath the thin bungee compression straps. I thread a compact camera case onto the righthand shoulder strap. To stow trekking poles I put the handles into the side pockets and tie them to the unused topmost cord anchor (black triangles visible in several of the photos). The scheme works with three-section poles that collapse to a short length.

As implied in the initial report, the Terra Nova Laser 20L is a very lightweight pack with no suspension, and relies on careful packing for comfort and load control. It definitely helps to put foam or clothing in the reservoir pocket to give the pack some shape and keep items from jabbing my back. Bulky clothing gets stuffed in first, large items like cameras above, wrapped in more clothing or somehow padded. The pack fills up fast and I just move things around until they fit or I have to start culling items.

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Top pocket is very handy for small gadgets.



Comfort

Packed correctly and not overloaded, the Laser 20L is comfortable on the go. It rides fairly low—from my hips to about the shoulder blades. I use the waist belt most of the time and the sternum strap when cycling or on active hikes. It also helps keep the shoulder straps from sliding outwards when I'm wearing a slick fabric jacket or shirt. Hiking though brush or trees the very small shape keeps the pack from snagging—important for a sil-nylon pack. The waist belt wings don't dig into my hip bones and the sternum strap is comfortable so long as I don't over-cinch it. The back can get hot and sweaty despite the foam pads, at least early on when it was warmer. I don't notice a problem in the cold.

Access

I've become accustomed to the single vertical zipper. It's a little more challenging to access my stuff than a perimeter zip, but the pack is small and the translucent fabric admits daylight, making it easy to see the contents. The water-resistant zips are stiff to use, even after a couple months. The water bottle and side mesh pockets are relatively easy to reach but out of my field of vision, which makes it harder to replace items after use. The belt pockets are quite handy and easy to get to. My re-knotting of the bottle pockets in the initial report period has prevented the cords from pulling out again.

Weather

I hung the pack in a tree during a rainstorm to test its water resistance. After an hour of pretty heavy rain and wind it had taken on a lot of water, through the many seams and likely the zippers too (I didn't see evidence the fabric wet through). The main compartment and belt pocket contents were all wet and water had collected in the main compartment bottom. In the field, the pack took on some moisture in light moderate rain and even in snow.

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Rain test.



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Whether via zips or seams, a lot of water got inside.



Between Uses

The Laser 20L rolls up quite small, making it easy to stow and also making it tempting to take along on a long trek as a summit/day pack.

Wear & Tear

I don't see any damage and little wear to the pack. Some of the seams have stretched but don't give any sign of possible failure. The fabrics seem sound and the foam padding has retained its shape, although it shows some folds.

Summary

The Terra Nova Laser 20L is a clever and very light weight small pack. It's versitile enough for urban and backcountry use, on foot and on a bike. It demands careful packing to be comfortable, but I'm able to do so with most loads. I won't be pressing it into overnight use, at least during this fall-winter test, but when my clothing load is less bulky I will have no problem adding a tarp—a nice thing to have along for bad weather trail breaks or the unexpected overnight. Bulky winter clothes take up most of the pack space but with careful selection I can still stow everything I need.

On the go, the pack's size and close-hugging fit make it a good match for technical backcountry travel, so long as I don't scrape it against rock or snag it on branches. The little Laser is good at staying away from such hazards.

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Small size=motion comfort.



I was surprised how much water leaked into the pack, but a trash bag can protect everything in the main compartment, now that I know to carry one.

Suggestions for Improvement

I have two minor suggestions: back panel foam that is breathable but stiffer for more shape control and hip belt wings that are a bit longer to bring the bottle pockets farther forward for easier access.

Acknowledgements & Next Report

Many thanks to Terra Nova and BackpackGeartest.org for the opportunity to test the Laser 20!

Please check back in two months for the long term report.


LONG-TERM REPORT

Long-Term Test Locations & Conditions

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Stow clothing and electronics in waterproof bags.



I continued taking the Laser 20L on my commute, day trips around the region on weekends, and on four hikes: two snowshoe day trips in the Sierra Nevada, one Sierra foothill hike down into the American River Canyon and one Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta day hike. I squeezed in some cycling commutes when winter took a hiatus.

