With a comfy back system and plenty of useful features, Lowe Alpine's new Altus pack range is a bit of a jack of all trades. It seems equally well suited to short overnight backpacking trips and big single hill days, both summer and winter; and while it's not a dedicated technical climbing pack I've certainly found it fine on easier mountaineering ground. The range runs to three sizes, 32, 42:47 and 52:57. In this review we went for the medium size, which seems the most versatile if you're intending to use it for both day trips and overnights.
The Altus was one of our Top 10 products at this summer's OutDoor trade show (see left), but of course there's only so much you can find out on an exhibition stand, so we were keen to get one out into the real world.
Billed as a model that's equally suitable for Alpine hut-to-hut tours or winter hillwalking, the Altus 42:47 can either be considered a small overnight pack, or a large day pack. For summer use it's on the spacious side, but add all the winter extras and it's about spot on for a day on snowy hills. As the name suggests, its basic 42 litre capacity can be increased an extra 5 litres by raising the floating lid.
Fit and comfort
The Altus 42 is available in two sizes, and to fine tune the fit the back length can be adjusted by a few centimetres, by means of a simple 'hook and loop' (ie. non-branded 'velcro') panel. In terms of back length, Medium/Large has a range of 48-53cm, while the L/XL goes from 53-59cm. I was sent a M/L. I'm 183cm tall and it's just OK on me at full extension; L/XL would have been better, and anyone taller will definitely need it. A women's fit is also available across the range.
For comfort, the 'Air Contour +' back system combines firm padding with plenty of mesh, and cutouts for ventilation. You'll be cooler with a walker's pack that doesn't directly contact your back, and sweatier in most climbing-oriented models with limited ventilation, so I think the Altus steers a sensible middle course here. In warmer weather I've found it cool and comfy.
An internal aluminium frame gives structure and load carrying support; it's pretty chunky for a pack this size, though it would come into its own with the bigger load you might have in the 52 litre model. A thick lumbar pad sits nicely into the lower back, and this is all one piece with the hipbelt so that the whole thing wraps around comfortably and supportively. The pre-curved fins of the hip belt are deeply and firmly padded, and work well at taking some of the load off the shoulders. Cushioning on the shoulder straps is a lot thinner, which is a good thing as it reduces bulk around your upper body and helps give a good close fit. The straps are contoured so they don't restrict arm movement when you're climbing or scrambling, and in general the pack feels well balanced on the move, with a centre of gravity close to the body.
When carrying heavier loads I particularly like the support offered by the hip belt (it's maybe overkill if the pack's only half full). Overall I'd say the back system is a success, albeit something you might more expect to find on a larger rucksack. But I do have two small concerns. Firstly, all that open mesh looks liable to get clogged if you put the pack down in deep snow. Secondly, the adjustment buckles extend down past the end of the padding on the harness, and on a long day I've noticed these can dig into my ribs. This isn't an issue if you're swaddled in multiple winter layers of course.
With the Altus, Lowe Alpine have not gone minimalist. For small-to-medium packs like this I favour simplicity, but that's a personal preference and others are likely to get full use out of all the features on offer here.
Top access is via a conventional two-buckle lid and drawcord. A decent-sized over-lid pocket has plenty of space for loose bits and bobs; I've fitted map, hat, compact camera, thin gloves and sunglasses in here without cramming. Under the lid is a second smaller pocket with a key clip - a feature I really notice when it's not provided.
The large stretch-sided rear pocket is the ideal place for a quick access shell or insulating layer, and I've also shoved a pair of crampons in here when I couldn't be bothered with the faff of sticking them in the main pack. This stretch pocket has a slightly stiffened brim (I guess to help hold its shape) and an additional zipped sleeve that I've not yet felt a need for. Stretchy side sleeves are just the right size to hold a 1 litre bottle, and there's an additional stretch mesh zipped pocket on each side of the hipbelt, in which I've been stashing snacks.
Compression straps on the sides and bottom provide extra outside storage. For speed and convenience when attaching things like skis these have conventional plastic clip buckles, which I think tend to be better than some of the more fiddly metal hooks that have been fashionable in recent years. While the side straps do a good job of compressing a half-full pack, they're a bit short to fit a bulky foam mat, which you'd be obliged to clip horizontally across the bottom of the pack. Alternatively you could add more straps or bungy of your own, and use the sewn-in daisychains.
