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Mountainsmith Boundary Pack

Test Series by Kurt Papke

Initial Report

April 6, 2008

Tester Information

Name: Kurt Papke
Age: 54
Gender: Male
Height: 6' 4" (193 cm)
Weight: 220 lbs (100 kg)
Email address: kwpapke at gmail dot com
City, State, Country: Minneapolis, Minnesota USA
Backpacking Background: mostly in Minnesota - have hiked all of the Superior Hiking Trail, starting on the Border Route.  Preferred/typical  backpack trip is one week.  Dayhiking in Utah, Colorado and Oregon.  Mostly Spring/Fall seasons.  Comfort-weight hiker: I try to carry as few items as possible, but do not go to extremes to reduce weight of items carried.

Product Information

Manufacturer: Mountainsmith, LLC.
Year of manufacture: 2008
Manufacturer website: http://www.mountainsmith.com
Listed weight: 4 lbs 6 oz (1.98kg)
Weight as received:  4 lbs 5 oz (1.950kg)
Standard volume:
4577 in^3 (75L)
Size/color tested:
Pinion Green
MSRP: $149.95

Product Description

Boundary pack front viewThe Mountainsmith Boundary pack is moderately lightweight with a volume designed for trips of a weekend or longer and apparently targeted at the "green" consumer: it prominently displays a "recycled" icon on the lower front of the pack and comes tagged with a card that says "you and this pack saved 48 plastic bottles from the landfill".  The label states that 100% of the webbing, binding and fabric is 100% recycled PET.

The Boundary achieves its volume by segmenting space and extending horizontally.  There is a separate sleeping bag compartment with drawstring separator behind the blue sac in the picture on the left, and above the water bottle holders are two fully zippered narrow vertical side pockets.  The collar is spacious and removable for conversion to a lumbar pack.  I was a little surprised that there are no hipbelt pockets.

From the front view the bottom panel compression straps can be seen holding my bagged OCF pad and the elastic rigging above it.  The elastic rigging is not particularly wide (6.5 in on the top, 7.5 in on the bottom = 16.5 and 19 cm respectively), certainly not enough for my bear canister or the like.

The two water bottle pockets with their drawstrings can also be seen on each side in the picture.  The left pocket is holding a 500mL (17 fl oz) Platypus bottle which can be seen extending well past the side pockets.  These side pockets are described by Mountainsmith as "pass-thru", which indicates that they are attached to the pack at their edges only with the top and bottom open allow tent poles or a very tall bottle to be tucked behind the pocket.

Mountainsmith Boundary back viewThe picture to the left shows the back view including the substantial molded foam back.  The air channels to allow the back to breathe are clearly visible.  Note that the shoulder straps and hip belt are generously padded.

Not visible on the picture is an self-tensioning sternum strap that combines an elastic with an inelastic strip that limits the stretch.  Though it was comfortable when trying the pack on, I wonder how much the elastic will contribute to comfort when the pack is under full load, as I during my initial tests the elastic strip was stretched to its fully capacity so the inelastic webbing was carrying the full tension.


Mountainsmith Boundary pack hydration sleeveAll hydration sleeves are not created equal.  The picture on the left shows my 3L (100 fl oz) Platypus hydration reservoir positioned in the sleeve with about half of it poking out through the top.  The ruler shows the scale and rough dimensions - it is about 10 inches (25cm) deep.  Clearly I will not be using this size reservoir with the pack.

Initial Impressions

Quality of materials and "fit and finish" of the pack are excellent.  I could find no instances of poor workmanship, missewn seams, nor frayed threads.

After filling the pack with gear I hoisted it up onto my back and walked around the basement.  I was favorably impressed with the comfort - the  hip belt padding felt very pleasant and supported the pack weight well.  The back panel was also a good fit with no pressure points.  All the strap adjustments were obvious in their use and allow the pack to accommodate varying torso lengths, waist and chest sizes.

