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Reviews > Packs > Internal and External Framed Backpacks > Black Diamond Astral Backpack > Test Report by Erin Foudy

Black Diamond Astral 40 Pack
Test Series By Erin Foudy

Initial Report March 26, 2012
Field Report May 4, 2012
Long-Term Report August 7, 2012

Picture and chart from http://www.blackdiamondequipment.com



Tester Info:
Name: Erin Foudy
Age: 31
Gender: Female
Height: 5'11'' (1.8 m)
Weight: 150 lbs (68 kg)
Email address: erinfoudyATyahooDOTcom
City, State, Country: Tucson, Arizona, USA


Backpacking Background:
I started backpacking while working for the National Park service ten years ago.  I have been a backcountry ranger/law enforcement ranger and served on search and rescue crews.  I typically take two or more camping trips a month, year round.  I appreciate light weight, but am not obsessed by it.  I often carry a 30 lb (14 kg) pack and stay out from three to nine days at a time.  I also enjoy day trips with only water on my back.  I take trips to Colorado and Montana in the summertime and enjoy the outdoors there as well.


Initial Report


Product Information and Specifications:

Manufacturer: Black Diamond Equipment
Year of Manufacture: 2012
URL: http://www.blackdiamondequipment.com
Listed Weight: 2 lb 8 oz (1.15 kg)
Actual Weight:2 lb 8 oz (1.15 kg)
Size Tested: Medium
Other Available Sizes: Small
Color Tested: Merlot
Other Available Colors: Daiquiri
MSRP: $159.95 US
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        chart from http://www.blackdiamondequipment.com   


Description:

The Black Diamond Astral 40 pack (hereafter referred to as the Astral, or the pack) is touted by Black Diamond as a light weight, women's-specific pack.  The medium-sized version of the pack has a capacity of 2,440 cu in (40 L), which the website claims is ideal for overnight trips or up to 2-3 nights in length, and a pack weight of about 30 lbs (13kg).  To aide in the wearer's ability to have a "superlight fastpacking" experience, Black Diamond has developed the patent-pending reACTIV suspension, and provided the option of a removable top lid to further reduce the total weight of the pack. 

The reACTIV suspension is expected to allow the wearer to move freely with their pack and is designed specifically for light weight packs.  This design is composed of three separate elements: SwingArm Shoulder Straps, reACTIV Hipbelt, and the V-Lite Frame. The SwingArm Shoulder Straps move with a hiker's stride, are women specific, and help to balance the load of the pack across both shoulders.  The reACTIV Hipbelt is also shaped specifically for women and according to Black Diamond is "ultra-flexible" and expressly made for lighter loads and fast packing.  Lastly, the V-Lite Frame is a lightweight frame made of aluminum, with a customizable contour that allows for the reACTIV suspension's flexibility.

The body design of the pack is fairly standard and simple with a few special features that give hikers some great options as well as convenience.  The Astral comes with a removable top lid as mentioned above.  The lid has one large pocket inside with a clip for keys.  However, if I would like I may remove the lid in order to streamline and reduce the weight of the pack.  The main compartment of the pack is top loading and is secured by rolling the top down and then clipping the ends together, similar to the closure of a dry bag.  If the top lid is removed then the main compartment is closed by rolling the top down and clipping each end to the corresponding straps on either side of the pack that would otherwise clip to the top lid.  Inside the main compartment is a small vertical hook-and-loop strap to hold up a hydration bladder, along with a horizontal elastic strap that serves to keep the bladder secured to the back of the pack.  Just above the hook-and-loop strap is an access port for the drinking tube of the hydration bladder.  The Astral has five pockets in addition to the main compartment and the top lid pocket: one large pocket made of a stretchable material on the front of the pack that is secured at the top by two compression straps; two smaller pockets, about the size of a large water bottle, also made of a stretchable material and located on either side of the pack; and two small zippered pockets on the hipbelt of the pack.  The Astral also features trekking pole/ice axe loops, and a built in whistle on the adjustable sternum strap. 


