Is there anything more stressful than choosing the right backpack for a through hike? Look back a year or so in my life and you’d definitely agree with me; the combination of needing to get the right size, shape, fit, number of pockets, quality, and versatility, all for a bank balance friendly sum was becoming all consuming. And yes, there were tears. I read a million-and-one blog posts, spoke to hundreds of people online, and visited all the shops I could physically get to. I may be exaggerating a teeny bit, but you get the idea.
Taking a lunch break by the river.
It was all a bit too much. I needed a pack for the West Highland Way, and I basically needed it to be magic. How on earth was I supposed to know whether my choice would be right? I was on a strict budget, and what appeared to be the natural choice for me – an Osprey Packs bag – was out of my league. Eventually, and thanks to a lot of help and recommendations, I chose the Lowe Alpine Manaslu ND 55:65, which I bought from Go Outdoors for £120 or so because that was the best price I could find at the time.
Always time to take in the view.
Making the decision was not the end of the stress, though. Oh my goodness, no. I just couldn’t get the thing to feel right on my back to begin with. I played with the straps and back height so much in the end I had no idea what felt right and what didn’t. So Jenni suggested we headed out for a “full-pack-test”. We did a short hike over at Ladybower to test our set-ups out. It did wonders to set my mind at rest, and although the pack felt large and cumbersome on my back, I reckoned I could get used to it. Fast forward to my West Highland Way travel day and, whilst still feeling massive, my mind was much happier as I reckoned I could carry it.
Day one passed without incident. We hiked, ate, laughed, enjoyed. I don’t know if it was just because I knew day one would be a bit stress anyway, but my pack didn’t bother me at all. It was day two that the minor melt-down occurred. Blame waking up with a start having slept through my alarm (I sleep so well outdoors!) meaning I had to rush to get ready, the fact it was raining, or the fact that this was the first time I’d done a multi-day hike with so much stuff, I don’t know, but I felt horrendous. My back, mainly my hips, were so uncomfortable. Nothing seemed right.
The sunshine after the rain. And some rosy red cheeks!
By lunchtime, having climbed Conic Hill, I’d calmed down a little and, thanks to a few Percy Pigs, had come to some conclusions about my relationship with my pack. I’d googled it, too, and read this line on the Lowe Alpine website: “thanks to the adjustable Axiom 5 system, with its rotating to hip belt and well-ventilated aerator back, you can be sure to find a comfortable carrying position every time”. And do you know what I realised? That I need to find a comfortable carrying position every time. One day I will want the hip belt in one place, the next day I might want the straps differently. I’m supposed to adjust it how I want each day. I will stand differently, I will have packed it differently, it will simply sit differently. Maybe I blocked things from my mind, but after that realisation I didn’t worry about my pack for then rest of the 96 miles. And the fact that I didn’t worry about it, meant it worked out as a great pack for me.
So that very long winded back story means you you know where I’m coming from regarding the Lowe Alpine Manaslu ND 55:65. Definitely a bit of a love-hate relationship, certainly, but a decent bag for multi-day trips. A good buy.
Lowe Alpine Manaslu ND 55:65 – Spec vs Reality
When it comes to reviewing this pack against anything else other than itself, I have a bit of problem because this is the only one I have. I thought for this post I would have a look down the specification as listed on the Lowe Alpine website and let you know what I think that means in reality; hopefully this will prove useful to anyone currently in the market for a new large backpack.
Off up Devil’s Staircase with Jenni.
Expandable capacity and pockets
The 55:65 bit in the name of this pack comes from the fact that it can be either – or, in fact, anything in between. This means that in one bag you have something that is good for a two night weekend break, through to a full week-long expedition – meaning you only have to buy one bag. This is definitely something that I liked about the pack, I won’t be buying another one anytime soon. Getting the straps adjusted to the right height took a little getting used to, but after a few goes I am now a dab hand at having the bag at the size I want it. I didn’t have it extended to the full 65 litres for my West Highland Way hike (thankfully!), even though I hadn’t been able to get the smallest kit to go in it.
