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Kelty’s Ultralight Backpack: An Introduction to The Cloud

The Kelty Spectra Cloud Backpack
The Kelty Spectra Cloud Backpack

Kelty is not a name that you normally associate with ultralight backpacks. But between 1994 and 2004, Kelty manufactured several versions of a distinctive, all-white backpack called the Cloud which rocked the outdoor industry and helped establish many of the design concepts that are still in use by gear manufacturers that specialize in making lightweight and ultralight backpacks.

Ultralight Fabric

Ranging from 4000 cubic inches (66L) to 6500 cubic inches (107 L) in size, all of the packs in the Cloud family (including the Phantom, the Vapor, the White Cloud, and the White Phantom) were made out of a ultralight fabric called Spectra, which is super tough, abrasion and puncture resistant. For a more information about Spectra, see this Wikipedia article about it.

This resulted in packs with very low base weights, weighing slightly over 1 pound, that pack owners could add components to depending on the functional capabilities needed for a given expedition. For instance, the base weight of the Cloud Backpack shown here is 1 pound 4 ounces but grows to 3 pounds 7 ounces when fully tricked out with every add-on component imaginable for an alpine expedition. That’s pretty awesome for a mountaineering-class backpack.

Although Spectra had many advantages compared to the heavy duty nylon and canvas pack cloth used in other packs from that era, it was difficult to sew using conventional sewing equipment. Furthermore, the Cloud pack design is exceptionally intricate and complicated, making all of the Cloud family backpacks very expensive to manufacture because they had to be made by hand using special equipment.

Optional Side Pockets
Optional Side Pouches

Modular Components

Besides using ultralight materials, the breakthrough design concept inherent in all of the Cloud packs was modularity, allowing the user to add or subtract pack components depending on the needs of their journey. That means everything except the base sack which includes an extension collar, sewn-on daisy chains, shoulder straps and a sternum strap, is an optional and removable component, including:

  • Compression straps
  • Ice axe loops
  • Top lid w/ zippered pocket
  • Side pockets w/ zippers
  • Hip belt with a Scherer Cinch
  • Hip belt tool loops for racking climbing gear
  • Plastic framesheet with aluminum stays
  • Front shovel pocket with drainage holes and shock cord compression
  • Side haul loops
Kelty Cloud Backpack with Optional Shovel Pocket and Ice Axe Loop
Kelty Cloud Backpack with Optional Shovel Pocket and Ice Axe Loop

In practice, this means you can configure the Cloud in many different ways, from a simple frameless summit pack without a top lid, hip belt or internal framesheet to a full-on 4 season mountaineering backpack capable of hauling a ton of mountaineering or ice climbing gear, food, a shelter, extra clothing and a sleep system. That kind of versatility in a single backpack remains unmatched to this day, but would be a tremendous value if it were executed with the advances in backpacking materials that have become available in the past decade.

While, I’ve only had this pack a few days (a much longer review of it is forthcoming) I’ve already practiced packing it for a variety of different winter trips that require different capabilities. For example, a multi-day alpine backpacking trip requires the use of a shovel pocket to hold my crampons and avalanche shovel, side pockets to hold my above-treeline goggles, facemask and glove systems, and an ice axe loop to hold my walking ax.  But, I wouldn’t want any of those extra components on the pack for a winter bushwhack because they’ll catch on the trees and bushes in my path. I need two different backpacks for those hike types today, but I’d much rather just own one that I could “program” depending on the capabilities I need for a given trip.

Kelty Cloud: Shoulder Straps, Load Lifters, and Detachable Hip Belt
Shoulder Straps, Load Lifters, and Detachable Hip Belt

Sticker Shock

Kelty Cloud backpacks are collector’s items today on the vintage mountaineering gear market and the only reason I have one is because Kelty was nice enough to loan me one to try out.  When Kelty still manufactured and sold them, a 4500 cubic inch Cloud retailed for about $525 and went up from there for the higher capacity models. Used Clouds still sell for $500 and up, but they are very hard to find.

Is it worth it, or was it worth it when Clouds were more available?

Yes, probably, when you consider that the people using Cloud packs were probably going on mountaineering expeditions where they needed super tough gear and where a defective backpack would blow a trip and the cost of the journey.

Still even today, I could see shelling out that much money for a backpack if it was sufficiently lightweight (under 1.5 pounds for 3 season use), could be used for 3 season and 4 season backpacking and bushwhacking, and would last 5 or more years, given the amount of abuse I put my packs through today.

Imagine that. One backpack for multiple uses and ultralight to boot.

 Disclosure: Kelty loaned Philip Werner a Kelty Cloud Backpack for testing and review. 

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23 comments

  1. Hah. I saw the name of this post and thought, “what? They’re making them again?” This is interesting… Kelty loaned one for you to try out… are they thinking of manufacturing them again, or was this at your request or for some other reason? That’s kind of cool.

