As everyone knows, Montane is a decent company conscientiously making innovative, functional gear. Nonetheless I personally found their Ultra Tour 40 backpack uncomfortable. Explaining why enables me to explore some general issues with frameless packs, as well as to relate how, for me, this particular pack seemed to make those issues worse than they need to be.
Consider (above) this line-up of suspects, arrayed left to right in increasing order of floppiness. In this photo each has an identical small cushion stuffed into its bottom, as if prepared for a spanking.
On the left my Berghaus Roc, a dear old friend, ca. 1999 and still going strong, veteran of two Pennine Ways and many other adventures. No frou-frou pockets or dangly dongles, tough as old boots, made from gnarly mil-spec nylon. This is the backpack to fling onto the roof of an Indian bus. I love it and still find it very comfortable. In this fully framed pack, internal metal struts make the back panel completely rigid. Hence, as you can see, it stands up by itself even when mostly empty. The elephant in the tent is that it’s heavy, by modern standards, and my knees aren’t what they used to be.
On the right, my new best friend, a vintage GoLite bought for £48 on eBay. Absurdly simple, literally just a sack with straps. Veteran of the Scottish National Trail and several other adventures. I love this pack too, I’ve walked over 800 miles with it carrying full camping gear and find it very comfortable. It’s utterly minimal and has no frame whatsoever, its only structural element is a skinny and completely flexible foam layer inside the back panel. I wish you could still buy these elemental, reliable and frankly rather stylish packs.
In the middle is the Montane Ultra Tour 40. As you can see it’s a third way pack, neither fish nor fowl. It’s called ‘frameless’ but they’ve hedged their bets by inserting a sheet of semi-rigid plastic, like glorified styrofoam, into the back panel. I bought the medium/large size, by the way, as despite being only 175 cm tall I have a torso length of 51 cm (I blame short legs for my inability to run).
Consider a fully-framed backpack (below). The length of the back panel, distance D, is fixed. It’s determined by the frame and cannot change, however you adjust the straps or load lifters.
Consider the Montane Ultra Tour 40 (below). Lacking a rigid frame, its equivalent distance D is variable. For the pack to ride comfortably and behave predictably over long distances we must try to constrain distance D to a fixed length. The only way to do this with a frameless pack is by strategically packing then firmly compressing the contents. This compressing is what those green side straps are for.
In the photo above, the contents are insufficiently compressed and both the shoulder straps and load lifters are too tight. You can see some of the problems that arise. When you tighten the shoulder straps, trying to stop your load from flopping about, distance D shortens. The back of the hipbelt is pulled up so it’s no longer effectively sharing load. Creases form at A, and an annoying fold at B. In passing, the load lifters are nowhere near as effective as on a framed pack. All they did when the pack was full was to pull the top of it forward into the back of my neck at C. I found this annoying rather than helpful.
So you can’t just sling your kit into a frameless pack willy-nilly and wander off hoping for the best. You’re supposed to pack intelligently and firmly, and impose structure on the thing. One popular suggestion is the ‘burrito method’, using a CCF sleeping mat to create a rigid internal cylinder. I found this method pretty hopeless.
Ten millimetre foam gave some structure but it’s far more hassle than you need on a wet, cold morning in the hills to get such a stiff mat to expand fully into the sack, and it also takes up far too much room in a 40 litre pack. It also ‘burrito’d’ my pack into such a curved cylinder that the pads were forced away from my shoulders, pressing the centre of the pack directly onto my vertebrae which soon became very uncomfortable.
A five millimetre mat leaves more room but isn’t rigid enough to impose worthwhile structure and anyway isn’t warm enough for three season camping in the British hills. In both cases it becomes impossible to pack optimally. Furthermore the bottom of the Ultra Tour 40 is not flat. Even when you force the CCF cylinder down as far as it will go against the outer panel, there is still a floppy section of the inner panel creasing against your lower back. And I don’t even like CCF mats.
Abandoning the burrito, you end up having to optimise two parameters simultaneously, which frankly is more mental effort than I need on a multi-week hike. One is the way your pack hangs. Rather than getting the hipbelt sitting just right, then adjusting the straps and lifters to match, as I was used to doing with a framed pack, I found you need to first allow the pack to hang freely from your shoulders, so its weight stretches the back panel fully. Only then do you tie the hipbelt at the level to which it has naturally fallen.
This is all very well but I found that to stretch the back panel of the Ultra Tour 40 fully, my hip belt was descending uncomfortably low. It ended up strapped around my pelvis, constraining my walking, rather than resting correctly just on top of it. This was despite my torso length being well within the design range for this size of pack, as confirmed by the outdoor shop I bought it from with a back measuring gauge. I might have been better off with the small/medium size instead of the medium/large, but if that’s actually the case then Montane’s size guide for these packs is unhelpful in a frameless context.
