Developed over several years, during which the designers went through more than 35 prototypes, the new and much-touted Tupilak Pack is Mountain Equipment's return to the rucksack market after a long absence. It might be sad to get excited about a pack, but I was genuinely keen when we were offered an exclusive first look. We outlined our first impressions in a sneak preview back in February. Now the pack has seen more use through the latter end of the Scottish winter season, it's time to follow up with a more detailed review. I'll say right from the off that this is one of the best thought-out, best-fitting and most solidly-built technical climbing packs I've ever reviewed.
In terms of high-end, super-functional climbing sacks, the Tupilak occupies a similar niche to the Patagonia Ascensionist and the Arc'teryx FL series, but rather than just aping established models I'd say this is probably the most refined of the three. However, it's also the most expensive...
As the cost is hard to ignore, it's worth addressing straight away. Having no recent pedigree to draw on in terms of rucksacks, it could be considered a bold move on the part of Mountain Equipment to position the Tupilak at the top end of the market. I like to imagine they simply wanted to make the best pack they possibly could, rather than building one to a predetermined price point.
At £180, £200 or £220 depending on size, the Tupilak is a lot more expensive than your average alpine/winter climbing pack, and not a purchase to take lightly. I think the cost reflects the sheer attention that has gone into the design, and the quality of the components and build. It won't be for everyone - something I'm sure will be made clear in forum comments - but those prepared to invest will get a brilliant pack that feels like it should give years of reliable service.
Size and capacity
The sack's squared-off edges and subtle hourglass profile is quite distinctive. It's a great size and shape for a technical sack, sitting quite high on the back so that it doesn't obstruct rear harness loops, allowing your arms full freedom to swing, and generally keeping out of the way when you're climbing. With a good wide mouth for stuffing gear in easily, and a base it can stand up on, it is minimal faff to pack.
Three volumes are available: a minimal 30+; a middle-of-the-road 37+; and a more spacious 45+. I've been using the 37+, which I would consider the most versatile of the three, with enough capacity for a day out, but still the neat, trim pack size that you want when climbing. It's got room for all the winter essentials, including your half of the rack, shell top and bottoms, duvet jacket and bothy bag (I never set out in winter without one - it's only been used in anger once, but once was enough). At the 37 litre capacity I've found packing does require some discipline, but for me that's probably a good thing. My crampons generally go in the pack in the morning (often migrating to the outside on the way home later), but I've rarely managed to get the rope in on top of the rest, so this and my helmet tend to be strapped on outside. Personally I might struggle with the smaller 30 litre version on anything more demanding than a lightly equipped easy mountaineering day. If you're a kitchen sink kind of packer, or heading out overnight for an Alpine bivvy or Scottish bothy, then the Tupilak 45+ is probably more the thing.
External storage options include axe holders, side compression straps, the main pack closure strap which doubles as a rope retainer, stitched-in daisychains and the optional addition of bungy cord (which comes supplied but not fitted). Stashing a rope across the top of the pack is probably the best way to carry it with the Tupilak 37+. There's plenty of length in the strap, and you can either store the rope under the lid or keep it on top of the lid and run the strap over to a second connecting point by the haul loop. The side compression straps are long enough to stow poles, crampons or skis, and though they apparently have enough length to fit a folded Ridgerest I imagine it's a tight squeeze - they don't fit my bulky old closed cell foam Karrimat (it's a big'un). Another inch or two of length in the side straps might not have gone amiss.
Features and weight
In terms of features versus minimalism there's some flexibility to suit the mood of your day, with removable side compression straps and hipbelt pads. The foam back panel can be slid out to save 100g or so, though since that leaves the pack with no padding or structure, I can't see myself ever doing this. If so inclined, you could take off the sternum strap and untie the axe head retainers too. However I think for most users in most circumstances the full feature set is suitable, and it's hardly a heavyweight in any case. Mountain Equipment quote the all-in weight of the Tupilak 37+ at 780g, and though I make it 827g that still isn't a lot for a pack of this size and sturdiness. In comparison, the Arc'teryx Alpha FL30 is quoted at 575g (bear in mind this is a smaller and simpler pack). Removing the side straps and hip pads (but keeping the back panel in) I can reduce my Tupilak 37+ to 737g. I'm not sure how you'd get down to ME's quoted minimum weight of only 570g.
But the Tupilak is not about saving weight for the sake of it, at the expense of functionality. Assuming you want all the bits and bobs - I generally have so far - then the feature set on the Tupilak pack is spot on. Everything I'd ask for in a climbing pack is here, with no superfluous whistles, bells or clutter.