It seems like the biggest challenge with this pack will be optimizing the use of space.  The shallow and narrow side pockets present a puzzle that a large front pocket avoids: what can I fit in two pockets that are approximately 12 x 6 x 2 inches (30 x 15 x 5 cm) each?  The combined volume of the side pockets is roughly 6% of the pack volume so it has to be used effectively.  Will I get a smaller hydration reservoir to fit the small sleeve or just use bottles?  I have a small shoulderstrap accessory sac that might work for easy access to my camera, GPS, snack bars, etc. to work around the lack of hipbelt pockets.  The packlid holds my Jetboil with a lot of room to spare - what else will I pack in there that won't fall out when I access my stove for a hot lunch?  The clear map pocket is about half the folded size of my McKenzie maps for the Boundary Waters - will I be able to use the pocket efficiently?  I tried to get my snakeskinned hammock stuffed into the front elastics, but it wouldn't fit.  Perhaps I should try putting my hammock into the sleeping bag compartment for easy access during the day for lunch or nap breaks?  What can I fit into the front elastics that won't fall out?  They are wider on the bottom than the top, though my pad strapped on the bottom may prevent things from falling through.

The Boundary pack seems very full-featured with the exception of the hipbelt pockets already mentioned and perhaps a zippered pocket with keyring attachment for car keys and valuables.

Test Plan

April is a difficult month for backpacking in Minnesota, but I have plans for a week-long May trek through the Boundary Waters (Border Route Trail) and a segment of the Superior Hiking Trail.  My goal is to complete the hike without resupply, so the pack will be heavily weighted with food.  This trip should be long enough to assess comfort levels over a moderately long period as well as getting an initial indication of durability.  I will attempt to assess:
  • Comfort: are the shoulder straps comfortable?  Does the lumbar pad rub my lumbar raw like my current pack does?  How well do the hip belts carry 75 liters (4577 in^3) of gear including lots of food?  Mountainsmith seems proud of the molded foam backpanel - how well does it mate with my back and shoulder blades after a week?  I have a tendency to play with the load lifters in the afternoon as I get tired - am I able to vary the load with this pack?
  • Usability: how easy is it to pack my gear in the various compartments?  How easy is it to attach my trekking poles in the afternoon when I often stop using them?  How easy is it to get a reservoir in the hydration sleeve and thread the tube?  Detachable lumbar lid: on weekend outings to state parks, how easy is it to detach/reattach the lumbar pack?
  • Accessibility: can I actually reach my water bottles in the two provided pockets without a rotator cuff injury?  How easy is it to access the map case, or is it too much hassle?  How well placed is the bite valve catch for my platy tube?
  • Reliability & robustness: the BRT is covered with brambles and brush - how well does the pack survive the abrasion?  I am not gentle when hoisting my pack - how well do the straps hold up?  There are lots of zippered pockets - do they snag or break?  This pack seems light for a 75 liter (4577 in^3) pack - did they cut corners on sturdiness?
  • Functionality: how effective is the compartment design?  Am I able to use the various compartments effectively with no wasted space?  How flexible are the sleeping pad compression straps - can I get my Hennessey SuperShelter in there?  How well does the collared storm shield keep water out of the pack (I do *not* use a pack cover).
  • Aesthetics: its a clean-looking pack from the picture, does it still look that way after 4 months of wear and tear?
This concludes my Initial Report on the Mountainsmith Boundary backpack.  The Field Report will be appended to this document in two months.

Field Report

June 5, 2008

Test Conditions

The principal test during the field report period was an eight-day, 100-mile (160 km) backpacking trip through northern Minnesota on the Border Route and Superior Hiking Trail on May 23-30, 2008.  Altitudes ranged from 2300 ft (700 m) to 600 ft (183 m).  Daytime temperatures were as high as 65 F (18 C) to nighttime lows of 23 F (-5 C).  Weather conditions included several sunny days, rain, sleet and a snowstorm (yes, in late May!)  The environment was mostly heavy forest, lakes, rivers, creeks, ponds and one short segment of Lake Superior shoreline.

The most significant aspect of the test conditions to pack performance was the heavily overgrown (brush) and downed trees on the Border Route necessitating 100's of excursions over, under and around fallen trees with all the attendant opportunities for snags and abrasion.