To carry your trekking poles tip down (it's safer) you get two of Lowe Alpine's trademark TipGrippers, while a pair of axes can be attached through the head holes via the HeadLockers. When not needed these attachments tuck neatly out of the way under a flap. I do think they feel on the flimsy and plasticy side for repeated heavy use however. The elastic on the axe retainers was initially so long that my axe flopped about, but with a bit of struggle I managed to tie the loop shorter from inside the pack.
If you want to separate off the bottom of your pack, you get an internal zipped subdivider. Even on a much bigger trekking pack I would rarely if ever want to do this, though I recognise that other users would. However this feature doesn't really suit a pack of only c.40 litres, and it's of limited use anyway since there is no way to access the bottom part of the pack from outside! Above the level of this divider, there's a big zipped access to the main body of the pack. Again, I think this is a feature that'd look more useful on a bigger pack - perhaps the Altus 52. For me, a side entry on a small pack is redundant extra weight and a point of potential leaks. But again, I'm sure some folk will disagree.
For wet weather a rain cover is provided, zipped into its own sleeve on the base of the pack. I don't tend to use these, particularly on windy mountain days, so I've lost a bit of weight by leaving it at home. However, since none of its zips are waterproof and heavy rain will inevitably find its way into the Altus, you may decide it makes sense to keep the cover to hand.
Weight, fabric and durability
At 1750g in size M/L, the Altus 42 can't really be called a lightweight pack when others of a similar size and feature set are several hundred grams lighter. For instance the Osprey Exos 48, which I reviewed this summer, is 1210g. The difference is in the back system, hipbelt and frame, which are much more padded, sturdy and supportive on the Altus. Naturally all that padding, and the chunky 15mm aluminium frame, add up to a fair bit of weight. In a larger pack designed for carrying really heavy loads the payoff would be comfort and support. But is the back system in the Altus 42 a bit excessive for the sort of weight you're going to be carrying in it? I can't make up my mind. On the one hand it is a comfy carry, but then there's no getting away from that weight. With the larger Altus 52 the back system would probably make more sense.
This pack is built of pretty stern stuff, with a main body in 210 denier Robic Ristop and a mega-tough 450 denier fabric on the base and sides (something called PW / HydroShield if you need to know). While this inevitably contributes to that overall weight I suspect a lot of users are going to think that's a price worth paying if it proves robust over the long term. This has been a short-term test and I can't yet comment on its longevity, but the Altus does certainly feel more durable than many lighter rivals.
A sturdy pack with a host of features, the Altus 42 is supportive when carrying big loads and well ventilated for use in warmer conditions. Its chunky frame and nicely padded back system would not look out of place on a full-sized trekking pack; add its tough fabrics and the result is a model that's heavy for its mid-range capacity. It's not going to suit minimalists or ultralight specialists, and if you want a dedicated technical climbing pack then look elsewhere. On the other hand you can't argue with the comfort on offer, and it's this that makes the Altus so easy to get on with. The price is comparable to similar rivals, and the quality seems to be up there too.
Lowe Alpine say:
For lightweight Alpine hut to hut hiking and winter walking in the mountains. Features a U-shaped front opening system and zip divider in the main compartment. Back length adjustable, has a moulded back panel and wrap around hipbelt.
- Fabric: 210D Robic Ristop & 450D PW/HydroShield
- Air Contour+ adjustable back system
- Internal 15mm frame, links into the lumbar and hipfins for efficient load carrying
- Laminated dual-density moulded EVA back panel with channels for ventilation
- Ergonomic wrap-around forward pull padded hipbelt
- Zipped mesh pockets on hip belt
- Extendable lid with zipped pockets (one external, one internal)
- Zipped front panel pocket
- Zipped front panel access to main compartment
- Internal zipped divider
- Hydration bladder compatible
- Ski compatible side compression straps
- Large stretch mesh side pockets
- TipGripper walking pole attachments
- HeadLocker ice axe attachments
- Daisy chain lash points
- Integrated raincover
- Capacity: 42-47 litres
- Weight: 1.75kg (our weight)