Entry to the pack is via a cowl, an interesting design that combines drawcord and lid in one. Compared to most conventional lids this gives a neater closure over the top of the pack, as there's no built-in pocket to add bulk. The drawcord can be operated smoothly with one hand. Between this and the cowl you already get a pretty decent weather seal, but for additional protection from rain and spindrift Mountain Equipment have also included an internal drybag-style rolltop sleeve. Another use for this would be to separate wet clothing from the rest of your pack contents. I've had no call for it so far, and generally just fold it down into the pack where it's neatly out of the way.
I love the aluminium pack fastener, the well-named 'Grappler'. Unlike a conventional buckle this simply hooks onto a sewn loop on the lid. There's nothing to squeeze and no springy parts to inadvertently snap, so it's robust, secure and easily used even with cold hands inside stiff frozen gloves.
A floating zipped pocket stands in for the usual over-lid one, sized just large enough for phone, torch, keys etc. This hangs inside the main body of the pack, so it can be a bit of a struggle to extract items when the bag is fully loaded. Oddly, this pocket can be accessed via two different zips, one external and the other internal - though I really can't see why you'd want to come at it from inside. More explicably, it can be rolled up and secured out of the way with poppers, which does have an obvious appeal if you want to minimise faff. A key clip in the pocket is, to my mind, pretty much essential, and the Tupilak has one. One criticism is that the external zip is not a water resistant model, and though it's protected by a little storm flap you might still expect some water to get in on wet and windy days. On a pack that is otherwise very weather resistant, this is a small but niggly omission.
The axe retaining system will be familiar from many other climbing packs, but here it's done particularly well - robust, secure, and generally easy to operate wearing gloves. My only gripe is with the size of the metal toggles that fit through the 'eye' on the axe head; they're so long that it can be quite a fight to pop them through when using a model of axe with a particularly small hole (such as the DMM Switch or the Petzl NOMIC).
Though they do a cracking job of squeezing the pack down small when it's empty, I am less sold on the side compression straps when used to attach gear to the pack. As with the main strap, these secure via aluminium hooks and webbing loops rather than conventional buckles. Yes they're very tough; and if you remove the straps then the tiny webbing loops that are left make for an uncluttered body. However I find these hooks fiddly to secure. There's a very specific technique to it; the hook needs to be pushed vertically through the webbing loop before you try to engage both teeth. It's fine with warm hands in the comfort of my office, but out in the weather with cold fingers my hit rate is poor even after lots of practise. In my opinion this is a case of reinventing the wheel and coming up with something a bit oval shaped. Standard plastic buckles would have been less frustrating. Or alternatively, what about the shaped loop that works so well with the Grappler buckle?
For the body of the pack Mountain Equipment have gone for something called PACT fabric, in two different weights (177g/m² and 115g/m²). For added robustness there's a double layer of the thicker stuff on the base.
Here's what they say about it:
"Developed in tandem with two separate processors, one a textile developer and the other a specialist in TPU and PU laminations, PACT 300 and PACT 100 are both densely woven fabrics comprised of high tenacity Nylon 6.6 yarns with a double rip-stop construction. They feature a DWR face-coating for water-repellency and snow shedding with an air and water impermeable 25 micron TPU coating on the inside. The result is a set of fabrics that together provide the near perfect balance of durability, low weight and weather resistance."
It is so thick and stiff that the pack more or less holds its shape even when empty. This feels like really tough stuff, with a ripstop pattern for added durability. Winter climbing can be hard on bags, but after a couple of months of regular use my Tupilak still looks brand new. It would take me a few seasons to definitively assess long term durability; the early signs are very promising though, and between its bombproof fabric and excellent build quality the Tupilak certainly inspires confidence.
The fabric may not be 100% waterproof, but it is highly water resistant, easily shrugging off spindrift and light showers. After a couple of hours being incessantly dripped on by a thawing ice route on Beinn Udlaidh recently, the surface of the pack did start to wet out in places - but by that stage I was wet from head to toe, so I'd say that was a pretty tough test. At the top of the route everything inside was still dry. Taped seams are a rarity on a rucksack so it's no surprise that most of the Tupilak's are untaped. As a result I would not be surprised if a little dampness found its way in over a long wet day. However on inspection I found that the stitching attaching the daisychains is in fact backed, so what was potentially the weakest spot for weather proofing turns out to be well covered. It's this sort of attention to detail and quality that I think really sums up the Tupilak, and doubtless helps explain the high price tag.
From the buckles (a mix of metal and plastic) and webbing straps, to the elastic and the robust haul loop, all the other components feel of a similar high quality.
All three sizes of the pack come in the one back length, 47cm. This seems a sensible middle ground that ought to fit a good range of people; at 183cm tall I find it an excellent fit, with the hipbelt sitting just where it needs to.