Packing Strategy

As mentioned in the test plan, the trip on which this field report is based was not intended as a model of lightweight backpacking.  Contents included two Ursacks filled with food for ten days.
Item
Weight (lb)
Weight (kg)
Base
27.2
12.1
Food bag 1 (bag included)
8.8
4.0
Food bag 2 (bag included) 11.0
5.0
Total food
19.8
9.0
Water/electrolyte drink
3.0
1.4
Total consumables with packaging
22.8
10.4
Total weight
50.0
22.5

The Mountainsmith Boundary pack has many packing options with the various partitions, pockets, and external straps.  My attempt to use the space efficiently is as follows (from the bottom of the pack up):

Pack use
Components
Placement
Sleeping bag/stuff sack
Sleeping bag compartment
OCF pad
Pad straps
Beverage containers
Water bottle pockets
Raingear
Tucked into elastic rigging on pack front
Camp shoes
Strapped on top of raingear with accessory shock cords
Food bags (2)
Main compartment - bottom
Clothing: spare and cold-weather
Stuff sacs on top of food bags
Spare fuel and toiletries
Left side pocket
Water filter, camp supplies (tent stakes, rope, etc.), spare Jetboil cannister
Right side pocket
Hammock and SuperShelter in snakeskins
Folded and tucked under packlid, some length tucked under side compression straps
Lunch, Jetboil, gloves, hat
Packlid
Current day's maps, compass
Map pocket
Prior/future day's maps
Hydration sleeve (just the right size!)
GPS, camera, bug dope
Shoulder strap accessory sac (not supplied with pack)
Cat hole trowel
Pass-though behind side pockets

In my Initial Report I had expressed some concern about the ability to use the side pockets, but this turned out to be unfounded and I packed them to capacity with no problems.  I also found that my folded rain jacket and pants tucked nicely into the front elastic straps, and were quite accessible there in the event of precipitation.

Test Observations and Results

This is a pack designed to carry 50 lbs (22.5 kg).  The hipbelt and lumbar pad was very comfortable during the entire 8-day hike with no pressure points.  I did find my shoulders became quite sore in the afternoons on the top near my neck, but I believe the pack was somewhat undersized for me as I have a very long torso.  After all, carrying this kind of weight for 10 hours/day is not going to happen without some soreness.  I found all the straps straightforward to adjust with the pack on, and experienced no slippage.

I changed my packing strategy only very little during the course of the week.  It quickly became apparent that access to the map pocket in the lid was ill-advised with the hammock held down with the pack lid and its straps.  I quickly shifted to keeping my daily maps in my pockets, and storing small items that I wanted to see were still there (wallet, cellphone, etc.) in the transparent pocket.

Pack at restOn that note I found the pack lid and its 4 adjustable straps very effective in retaining my coiled hammock in place on top of the main compartment as can be seen in the photo at left.  The first day I was paranoid about it falling out and checked it often, but after that I stopped worrying about it.  This arrangement allowed me to exceed the pack capacity substantially.  This was required until the last day when I had eaten my food supply down to the point that I could actually get the shelter into the main compartment.

Also apparent from the photo are my camp shoes strapped to the front, and the bright green should strap accessory pocket at the bottom of the photo.
As mentioned in the Test Conditions section, perhaps the biggest challenge to the pack on this test hike was surviving the plethora of abrasion and snag opportunities presented by the number of down trees on the trails.  The majority of the Border Route is through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness which prohibits use of motorized equipment which means chainsaws cannot be used to clear down trees, and I was also out early enough in the Spring that the Superior hiking trail had not yet been cleared of Winter treefalls.  The pack survived numerous front scrapes from crawling under some trees, bottom abrasion from straddling other trees, and side snags from dense brush during bypassing of trees too dense to go over or under.  It weathered the abuse with no apparent ill effects.

I really appreciated the roominess of the water bottle pockets and the associated strap for securing bottles.  As can be seen in the above picture, I often stored a Platypus 1L bottle plus an electrolyte bottle in one pocket.  During my entire trip with all the battles with fallen trees I never had a bottle fall out of a pocket.

