Tuesday, 26 April 2011

the crux of the matter: reviewing the crux ak47 rucksack

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Before I begin I would like to offer my thanks to Justin for his company, patience and fabulous photos, Adam for putting up with my faffing and also to Gareth for an amusing evening in good company – the process of gear testing is certainly an arduous one ;-)

I’ve been rather busy of late, although thankfully many of the things I have been busy doing have allowed me to take my Crux AK47 pack (very kindly sent to me by Webtogs after the success of my previous Silva compass review), out in a variety of states and in a variety of weather conditions in order to form my opinions for this review.

Wild camp with GarethGood grief, kit testing is tough

My trusty old Berghaus Arete has certainly seen better days, and after several days out in the wilds of a very wintery Scotland this season, with heavy loads of ropes, ice axes and other metallic accoutrements, I found myself swearing profusely and vowing to get myself a new pack with less worn out hip and shoulder padding. I should just mention that the dear old Arete has offered itself up to me with no reservation – life and soul it has poured into carrying my loads, shedding rain, snow, hail and the burning sunshine of the Alps. It has resisted the coarse tearing of Chamonix granite chimneys, been dropped down scree slopes, been sat on, stood on, slept on and generally done everything I have ever asked of it with not so much as a whimper or a grumble, and so it is with a degree of sorrow I find myself leaving my heavily self-modified old friend on the shelf, and picking up the shining and spritely Crux in its place.

How does one go about developing an objective opinion on a product? My thoughts on this were pretty simple in this case: I wanted to know a few critical things about it and I wanted to find out through my own experience, hence I took the pack out on the hill, lots!

  • So, firstly, is it actually big enough for all my kit?

This is an easy one. Yes, it is (95% of the time).

At a stated 47 litres this pack actually feels a fair bit bigger than my old Arete 45 and I’ve very, very rarely felt the need for anything much bigger (bearing in mind that my primary uses for a rucksack are rock, ice and alpine climbing, along with 2-3 day wild camping/back packing type trips on occasion).

This bag isn’t aimed at long distance trekking or travelling, the simple design and minimalist padding on the hip belt are very keenly pointed toward the ‘Alpine climbing’ market, where the size and lack of features are an optimal combination for most people.

  • With the minimalist design in mind, is it comfortable enough to use when carrying a really heavy load? (i.e. a full winter climbing loadout including rack, ropes, axes, crampons etc.)

This was always going to be one of the most critical questions in my mind, especially with the recent memory of one particular trip to Creag Meagaidh this winter, where I found myself brought near to tears by the pain in my bruised shoulders and hips after carrying a very heavy pack, with a very minimal and overused set of strap padding.

Looking at the AK47, and reading the manufacturer’s specification (it weighs a quite amazing 1170g apparently, it certainly feels very light for its size), I was initially left feeling somewhat sceptical that carrying anything heavier than a standard wild-camping load (as per my first test foray) could be anything other than horrifyingly painful – the hip belt is tiny and the ‘padding’ isn’t really what I’d call padding…

With these reservations in mind, I dragged my long-suffering better half out for an ‘evening stroll’ up Moel Sych. I loaded the Crux up with a variety of bits of kit, including several litres of water and a heavy duty 60m single rope, to make up a weight that ever so slightly exceeded that which I’m ever likely to carry in a winter climbing scenario. We then went for a walk up a big hill. For 3 hours (actually, 20 mins of it was 2km of very steep packless running, but I digress…)

SDC13083 Fiddling with the hip belt – takes some getting used to, but once you’re familiar with the shape it’s surprisingly comfy

One 3 hour stroll with a hefty load is hardly enough to really answer the question, but this combined with several outings carrying a whole range of loads – from a minimal highly compressed daypack type load of just a couple of litres of water and a jacket (see later for more on this), to several days worth of camping and cooking kit, to heavy ropes and climbing loads, to excessively heavy test loads, has left me really rather impressed overall. The shoulder straps are great, padding is good and the cut is comfortable – no issues there (for the record, I’m an averagely sized, slimly built female and am using a size 1 back). The hip belt was always going to be the weak point with it being so minimalist, but surprisingly, despite its lack of padding, I didn’t find it at all uncomfortable once I had gotten used to it. I’ve yet to find myself in pain or even the slightest bit bruised, which is nice. The innovative cut shape of the belt and the way the pack sits on my back means that it is actually far more comfortable to carry than I ever thought it could be.

