A little while ago, I saw a pretty inflammatory Camelbak advertisement: the last time you bought a hydration pack, they looked like this.
Nothing could be truer for me. I had an ancient blue Camelbak Mule, complete with zips busted from chronic overloading, horrendous fading and sweat staining, and a certified biohazard status. But, for all the years I’d had it, and thousands of kilometres in all kinds of conditions it had done, I’d never found another hydration bag that came close to carrying load as well as the Camelbak.
Anyway, my housemates banned me from shipping it to New Zealand (amen, poor little Mule), it was time to look into a replacement. There are plenty of good options on the market now, but the ability to carry weight well made me go straight back to Camelbak, and my tendency for overfilling made me look to the HAWG (heaps of water and gear).
The bag needed to fill a few criteria – it had to be capable of carrying sufficient gear for daily commuting (once earning me the nickname “backpack boy”), had to be able to carry enough gear for an epic day ride or summer overnighter, had to be able to carry lightly for the climbs, and stably for the descents. A tricky set of requirements to fulfil! Six months later, and I’ve done quite a few epics on the HAWG, including a nice 2 day 360km epic in 36 degree heat – enough to get a good feel for the bag.
The HAWG is a little different from the MULE, and has adapted to the requirements for bags to be stable descending, by using the “low rider” approach. This uses a completely different bladder shape (low and squat), and a snug and tight lumber belt to fit around the waist.
This is different for me – most of my riding had been done with hip straps open to minimise restrictions on hip and core movements while climbing.
It works pretty well – the bag carries low, snugly and tight on descents, with minimal obstruction or movement, even when loaded up heavily. When climbing, it can still be nice to open up the straps for a bit more wiggle room and flexibility – but most importantly, the bag still carries “lightly” even when loaded up with kilograms of gear.
The key to this is in the shape of the bag’s back support. While I haven’t assessed scientifically, the support of the bag is intended to follow the curvature of a slightly arched back which results from a conventional pedalling position. This allows an even distribution of weight across the back, rather than centralising across either the shoulders or the lumber. This, for me, has been the bane of so many walking packs for commuting or epic rides – with the straight back design, your lower back or shoulders overload almost immediately – disastrous memories of a Kiwi Brevet with a hiking pack and severely busted shoulders and back spring to mind.
This was confirmed for me when I took the HAWG for a day walk in the Able Tasman national park. Although it carried reasonably well, it immediately felt awkward and lumpy when loaded up against a straight back. In the proverbial light-bulb moment, the penny dropped for me that walking bags and riding bags are very, very different beasts.
My epic ride gear list might look something like the below:
- Large bladder and tabs/Steripen
- Sandwiches, bananas, muesli bars galore
- Suncream / chamois creme
- Rain shell / warm clothing
- First aid kit, spare tubes, pump, multi-tool, tyre boots, chain links, chain lube
- Sometimes, pads, or maybe even some snorkelling kit or similar
So, what comprises a bag suitable for an epic? The key criteria is the ability to carry lots of water easily, and the HAWG uses a 3L bladder, with a detachable hose to ease with refilling. Then, you need the ability to carry “heaps of gear”. The HAWG has a 17L capacity, realised across three major compartments. This is nifty, because it facilitates one of the vital laws of epic riding packing: separation of contents! (such as, separating riding food from rain clothes, thus avoiding the horror of mashed banana skin inside an undershirt. There are separate little pouches for tools, pumps, and a loop to attach keys or other precious and easily lost items.
What I’m not so fond of is that the zips extend full-length – while this helps with loading the bag, it’s easy for a careless user like me to leave little gaps at the side and jettison valuable cargo.
In keeping with the competitor Osprey, there are also a few bells and whistles – magnetic tube holders, detachable hoses, and a few little gear loops, small food pouches in the hip belts, helmet clips, and a rain flap . As cool as they are, I’m inclined to think they’re a little lost on a stuff-and-go person like me. Most importantly, the valve on the bladders is a simple lever system – effective and easy – sweet relief from the slightly infuriating bite valves of the past.
After 6 months or so I’m very content and have found a great companion for epic rides. I think the MULE, with its simpler hip straps and no-frills layout may be the better option for the XC oriented rider, but have appreciated the stability of the HAWG bombing down hills. I can only hope it lasts as long as my previous Camelbak…
Thanks to Matt Staggs for the detail shots.