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Reviews > Packs > Internal and External Framed Backpacks > Kelty Pawnee Pack > Test Report by Ken Norris
I have been hiking and backpacking for the past twelve years, going on the occasional overnighter or day hike. In the past year or so, I have begun night hiking and long day hikes (twenty miles [32 km] or more), with an emphasis on light pack weight and speed. These trips center on Washington's Central Cascades (terrain characterized by steep inclines and "moist" conditions) and the Oregon outback (areas classified as high desert).
PRODUCT INFORMATION & SPECIFICATIONS
To my eyes, the Kelty Pawnee defies dimensional space -- it does not look like a 3300 cubic inch (54 L) pack or even fit like one (I prize both traits). Putting it on, I was delighted to see that it did not extend past my shoulders to such an extent that it would limit my head movements (though I can't look all the way up). The "s" shaped shoulder straps also opened up my range of motion compared to my other packs. More specifically, I can reach across my chest without rubbing against the shoulder straps and fully extend my arms upward without shifting the pack or rubbing against it in any way.
The daisy chain on the front pocket consists of four loops with an ice axe loop at the bottom. Each of the four loops is rigid as a result of folding the material on itself several times. The designers even made the bottom most loop long enough to act as a handle. All of the zippers have a one inch (2.5 cm) piece of triangular metal around the pull tabs, making them easy to spot and substantial enough to grab (perhaps even with a gloved hand, though I'll have to test that in the field). Both sides of the pack feature a mesh pocket with an elastic top. I am used to packs with a tight elastic pouch on the side, so I was skeptical about a comparatively "loose" pocket . . . until I put my rolled sleeping pad in it with ease (a feat not possible with my other packs). Two cinch straps on both sides, one six inches (15.2 cm) from the bottom and one at the top, aid in keeping bulkier items within these mesh pockets. Each of these cinch straps has a clip on it. Two other daisy chains reside on the very bottom of the pack: the one towards the front consists of three loops and the one towards the back has five. Their parallel orientation to one another suggests they are designed for attaching a sleeping bag or pad.
The large pocket on the front (see the picture below), includes a zippered pocket on the lid perfect for stowing a wallet or cell phone. A key loop extends opposite of the lid and into a partitioned slot. As a whole, this large pocket is 16 inches (40.6 cm) long, 9 inches (22.9 cm) wide, and 1.75 inches (4.5 cm) deep. Underneath it is yet another zipper that allows access to the main pouch. Accessing this zipper requires un-cinching and unfastening the compression straps at the sides (all four of them), making this portal a bit of a pain to use quickly.
The other portal to the main pouch occurs at the top, but it, too, calls for unclipping three compression straps and withdrawing a cord. There is no quick way in (hopefully the rain and wet feel the same way). As far as main pouches go, this one is simple. At the back, there is a pouch for a hydration system, though no hanger from which to suspend it. The hose for the hydration system may exit the pouch from either side of the top through a hole (see the picture below). These holes are easy to slip the hose through.
At the top of the pack there is what I will call a "lid" -- a pouch that protects the main pouch from the elements and contains a roomy pocket that Kelty recommends for storing food. Two vertical cinch straps on the front and the stabilizing straps on the back keep it in place. Given the size of the bag in relation to my body's geometry, I consider this pocket essential for my hiking style. I like to through-hike (not sleeping at night in order to log high mileage) and even run when the trail affords it. These two modes require eating on the go. My previous pack for these activities had pockets along the hip belt, facilitating my need for calories while on the go. Because I can reach inside the Pawnee's top pocket while wearing it, I'm hoping I won't miss the hip belt pockets I'm accustomed to.
READING THE INSTRUCTIONS
Though the pack comes in just one size, the accompanying instruction booklet includes detailed steps for dialing in just the right fit. I found that the waist belt was riding just a bit too low, so I tried to correct this issue with the instructions. I discovered that the instruction book is not tailored to the Pawnee specifically. Neither the position of the shoulder straps nor that of the waist belt is up for negotiation (though the waist belt is removable). This same instruction booklet provides "packing hints" that I find relatively consistent with my own packing methods (I tend to pack some of the heavier weight towards the bottom rather than the top -- as they suggest -- in order to avoid feeling top heavy). The lifetime warranty was a surprise (companies still do that?).
