Gear Lab: Packs

If a backpack can survive road rash at 60 miles per hour, it can handle any backcountry abuse.

As every Ben-Hur fan knows, getting dragged by a chariot makes slot-canyon abrasions seem like gentle handling. The modern-day equivalent: getting dragged behind an SUV. We tied the ARC'TERYX Arrakis 65 ($499), Granite Gear Vapor Flash ($180), The North Face Skareb 65 ($259), Millet Peuterey 50L ($200), and Mountainsmith Eclipse 55 ($199) to the bumper and towed them down a dirt road. To make it scientific, we covered the one-mile course three times, at 20 mph, 40 mph, and 60 mph. Charlton Heston would be proud.

At 20 mph, small holes appeared in the outermost layers of three packs. Only the Granite Gear (tiny holes in the lightweight lid material) and The North Face (just dust) escaped without damage you'd want to fix before your next trip. When we sped up to 40 mph, though, The North Face developed more serious rips. At 60, all but the Granite Gear suffered frayed hipbelts, broken metal zippers, and melted plastic clips. The Granite Gear's lid was wrecked, but the pack itself remained the only usable contender.

The Granite Gear is neither the heaviest or costliest pack in the test, but little details can make a big difference in durability. The Flash is made with abrasion-resistant, 210-denier Cordura nylon, like many tough packs, but Granite Gear improves durability by minimizing seams and connections (weak points), and by reinforcing taped seams with top-stitching. And the pack's nontexturized nylon (look for a slick, shiny sheen) has parallel, high-tenacity fibers; it scuffs more easily than bulkier texturized nylon, but it resists holes and tears better.

Bob Upton, of Seattle's Rainy Pass Repair, says broken zippers are his shop's most common pack fix. To prevent failure, he advises, "Use a zipper lubricant like Zip Care [$5,] to clean and lubricate it. And don't use wax or soap on zippers because they will leave a residue that can damage the slider." Patch holes in the field using back-to-back swatches of McNett's Tenacious Tape ($4). At home, make a permanent patch using pack fabric ( and McNett's Seam Grip ($8).