Weather ranged from sunny in the high 60s F (20 C) to cloudy and 25 F (-4 C) as well as quite a bit of rain. Trip elevations ranged from sea level to a maximum of 8,500 feet (2,600 m).

Performance in the Field

The Laser 20L continued to perform as it had during the field report period. My loads ranged up to about 10 pounds (4.5 kg), which I've decided is about my maximum with this little pack. The only time I have that much weight is if I'm toting a lot of water, camera gear or books. Camera gear has to be stowed carefully and individually padded to protect it and my back and to stabilize the load (as expected with a light, frameless pack).

Leakage in the rain continues, but I now know to bag anything I don't want to get wet. I discovered if it's not packed very full I can wear the little Laser 20L beneath a big rain coat to keep it completely dry (and trigger hunchback wisecracks). It also fits easily under a poncho, but I seldom use one.

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Laser 20L holds quite a bit for a small rucksack.



As a snowshoeing pack the Laser 20L is large enough for day hike loads but lacks the capability to strap on the snowshoes themselves (useful in all but the dead of winter or when there's a long dry walk to the trail from the car). Day packs I own that do carry snowshoes have frames and are much heavier and more expensive, so I don't consider this a Laser 20L shortcoming, more a matter of matching the tool to the task.

As a hiking day pack the Laser 20L is fine. It holds my typical load (clothes, water, snacks, 10 essentials, camera, etc.) and is comfortable over hours of travel. Its small size and good motion control keep it from snagging on brush or interfering with my arms. The evidence is I've not cut or shredded the pack's thin fabric. Because of this test's timing, I've not needed to carry large water loads more typical of hot, late-summer hikes. I don't know if I'd exceed the pack's capacity hauling three or four liters along with my gear.

As a cycling pack the Laser 20L is very good. It rides comfortably, even when I'm on the handlebar drops, and controls the load so it doesn't bounce or shift. For the cold to mild temperatures conditions I've ridden while wearing it, it's not especially sweaty, although my back does get damp.

As a camera pack the Laser 20L is okay. As noted earlier I have to pad the camera and each lens, and there's no way to carry a tripod or monopod. The single zip opening forces me to dig for the gear I'm retrieving, which is slower than purpose-designed camera packs that have dividers and panel-style openings. Like snowshoe/ski packs, camera packs are much heavier and more expensive than the Laser.

Wear & Tear

I don't see any pack damage or failure. The shoulder straps and waist belt wings have stretched some but not in a way that hinders performance. The zippers seem to slide more easily than when new and the thin bungees and anchors are okay. The small toggles still work and the mesh pockets haven't distorted.

Suggestions for Improvement

The feature I have the most trouble using on the go is the waist belt water bottle pockets. Bottles can fall out while taking the pack on and when I'm bending down. On the trail I can retrieve bottles easily but putting them back by feel takes fiddling. I'd prefer the pockets be farther forward for better access and sightlines, and perhaps the bungee closure be more robust (thicker).

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Trekking poles can clip to haul loop.

Summary

The Terra Nova Laser 20L is a nice, light little day pack. It's well targeted to the backcountry minimalist and unlike similar packs I've used, has a full complement of straps to keep the load in control, neither bouncing nor shifting. It's small and light enough to toss into a multiday backpack for use as a summit pack and perhaps a stuff sack replacement. I'll caution that in that capacity it is not a weatherproof stuff sack.

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Continued Use

I'll continue using the Laser 20L. It's a great little bag to keep packed for spur-of-the-moment trips. I won't know for a few more months how comfortable it is in very hot weather and how effective the ventilated back panel might be.

Acknowledgements

My sincere thanks to Terra Nova and BackpackGearTest.org for the chance to test the Laser 20L.

This report was created with the BackpackGearTest.org Report Writer Version 1.5 Copyright 2010. All rights reserved.

Read more reviews of Terra Nova gear
Read more gear reviews by Rick Dreher

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