Brand new from Lowe Alpine is the Manaslu, a backpacking pack with a sackload of features and a neatly designed back system. It certainly looked the part on arrival at UKH Towers, but to put its credentials to the test I'd actually have to take it for a long walk up hills, full of heavy gear. Joy. Serendipitously it came the day I was due to set off on a wee jaunt along the Lochaber Traverse - two nights and two days on a still-wintry Ben Nevis, CMD, the Aonachs and the Grey Corries (there's a story about that here). Though that's a pretty short test period, this strenuous hillwalk-cum-mountaineering route certainly gave the pack a run for its money. So how did it measure up?
Capacity, storage and accessing your gear
The Manaslu comes in two sizes: 55-65 and 65-75 litres. As I'm generally out for only a night or two, mini backpacking hits snatched between work and family commitments, the smaller capacity version is ideal for me. At risk of making assumptions I'd suggest it is a more versatile size for a lot of people, sufficient to cram plenty in without being so big that it encourages you to overpack or becomes a giant cumbersome load to cart around. However if you are out for several nights at a stretch between resupply points, or packing a lot of bulky climbing gear into a remote base camp somewhere exciting, then consider the 65-75 litre model.
Tons of warm clothing, excessive numbers of gloves, bivvy gear, helmet, crampons, food and camera equipment - there's a lot to carry if you're sleeping out high in winter, but I had no problem stowing it all in the Manaslu 55-65 for two days on the Lochaber Traverse. In fact without the bulk of the SLR and the helmet the sack would only have looked two-thirds full.
As with most backpacking packs there's a bottom compartment which can be separated from the main body of the bag via a zipped bulkhead. This has its own zipped entry for ease of access without having to unpack the entire sack every time you need something. I found this section the perfect size for keeping all my bivvy stuff separate and organised - an inflatable mat, bivvy bag, bothy bag (a precautionary extra in case I needed overhead shelter at night) and slightly-too-thin-for-the-season sleeping bag. The main body of the pack then swallowed the remainder of my kit with ease. This main section too can be accessed not just by the lid but also via separate side zips. Unlike the bottom entry I am not at all sold on these, as I think they are unnecessary and simply add weight and a potential source of failure or water ingress. In two days on the walk I never once felt a need for them.
The main zipped lid pocket is not enormous, but proved fine for a hat and gloves, map, sunglasses, suncream and sunhat (yes it was that sort of forecast). A few more loose bits and bobs went in the under-lid zipped pocket. When it comes to climbing sacks I am not a huge fan of external pockets, preferring a simple trim shape. However on an overnight walk they do come in handy, and the Manaslu has plenty - all of the low-profile stretchy variety. The big pocket at the rear is a useful size for stashing a jacket if you find yourself adjusting your layers every half hour, and secures safely with a little plastic hook on webbing. Smaller elastic sleeves on each side are a good size for a bottle - though you do have to make sure it's slipped right down inside or you risk losing it. In addition you get a fairly sizeable zipped pocket on each wing of the hip belt. Though these float free of the belt padding they are sewn into the main body of the pack and so cannot be removed. I established this before leaving home, as I've not historically been keen on the hip pocket. However I resigned to giving them a chance, and lo and behold straight away on the initial late night walk-in to the CIC Hut they redeemed themselves as quick-access on-the-go storage for thinny gloves and jelly babies. Perhaps they have their place after all.
Fit and carrying comfort
Lowe Alpine make a big thing of the Manaslu's new 'Axiom 5' back system, and so they probably ought. This is a quick and faff-free way to adjust the height of the shoulder straps to fit the pack to your back length. Simply pull a tab to unlock the mechanism and the straps slide up and down freely. There's about 14cm play in the system, in addition to which the bag is available in two different sizes. It took me moments to fit the pack to my frame - and an excellent fit it is too. Underlying it all is a stiff metal-and-plastic sheet, which gives the pack its load-carrying structure. This can be accessed via a zipped flap.
Padding on the back is sensibly minimal, with plenty of mesh and cut-out gaps for air to circulate, and a good firm non-spongy feel. Down in the lumbar region the cushioning is deeper and denser, but only where strictly necessary. The padding is a little thicker on the shoulder straps, but again nice and firm, and well-honeycombed for maximum ventilation. I've found the straps are well-contoured to comfortably hug the shoulders. An elasticated sternum strap helps keep the harness in place, and can be set at three different positions.