The other parameter is how your contents are stowed. You’re supposed to place long, stiff items against the back panel before compressing the whole caboodle very firmly. Again this is all very well, but I didn’t have any long stiff items (my tent uses my trekking poles). I tried putting my Thermarest in the water bladder pocket (I don’t use water bladders) but it made no difference. I stuffed and compressed the pack as hard as I could, but after three miles or so of walking it was always uncomfortable due to a sharp crease forming in the back panel.
After several miles this would start to draw blood from my back unless I sorted it out rapidly. On short trial hikes I’d improvised fixes, but fifteen miles from Kirk Yetholm on a southbound Pennine Way I was already looking in despair at outdoor websites that might possibly despatch a replacement pack to Alston hostel.
Luckily, I did find a way of improving matters. By ramming my rigid plastic first aid box hard down behind my other stuff, I found I could jam it within the pack at precisely the point of fold, easing the crease incompletely but adequately. Once I discovered this trick, the pack was tolerable, but never really comfortable, for the next 250 miles.
One might reasonably wonder whether this would equally be a problem with any frameless pack. I wondered that too and was very relieved when I subsequently had no such issues with my GoLite.
I found I could chuck my stuff into that completely unstructured backpack pretty much randomly. I hardly needed to pay any attention to packing distribution or compression, it was always comfortable. Somehow the clever design of the GoLite enables the weight of its contents, however incompetently stowed, to stretch the back panel nice and smooth, free from uncomfortable creases.
Unfortunately the same cannot be said of the Ultra Tour 40 and ultimately it seemed to me that the well-known disadvantages of completely frameless packs are actually made worse by the semi-rigid back panel fitted inside this one. Small creases do sometimes form in the GoLite but, as its back panel is completely flexible and memory-free, they soon release if you shuffle your stuff around. Montane’s back panel has memory and its crease quickly becomes permanent.
The creasing seems to me exacerbated by the orientation of the hipbelt. As you can see from the three photos below, in the Bergaus Roc and the GoLite the hipbelt is attached at only a little more than ninety degrees to the back panel. In the Ultra Tour 40 however the hipbelt hangs down at a much more obtuse angle, in fact it’s almost pointing at your knees when undone. When you pull the hipbelt up into a horizontal position to fasten it, this obviously forces the back panel of the rucksack to cinch and fold, making the crease at B worse.
It may be that I was using my Ultra Tour 40 wrongly, in which case I’d appreciate advice. Like most outdoor gear, it came with no meaningful instructions or indeed meaningful information of any kind. As usual, the swing tags were purely decorative, their wording just marketing hype equally useless in any of its several languages.
I must say this pack is a generous forty litres, I walked the Pennine Way with it carrying three season camping gear and was never limited for capacity. This was partly thanks to the three large external mesh pockets which are stretchy and cleverly designed to retain a lot of stuff. However they’re not hard-wearing; they quickly snag and tear on fences and their hem stitching soon frayed.
The Ultra Tour 40 may initially have a slight water sensitivity and perhaps need to choose from the water-free menu, but waterproof it is not, certainly not after ten days on the trail. Like all backpacks of my experience it’s incorrigibly hydrophilic; drybags are a must.
I couldn’t really work out what to keep in the floppy little shoulder pockets, they’re the wrong shape for a phone and too small for meaningful hydration. In the end my Sprayway hat lived in one of them. Mind you, I never really know what to do with hipbelt pockets either. These examples are not the slightest bit weatherproof and once they were filled with random bits and bobs which I then had no idea where to find, they jammed annoyingly in narrow kissing gates.
People say they like all these fancy pockets so they can access mission-critical accoutrements without taking their pack off. Personally I cannot understand this aversion to taking a rucksack off. If your backpack is difficult to put on and take off, it’s too heavy. I like nothing better than taking my rucksack off, in fact I fling mine off with glad abandon at any opportunity.
You’d think other reviews of the Montane Ultra Tour 40 might be available, but in fact they’re distinctly scarce.
Here an enthusiastic young man who works for some outdoor shop recites the exciting features you can see for yourself on the maker’s website. Don’t you love ‘reviews’ like that?
On UK Climbing somebody says “the back system does have the propensity to ‘ruck’ above the waist belt if not fully loaded; this doesn’t appear to cause my partner problems (though might for others).” Fair enough. Live for the Outdoors while trying to make an honest living selling you the thing does admit that “the level of comfort is below that of other packs, if you pack this badly or carry a heavy load, as there is no stiffening in the back, and the load does not transfer easily to the hips” Reasonable, although perhaps not explaining the problem.
I did manage an entire Pennine Way with the Ultra Tour 40, so I suppose I got value for money as it’s not expensive. But rather than a life-enhancing companion and helpmate, as a rucksack should be, it was an annoying extra worry.
The real point is that I’ve subsequently learnt how a well designed frameless pack carrying exactly the same gear over equally long distances can be no trouble at all. My older, simpler GoLite is, in comparison, a joy to carry and I won’t be using the Montane pack again.