Initial Impressions:

Upon receiving the Astral I was very happy to see that it arrived in the size and color I had requested, and that all the stitching, fabric, and straps looked to be in good order.  I was surprised at how small the pack was initially until I undid most of the clips to see how large the pack is able to expand to.  Especially without the top lid, the pack can expand to have a main compartment that is remarkably large.  One thing I am a bit concerned about is the hydration setup in the main compartment.  I am used to having a separate pocket for my hydration bladder, and I'm concerned that if the hydration bladder leaks most of my things may get wet.   Additionally, I have concerns about the hook-and-loop strap that serves to hold up my hydration bladder.  In my day pack I have a similar setup, however, the strap is a very small clip instead of hook-and-loop.  Will the hook-and-loop last over time and much use? On another note, I was very happy to see that the large front pocket on the pack has compression straps that can loosen and even unclip on top.  This feature is great when I have a very full pack and need to fit additional items into the front pocket.  There is nothing more frustrating than having a pocket that proves to be useless when it comes to getting the most use out of a pack. 

Once I looked over the pack thoroughly I couldn't wait to try it out.  I grabbed a couple items such as our backpacking tent, and a sleeping bag, and placed them in the pack.  I had no problem easily fitting these items inside the main compartment and had plenty of room to spare so I decided to throw in my climbing gear as well.  I put the pack on and adjusted all of the straps.  The pack fit great and distributed the weight I had placed inside wonderfully between my hips and shoulders, I was very pleased with how comfortable the pack rode.  I was unable to really get a feel for the reACTIV suspension in just walking around my living room, but I did do some bending and twisting and could tell the shoulder straps and hipbelts were moving with me.        

Summary:
The Black Diamond Astral 40 pack so far seems like it is a well designed pack for women who are interested in lightweight backpacking.  Its construction appears solid and the features are well thought out and functional.

Pros:
1.  Versatile in size
2.  Comfortable fit
3.  Smart features

Cons:
1.  Not sure about no hydration pocket
2.  Concerned about the durability of the hook-and-loop strap to hold the hydration bladder.


Field Report

Field Conditions:

I wore the Black Diamond Astral 40 pack on three multi-day overnight trips and three day hikes.  

Santa Rita Mountains, south of Tucson, Arizona.  The elevation ranged from 5,400 ft to 9,453 ft (1,646 m to 2,881 m) on top of Mt. Wrightson.  Temperatures ranged from the low 50s F to the mid 70s F. (10 C to 21 C)  I hiked around 20 m (32 km) during a 2-day, 1-night trip.

Coconino National Forest in northern Arizona.  Elevation ranging from 8,024 ft to 12,643 ft (2,446 m to 3,854 m) on top of Mt. Humphreys.  Temperatures ranged from 32 F to 65 F (0 C to 18 C).   This trip was a 3-day, and 2-night trip backpacking excursion.

Rincon range of Saguaro National Park East in Tucson, Arizona.  Elevation ranging from 4,240 ft to 6,160 ft (1,292 m to 1,878 m).  Temperatures ranged from 32 F to 80 F (0 C to 27 C).  This trip was over 3-days, and 2-nights with one base camp.

Performance in the Field:

Thus far the Black Diamond Astral 40 is a great pack.  The Astral is perfect for my shorter backpacking trips of one to three nights, and honestly, if not for how much water I must carry in the desert, would most likely suffice for even longer trips.  I have been continually impressed by how much the pack can carry, and even more so by how comfortable this pack is to wear.  The design of the pack makes it easy to expand for carrying more gear, and contract for using the Astral on day hikes while in the backcountry.  I found all the pockets and extra features of the pack to be functional and well thought out.   

