I spent this summer—and much of the spring and fall—hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.
Spanning over 2,600 miles from the Mexican border to the Canadian border, the PCT has some 489,000 feet of climbing, which is akin to climbing Mt. Everest from sea level 17 times. I started in early April and finished near the end of October. I was able to hike the whole PCT except for two sections that were closed by fire when I got to them—a 50 mile section in Oregon and 93 miles in northern California. Due to the big wildfire season, I also had to do things out of order: California first, then Washington, and ending with Oregon.
I asked my partner what he considered the best dinner out we’d ever had. We were walking on a trail somewhere, and I sometimes use these random questions to pass the time. He didn’t answer flippantly, as I might have expected. Instead, he offered two moments.
First: we were in Brazil, on the island of Isla Grande with its rainforests and howler monkeys and mossy ruins and perfect white beaches. We found an unnamed beachside restaurant with chairs and tables just a few feet from the sand-lapping ocean, a full bar, and a small menu that changed daily. The lights on the entire island would flicker and go out often, casting the whole village into darkness, but it happened so regularly that the restaurant just casually lit candles and continued cooking with a propane stove. I was so thrilled with it, so enamored, that I asked my partner if we could eat there again the next day, and he said we could eat there every night we were on the island.
Second: we were hiking the Colorado Trail and we arrived on day 18 at Lake Ann, a small alpine lake tucked into the crook of a mountain. I had been struggling with intestinal issues for the last few days, and so I’d missed out on the decadence of real meals while we were in town. When we reached Lake Ann, my tummy had finally settled and the view was brilliant. We had miles of valley below to enjoy and rejoice in before sleep. As we set up camp, my partner surprised me with a can of alcoholic root beer, a decadent treat I love and wasn’t able to enjoy when we were in town. We shared it on a rock overlooking a sun-kissed valley and fell asleep in the tent together.
These two meals weren’t remarkable because of what we ate. I don’t even remember what we ate. Maybe it was ramen (it likely was, at Lake Ann). These meals were unforgettable because of where we were, both in the world and in our relationship. Things were flowing—we were connecting, discovering each other. We were adventuring together, our senses attuned to the beauty of simple things—like a can of root beer on a rock watching the sunset, or a candle on a small table at the edge of the ocean.
I was reminded anew of one of the things I love most about my partner. He doesn’t care about expensive or “fancy” dinners out. No five star restaurants, no waiters, no cloth napkins (or any napkins). Just the two of us and the wonder of nature unfolding around us.
Ignoring the strong warnings of the National Park Service—including my partner, who is a ranger for the Park—I organized an all-women backpacking trip to the Yosemite High Sierras for the weekend of July 4. Normally the Sierras are passable by early July, but record-setting snowpack this past winter meant many areas are still socked in with 6+ feet of snow and ice. Streams that are normally passable by now are violent, uncrossable rivers. Trails aren’t visible. And unfortunately, none of us had any experience backpacking in winter conditions on this scale.
The three of us walked, slid, postholed, stumbled, climbed, and—during one particularly difficult spot—crawled from the Cathedral Trailhead at Tuolumne Meadows to the top of Half Dome and then down to Yosemite Valley over the course of three days. It’s a trip that I believed would be on the easy side of moderate when I first planned it, a trip that would have been fine on a normal year, but which turned into the most physically challenging and dangerous backpacking trip of my life.
I hate my old Gregory pack, so I’ve been looking to upgrade to a lighter, better fitting pack for a while.
But making the decision about which backpack is so hard. After hours of research, I ordered three backpacks online and tried them all out. This article compares the Gossamer Gear Mariposa, the Hyperlight 3400 Windrider, and ZPacks Arc Haul.
I tested these packs three ways (since I couldn’t take them backcountry and still return them):
With the Bearikade. I used my partner’s Bearikade Expedition—the biggest bear canister we have in the house—and threw 10 pounds of dumbbell weight into it. Then I loaded all my backpacking gear and the Bearikade into the backpack, with a brimming 3L Camelbak. I saw how it all fit, tried it on, and walked around my house for a bit.
With a smaller bear canister. I then repeated the exercise with all three backpacks, only replacing the Bearikade with a slightly smaller Garcia.
Without a bear canister. While I do most of my backpacking in the Sierras, I hate the bear canister and occasionally go places where the amazing, lightweight Ursack is allowed. So I tried all three packs again without a bear canister, keeping the 10 pound weights, and all my gear including 3L of water.
Note: 10 lbs is about how much weight I would carry for 6 nights/7 days of food.
Things all these packs had in common:
All three packs could handle the Bearikade bear canister and all my gear.
All of them were well-constructed and seemed durable.
The Mariposa is super cushioned and rests close to the body. The weight balances low, so that there’s no sense of sway from a too-tall pack. The pockets are incredible. First, the hip pockets are a great size for my iPhone, a headlamp, snacks, chapstick, etc. They may even be too huge, as I only use poles on descents and the rest of the time my hands swing by my hips and would likely graze these big awesome pockets. There are a total of 7 external pockets, and they are stretchy and strong and fantastic for organizing.
