Tuesday, September 30, 2014

HMG Windrider 4400 Review

I have just finished hiking the Pacific Crest Trail as I write this review. The PCT is the perfect place to test gear, many different conditions over months of use. The wear and tear from the trail will give a good indication of durability while exposure to wind, rain, sun, snow, as well as heavy loads will challenge functionality. My thoughts and conclusions in this review are from almost 2000 miles of use and abuse.

Hyperlite Mountain Gear is a small company based in Maine that is putting out some interesting gear. They are among the few cottage manufacturers in the US that are providing high quality backpacking gear for the lightweight hiking community. Most of their gear is made of cuben fiber; a lightweight, waterproof and expensive fabric. You can read more about cuben fiber and its properties on their website.

I received the HMG Windrider 4400 pack when I reached Lone Pine, CA, about 750 miles into my northbound hike on the PCT. The pack I was using previously had become more and more uncomfortable the longer I used it. I was going to be heading into the Sierras carrying more food than normal, as well as a bear canister, so I knew I had to switch my pack to something more comfortable. My friend Jacob (check out his blog) got me in touch with Mike at HMG and I very quickly had a new pack. The Windrider comes in three volumes: 2400, 3400 and 4400 cubic inches. These volumes are internal only, the hip belt and mesh pockets provide additional storage capacity. The pack I am reviewing is the 4400 cubic inch model but I believe the fabric, design and features are similar on the other two models as well. There are also four sizes: small, medium, large and tall. It is highly recommended that you measure your torso length before ordering so that the fit is optimal.

on top of Mt. Whitney

The pack itself appears well constructed, with sturdy stitching and materials. The cuben fiber used, looks and feels quite robust and has a very different feel to it than the cuben fiber used by other manufacturers such as Zpacks. The material is waterproof and although the seams are taped, HMG does not claim waterproofness. I can say from experience that this is accurate. When out in rain the fabric does not absorb water but some moisture can still enter the pack through the seams. If you are expecting to be in wet conditions then using dry bags or a pack liner is still recommended. However, there is a benefit, as the cuben material does not absorb water, the pack does not get heavier when wet. After about a 1000 miles, I did notice some of the taping on the inside of the pack coming loose. This is probably from me pulling out items and stuffing them back in multiple times per day. I don't think it is a problem, more of an aesthetic issue than anything else but I will keep an eye on it to see if I notice any issues.

Boat ride!

The color of the pack is white and will get dirty. It is an interesting color choice and is one of the few models of white packs I have seen. White reflects light and will probably keep the contents a little cooler in direct sunlight but it will show all dirt and stains very clearly. The bad news is that you won't look like you just stepped out of an REI catalog. The good news is that you look like badass hiker trash who eats miles for breakfast.

Hiker Trash

The layout of the pack is pretty basic with a main pack body, two hipbelt pockets and three outer mesh pockets. There are also 12 separate straps and places to put more straps if you feel the need for more. I have to admit that it took me a while to figure out where all the straps go but it is very secure. The suspension system includes a solid back panel as well as metal stays. These do an excellent job of transferring weight to the hips. HMG claims a carrying capacity of 40-60 pounds. While I think the pack is certainly capable of handling that weight, I don't think it would be very comfortable. This is somewhat subjective but for me 35 pounds and less was very comfortable. I did get a sweaty back from the pack, while this is pretty normal for most backpacks, I would like to see them implement curved stays to allow for better airflow. There are a couple of manufacturers doing this and I think it really improves carrying comfort, especially on warmer days.

in the High Sierras

The 4400 cubic inch model is huge, it could even double as an emergency half bivy. I can easily fit all my gear and eight days of food (that is in PCT hiker amounts which is more than most people carry on shorter trips). This is more than I require most of the time and is more than many people will need but the pack does compress down quite well when not full. Normally I am not a fan of big packs but I enjoy the freedom of not having to think too hard about how I pack it, I know everything I need will fit. This is especially nice when hiking long days and I don't want to spend extra time in the morning making sure everything is fit together like a tetris puzzle. Additionally, this will make a good winter pack when more volume is necessary.

Emergency half bivy!

Additional storage capacity is available in the pockets. The pockets are on the side and back of the pack and are made of mesh. I was initially skeptical of the mesh used because it is a more open mesh which I thought might catch on things easily. It hasn't so far and is proving to be quite durable, I have not torn or ripped it and I am not being extra careful. The open mesh also has the advantage of being easy to see through, so I know what is in the pocket at a glance.

The side pockets need some improving, it is very difficult to pull things out of the pockets while wearing the pack. Many hikers, myself included, prefer to be able to reach water bottles without having to take off the pack. The pockets are raised up a few inches from the bottom of the pack, probably to keep the mesh from rubbing on the ground. If the pockets were lowered and a more durable fabric put on the bottom, this might solve the problem. The mesh pockets are sewn into an extra layer of cuben fiber that skirts the bottom of the pack. I think this is meant to increase durability but has the unfortunate side effect of channeling water into the bottom of the pack where is can soak through the seam into the inside of the pack. I would like to see this changed as well.

HMG Windrider next to a 65L Deuter pack

The two hipbelt pockets are integrated into the hipbelt and cannot be removed. I found them to be frustrating to use and too small for my needs. I like to be able to keep snacks and some small miscellaneous items easily accessible, the pockets were too small and very difficult to take things out when the hipbelt was buckled. The tension on the pockets make the opening very tight and I had trouble with anything larger than a tube of chapstick. If the pockets were larger and easier to use they would be great.