I did occasionally have some slippage of the OCF pad (in the blue stuff sac in the above picture) out of one of the two straps.  I thought I had it in there pretty tight, but the Cordura bags are pretty slippery and on occasion I did have the pad slip out of one of the straps.  Perhaps putting the straps a bit closer together would prevent this from happening, as the straps seemed pretty close to the edges of the bagged pad.

The other item I struggled a bit with was the trekking pole straps.  I often like to strap my poles to my pack in the late afternoon when my shoulders get tired so I can use my hands to lift the load off my shoulders.  I found that the hook-and-loop straps for the poles were a bit too short to securely hold my Black Diamond Spire poles, and on one occasion I had a pole fall out of the straps.  This particular pole model is elliptical and has a reasonably large diameter, but I would expect it would not be too much trouble for Mountainsmith to add some length to the straps to accommodate heftier poles.

Pack features not tested: I did not use the hydration tube ports.  I brought my hydration tube with me, but ended up finding the external pockets so convenient that I chose to not use it.  I also did not use the packlid as a detachable lumbar pack - I traveled with the full pack at all times.

Summary

Likes:
  1. All-day comfort
  2. Flexibility of pockets - side pockets allowed me to access items I would normally store in a front pocket without removing items strapped across the pack front.
  3. Roomy and secure water bottle pockets
  4. Four-strap floating pack lid allows gear to be stowed under the lid outside the pack
  5. Roomy packlid allowed me to cram it full of daytime use items, e.g. lunch
  6. Durable
  7. Well-sized for a one-week trip
Areas for improvement:
  1. Longer trekking pole straps
  2. More secure (closer together?) straps for external sleeping pad
  3. Hipbelt pockets - I was able to work around this with the shoulder strap accessory pocket, but I really didn't care for that solution as the accessory pocket flopped around every time I took the pack off

Long Term Report

August 4, 2008

Test Conditions

During months three and four most of my pack use was during my July month-long trip to Oregon.  Locations include: Columbia River Gorge, foothills of Mt Adams and Mt Hood, Oregon Coastal Range (mostly in the Tillamook State Forest), the Wallowa Mountains, and Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota.  Elevations ranged from 200 ft (60 m) to approximately 8400 ft (2560 m), temperatures ranged from lows at night about 35 F (2 C), to daily highs around 85 F (30 C), and peaked out in the low 90's F (32 C).  Much of the use was car camping and dayhiking, but also included several 2-3 day backpacking trips.  The terrain was mostly mountainous including some very steep trails (Elk Mountain), nicely switchbacked trails (PCT), and some very arid conditions in Roosevelt NP.  Most areas were heavily forested with the exception of Roosevelt.

Pack weights during the LTR period were much lighter: approximately 30 lb (14 kg), as I was carrying only 2-3 days of food, and I had no need for raingear during July in Oregon.  One weighty exception was an overnight in Roosevelt NP, where I was carrying 5 quarts (5 L) of water which boosted my pack weight to about 35 lb (16 kg).

Lumbar pack

My dayhikes gave me ample opportunity to use and test the removable packlid as a lumbar pack on several day-long hikes and a few shorter trips as well.  Detaching the packlid is quite easy using the two buckles, though they can be a little hard to reach if the straps have been tightened down too much "hiding" the buckles behind the pack back foam panel.  Once detached, the hip straps are easily extracted from behind the map pocket.  I found that when re-attaching the packlid, the best way to repack the straps was to roll them up around the belt buckle and push the roll back into the slot.

The packlid/lumbar pack was appropriately sized for a day trip.  I could easily carry a 1 qt/L water bottle, snacks or lunch, camera, GPS, plus a light fleece.  Access to the pack contents from the dual zippers was convenient.

The lumbar pack was very comfortable and rode well on my hips with no interference from the pack attachment buckles.  The only discomfort I experienced was on warmer days the plastic map pocket was right against the small of my back which would perspire due to my skin's inability to breathe.

