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Reviews > Packs > Internal and External Framed Backpacks > Kelty Pawnee Pack > Test Report by Ken Norris

July 27, 2009



NAME: Ken Norris
EMAIL: kenjennorris at yahoo dot com
AGE: 32
LOCATION: Redmond, Washington, USA
HEIGHT: 5' 5" (1.65 m)
WEIGHT: 170 lb (77.10 kg)

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).



Manufacturer: Kelty
Year of Manufacture: 2009
Manufacturer's Website:
MSRP: US$129.95
Listed Weight: 3 lb 9 oz (1.6 kg)
Measured Weight: 4 lb (1.8 kg)
Volume: 3300 cu in (54 L)
Length: 32 in (81 cm)
Width: 14 in (36 cm)
Depth: 14.5 in (37 cm)
Body Fabric: 600D polyester ripstop and 600D polyester oxford
Reinforcement Fabric: 610D polyester cordura


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.

Prior to putting the pack on, my eyes were drawn to the aluminum bar extending vertically right along where I presumed my spinal cord would rest -- not a comforting thought (see the picture below). The recessed slot for this bar, however, keeps it from coming into contact with my body. The cinch straps for the shoulder straps, sternum strap, stabilizing straps at the top, and the belt straps are easy to adjust and the excess strap material tucks away. The sternum strap follows a channel on either side; I can move the clips along this channel with a little pressure from one hand.

Notice the aluminum bar

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.

The hole allows the tube to emerge above the shoulder

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.


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?).


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.

This concludes my initial report. I would like to thank Kelty and for the opportunity to test this pack. The next report in the series will follow in a couple months.



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 first occurred on Poo Poo Point, a hike with 1500 ft (457 m) of elevation gain over the course of two mi (3.2 km). Overcast conditions, typical in the Pacific Northwest, did not portend the heavy snow I encountered two-thirds of the way up. A few hikers on their way down had warned me that snow was falling, so it was not a total surprise. At the top I encountered just over one in (2.5 cm) of snow. Because it was my first test of the Pawnee, I had packed light, stowing items like food, a sleeping bag (for fit alone), a stuff sack full of miscellaneous clothes, trekking poles, a water reservoir, my wallet, my cell phone, and my keys in their places according to the Kelty manual or their logical placement within the design of the pack (like clipping my keys to the key ring and zipping my wallet and cell phone in the interior pocket). The water reservoir tube comes to my sternum, which is just far enough for me to comfortably bend my head down for a drink.

Muddy, rocky terrain prompted me to use the poles on the way up. The "S" shape of the shoulder straps extended the range of motion I'm used to with my day pack. I noticed no stability issues despite my quick pace. I attribute this stability to my following the packing directions from Kelty and the ease with which I could fine tune the fit while on the go. The last tenth of the trail levels out to the point that I reached for some food in the top pocket directly behind my head (yes, I was still wearing my poles). With some contorting of my body, I could reach my food. Was it worth the effort? Yes -- I didn't have to take off my pack. Was it easy to access? No -- I struggled to blindly find the energy bar I wanted. At the top I took off the pack in order to take some pictures (below), stow my poles, and check the condition of the items I had stowed. To my delight, the pocket for the water reservoir provided excellent support, snugly holding it vertical (no need for a reservoir hanger, as I postulated in my initial review). I tucked my poles into a side pocket for the descent. The two side straps kept them firmly in place. Because night had descended as I rested at the top, I donned my headlamp for the way down. I quickly discovered that the height of the pack impeded the range of motion for my head while I wore the head lamp (it has a battery pack on the back). More precisely, I could not look up very far. Thankfully, I was headed down. At the bottom, after an hour-and-a-half round trip, I noticed that the items not placed in stuff sacks were wet from the snow. Kelty does not claim that the pack is waterproof, so this did not come as a surprise.

Snow at Poo Poo Point

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.

Garfield Mountain

Hiking and biking with the Pawnee


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.

- a comfortable fit
- a full range of arm motion
- a stable load
- plenty of room for lightweight overnight backpacking
- a secure pouch for a water reservoir

- limited head mobility when wearing a headlamp or helmet
- difficulty accessing the top pocket 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.



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.

Summiting Mt. Washington took place at night. I had attempted this peak earlier during the heavy snows, turning back in shame at roughly the half-way point. This second attempt took place in June. There was still some snow the last third of the way, but it was all hard packed. The trail, like most in the central Cascades, is a mixture of roots, rocks and dirt . . . with the occasional scree field or snow chute to liven it up. After 3400 ft (1036 m) of elevation gain, twelve miles (19.32 km) of hiking in over three hours, and some crawling on my belly to the top (we missed the trail in the thick fog and darkness, so we had to bushwhack our way up), I can now proclaim myself victor over Mt. Washington. The Kelty Pawnee performed well, especially during the belly crawling. I was afraid that the thickness of the brush would dislodge my poles from the side pocket and straps that kept them in place. But when push came to shove against these branches, the Pawnee easily maintained the poles’ positions, allowing me to push through without fear of losing my gear.

The next trip with the Pawnee involved bagging two peaks, Mailbox Peak (elevation 4841 ft / 1476 m) and Dirty Harry’s Peak (elevation 4680 ft / 1426 m), in one bushwhack across a ridge. Ascending Mailbox Peak entails three miles (4.83 km) of hiking 4040 ft (1231 m) -- a steep trail by any measure. At the top we followed the ridge through dense brush interrupted by low class scrambling. It had rained recently, so all of the brush was wet. In a matter of minutes we were soaked through, despite the relative heat (around 67 F / 19 C). Again, the Pawnee proved more than capable of squeezing through the brush without disturbing the gloves and other gear I had stowed in the two outer mesh pockets. It also did not impede my movement or throw off my center of balance during the scrambles. I could move my arms for the next handhold and even move my head adequately to see the next outcropping above me. After six-and-a-half hours, we reached the end of our journey, a nine mile (14.5 km) hike and close to 5000 feet (1524 m) of elevation gain. I did not remove the Pawnee more than once during that entire time -- a true testimony to its comfortable fit.

The trip up Mt. Kent included more bushwhacking, but this time it was neither at night nor wet. Temperatures around 75 F (24 C) and clear skies made it an ideal ascent (made more ideal if mosquitoes did not exist). We followed an established trail for 2.5 miles (4 km) and 2600 ft (792 m) of elevation gain. After reaching 4600 ft (1402 m), we descended a boulder field for 300 ft (91 m), where we met a forest service road that descended 150 ft (45 m) and then ascended 400 ft (120 m). At this point we resumed bushwhacking and scrambling, eventually finding our way to the summit at 5100 ft (1554 m). In all, we gained about 3400 ft (1036 m) of elevation with a round trip of nearly nine miles (14.5 km). During this trip I took a nasty fall in the scree field that drops from the summit. It entailed a forward roll in which I grazed a large piece of granite with my face before landing on my back and side. I shudder to think about the extent of my injuries had I not been wearing the Pawnee. It quite literally protected every inch of my back -- no scrapes, bruises, or fractures. Like my other bushwhack adventures described thus far, I had complete range of motion, plenty of room for gear, and peace of mind concerning my outer gear placement when pushing through the dense brush.

At the summit of Mt. Kent

The view from Mt. Kent

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.

This concludes my test of the Kelty Pawnee 3300 internal frame backpack. I would like to thank Kelty and for the chance to put this pack to the test.

This report was created with the Report Writer Version 1. Copyright 2009. All rights reserved.

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