The Mariposa has a squishy back panel that can be laid on the ground as cushioning for your bum during rests. Alternatively, it’s possible to put a short, folded up sleeping pad here. I’d need to cut my Z Lite sleeping pad to 8 squares, which would be enough for my head, shoulders, back and hips but not my legs. Alternatively, I could find a way to strap my whole sleeping pad to the bottom or outside.
The shoulders of the Mariposa were great for my frame, and the chest strap fell just above my breasts. I felt like this pack had been made with women’s shoulders and chest in mind.
My problem with the Mariposa was actually in how cushy it is. The wide belt felt like it would trap in heat and sweat. When I get too hot on long, midday hikes, I often find myself getting nauseous. The first thing I do in those circumstances is unhitch my hip belt, and sometimes I’ll put a damp bandana against my stomach to cool off my body. I was worried this hip belt, while cozy, might actually trap in too much heat.
Here’s me on the top of Mt. Elbert, hip strap off because of nausea:
I also worry about the back padding. The pack is comfortable and rests softly against my back with a wide panel of cushy padding. This makes for easy carrying, but I again worried about the summertime heat and how this pack would feel against my sweaty back for hours on end.
I was also somewhat concerned about the 35 lb weight limit. It’s very unlikely that I’d go over 35 lbs on most of my trips. In the Sierras, I have to carry more weight with the bear canister, but less water. In the desert, I carry more water but no bear canister. But on long desert treks, carrying 15 lbs of just water, I would easily be getting near and perhaps passing the 35 lb weight limit. Winter camping in the Sierras would also be problematic.
My partner tried on the three backpacks and he strongly favored the Mariposa. He said it was the most comfortable by far, and looked like it fit my frame better than the other two.
I wore the Mariposa in the house weighed down with 34 lbs of gear for about an hour, and it continued to stay comfy.
This pack is tough. The waterproof material seemed incredibly durable, the type of material I’d happily drag through brambles without fear. It seems significantly more substantial than the Mariposa, for all they are similar in weight. I loved the roll-top closure. There was more airflow between my back and the pack, with was nice. The padding was perfect.
Unfortunately, it was really hard to fit all my stuff in when I used the Bearikade. Without a bear canister, the pack excelled. With a bear canister, it was wobbly to walk in and the weight sat too far back on my shoulders. With the Bearikade, these problems were exacerbated. Filled to the brim, it towered slightly over my head and would sway a bit as I walked.
I think this would be an excellent pack for someone who rarely needed a bear canister. But for someone who uses a bear canister more often than not, this pack didn’t quite have the volume I wanted.
Note: There is actually a larger version of this pack, the Windrider 4400, which holds 70L and up to 65lbs. That version would likely fit a Bearikade and all my gear much better, but it’s honestly got a little more volume than I need and it weighs over 2 lbs.
As soon as I put this pack on, I realized I’d ordered a size too big. I had ordered the Medium, since my torso is 19 inches long and the website highly encourages buying the Medium when in doubt. But this was a mistake: the pack was too big for me, and my head kept banging into a metal rod right behind my skull.
That said, the construction was really interesting. Of the three packs I ordered, this one handled the bear canister best. It felt tougher than the Mariposa, even though it was significantly lighter. It didn’t feel quite as durable as the Windrider.
The ZPack frame design is unique. You press down on the top corner of the pack until the external metal frame starts to bow, then you tighten straps to hold it in place. ZPacks recommends about a 2.5 inch arc. This arc transfers weight to the hips and keeps the pack away from your back, creating air flow. It also removes the need for much or any cushioning on the back, since the pack actually isn’t touching your back.
I loved the belt on the Arc Haul. It adjusts from the top and bottom separately, so it’s possible to create the perfect angle to cradle your hips. It’s also significantly more slender than the Mariposa belt. My partner said it dug into his waist and that they had reduced weight at the cost of necessary padding. But I actually really liked the lightweight feel of the belt.
I had a few big concerns about the Arc Haul:
The chest strap lands right in the middle of my breasts. My first thought was These packs are not designed for women. But then I realized I’d bought a size too large, and that I could get a shorter version. Hopefully the chest strap on the short version would sit more comfortably.
All but one of the reviewers on the Arc Haul website are men. I became a little concerned about the pack when the chest strap fit so awkwardly, and so I went to the ZPack website to see if other women had similar difficulties. I noticed that there were tons of reviews at the bottom of the page, but all of them were from men except one woman. And when I read her full review, I realized she’d had some big issues with the hip belt and had to create her own lumbar support. That made me concerned, but I also found more women who favorably reviewed the Arc Blast and Arc Zip (which are very similar to the Arc Haul).
The backpack relies on tight vertical straps holding the rest of the backpack bowed and away from the back, but the vertical straps themselves rest close to or against the body, which I’m worried could rub or become uncomfortable.
With an external metal frame, I found I could tip my head back into the metal rod at the top of the pack. However, again, I think these things could be addressed by getting a smaller size.
