Monday, March 17, 2014

The Best All Around Backpack

The Kifaru Express

Dale Matson

Right now you are probably saying, “Well, that’s your opinion” or something less civil. Please hear me out as I explain how I came to that conclusion. As a retired trail runner, backpacking has become my reluctant plan B. Because of this, I have always thought in terms of the least weight needed to get from point a to point b. Even as a trail runner, I wore fanny packs that were some iteration of the Ultimate Directions single bottle with zippered mesh side pouches or a double bottle pouch.

Fastpacking became popular in the 1980’s with folks wearing packs that would allow them to stay out overnight. This meant they could include a down sleeping bag, some food and some kind of tarp, bivy or ultralight tent. The pack and contents weighed about 15 pounds. It was pretty basic and somewhat risky. In those days, bear canisters were not required in the national parks.

There were folks who wanted to be out a tad longer and travel a little further with a bit more gear. Companies like Gossamer Gear and GoLite began marketing lightweight packs that could hold up to 70 Liters and only weighed a couple of pounds. Of course, the pack frames were not really made for comfort with this much weight. I fell victim to this kind of thinking on the northern 50 miles of the John Muir Trail (Agnew Meadows to Happy Isles). My shoulders still ache. Here is an important backpacking tip. A heavier well framed pack can carry a heavier load or a light load too.

I bought a Mountainsmith Krux Pack on sale when they were discontinued. I used it for winter backcountry skiing and summer 3-day outings. While it has been discontinued, I think it is still one of the best 50 Liter packs I have owned. My wife uses it now. Patrick Smith founded the Mountainsmith Pack Company. I believe he is the premier pack designer and manufacturer in the world. He sold that company and founded Kifaru Packs in Colorado.

The Rhino logo is no coincidence. The packs are constructed of 1,000d Cordura. I own the “Express” which is about 38 Liters and weighs 4 lbs. The newer Express packs have an integrated lid pocket that my older pack lacks. You can add extra pouches on the sides, back and top of the pack. Therefore it is modular and customizable too. What is so great is that the pack can be designed and built for the individual.

So what really sets this pack apart? It is a lifetime pack. I have been off trail with this pack on search and rescue missions for about 6 years. It is my “3-day” pack for search and rescue but I can extend it to four or five days too. It will even handle the smaller Bare Boxer Bear Canister, which is approved for the national parks. I made the mistake of using other brand name packs off trail. They were quickly ripped to shreds in the buck brush and Manzanita.

So, I have come full circle. The pack I bought for search and rescue is also my trail pack. With good lightweight gear inside, the pack with food for four days and a liter of water weighs 20 pounds. For me a 20-pound pack means a 20-mile day. Kifaru won’t be the first place you look for a pack for lightweight backpacking but it should be the last. The price is cheap for a pack that will last you a lifetime.

Note: I have not been paid for this review.


  1. Well, I see Kifaru has seen fit to discontinue the Express but you can still purchase it discounted while they last. I will have a followup this article soon.

  2. This is the followup article.