It’s worth noting that the capacity of this pack is split into several pockets, which mean organising is super simple. The zipper at the bottom opens a pocket that would be good for tent or boots, then you have the large central pocket that can be opened from front or top, and a largeish pocket in the bag lid that was perfect for daytime essentials such as a warm layer and food. Then there are the two small hip pockets, an open mesh pocket on the front, and two stretchy water bottle type pockets on the side. The only pocket I thought was missing was one on the shoulder straps, like there is on my day pack, but I soon got used to not having that.
A women’s specific back system
There is a lot of debate over women’s outdoor gear and whether it needs to be “specific” in design and the like. When it comes to a back pack, having wide hips and narrow shoulders meant I was indeed on the lookout for a women’s specific pack as I knew that it would more likely fit my frame and be comfortable for long days wearing it.
The women’s specific Axiom 5 back in full view.
It is difficult for me to say whether this is the best back design for women, having not compared it properly with anything else, but I do know that once I got it adjusted properly, and worked out which straps did what so I could adjust further on the move, it is at least one worth considering. If you get this one, make sure you spend some time walking around with it (full) so you can get the hang of the different adjustments; they are advertised as being “simplest ever”, but they did take a few goes to get right!
Having a women’s fit does mean this pack is also very narrow. Maybe that’s a Lowe Alpine general feature, I’m not sure. This meant I didn’t feel like I was super wide when wearing it, I didn’t have to worry about making my way through trees or doorways; although it’s worth noting that with a narrow pack you’re going to end up with a tall pack – and as I’m not tall either I did feel like it was higher than my head!
I did very much appreciate the ventilated spacer-mesh back, which has a combination of dye cut foam and air space, which meant my back didn’t get too sweaty. It also meant that on wet days my back dried quicker than it would have done if the pack had been solidly against it. I would highly recommend a pack with this kind of back ventilation, it makes a massive difference to long-term comfort.
Front and lower entry
One of the things people kept telling me was that I should purchase a pack that allowed entry from the front as well as the top. And they were right; the versatility made it so easy to get my stuff in and out of the pack, especially when I was looking for something specific. I generally used the top opening for day-time in and out (I kept things I would need in the daytime at the top, naturally), and the front pocket for when I was setting up camp/when the pack was in my tent. It’s also worth noting here that the zips have so far been brilliant; the toggles were easy to grab even with (thin) gloves on, and there was no snagging or catching.
Test hike with full load.
Front stash pocket
Somewhere to put things I’d need very quickly was indeed handy, but the mesh pocket at the front isn’t as stretchy as I’d like. My old trusty day pack has a super stretchy front pocket which is so handy for waterproof trousers/jackets and the like, keeping damp stuff out of my main bag and things I might need to grab more than once each day within easy reach. This one was just a bit snug for waterproofs, which was a shame. It was still useful, but could be more so if it were more stretchy.
This strong handles on the front and back of the pack is one of those very small and simple additions to the Lowe Alpine Manaslu that made all the difference in practice. They’re just stuck there on the front, providing something to grab hold of anytime I needed to shift the pack. I used these handles a lot – to lift the pack up and down from tables and ledges, on and off the train, all sorts. Not having them wouldn’t have made things awful by any means, but it was certainly appreciated.
I know I’m not stood straight, but you can see the gap between the pack and my back. Great ventilation.
Stretchy side pockets and a note about hydration bladders
This pack does come with a bladder pocket but I chose to carry two 1 litre canteens in each if the two side pockets instead. There were a couple of reasons for this. The first and main reason was that the bladder pocket is inside the main compartment. This in turn meant that you can’t easily take out and refill the hydration bladder without emptying the bag of all your gear, and that if there is any leakage it will go all over your stuff inside the bag. The second was that I didn’t already own a bladder that would fit – my Osprey bladder was the wrong shape, and so after realising the problems with the pocket being internal, I didn’t bother buying one. I can be certain that I’d have been better hydrated if I had taken a bladder, but I managed just fine with the canteens.