Of the three, I thought this pack handled 34 lbs of gear the best. It felt lightest on my back, transferring weight efficiently to my hips for a light feeling.
My partner tried it on and immediately disliked it, feeling like there was no padding at all. He could feel the edge of the bear canister against his back. He said he wouldn’t want to do a long distance thru hike with this pack.
But I was intrigued. I felt like the clever design transferred weight well and kept me cool, and that it could handle a big bear canister or 7 liters of water or snow camping in the Sierras better than the other two. It’s also configurable, with external pockets available for the hip belt.
In case it wasn’t clear, these are all fantastic backpacks. Light, tough, and well-built, I think that I’d be happy with any of them.
My specific use case (carrying a lot of bear canisters in the Sierras, lots of shoulder season backpacking) and body type (5’3″ and curvy, with a 19 inch torso) impact the kind of pack that will work well for me. I truthfully think all of these are packs that I could be happy with, and that would work well for lots of other people.
But, based on everything above, I’m planning on returning the Windrider and Arc Haul Medium, then ordering an Arc Haul Short. If the short size can address some of the issues I was having (with the chest strap hitting me in the middle of the breasts and the metal bar right behind my head), then I think there’s a high likelihood I’ll keep it. If not, the Mariposa is a very comfortable, well-made backpack.
I’ll update this once I’ve tried the Arc Haul Short.
Have thoughts to share about backpacks? Leave a comment below please.
I loaded the ZPack Arc Haul with 34 lbs worth of gear, strapped it on my back and took it for a long walk through Redwood Regional Park in Oakland. Then an hour in, I switched the gear into the Mariposa and walked with that one (my partner carrying the empty pack). Then I switched back after another hour.
Here’s what I found:
The Arc Haul felt weightless on my shoulders and carried extremely well. But after 30 minutes of walking, the intense pressure on my lumbar spine was really painful. I was relieved when an hour was up and I could switch packs. I tried this pack again later in the walk, and was careful to pack it in a way that there would put softer material around my lower back and hips, and I put cushioning around the bear canister.
But it didn’t matter. The Arc Haul was still a ton of pressure on my lumbar spine. I tried adjusting the arc of the frame and reorganizing my gear, but nothing helped. At 34 lbs, on my body, this was just too uncomfortable. There is an optional lumbar pad that can be purchased separately. But to my mind, that’s the sort of thing I’d buy if the pack were fine for a few hours or days but then started to be a little bothersome. If I can’t even comfortably walk for an hour on hilly dirt terrain, it’s probably the wrong back for me.
Which takes me to the Mariposa. I had my doubts about this pack—was it too hot? Too delicate to carry heavy weights through desert hikes?—but this pack felt like a dream on my hike. I managed to zone out in conversation for a while and forget that I was carrying it at all for periods of time. No pain in my shoulder or lower back, no swaying.
So this week, I mailed the ZPack Arc Haul back and settled in with the Mariposa.
Over the weeks on the Colorado Trail, I started passionately hating my Gregory pack. How it rubbed my shoulders, its heft, the awkward way it rested on my back. It was clunky and huge and monstrous, a massive shell I was forced to drag around everywhere. And I met other people with the same pack, people who would stop me and say Oh I have that exact same pack! Isn’t it terrible? To which I would say May it rot in hell forever.
So I’m thrilled to have something nearly 2 lbs lighter, far more comfortable, and with a bunch more organizing pockets. The one downside is that it’s not waterproof, but between dry bags and a pack cover I should be OK.
UPDATE 2 (2022):
After 5 years of backpacking around the Sierra with the Mariposa, I can honestly say I love it. My fears about the backpack being too hot were unfounded.
I’m gearing up for an attempt of the Pacific Crest Trail this year, and I’m sticking with the Mariposa. My current pack is a little rough around the edges—a chipmunk gnawed a small hole in the outer netting and I broke one of the snaps, and I’ve had to replace the hip belt. So I might replace it at some point, but it would only be to get another Mariposa.
At this point, I’d say the only downside of the pack is that it’s not very attractive, since so much of its utility is in little side packs and outer pockets — and stuffing gear in those often results in a sort of bulging appearance. Also, I still struggle to find a good place to stick my water bladder. But the upsides are great: it feels great on my back, it carries even large weights well, it’s surprisingly tough, and the pocket system is a delight.
The daily journals are far more detailed than most people would need or even want to read, so it’s designed primarily for other thru hikers—especially first time thru hikers. The journals include a lot of the nitty-gritty details—yes, including the gross daily realities of backpacking for that long—but it’s the level of information I found valuable before my hike. It’s also a way for me to look back, whenever I want, to remember the trip.
There was a lot about the Colorado Trail that was hard. Many days were deeply physically challenging: nausea, blisters, pain, and often brutal cold. It was also mentally difficult—some moments of fear and self-doubt, and the stress it placed on my relationship.
It was also beautiful. Stark, epic, awe-inspiring, a bit transformative. I was more than a little heart-broken to leave, but I also remember what my partner told me on one of the last days we were hiking: that the trail will always be there, and we have our whole lives to walk it.