One item of note: using the packlid as a lumbar daypack meant I had to jockey contents, stashing the items I normally carry in the packlid into the pack and re-packing the items for the daytrip, then reversing the process at the end of the day.  This is the price one pays for multi-tasking the gear.

Carrying Water

During the LTR period I did use the hydration sleeve with my Platypus gear: 1L bottle with the hose.  The 1L bottle fit nicely in the sleeve, the hose was easily threaded through one of the two pack ports, and the bite valve clipped conveniently to a shoulder strap.  I did manage to spill a bunch of water when hooking this all up, which promptly drained through the sleeve to the bottom of my pack - the sleeve is clearly not waterproof.  The system worked fine overall, but I was a little frustrated that my 3L Platy did not fit into the sleeve and could not be easily used (see comments/photo in the Initial Report).  However, I was desperate for water capacity during my overnight in Roosevelt NP and did use my 3L Platy in the sleeve on this one occasion.  It can be made to work as long as sufficient gear is stacked in front of the reservoir to support it and prevent the packlid from collapsing it.  In this configuration I was able to comfortably carry 5L/qt of water: 3L/qt in the sleeve, and 1L/qt in each of the side pockets.

I did find the perfect water container for the pack side pockets: a 1 qt (946 ml) Gatorade bottle.  It is wide enough to use most of the bottle sleeve diameter, short enough to fit under the side pockets, and reasonably high capacity.  Once I started using the Gatorade bottles I stopped using my 1L Platy's with the pack.  The Gatorade bottles were easily removed from and restored to the sleeve while wearing the pack as along as I didn't overtighten the sleeve elastics.  Their rigidity made them easier to replace in the side pockets after drinking.

Other Observations

As I was doing a lot of car camping, I found I was loading and unloading the pack from my trunk on a daily basis as I camped mostly in walk-in sites that required up to a 1/4 mile (0.4 km) walk from my car to the campsite.  My trekking poles often fell off the pack during loading/unloading from the car due to the short hook-and-loop straps, and my sleeping pad fell off several times as well.  The latter is packed in a Cordura dry pack which is quite slippery, but I was a little frustrated that it kept popping off.

During the LTR test period I often carried Chaco sandals as my camp shoes.  These fit nicely into the pack back elastics (I didn't carry rain gear in Oregon), though they were a little hard to get in/out as the straps and treads would catch on the cords.

I found I had no need to alter my packing strategy during the LTR period, though I was able to pack my hammock in the bottom of the pack instead of under the packlid as I was never overloading the pack with food.

I did use my tent once during the LTR period in Roosevelt NP as there are no trees there to hang a hammock, and I did find that the pass-thru pockets are in fact ideal for tent pole storage.  The poles extend down into the side pockets, and were the same height as the pack so they were well-protected in the pass-thrus.

Durability: after four months, not a scratch, not a frayed strap, no zipper problems, no failures whatsoever.  This despite the abuse of my Boundary Waters trip and dozens of times being thrown into or yanked out of my car trunk.
The Boundary Pack in the Boundary Waters
The Boundary Pack in the Boundary Waters!

Final Conclusions

Things I liked:
  • Roominess and flexibility of space use.  I liked not having to struggle to cram my gear into my pack, and despite the large loads my gear was always easy to access, even with lots of gear strapped to the front as in the above photo.
  • Durability: the pack held up remarkably well.
  • Comfort: the shoulder and hipbelt padding are good for week-long hikes with large loads.
Areas for improvement:
  • The map pocket is not really useful for that purpose, and causes perspiration in the low back when using the packlid as a lumbar pack.
  • Better accommodation of larger (taller/narrower) Platy hydration reservoirs in the sleeve.
  • Add hipbelt pockets - I really found the shoulder strap accessory sac a pain to use for camera, GPS, etc.
  • Move the sleeping pad straps slightly closer together to minimize possibility of the pad escaping the straps, and make the trekking pole hook-and-loop straps longer.
Many thanks to Mountainsmith and BackpackGearTest.org for the opportunity to test this product.


Read more reviews of Mountainsmith gear
Read more gear reviews by Kurt Papke

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