    I remember looking at these packs back in the day and thinking they were just the coolest thing. I’d pretty much forgotten about them until now. Thanks for bringing back that memory ;)

    • Not that I am aware of. I just asked a colleague who works for them whether they had an old one I could try out and he found one! These packs are incredibly rare, and while I’ve considered buying a used one just to try it out, I figured I’d just ask to see if I could get a loaner from the source. It was a complete hail mary – but it paid off.

    • I was thinking the same!

      I wonder how Spectra compares to the new “wonder” material, Cuben, for backpack use. From what I understand the big difference is that Cuben is fully waterproof where as Spectra and other spinnaker cloths) are not, but otherwise they are essentially the same.

      Awaiting your full review!

      • I’m far more interested in the backpack architecture and how the design choices contribute to the packs performance than the fabric it is made out of. Spectra is a historical footnote as far as I’m concerned and cuben will likely go the same way because it is so difficult to work with. As for waterproof fabrics – that’s outside of the scope of the upcoming review, but I want to emphasize that any backpack that has stitching in it that is not seam sealed is not waterproof. It doesn’t matter if it’s made out of Dyneema or Cuben which are both waterproof, if the article has a stitch, it’s as waterproof as a pasta colander

      • Very true. However, and I don’t know why the Cuben backpacking world hasn’t caught on to this, but Cuben should never be sewn, it should be taped, everywhere. Taping provides the required seam “water-proofness”, a superior bond strength to sewing, and does not inherently damage the material. It is also far cheaper to construct as well.

        I’m currently constructing some Cuben gear with a 40ft roll I purchased for cheap, and am convinced that full taping is the revolution that Cuben needs in this industry.

      • How do you plan on attaching the hip belt and shoulder straps, the daisy chains, etc. Tape isn’t robust enough. It’s the interface to other materials where cuben fails.

      • my goal is to limit the use of other material types where they are not absolutely needed, and to keep the interface for where they are designed so that the sewing does not compromise the waterproofness of the overall design.

        It’s a lot of design considerations, choices, and such, which means it’s slow going when you have a normal job, but I think the end result will be worth it.

      • Just a side note, cuban fiber is actually dyneema fibers sandwiched in a polyester film. It’s really a direct evolution of the same materials used in the Kelty cloud.

        I expect we won’t see dyneema go away any time soon. What we are more likely to see is medium light weight woven fabrics made from nylon or polyester blended with dyneema for reduced weight while retaining the ability to manufacture it with traditional methods.

        Eventually we’re going to reach a point where lighter weight has diminishing returns, cuban probably is there now. Then the objective becomes how do we make this gear cheaper, stronger, and easier to manufacture.

      • Totally concur. Dyneema-based fabrics are used fairly widely already and will grow in usage because they can be manufactured at scale using existing methods.

  2. Very cool. I have seen literature about these packs, but very interested to hear your take after some trips. After the discussion around “Made in the USA” in your last post, I am curious to know where Kelty made these by hand. I love reading about gear and always forget that similar to other things they can be collector’s items over time. If there is a museum out there for all things backpacking, I think I am ready to visit.

  3. My buddy Ted had the white one, and I had the blue one. BTW in my experience, the greatest collector of classic hiking gear is the great Monte Dodge.

  4. I’ve been using Spectra/Dyneema packs exclusively for many years now. Yes they are expensive but worth every penny. No other fabric even comes close to the durability. You may want to check out packs by Cilogear which is a small mfg of the highest quality mountaineering/climbing packs.

    http://www.cilogear.com

  5. Years ago I came across a Kelty Cloud on close out at REI and and was tempted, but even at 50% it was still expensive and didn’t seem to have the same carry comfort as the pack I was using at the time (the original Aether 60). Sometime later I borrowed a friends for a few trips. I have to say that it’s performance reminded me of every other “do everything” item I have used. It was adequate for every task, but items designed for a specific purpose I found out performed it in their notch, and give the very high price tag, it was cheap to buy 2-3 packs than the Cloud.

    –Mark

  6. I was given one of these backpacks, but unfortunately it is too big for me (I’m 5’9). I would like to sell it, but am not sure how to target a person that would appreciate its value. Do you have any ideas? Thanks.

  7. cuben is nice and light, however it is not very abrasion resistant. I like spectra backpacks because they are very abrasion resistant. That is how I wear out my backpacks.

  8. I remember seeing this pack back when I did the PCT. Expensive, but innovative pack in many ways.

  9. I left one of these in Katmandu in 2011 and have been kickin my self and crying ever since! Hell it cost over 400 smack-a-Roos!! “Whitey” please come home.I’m Sorry ! Love You Rob

  10. I received a Kelty Cloud 6500 as a fathers day present for my first Phillmont trip with Boy scouts of America in 2004. I have used it extensively for 10 years and it is still my favorite pack. I have removed the rear pouch as it is not needed and plan to use the pack for section hiking on the Appalachian trail this summer. If you want one pack to last you a lifetime the Kelty cloud could be the one.

  11. Does any one know where to aquire the two side bags for these packs

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