204439_10150539456955545_863420544_17723462_6662608_oFully laden and nicely stable, and no, I didn’t fall in!

I don’t doubt that there are plenty of similarly sized bags out there that would be much more comfortable with hefty loads, but for me the Crux is absolutely fine, and of course, being a climbing pack, it is also incredibly stable to carry.

  • How well does it compress when nearly empty? (The Arete was pretty rubbish for this unfortunately)

Knowing that the AK47 carries a full load pretty well, my next question was simple: just how well does it squash?

Climbing is a great sport, but climbing with a rucksack on is nowhere near as pleasant or as easy as ‘going bareback’ – packs are cumbersome things that when badly packed, badly positioned, badly worn or just badly designed can turn a simple task into an awkward nightmare. Just imagine if you will, that you’re out in the mountains, having just spent four hours carrying a fully loaded pack of climbing gear into some remote crag in the middle of winter. The weather is less than ideal, with falling snow and a strong wind making life ‘interesting’. Your chosen route follows a deep cleft part way up the crag, with the rest of the route being an exposed icy ridge. You empty your pack at the base of the route, then commence the ritual of putting on your harness, clipping on your gear, uncoiling your ropes and tying in. Once all this is done you are left with an empty shell of a rucksack, now only containing emergency rations, a flask and belay jacket. You put it back on feeling all too aware that the last thing you want is a flappy oversized empty bag on your back, catching on every protrusion of rock in the chimney, then billowing out in the wind with its lid flapping merrily away on overly long straps, acting like a small sail and threatening to overbalance you and throw you down one side of the upper exposed ridge…

SDC13158 One very nicely compressed AK47 daysack on Striding Edge, Helvellyn

I am very happy to report that the Crux is excellent in this respect. I absolutely love the side compression strap arrangements – one strap on each side zig zags between a slide buckle at the bottom, a couple of plastic loops mid way and into a clip in buckle at the top, meaning that compressing the entire side of the bag is very simple and very easy to do, and you don’t end up with a big bulge in the middle like you do with the more regular system of using two separate straps. The strap is easily long enough to accommodate attaching a roll mat or tent on the outside of the bag should you need to do so, and is also completely removable if you’re wanting to strip the bag even further to save another few grams. The lid also clips down nice and neatly if you’re compressing the bag (as I had in the Striding Edge photo above), doesn’t flap and the bag stays neatly tucked in to your back.

Oh, and the hip belt works ok with a climbing harness on, but I usually clip it out of the way round the back anyway (actually, it would be really nice if the hip belt were removable for just this type of occasion, but I’ll let the Crux guys off seeing as the AK47 is so incredibly lightweight – a removable belt system would add a not inconsiderable amount of weight to the whole system).

SDC13074  Side compression straps (MRT radio and hydration pouch not included…)

  • Alrighty, it’s been good so far but does the AK47 have all the features I want and need, and does it have any features that I don’t want? (i.e. anything I’m going to cut off)

