Elemental Horizons Kalais XT Backpack Review

The Elemental Horizons Kalais XT is available in a durable UL laminate called XPac
The Elemental Horizons Kalais XT is available in a durable UL laminate called XPac

Elemental Horizons is a well-regarded cottage backpack manufacturer based in North Carolina with a small but loyal customer following. They’ve recently added XPac fabric as a material option to their backpacks, including the adjustable frame Kalais XT reviewed here. XPac is an ultralight waterproof laminate like cuben fiber (now called Dyneema Composite Fabrics), but slightly heavier and more durable, that can be sewn like conventional materials and doesn’t have to be taped together like DCF.

Elemental Horizons Kalais XT Backpack

Comfort
Weight
Suspension
Features
Adjustability
Sizing
Durability

Highly Recommended

The Kalais XT is an adjustable frame ultralight backpack with a sophisticated hip belt, huge side bottle pockets, and best-in-class external attachment system. Made with durable and waterproof XPac fabric, it's suitable for 4 season backpacking use in warm weather and cold.

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Kalais XT Specs at a Glance

  • Frame type: Adjustable
  • Weight tested: 41 oz size medium;  45.5 oz actual, tested (size M torso, XL hip belt)
  • Volume: 49L
  • Mfg Max Recommended Load: 45 pounds (I agree)
  • Bear canister compatible: Yes, inside pack bag
  • Materials: X-Pac VX21 composite body with 210D Dyneema X pockets, spacer mesh on body contact areas
The Kalais XT has huge side water bottle pockets that stick out like hamster cheeks.
The Kalais XT has huge side water bottle pockets that stick out like hamster cheeks, but the pack bag itself is fairly narrow and easy to manage.

Internal Storage and Organization

The Kalais XT is an ultralight style roll-top backpack with large side water bottle pockets, a long external stuff pocket. The main pack bag is a roll-top with short strips of velcro at the top to hold it closed and a webbing stiffener to facilitate rolling it up. A single webbing strap runs over the roll-top and connects to the top of the pack’s rear stuff pocket.

The pack comes with two large, solid-faced hip belt pockets that close with zippers and can hold long objects like a Steripen or a collapsible camera tripod.  The pockets are removable. They’re attached to webbing on the hip belt strap with plastic clips, but don’t move up and down the webbing or bunch (in an annoying way) because the clips are captured on the hip belt. If you remove the pockets, you can hang carabiners from the daisy chains underneath, which is handy for winter hiking or climbing.

The side water bottle pockets are enormous and can easily hold 2 x one-liter bottles. The pockets are slanted to make it easy to reach back and pull out or replace water bottles while wearing the pack. Both pockets have an elastic cord w/ cord lock on top so you can cinch them shut for more security. There are also drain holes at the base of the pockets.

The side pockets are large enough to hold two water bottles
The side pockets are large enough to hold two water bottles and are easy to pull out and replace while wearing the pack.

The long stuff pocket is made with a combination of Dyneema X in the center with a lightweight fabric mesh along the sides. If your interest in the Kalais XT is off-trail travel, I’d recommend requesting a much stronger mesh as a customization or eliminating it altogether and opting for a solid Dyneema pocket.

If you use a hydration reservoir, there are gear loops inside the pack bag to hang them from (anchored below a horizontal frame stay), but no separate hydration pocket or sleeve. A hydration hose can then be routed through holes above the shoulder straps.

External Attachment and Compression System

The Kalais XT’s external attachment and compression system are pretty phenomenal. There are three tiers of side compression straps so you can compress a load or lash gear to the side of the pack. The Kalais XT isn’t a huge volume pack, but the added tier means that you can mix and match the straps, using a subset of the straps for compression and the rest to hold attachments, which is a nice perk if you carry tall skinny objects like an ax, paddle, skis, or rifle on your trips.

The Kalais XT has three tiers of compression straps with one hidden inside the side bottle pocket
The Kalais XT has three tiers of compression straps with one hidden inside the side bottle pocket.

But one of the things that sets the Kalais XT apart, is the number of reinforced gear loops arranged around the pack for lashing extra gear to the outside:

  • There are 11 gear loops anchored in the rear pack seams, so you can route cord over the log stuff pocket.  This is very handy when you need to carry extra traction devices like snowshoes or crampons, for winter hiking, but can have myriad other uses.
  • An additional 6 gear loops are arranged around the perimeter of spacer mesh below the shoulder straps (behind your back), which can be used to rig up external attachments along the sides of the pack, with the rear gear loops described above.
  • There are another 4 gear loops arranged around the base of the pack below the corners of the side pockets. These can also be used to hang gear below the pack like a tent or sleeping pad, which is very handy when you have a bulky load.

