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.