I was surprised by the comfort this pack provides, from the reACTIVE suspension to the women specific shoulder straps and hipbelt.  While scrambling over slick rock and larger boulders on the east side of the Rincons of Saguaro National Park I could feel the pack adjust and move with me, allowing for greater range of motion and balance.  The Black Diamond website claims that the reACTIVE suspension helps to balance the weight load of the pack evenly across both shoulders, and I would agree with this claim.  Along with the reACTIVE suspension, the women specific elements of this pack are wonderful.  I have never owned a pack made specifically for a woman; being tall many women's packs do not fit me correctly.  However, the Astral fit me wonderfully and I was finally given the chance to experience the benefits a women specific pack can bring.  From the contoured shoulder straps to the hipbelt adjusted for a woman's frame,  a women specific pack provided me with a superior fit and added comfort.  I am officially a fan of women specific packs. 

As suspected when I first received the pack, the Astral is incredibly versatile.  It was able to accommodate all the gear I typically take on overnights; once at base camp I could take out all the things I would not need for a day hike and cinch the pack down.  All the trips I took were no longer than two nights, and I had no issues fitting everything I needed for the trips.  One problem I did have was trying to pack around my hydration bladder.  In my other pack and daypacks there are separate hydration pockets for a hydration bladder.  The Astral has no pocket but does have a hook and loop strap to hold the hydration bladder in the main body of the pack.  As stated in my initial report I had some concerns about my gear being packed up against the hydration bladder.  I did not experience any leaking issues as I had feared, though it does still make me nervous.  However, not having a separate pocket for my hydration bladder did cause me to have to pack around the bladder.  I have a hydration bladder that holds 3 liters (101.4 oz) which took up a good portion of the main pocket of the pack.  Typically when I pack for a trip I put my hydration bladder in first and then put in the rest of the items, if done in the reverse order I have found it hard to get the hydration bladder into the pack.  With the way the Astral is set up I have to put in my sleeping bag first, pushing it all the way to the bottom of the pack, then my sleeping pad.  At this point I then put in my hydration bladder and carefully pack the rest of my gear around it.  If I put the hydration bladder into the Astral first, the bladder hangs all the way to the bottom of the pack not leaving enough room for my sleeping bag which I like to put on the bottom.  I typically backpack with my boyfriend or friends, splitting the necessary gear between us, however, if I go on a solo trip and need to carry all of the gear I may have an issue fitting everything correctly around the hydration bladder.  If I could choose to, I would definitely opt for a hydration pocket for the Astral.  It may not be totally necessary but it is definitely a feature I prefer in my packs especially living in the desert where carrying a lot of water is a must. 

The Astral has several additional pockets, each of them I felt were very functional and well thought out.  The pocket located in the lid of the pack was surprisingly roomy.  I was able to fit my map, headlamp, water purifier, snacks, handkerchief, beanie hat, and a book with room to spare.  The large pocket on the front of the pack was perfect for holding a light jacket or windbreaker so that I could easily access it when needed.  I like that the front pocket is made of a stretchy mesh material and that I could easily stuff items inside it by unclipping the top of the pocket.  On other packs I own, that have a front pocket such as the one on the Astral, it is difficult to put anything inside the pocket when the pack is fully loaded.  The clips at the top of the Astral's front pocket alleviate this problem.  The two pockets on the side of the pack are great for carrying additional water bottles on hikes in southern Arizona where I need to carry more water than just my hydration bladder.  I also used these pockets to carry my rain gear rolled up while hiking in the northern part of Arizona.   The zippered dual hipbelt pockets were perfect for holding a small snack such as an energy bar, or trail mix.  I also found these small pockets useful for holding my chap stick, and small hair accessories for keeping my hair out of my face while hiking, and my camera.   The location and size of these pockets is perfect for having access to a large range of items that I might need while hiking and don't want to stop to retrieve from my pack.

Summary:

The Black Diamond Astral 40 in my opinion is an excellent women specific, light weight backpacking pack.  The way in which it is constructed allows for great versatility and extreme comfort.  My only qualm is that there is no hydration pouch, a feature I personally prefer in my packs.

Pros:
1.  Versatile in size
2.  Women specific features provide a comfortable fit
3.  reACTIVE suspension allows greater range of motion and balance
4.  Smart features.