If you don’t need all these gear loops for your trips, they’re really quite harmless and don’t add any measurable weight to the pack. But if your trips involve carrying extra equipment for guiding, trail maintenance, fishing, hunting, winter hiking, or mountaineering, having them is priceless.

The Kalais XT has a V-Shaped frame stay that slots into the hip belt
The Kalais XT has a V-Shaped frame stay that slots into the hip belt

Backpack Frame and Suspension System

The Kalais XT is an adjustable frame backpack, meaning that you can raise or lower the shoulder yoke to match your torso length and dial in a near-custom fit. The height of the shoulder yoke is controlled by an adjustable webbing strap, while velcro panels behind the shoulder straps hold the yoke to the pack and prevent any lateral slippage.

The frame is a V-shaped stay that slots into the hip belt at the bottom, providing excellent load transfer to the hips. The V-shaped stay has a cross-bar at the top, for added stiffness, and provides an effective anchor for the pack’s load lifter straps. The hip belt is also available in multiple lengths and replaceable, so you can get the fit you need.

Closeup of Kalais XT hip belt with pockets removed. The two webbing straps can be adjusted independently, but connect at a central buckle.
Closeup of Kalais XT hip belt with pockets removed. The two webbing straps can be adjusted independently, but connect at a central buckle.

The hip belt is 5 inches wide so there’s a lot of contact with your hips for effective load transfer. There’s a low profile lumbar pad that slots into a hip belt cutout over the frame stays so you can’t feel them, but doesn’t really add any noticeable padding over your lower back. The hip belt closes with a two-tier strap so you can fine-tune the hip belt fit at the top and bottom of the belt. The straps are pull-forward for mechanical advantage but connect at a central buckle so the webbing ends don’t hang in front of your zipper. It’s a great hip belt, actually. There’s a little slip with heavy loads when the spacer mesh padding in the hip belt compresses, but the hip belt won’t slip below your hip bones.

The shoulder straps are lightly padded with spacer mesh and flexible, with load lifter straps. But there are no daisy chains on the shoulder straps to hang gear from, which I would ask for as a custom option because I like hanging accessory pockets and navigation gear from them.

The Kalais makes an excellent 4 season backpack
The waterproof Kalais XT makes an excellent 4 season backpack.

Comparable Backpacks

Make / ModelPriceWeight (oz)Type
Gossamer Gear Silverback 55$32543.4Roll top, Top lid
Gossamer Gear Mariposa 60$27030.5Speed flap
Granite Gear Crown 2 - 60L$20036.7Roll top, Top lid
Granite Gear Blaze 60$27048Roll top, Top lid
Hyperlite Mountain Gear SW 3400$34532.11Roll top
Osprey Exos 58$22043Top lid, speed flap
Gregory Optic 58$21043.35Top lid, speed flap
Zpacks Arc Blast 55$32521Roll top
Mountain Laurel Designs Exodus 57$21518Roll top
Mountainsmith Scream 55$16045Roll top
Seek Outside Gila 3500 (57L)$33947Roll top, side zipper
Sierra Designs Flex Capacitor$20041.2Top lid
Elemental Horizons Kalais$27037Roll top

Recommendation

The Kalais XT is a superlative ultralight style backpack with an adjustable torso length. It carries great, even with heavy loads, with a highly adjustable hip belt, huge side water bottle pockets, and a best-in-class external attachment system. Weighing 41 oz in a size medium, it is a substantial backpack by today’s UL standards, but the added weight of an XPac backpack (3 oz more than the regular Kalais) is well worth it if you’re rough on backpacks or hike off-trail through hell and back. The Kalais XT is also notable because it can be used as a 4 season backpack, equally suited for warm weather and cold, when having a waterproof pack with a flexible external attachment system is a real plus.

Disclosure: The manufacturer supplied the author with a sample backpack for this review.

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13 comments

  1. How well does this handle a 45lb load? I sometimes have to carry a lot of extra water and my pack can reach into the 30s on occasion. Trying to find a new pack that can carry 35lbs comfortably while still being on the lighter side. Right now I have an osprey Aether 70

    • It’s the upper limit. The frame is nice and stiff, so it won’t sag. Your comfort will depend more on your glute and torso strength than the pack.

  2. Philip, you have recently reviewed this and the Seek Outside Gila. Both seem to be outstanding packs. They seem to be similar weights, sizes and materials except for the external frame. Could you please comment on how they compare and which you would pick?

  3. I just returned form a two-week trip in Utah where I gave my new Kalais a workout. Thank you for directing my attention to its existence, without your review I would never have found out about it.