TRYING IT OUT
I have not had a chance to get out on the trails for a full fledged test, but I have packed it up to weight (around 23 lb / 10.4 kg) and strolled around the house. The aluminum stay did provide added stability and the fit was comfortable. It easily swallows my lightweight backpacking arsenal. The ride on my hips is a bit higher than I'm used to, but that might prove desirable.
In terms of the size, this pack is ideally suited to the twenty-four hour adventures that are the staple of my camping. The abundance of external loops also makes it a natural choice for day long summits. I wish the main pouch was easier to access on the fly, but there are plenty of other pockets to stow essentials. I can't say enough about the "s" shape of the shoulder straps -- they really free up my range of motion. In all, this pack has numerous applications in theory . . . we'll see if the same is true in practice.
LOCATIONS, CONDITIONS, AND PERFORMANCE
Some late snow has complicated my hiking plans so far this spring. Even low elevation hikes have ended with a few inches of snow. Earlier downpours of rain devastated the access roads to the standbys. My three excursions with the Pawnee bear these factors out.
The second trip posed a different kind of surprise. I had planned on a twelve mi (19 km) night traverse of some local low elevation mountains. Unfortunately, the Sheriffs patrolling the parking lot turned us away -- "no night hiking allowed" (though they were intrigued by such a hobby). Plan B entailed a much shorter trip up Squak Mountain: 6.5 mi (10.5 km) of trail and 1850 ft (564 m) of elevation gain. This trip I over packed on purpose, wanting to see how the Pawnee performed with a heavier load (it weighed in at approximately 22 lbs [10 kg]). Much of the increased weight came from the addition of my lightweight camping gear (a sleeping pad, a lot more food, a full water reservoir, and stuff sacks full of clothes) to what I had carried up to Poo Poo Point. Because we started at night, I was immediately reminded that the Pawnee would not allow me to look up while I wore my headlamp. This did not pose too large a problem because of the trail's gradual rate of ascent. It was, nevertheless, annoying. After a round trip of nearly three hours, during which I never took off the pack (I mastered the art of retrieving food from the top pouch), I was astonished by the degree to which the pack was an extension of my body. It never threw me off balance. I appreciate a pack that is not on the back of my mind; the Pawnee earned this appreciation.
Of the three outings, the third proved the biggest disappointment due in large part to its great potential. Late snow has kept the avalanche dangers significant well into May. High peaks were not an option. Even low peaks, like those hovering around 3000 ft (914 m), had too much snow for an overnight camping trip. I had my sights set on a camping trip, so I was left with just one option: bike in to a wilderness area. Why bike? Access roads have been wiped out by winter rains, leaving just enough room for bikes to pass or forcing a biker to ford streams that cover road ways. My accomplice and I had settled on Otter Falls off of the Taylor River, a tributary of the Middle Fork of the Snoqualmie River just outside of North Bend, Washington. We hypothesized that a five mi (8 km) bike ride would put us at the trail head. From there Otter Falls was a quick 3 mi (5 km) hike with minimal elevation gain -- around 600 ft (183 m). We started on a Friday night with our lightweight camping gear, some extra clothes, a full water reservoir, emergency supplies, and a handful of energy bars for breakfast the next morning stowed in our packs. Again the Pawnee proved stable (even on a bike) and comfortable. I had a full range of arm and torso motion while hunched over my handlebars. My only complaint was that I had difficulty moving my head with a bike helmet and a headlamp on -- the top pouch was still the culprit. Five mi (8 km) into the bike ride and we looked at the map . . . only to discover we had another five miles of riding ahead of us. Two creek fords and five miles later we came to an impassable bridge spanning nearly 150 ft (46 m) of raging water 50 ft (15 m) below us. We had noticed a trail back a half mi (.8 km), so we opted to ditch our bikes at this alternate trail head and continue our adventure. Approximately one mi (1.6 km) up this trail we encountered a series of blown down trees so long and convoluted we could neither see its end nor discover a route around or through it. At eleven p.m. we set up our tent and slept for seven hours (we had begun at 8:30 p.m.). Waking up to see our surroundings in the light of day, we discovered our tent in the shadow of Garfield Mountain. I was not in any way sore from the Pawnee during this adventure, so I eagerly put it on and we backtracked the eleven mi (18 km) by foot and bike back to the car, missing the rain until we climbed in and started the engine.