Cons:
1.  No hydration pouch

Long-Term Report

Field Conditions:
I wore the Black Diamond Astral on at least three day hikes while vacationing in the White Mountains of northeastern Arizona, as well as during one very nice backpacking trip.  However, our planned trips in the Colorado Springs area were cancelled due to the Waldo Canyon Fire and due to my boyfriend's grandmother, who we stay with in the area, being placed on pre-evacuation orders.  Not to mention that most of the national forest around Colorado Springs was closed indefinitely.  Once the fire was mostly contained we were able to get in a few short day hikes, but no overnights.

Mount Baldy Wilderness, northeastern Arizona.  The elevation ranged from 9,394 ft to 11,414 ft (2,863 m to 3,479 m) near the top of Mount Baldy (non tribal members are not allowed to summit).  Temperatures ranged from the mid 40s F to the mid 70s F (10 C to 21 C).  I hiked 17 m (27km) during a two day one night trip.


Performance in the Field:

I have really enjoyed using the Astral pack, it has easily met my expectations with regards to capacity and has surpassed my expectations for comfort and stability.  In addition, I have become a true believer in the benefit of a women's specific pack, the fit really made a difference for me on those longer days in the backcountry.  My one complaint about the pack continues to be the absence of a hydration pouch for my hydration bladder.  

I have never owned a day pack or a backpacking pack that featured a roll top such as the Astral does.  After having used the pack for both day hikes and backpacking trips I would love to see more companies utilize this system of closure.  For me the use of a roll top, similar to the closure on a dry bag, provides the ability to make your load more compact, and more protected from the elements.  In other packs I've owned the top of the pack is secured closed by pulling a large drawstring.  The drawstring has worked fine for me, however, there is always excess fabric if packing a smaller load, a long cord that must be stored somewhere, and the system just doesn't seem to be as airtight.  In general I found the roll top to give me more versatility when I wanted to pack less and greater stability when I had a larger load.

I have been so impressed with how comfortable this pack is.  When wearing it on longer hikes, whether those hikes are just extended day hikes or long days in the backcountry, the Astral has performed wonderfully.  I attribute this both to Black Diamond's reACTIV suspension and the design of their women's specific features.  The reACTIV suspension allows me to have greater balance and movement when I hike.  The pack actually moves with me as I hike and shifts as the weight of the pack shifts to provide greater balance.   The women's specific hip belt and shoulder straps have really changed my idea of what a comfortable pack should feel like at the end of a long couple of days backpacking.  Normally with other packs after a day or two my hips will start to ache a bit or feel bruised, I have yet to experience this with the Astral.  As this is the first women's specific bag I have used, I attribute the lack of pain and bruising to the woman's specific design.

As I have mentioned all through this report I was not very happy that the Astral lacks a hydration pouch.  I decided to experiment a bit with finding another way I could carry my hydration bladder that did not include placing the bladder in the main compartment of the pack.  Later, this experimentation became a necessity as I feared the hook-and-loop strap my bladder hangs from was wearing out.  I decided during my backpacking trip in the Mount Baldy Wilderness to carry my hydration bladder laying across the top of the main compartment of my pack and underneath the top lid.  Carrying my bladder in this way allowed me the peace of mind that the items in my pack were not getting wet from a leaking bladder as well as freeing up more room in my pack.  However, this method created a lot of noise from the water sloshing back and forth as I walked, and as I got low on water I found it harder and harder to be able to get water out of the drinking tube.  In the end, I just prefer my packs to have a hydration bladder.

Summary:

I love this pack for it's comfort, versatility, and features.  This pack would be the perfect pack for me if it just had a hydration pouch. 

Pros:
1.  Versatile in size
2.  Women specific features provide a comfortable fit
3.  reACTIVE suspension allows greater range of motion and balance
4.  Smart features

Cons:
1.  No hydration pouch


This concludes my Long-Term Test Report and this test series.  Sincere thanks to Black Diamond and BackpackGearTest.org for allowing me to participate in this test.






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