Anyone that knows me knows that I dislike faff. Especially when it comes to kit. I like my equipment to do its job as simply and efficiently as possible and I don’t like extra unnecessary bits of fluff – the ‘bells and whistles’ so many designers seem to think are essential nowadays. I like my rucksacks to be simple and only have bits that I’m actually going to use on them – I don’t like extra zips or pockets or pouches (unless we’re talking about my Mountain Marathon running pack…mountain running is an entirely different ball game…). I don’t like bits that flap around or get caught on things or leave me wondering what on earth they’re for or what type of narcotic the designer was on. Despite my penchant for self-engineering things, on a pack that costs over £100 I’d really rather not have to be cutting bits off and for that matter I shouldn’t actually need to be tying on extra bits of cord to make my own gear loops because the manufacturer has decided in their infinite wisdom not to actually include them on their flagship climbing pack, but rather to just give you some handy little fabric loops onto which you can tie your own…and I’m going to breathe now

Yep, this is one faff-free rucksack, but honestly, Crux, come on – just put the bloody gear loops on.

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On the positive side, the AK47 does actually have all the other essential bits –hydration pouch pocket, ice axe loops, a water resistant zipped lid pocket (also an internal mini zipped pocket underneath the lip), rope compression strap and twin ‘bivi’ draw-cords securing the main pack (which, interestingly, are actually made of nice chunky, brightly coloured 4mm rated accessory cord. In theory they could be cannibalised and used as emergency abseil tat…but I can’t really imagine a scenario where this is ever likely to even cross your mind if I’m honest). It also has a chunky bright red haul loop that is nice and easy to clip onto gear at belays and would be equally easy to clip onto a haul line (the pack is also strong enough that you could hang it from the loop onto a piece of gear and actually stand with your full weight inside the bag – impressive and potentially useful to some people believe it or not).

There are also ski loops on each side of the pack, attached to the small but mostly adequate wand pockets (fine for walking poles, but not big enough for a water bottle), but not being a skier I couldn’t comment on how usable they would actually be.

No extra pockets, no unnecessary webbing, no big stretchy mesh pockets or superfluous lengths of bungee cord (although I may add some this winter in order to store crampons on the outside…maybe). A simple, no frills, easy to pack and easy to use rucksack – pretty much just what I’m after, even if it doesn’t come with gear loops attached and is lacking a removable hip belt.

  • How hard wearing is it likely to be?

No-one wants a bag that will come apart at the seams at the first sign of stress, or abrade through at the slightest scuff. The AK47 is an extremely lightweight pack and yet, somehow, rather than using the thin and flimsy feeling fabrics becoming popular with most pack manufacturers, Crux have managed to make this pack out of a nice hefty feeling kevlar/cordura fabric, and have even reinforced the base with a double layer. The back system is a wonderfully formed section of alloy tubing – not unlike a tent pole actually, that really isn’t going to bend or break unless you really go some and of course provides a fantastically stiff platform.

How hard wearing this pack will be and how long it will put up with my abuse is anyone’s guess, but so far it has been sat on, rained on, dropped out of cars and Land Rovers, dragged through dense woodland, gorse, brambles and partially caught up on barbed wire fences (I took it out with me on a long missing person search with the team a while ago in case you’re wondering). It has been climbed with, camped with and used for storing sharp things but is so far showing nothing more than the odd dusty mark. Time will be the real judge of course, but I have high hopes.

  • Does anything about it annoy me?

The irritation factor. No matter how good a product is, if any one element of its design irritates the user so much as to actually detract from the activity in which they are participating, then it will end up being left at home. My relationship with the Crux wasn’t love at first sight I have to admit, something just didn’t click to begin with and I kept thinking that I’d most likely end up returning to my old faithful Arete despite its somewhat battered state. I couldn’t quite work out what it was that left me with doubts, couldn’t quite pin down the niggling feelings I had, but, after a while, the more I started doing and the more I used the pack, the less obtrusive the doubts became.

I think to begin with I’d convinced myself the AK47 was going to be uncomfortable due to that minimalist hip belt, and for a long time, despite not having any pain and not being at all uncomfortable carrying it, my instincts kept telling me that it simply couldn’t be a comfortable carry. Eventually I overcame those doubts, realised that it in fact was not uncomfortable, and the bag started to become more a part of me – as it should be.