The pockets on the side of the pack are large and super stretchy. They were plenty big enough for my 1 litre SIGG and 1.1 litre Klean Kanteen water bottles. I couldn’t grab my bottles whilst walking, but that’s one of the hidden benefits of hiking with a friend, or just a very good excuse to de-bag at every opportunity! It’s worth noting that the side pockets have compression straps that can be fastened inside or outside the pockets, meaning you can adjust them for pretty much any purpose (or sized water bottles).
Lashing points and accessory straps
The Lowe Alpine Manaslu comes with a number of straps that can be used to attach accessories to your pack, and a line of loops either side of the front to attach larger items with bungee cords. These were handy for my baseball cap and a couple of other bits, but I didn’t utilise them for anything major. If you wanted to have your sleeping mat on the outside of your pack, or you were carrying an ice axe or other such equipment, the various straps and loops would be ideal.
Two poles on one side, how I ended up most of the time.
Rotating hip belt – with pockets
I mentioned in my story at the start that adjusting the hip belt each day when I put on the pack ended up being one of the things that meant it was always comfortable. Adjusting the back also helped, of course. But that rotating hip belt is designed to move with your body and stop the bag from wobbling about a whole lot, and that seemed to work well. I would say that this particular feature made that section along Loch Lomond with all the boulders to climb over a lot easier than it could have been as the bag moved well with my body without rubbing or becoming unwieldy.
The two large pockets were also very handy indeed. When I see a pack with “hip belt pockets” I automatically think “snacks”! They’re quite sizeable and were very useful for on-the-go snacks, my phone and charger (vital bits of equipment!), lip salve, and a few other bits and bobs.
Walking pole attachments
Lowe Alpine have designed walking pole grippers that mean you can quickly attach your poles either side of your pack without having them under your arm or wider than you are. The placement of these works very well; I started by having one pole each side of the pack, as per the design, but I quickly chose to attach both poles on one side to make it quicker and easier to stow them and grab them as I needed – it just made sense for me to keep them together.
One pole on each side – how the pack is designed.
The fact that I could still get in and out of my pack via the top when the poles were attached, front and bottom pockets was a definite bonus; in the evenings I could just leave them attached, there was no chance of me leaving them behind as they were already on my pack!
Internal pocket and key clip
Another one of those added extra items that probably adds a bit of weight but is very is the internal zipped pocked at the top of the bag lid. It is quite hidden away, and well inside the bag, and so is good for my wallet, keys, train ticket home, and anything else I wanted to stow away and forget about while I was away. There was also a key clip which is useful if you don’t want to lose your car key in the vastness of space that is the rest of the pack.
It was very important that any pack I purchased either had a rain cover or was a shape that meant I could easily purchase one for it – the Lowe Alpine Manaslu comes with a bright orange number that folds away into a pocket in the bottom of the pack when it isn’t in use. The design was very simple; you pull it out of the pocket and fit it around the pack thanks to the elastic all the way around the edge. It got lots of use when I was hiking in Scotland, but unfortunately does already have a couple of holes in already thanks to putting the bag down on stones; I would have thought the rain cover would be a bit more durable than that. I shall repair the cover the next time I use the pack with a bit of Gorilla tape or similar, patches don’t bother me, but I would have liked it to last a bit longer than one week without needing mending.
Raining on the moor. Of course.
Overall Opinion of the Lowe Alpine Manaslu ND 55:65
Overall I do rate the Lowe Alpine Manaslu ND 55:65 as a great pack for trips where you need a lot of space, and I do recommend it for through hikes. It isn’t a pack you’d use if you were going lightweight, it’s got far too many “added features” to be completely necessary if you’re worried about each and every gram, but it more than did the job for me and my hiking-on-a-budget gear.
As I’ve never had a different large pack to compare it to, I can only say what I like and dislike about this one, rather than compare it. In summary I’d say the size and layout is excellent, the way it adjusts works well once you’ve got the hang of it, the features have been well thought-out and implemented, and the women’s specific fit is comfortable. There are a couple of could-do-betters such as the not particularly durable rain cover and the not very stretchy mesh front pocket, but those are niggles rather than contest losers.
Want to know something specific about the pack? I still have it, of course, and will happily answer any questions you might have.
Relaxed with my pack towards the end of our hike.