The Pawnee offers plenty of space for an overnighter, assuming that all of the essentials condense (it would not hold my three season tent and my other essentials). Kelty has incorporated essential features like a water reservoir pocket, ample external side pockets, six compression straps, two ways to access the largest pouch, and a strategic fit for optimum comfort. I only have two complaints: the height of the pack in relation to my head and the absence of easily accessed pockets while wearing the pack.
I am far from satisfied with the degree to which my overnighters (or the lack thereof) have put the Pawnee through its paces, so I'm planning on some true camping trips (hopefully without the need for a bike to get me there). The nature of my hiking style -- lightweight -- will keep me from loading it with much more than I already have. As a result, I don't anticipate any stability issues, though I doubt there would be any, given my experiences thus far. I would also like to try some scrambling in order to test the mobility and fit during such body positioning. Unfortunately, all of this testing depends upon the snow pack melting. Check back in a couple of months to see if it does.
LONG-TERM TEST CONDITIONS & PERFORMANCE
Robert Burns reminds us that “the best laid plans of mice and men are bound to fail and often do.” My life is no exception to this aphorism. I had planned on taking some overnight trips with the Kelty Pawnee. These plans did not come to fruition. But I had also planned on some scrambles, which did take place. Over the past couple of months I have used the Pawnee to summit Mt. Washington, Mail Box Peak, Dirty Harry’s Peak, and Mt. Kent, all of which are found in the central Cascade Mountains of Washington State. I have also extended my use of the Pawnee into an area I did not foresee: rock climbing.
Rock climbing rounds out my recent experiences with the Pawnee. The slabs in question are on Mt. Washington, the same peak mentioned earlier (though we climbed during the day in 70 F [20 C] weather). Piling in my shoes, harness, quick draws, helmet, belay device, webbing, gloves, water bladder, food, camera, guide book, and chalk bag was easy. I even tested to see if I had room for my rope. I did, though my climbing accomplice brought his, so I left it at home. No, I did not climb while wearing the pack. But like my other trips, this lesser adventure (at least as far as using the Pawnee is concerned) proved easy for the Pawnee.
Within the pantheon of packs I own, the Kelty Pawnee fills a crucial gap between my small day pack (1300 cubic in / 21 L) and multi-day internal frame pack (6000 cubic in / 98 L). It allows me to easily prepare for a full day of rock climbing, a bushwhack at night in the mist, or an overnighter with my light weight gear (even by mountain bike, if needs be). The straps are comfortable, especially the “S curves” for an extended range of arm motion. My gear does not shift – even when I was crawling on my stomach during a few bushwhacks. The fit makes overnighters pleasant in that I am almost unconscious of the pack. I say “almost” because it does impede my head’s range of motion despite my adjusting the angle of the aluminum stay. If I had one addition I would make to all my packs, it would be waist strap pockets for food. The Pawnee provides ample space for food in the top pocket, but accessing that pouch while moving along the trail is difficult (though not impossible through some minor contortions).
I will not rely on the Kelty Pawnee as a day pack for one simple reason: it is too big for just a day excursion. I found myself dreaming up extra gear to take in order to fill it out during such trips. Overnighters are its forte: it comfortably allows me to travel with my light gear. Within this context, its size is an asset: I don’t have to skimp on essentials. The two exceptions to its limitations as a day pack concern winter activities and rock climbing. I anticipate that the bulkier clothing and accessories associated with winter ascents will make the Kelty Pawnee my pack of choice . . . assuming it is not snowing during the trips. My one rock climbing trip with the pack assured me that it would swallow a rope and all my other gear.
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