Overall, nothing really irritated me I don’t think. Ok, so the fact that I had to tie my own gear loops was annoying, but that was a one off annoyance, easily resolved.

The hip belt doesn’t have any form of retainer for the excess webbing…actually, yes, that is annoying – I hate having to tuck the ends away or tie knots to keep them from flapping all over the place. It’s not exactly a show stopper though, and when everything else about the bag has finally started to really click, I’m going to try to overlook that one little niggle (or maybe put my own loops of elastic on).

The water resistant zips on the lid pocket occasionally irritate me a little bit because they’re so stiff, but really, the advantage of them being mostly waterproof (along with the rest of the bag, as discovered on a very wet Snowdon bivi with Justin) vastly outweighs the piffling triviality of the slightly stiffer action they have over normal zips.

SDC12894Rain. No test would be complete without it

  • So do I like it?

Yes, I do actually really like this bag, despite the fact that at first I just couldn’t quite gel with it (and I still can’t explain why, there is just no tangible reason!). Time spent using it has convinced me that Crux’s design thoughts and efforts are ones that fit with my style of mountain-going, and also fit with my ethic – simple is always good.

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Anyone looking for a pack to use for climbing, scrambling or even just general heavy duty mountain use could certainly do worse than look at the Crux AK47, or any of the AK range (the smaller AK37, the extendable lid version AK47-X, or the bigger AK57 and AK70) They are all available in 3 different back sizes (except the single sized AK37). Great packs, simple, well designed and [hopefully] near bombproof…time will tell as I will certainly be putting mine through its paces!

For anyone interested, here is said rucksack from the lovely people at Webtogs: http://www.webtogs.co.uk/Crux_AK_47_Rucksack_102245.html

Other climbing style rucksacks (including the AK37, AK57 and AK70) can also be found here: http://www.webtogs.co.uk/Climbing_Packs/

Some more info from Crux on these packs here: http://www.crux.uk.com/en/rucksacks.php?info=64

6 comments:

  1. Great informative post! We are India based manufacturers and suppliers of all type gears offers all over the at competitive rates.

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  2. I like the Crux AK47 and it was top of my list for a winter backpack once I had decided the Osprey Mutant was too heavy for what it offered. In the end, a quick look in my gear cupboard led me to try my old OMM Villain which was superb. When we were mountaineering in the Cairngorms this winter, one of our group had an AK47 and loved it. Nice pack. Tough as old boots, light and effective. A great climbers pac, given the slim design, and good for hillwalkers who like a bit of scrambling too. Very good post - very informative, honest, comprehensive and detailed. Thanks for taking the time.

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  3. Bugger,

    i got here due to the "ak 47" mentioned,i thought i´d see some pack as rugged and rough as ak-47´s rifles are. Thats more like Glock 17 ;),all plastic and fancy.

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  4. Maz, it's a great bag and I'm liking it more and more each time I use it. The OMM Villain looks like another nice pack, although with perhaps more 'bits' than I really like (my OMM classic is an ace bag though, and I'm finding myself using it more and more for general day walking as well as the running where the extra bits prove their worth).

    Perkunas - I'm not sure any modern rucksack is ever likely to be as basic and uncompromising in their reliability and purpose as the AK-47 rifle is - a true piece of design genius (I've not shot one, however I do actually shoot rifle as well as everything else believe it or not!)

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  5. Lauren - I butchered my Villain which reduced the weight a bit more and got rid of excess gubbins. I cut the straps, sealed them and sewed them back, removed various other bits of tat I did not need and it performed superbly in the Cairngorms when I really needed my pack to do what I asked without complaints.

    Perkunas - if there is a pack that is as functional as the AK47, it's the Crux namesake - lightweight, simple and easy to use - it applies to both!

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  6. This one is very nicely written and it contains many useful facts. I am happy to find your distinguished way of writing the post. Now you make it easy for me to understand and implement. Thanks for sharing with us.

    ReplyDelete