In conclusion, I am really happy with the Windrider 4400. Aside from the issues I had with the pockets, I found myself really enjoying this pack. It handled everything I needed easily, was comfortable, held up to a ton of abuse, and did everything a pack should do. If the side mesh pockets and hipbelt pockets were fixed and the stays curved to provide a little airflow to the back, I would say this is close to a perfect pack. Although, it is expensive it is also quite durable and will easily handle thousands of trail miles. Compared to the other cuben fiber packs I have used or seen, the HMG Windrider is far more durable and in the long run will prove to be a better value.

Disclaimer: I did receive a discount on this pack in exchange for writing this review.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Last Days: Day 129 - 141

Day 129: PCT miles 2402 to 2414

Well the nine days off trail were very nice. The wedding was great as well as being able to eat as much as I wanted. However, I did feel quite stiff getting back on trail. I guess I should have done some yoga or stretching during my time off.

Day 130: PCT miles 2414 to 2438

The day started out cloudy, which was cool and it progressed to a light rain. The light rain turned to heavy rain for a while and I was happy to have my umbrella. I did get wet after stopping to set up my tarp but it wasn't too bad. The rain stopped long enough for me to make dinner and clean up and as soon as I got back under my tarp it started up again. The rain came down all night along with some serious lighting and thunder nearby. My tarp is a bit too small for prolonged wetness and I did get damp.

Day 131: PCT miles 2438 to 2461

Today continued to be wet and cool. All the vegetation along the trail was sopping wet as well so I remained damp all day. It wasn't bad as long as I kept moving. There was also snow at higher elevations but I was low enough not to have to walk in it.

Day 132: PCT miles 2461 to 2480

Sunny Day! The 15 miles to Stevens Pass went fairly quickly. However, I was dealing with some pain in my knees. On the uphill my left knee would hurt and on the downhill my right knee hurt. I don't know if it was because of the nine days off, muscles stiffening up, or the new insoles I bought. I took some ibuprofin and removed my insoles, the knee pain left but then my feet started to hurt. It was frustrating but I made it and hitched a ride to Skykomish quickly. After eating and resupplying I decided to take advantage of the nice weather and keep hiking. It took me longer to hitch back, about 45 minutes but I was able to put in four more miles. Not too bad, now I only have 100 miles to Stehekin and 4.5 days to do it in.

Day 133: PCT miles 2480 to 2503

Today felt like I was walking uphill all day. I know there were some descents but they passed so quickly and were not very noticeable. Washington is turning out to be as challenging as I had heard. I have scheduled myself for 22 miles a day and I have to push it to get that far. What views there are are beautiful but the trail does pass through a lot of forest. For tonight I am camped in an open sub-alpine area with a beautiful view to the east.

Day 134: PCT miles 2503 to 2527

I really enjoyed the scenery today. The steep, green mountainsides and the rugged peaks. The elevation gain and loss was not bad and I had 23 miles done by 5:30, so I stopped early to enjoy the sunset.

Day 135: PCT miles 2527 to 2553

There were a couple of good climbs and descents today. I think I am getting readjusted to the trail again, I really didnt mind the ups and downs. I also would have kept hiking but I ran out of daylight. Getting close to Stehekin, the last resupply of the trip. I have mixed feelings, I am looking forward to this ending but also don't want it to end. Mice are starting to become an issue, although they have not tried to get my food they were running over me during the night.

Day 136: PCT miles 2553 to 2580

I wasn't planning on pushing to get to Stehekin but it happened anyways. After the initial 3500 foot climb, the trail went downhill for the next 18 miles. I had 7 hours to make it to the last shuttle bus and the lure of food and beer was too much to resist. It was a little bit painful on the feet but worth the effort.
Stehekin is a cool little resort that is very isolated. There is no cell service or internet and the only way in is by boat, plane or foot. The weather has been incredible for Washington in September and looks to be good until I hit the border, only 4 days away.

Day 137: PCT miles 2580 to 2585

I spent most of the day in Stehekin doing chores and hanging out. A group of us left together and this is the last four days of an incredible trip. The mice are again running around camp and being a nuisance.

Day 138: PCT miles 2585 to 2609

Today went really well, the weather is perfect for hiking. There was a 19 mile climb but it didn't drag on like other ascents have. I ran into trail magic at Rainy Pass and ended up spending almost two hours hanging out. Tonight is cold, need to sleep with my water filter so it doesn't freeze!

Day 139: PCT miles 2609 to 2630

It got pretty cold last night and nobody wanted to get up this morning. We were all waiting for the sun and so didn't get started until 9 am. Despite this and a leisurely lunch we made it to camp in good time. Only one more full day of hiking left….

Day 140: PCT miles 2630 to 2654

A great last full day, cool weather and beautiful views.

Day 141: PCT miles 2654 to 2660

The six miles to the monument went super fast. I spent the time reflecting on the trail and my experiences. Each day seemed to be really long but the whole five months has gone by so quickly. I have met great people on and off the trail and had an incredible experience. It is hard to put all that has happened into words and I think it will take me some time to really process everything.

The group I have been hiking with the last few days has been tons of fun and we had a photo shoot at the monument. Everybody was really excited to have finally made it, it was not an easy task and we all had to have strong determination to go the distance.

Hello Canada!

The eight miles after the monument are lovingly referred to as the "Glory Walk" and it was glorious. I made it to Manning Park and got a room at the hostel. I had to wait a day until Lori could come and get me but it was a relaxing time. Now I must reintegrate back into society and get back to my life in California. Fortunately, Lori and I have a little time to visit with friends and family on our way back.

Portraits from the PCT has also been updated, click here to check it out.