We believe in packing light whenever possible. However, some adventures require more stuff. Whether you're climbing Denali or trekking through the rainforest carrying tons of camera gear, you'll need an expedition pack. We tested the two most popular ones available across Norway, Iceland and on a 185-mile hike through Nepal.
What's an Expedition Pack? An expedition pack is a technical backcountry pack designed to carry massive, heavy loads. The ones that we tested were at least 100 liters in volume and were designed to comfortably carry loads up to 65 lbs. Typically, they have a plethora of features geared toward expeditionary climbing on peaks such as Denali or Aconcagua where it's necessary to carry all of your own supplies and gear for weeks on-end.
Both of these packs survived four countries, multiple flights, trains, busses, jeeps, and cabs — in addition to a 185 mile trek through the Himalayas and a climb to 20,305'.
The Test: We tested the Mountain Hardwear BMG 105 OutDry ($360. 4 lbs, 11 oz - Small/Medium) and the Gregory Denali 100 ($400. 6 lbs, 10 oz - Medium.) Both packs are new for 2014 and represent the pinnacle of expedition pack design.
We carried them for hundreds of miles throughout multiple countries, all over the world; and in every possible type of weather condition: Fully loaded for traveling and trekking; with medium sized-loads for shorter adventures, and stripped down for high-altitude climbing.
In Iceland, we carried them through torrential downpours of rain, snow, and sleet. In Nepal, through the dry and dusty Khumbu region before using them to climb the 20,305' Imja Tse.
Daniel Bruce Lee and I traded off periodically so that we could each formulate fully developed opinions on both packs. For reference, we are both 5'6" and about 140lbs.
Photo: Daniel Bruce Lee
The Results: Both packs were designed with similar purposes in mind, yet they each have very distinct design, features, and construction. Here's the breakdown.
Fit: The first thing that you'll notice about these packs is their distinct shape. The BMG (grey/orange/white) can best be described as short and fat, while the Denali (black) is tall and skinny (skinny being relative in this case — both of these packs are gargantuan.) Due to their respective shapes, the BMG can sit upright on its own; the Denali cannot.
Carrying the fully-loaded BMG fittingly felt like wearing a big hump on your back. The Denali felt like wearing an exoskeleton — it really wrapped around the body. The Denali's hip belt is much more robust; it was most comfortable with the weight distributed onto the hips. I felt that the BMG was most comfortable with more weight distributed onto the shoulders. The BMG was more comfortable to me overall, but Daniel preferred the Denali.
Features: Both packs feature the basics: Main compartments, top lids, front pockets, ice-axe attachments, crampon pouches, and daisy chains. However, each pack took different approaches to those features.
The BMG features one large front pocket with a zipper across the top, while the Denali has two separate pockets that zipped on the sides. The two front pockets on the Denali were separated by a divider which could be unzipped, turning it into one large pocket. It was easy to lose items in the front pocket of the BMG; as such both Daniel and I preferred the front pockets of the Denali.
The BMG has an external crampon pouch with drain holes; the Denali does not. The former uses plastic buckles to attach ice axes, while the latter uses a simple toggle that runs through the axe's head. Both are equally easy to use and effective for holding your tools, however we prefer how the Denali holds tools in a more streamlined position that's closer to the body of the pack. Axes attached to the BMG poked out in a precarious fashion. Also worth noting - one of the plastic buckles for the axe attachment on the BMG broke after Norwegian Airlines was a little rough on it. The Denali's toggle is metal and utilizes a simpler design; it seems less likely to malfunction.
The top lid on the BMG features several daisy chains, which were useful for attaching climbing helmets and solar panels. The Denali did not have any daisy chains on the top lid, but it had several more on the front of the pack than the BMG.
The Denali's hip belt has a small pocket for snacks, sunscreen, etc. on one side; a gear loop on the other. Both Daniel and I found this feature much more useful than the BMG's dual gear loops. However, the BMG's hip belt uses a buckle fixed to one side; it was much easier to tighten the waist belt, especially with one hand.
The Denali also has an expandable water bottle pocket on each side. These were very useful for providing quick access to jackets, snacks, and water. Instead of water bottle pockets, the BMG has a couple of reinforced loops for hauling sleds. The Denali also has a zippered side pocket for maps or a headlamp; and it features a zippered side access panel to the main pocket. Finally, the Denali features a removable bivy pad and hydration sleeve and ports.
The BMG's OutDry membrane kept my gear dry, even during the worst weather. Photo: Daniel Bruce Lee.
The single biggest difference between the two packs: one is waterproof and one is not. The BMG's main compartment uses Mountain Hardwear's OutDry waterproof membrane technology and it is completely waterproof. I put it to the test under 10 hours of torrential, multi-directional rain while in Iceland; it never wet out. In order to compensate for the weather, we had to line the Denali with large trash bags. These were annoying to work with; it negated the side access panel.
Homeless, but happy.
The Best Expedition Pack You Can Buy Is: A draw. The Gregory Denali is better designed and is loaded with features, but they come at a penalty: it weighs 1 lb, 15 oz, or 30 percent more than the Mountain Hardwear BMG. The Denali is also $40 more expensive than the BMG. The BMG is lighter, completely waterproof, and less expensive, but lacks the features and attention to detail that the Denali has.
If your expedition will be wet, go with the BMG. It will keep your stuff dry no matter what. If wet weather is not an issue, use this guide to see which features are most important to you. After hundreds of carrying miles across the world, I preferred the BMG; Daniel preferred the Denali.
About the Author: Chris Brinlee Jr. is an adventure photographer and filmmaker who is currently traveling around the world. Follow his adventure on Instagram: @chrisbrinleejr. This article was filed from a homestay in Krabi, Thailand.
Photos: Chris Brinlee, Jr.
IndefinitelyWild is a new publication about adventure travel in the outdoors, the vehicles and gear that get us there and the people we meet along the way. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.