    I love the ginormous side pockets, one of which accepted my Tarptent Bowfin in a vertical position (like you I hate it when I have to put it vertically inside the pack) with room to spare. On the other side I carried a 1L and a 2L Platypus bottle. For the larger bottles it is probably better to have a line loop around the neck (a la Evernew) and to secure this loop at one of the compression straps. The big bottle fell out on occasion during bush whacking because of the higher point of gravity. The bottles are easy to reach and replace while walking owing to the shape of the pockets.

    The fit adjustment took me a bit, but that’s mostly because there are so many “knobs” one can turn that to work all the combinations (if one is so inclined) and testing the results takes some time. I could have of course gone with the first setting that felt right, so the time the adjustment took says more about me than about the pack.

    The hipbelt is great and can also be adjusted in a multitude of ways. The hipbelt pockets sit relatively far back in comparison to my Zpacks Arc Haul, but one gets used to it pretty quickly. It’s just that one cannot as easily look into the pocket as on the Haul while searching for something.

    I went with the standard cloth and the Utah sandstone did a bit of a number on it when I had to raise the pack on a rope. The pack handled the bushwhacking through Russion Olive and Tamarisk djungles like a champ. No issues with the mesh on the front pocket, looks like new.

    The mesh of the back panel is a first rate detritus trap. I will be spending some time with a pair of forceps to remove this junk, a good opportunity to reflect on the beauty seen on this trip. All my previous packs had smooth outer surfaces, so this is my first encounter with this (first world) problem.

    Matt was a pleasure to deal with. He checked on my homework and identified an error in the sizing of my order. Don’t be concerned when you read that he “packs are made to order”, I had mine within 10 days.

    Thanks again for alerting me to the existence of this great pack.

  4. Thanks for all your fabulous reviews, Phillip. Though a life-long outdoorsman, I’m relatively new to the backpacking scene and have found your insight very valuable.

    I just ordered up the Kalais XT a couple weeks ago, and was wondering if you could give me any tips on seam sealing it or maybe an opinion as to whether or not it’s necessary. I’m in the PNW, but mainly hiking on the drier side of the state but would really like to do away with the pack liner.

    Matthew has been great to work with and very willing to interact and customize the backpack. Thanks again for your help!

    • Matthew probably has more experience in that area than I. I’d ask him for his advice so you get a “clean” looking job. You can make a horrible mess with seam sealing a pack that’s hard to reverse. If you’re using waterproof stuff sacks already, you might want to ask if you really need to waterproof it at all. Most sewn seans are pretty tight already and won’t leak unless you’re packrafting and the added water pressure forces water through them.

      • Thanks, I’ll ask him as I really don’t want to make a mess of it or do it at all if it’s unnecessary (since it won’t be used for packrafting and such–for now). My limited experience with seam sealing my Stratospire II confirms the difficulty of leaving things with a clean appearance.

  5. Philip,

    Nice review! I have the Gregory Optic 58 now and have been in touch with Matthew ( owner) about the Kalais. I like my Optic but gave been wanting to try an ultralight cottage company pack for a while now. I narrowed it down to this or an HMG Southwest 3400..

    This seems to be a clear favorite. Is this pack a clear upgrade over the Optic in terms of comfort/suspension? My loads are generally 20-35 lbs.

    Is the XPac version worth it especially if you should be using a pack liner anyways?

    I have one day left to order and get 15% off. Any insight or recommendations are appreciated.

    • Hard to compare this with the Optic. It’s so different. I’d definitely consider it an upgrade though. It’d probably be overkill for a 20-pound load.
      If you get a Kalais, this might well be the last pack you ever buy…

      • Ok great, price aside is the XPac a no brainer . I’m not thru hiking or logging hundreds of miles but if you recommend the XPac I trust you knowledge and recommendation, not sure if I truly need XPac for my needs..

      • You probably don’t need the Xpac.

  6. Thanks Philip, hopefully I got my hip belt measurement right, a little concerned about that but we’ll see

  7. For what it’s worth, I’ve also found the side pockets to be exceptionally well-suited for carrying morrels home when I find them trailside. I’ve put 60-70mi, on the pack since receiving it early this year and have really enjoyed it. We frequently carry way too much extra water weight here in the Central OR high desert, and I also often carry some gear for one of my kids. This pack carries the additional weight splendidly (though my knees don’t appreciate it!).

    The Kalais XT pack has been a joy to carry both sub-alpine and in the desert and is very versatile for such a lightweight pack. Wonderfully adjustable fit (if you purchase it in the right size ranges–which Matt is very helpful in determining), and a simple, great layout in every respect. The X-Pac shows absolutely no wear at all after rubbing on numerous snags and brush throughout my off-trail wanders. Your review was very helpful, Phillip.

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