With a climbing pack you don't really want soft or deep padding, and that's exactly what you don't get with the Tupilak. A hard EVA panel provides the structure, and the only concession to cushioning on the back. At first I wondered if this was a bit stiff, but in use it has proved surprisingly comfortable, its torsional stability helping a fully loaded pack hold its shape, and protecting the wearer from any sharp jabby contents. You don't feel mollycoddled, but since it moulds into your back to an extent, neither is it like being strapped to a board. For climbing, the advantage of minimal padding is that it brings the weight in marginally closer to your back and gives a less spongy-feeling ride. In this case it works perfectly, giving you a well-balanced pack that stays firmly in place as you twist and reach, rather than shifting about. Since it's going to see most action in winter or alpine conditions, the Tupilak is likely to be worn most of the time over multiple layers of clothing, and in that case who needs loads of cushioning anyway?
There's absolutely no attempt at ventilation here, none of the sculpted air channels or sweat-absorbent materials you'll often see. In that respect the Tupilak takes its lead from the Arc'teryx Alpha FL pack, another model that I have got on very well with in recent years. For winter climbing and hillwalking I really don't think ventilation is an advantage. You are going to get a sweaty back on the walk-in whatever bag you carry, while on a belay or a stormy summit plateau more air flow just means more shivering. However in summer I do find these un-vented back panels stickier and less comfortable, so the Tupilak would not be my first choice in a heatwave.
A hipbelt provides additional load carrying support, and although the back system doesn't lend itself to long distance backpacking with a heavy load it's certainly up to the needs of climbers carting gear to the base of the crag, or winter hillwalkers on a long day out. To continue the stripped-back theme, the designers have reduced hip cushioning to a minimum, leaving just two very firm foam hip pads. Sliding freely on the webbing belt, you can adjust their position to suit, or remove them altogether. At first glance this seemed a bit gimmicky, but in use they're actually very effective, giving you padding only where most needed. To keep it out of the way when climbing the belt folds neatly around the bag.
The shoulder straps are similarly firm but fair, providing just enough cushioning for load carrying comfort without feeling bulky when you start climbing. They are nicely sculpted for a body-hugging shape without limiting arm movement, and with the sternum strap fastened the whole thing feels close-fitting and secure - indeed I've found the comfort of the shoulder straps is very dependent on having that buckle fastened.
Supportive without being overly rigid; comfortable without being excessively cushioned; well balanced and unrestrictive when you're on the move... the Tupilak Pack is a joy to carry, both when walking and climbing.
The Tupilak's load carrying comfort is better than you might first assume, but it's when you get roped up that it really shines. This is one of the best-fitting climbing packs I've used, period. Features have clearly been thought about, tested and tweaked to the n-th degree, so bar a couple of minor niggles - these perhaps more a matter of personal opinion than objective fact - you're getting a seriously functional pack that feels streamlined without sacrificing too much in pursuit of absolute minimalism. The quality of the materials and build are second to none too, and seem up to years of hard use. Yes the price tag is an eye opener, but while it might be overkill for the non-climbing hillwalker or the occasional weekender, for committed winter and alpine climbers the Tupilak has to be among the best technical mountain packs money can buy.
Mountain Equipment say:
We have our idea of the perfect alpine pack. We want it to be simple. We want it to be lightweight. We want it to be durable. We know it should climb well yet be big enough to carry all that you need with nothing that you don't.
Developed over the course of more than 3 years and refined through more than 35 prototypes. Every aspect of design and functionality has been individually tested and assessed by us, our pro partners and a hand-picked group of professional mountain guides.
- Sizes: 30+ 37+ or 45+
- Prices: Tupilak 30+ £180 Tupilak 37+ £200 Tupilak 45+ £220
- Weight Tupilak 30+ Min: 520g Max: 730g
- Weight Tupilak 37+ Min: 570g Max: 780g
- Weight Tupilak 45+ Min: 600g Max: 815g
- PACT™ 300 & 100 R2 fabrics; durable, lightweight and water resistant
- All components removable
- Integrated cowl-lid closure for easy packing and weather protection
- Durable aluminium Grappler™ buckle
- Internal 'floating' accessories pocket; accessible from inside or outside
- Internal weather-proof cowl with roll-top closure
- Side compression straps with aluminium Hammerhead™ toggles
- High Density EVA back panel
- High Density EVA shoulder straps
- 40mm webbing hipbelt with removable High Density EVA moulded hip-fins
- Dual axe toggles with integrated pick pocket
- Daisy Chain system and haul loops
- Supplied with Shockcord System
For more on the Tupilak Pack range see: mountain-equipment.co.uk