So far so good, but I have to admit that when it came to the hipbelt I was a little worried at first sight. This looks gargantuan, with well over an inch depth of padding. Now I'm not a fan of excessive foam on a rucksack - if it's too soft I find it can actually make load carrying feel spongy and unbalanced, to say nothing of being hot and sweaty. However I needn't have feared in the case of the Manaslu. Again the cushioning is pretty firm, and for extra structure it's backed with a robust, supportive layer. This plastic sheet extends behind the lumbar padding to hinge onto the body of the rucksack, giving the hipbelt a modest amount of freedom to rotate so that it can move with your hips. Weight is transferred very effectively into the hips.
Thanks to the design of its back system the Manaslu gives a superbly stable ride, even when fully loaded, with the weight feeling well balanced and close-in to your centre of gravity. I found I could walk without really minding the weight on my back. Better yet, it didn't seem out of the question to try climbing with it. I had a quick go on Ledge Route, and even on the scrambly bits found that I didn't mind the overnight load at all. I may stick to the occasional very easy route, but I think it reflects pretty well on the Manaslu's back system that I'd consider climbing with a pack of this size at all.
This is not a minimalist pack - and that may or may not be a good thing, depending how highly you value weight saving over whistles and bells. In addition to all those zips and pockets are a number of other features, none of which could strictly be described as necessary but all of which have their uses.
Hunt around and you'll soon find the integrated rain cover hidden away in its own zipped sleeve at the base of the pack. This is almost big enough to double as an emergency over-the-head shelter (I'm only half joking; it's only half a shelter). It's a matter of opinion but mine is that for mountain use rain covers are more annoying than functional, as they tend to catch the wind. Luckily this one can be removed and left at home. Walking poles can be stowed on each side of the pack, with their tip held in a little plastic gripper arrangement and an elastic retainer around the pole. This is safer than carrying them under the side compression straps, tip-upwards ready to poke someone; however it's the sort of add-on detail that would make a true lightweight backpacker feel twitchy. Climbers, meanwhile, will note that there's only one axe attachment, of the traditional webbing loop variety. This is located towards the side of the pack, which I think increases the risk of hurting your arm on your own axe in the event of a fall; moving it slightly rear-wards would have sorted that.
None of the Manaslu's features seem excessive in themselves, but add up all the straps, flaps, buckles and zips and perhaps it's no surprise that the pack weighs 2.5kg. I am no lightweight gear geek, but this seems a little more than ideal to me. Lowe Alpine could have saved a bit of weight if they'd culled some of the zipped entries, a buckle or two, and that rain cover. However it is the padding and the underlying frame that make up the back system that constitute much of the weight, I suspect. And it is a testament to the effectiveness of this back system that when you actually use it up a hill you can forget that the Manaslu could be a little lighter.
On first use the Manaslu feels reasonably well made, but this test has been too short-term to pass judgement on its durability.
Though its weight and slightly elaborate design may not appeal to ultra minimalists, the Manaslu's many features all have their purpose. For overnight trips in the UK or big adventures overseas, this is a comfortable and well-balanced load carrier with a really first rate back system.
Weight: 2.5kg (55-65)
Approx dimensions: 78x38x36cm
Back sizes: Medium and Large
Capacities: 55-65 litre (£150) or 65-75 litre (£160)
- Load-lifting handle
- Strong lash points allow you to add items to the outside of the pack
- Front and lower entry gives wide access to the contents
- Front stash pocket for quick access
- Hipbelt pockets
- Stretch water bottle side pockets
- Hydration compatible
- SOS panel
- Key clip
- Unique walking pole tip grippers for secure storage
- Secure internal lid zipper pocket
- Accessory straps
- Stowable ice axe loops
- Front entry can be accessed whilst poles are stowed
- Inside/outside lower compression on stretch side pocket
Lowe Alpine say:
All-new backpacking technology just in from Lowe Alpine. The Manaslu features the newly developed Axiom 5 back-length adjust technology, easy-access front and lower entry and a host of other features that will make this pack a firm favourite with mountaineers, trekking enthusiasts and backpackers alike.
Axiom 5 is an advanced back-length adjustment technology that fits to you. The one-pull adjustment tab and internal locking rachet system work together behind the back panel to control the fit of the pack. This technology combines with a rotating hipbelt, high-specification rebound foam in the lumbar region and an aerator die-cut back panel for increased ventilation.
For more info see lowealpine.com