Katabatic Gear is best known for their quilts, but they also make backpacks, including the Helios 55 cuben fiber pack, what I jokingly refer to as “the other white backpack.” I’ve been using the 32 ounces Helios 55 for backpacking and winter alpine ascents and it’s a great four season capable pack, definitely worth a look if you want a multi-day cuben fiber pack (MSRP $350) with a ventilated back panel for on-trail use. A 420d nylon version is also available for $25 less.
Storage and Organization
The Helios 55 is a lid-less roll top style backpack with two side water bottle pockets and a rear back pocket that’s attached to the back of the pack with stretchy Spandura (stretch Cordura) side panels. Most of the pack’s capacity is in the Helios’ main compartment which swallows a ton of gear, or the 8.7L extension collar which provides extra storage capacity. The white interior of the pack makes it very easy to see the contents while the roll top closure makes it easy to pull out whatever you need.
The roll top clips together on top or using webbing straps that are anchored inside the side pockets. I prefer to buckle the main compartment shut on top, since there’s also a webbing strap that runs from the back panel between the shoulders over the top and clips to the back of the pack; although you could also anchor the ends using the side straps. Those same side straps can be run behind the pack for compression or as an extra attachment point when not in use. More on this below.
The Helios 55 also has a large rear pocket good for storing layers or gear you want fast access to during the day. The back of the pocket is faced with cuben fiber for durability, while the sides are black Spandura which provides stretch and water drainage. While the fine weave is tear resistant, I wouldn’t advise taking this pack off-trail into thick brush.
The pack has two side water bottle pockets, also made with the same black Spandura fabric. While I can reach behind and pull water bottles out from the side pockets, getting them back in while wearing the pack is a little trickier since the bottom compression strap and a roll top strap terminate inside the pocket. The bottom compression strap can also be routed outside the water bottle pocket, but there’s still an extra buckle inside it.
There’s an elastic cord and cord lock that runs through the top of the pocket which you can cinch close to keep bottles or other loose gear from falling out. However, the black Spandura fabric at the bottom of the pockets is flush with the bottom of the pack and not faced with hard fabric, making it a potential point of abrasion or tearing.
External Attachment Points and Compression
The Helios 55 has two tiers of compression straps. There’s also a webbing strap that runs from the back of the pack over the roll top which can be used to lash gear, like a sleeping pad to the top of the pack when full.
The compression straps have complementary male and female buckles so they can be re-routed behind the pocket to lash bulky gear to the outside of the pack, such as the sleeping pad or snowshoes shown above. This is a really thoughtful touch that eliminates the need to buy additional webbing straps or rig up your own cord lock-based attachment system with accessory cord. While the compression straps are just long enough to attach snowshoes to the back of the pack, I do wish they were a few inches longer.
There are a few gear loops on the pack which can be used to rig up custom attachment points: two above the shoulder straps on the front of the pack and four on the periphery of the back stretch pocket. The pack also has a single ice axe loop on the right hand bottom of the back pocket.
Backpack Frame and Suspension
The Helios 55 has a frame that consists of center aluminum frame stay and stiff foam pad which backs a ventilated mesh back panel behind the shoulder straps. These are locked in place in an internal pocket which can be opened and accessed from the pack’s main compartment. (There are three loops on that pocket lid that you can hang a hydration reservoir from.) The frame stay is removable so you can bend it to fit your body shape, if required.
The hip belt wings are sewn directly to the base of the pack providing excellent load transfer and control. However since the hip belt is non-replaceable, you’re going to want to make sure that the padded part of the winds covers your front hip bones for maximum comfort. I tested a size medium and the hip belt wings just barely covered by hip bones (I have a 36″ waist) even though the size medium’s specs are supposed to fit waists up to 46″ (see How are Backpack Hip Belts Supposed to Fit?). Just make sure this pack fits properly if you buy it.
The hip belt pockets are large and made using the same Spandura mesh used on the rest of the pack. They’re not intended for off-trail use, so don’t try bushwhacking with this pack of they’ll get ripped up. They’re also not waterproof, a consideration if you hike in rainy weather and like to store a camera or cell phone in a hip belt pocket.
Both the hip belt and shoulder straps are backed with mesh for perspiration control and comfort, However the hip belt padding is relatively thin and unobtrusive, which I consider a good thing because it adapts to your hip shape better than heavy padding. The shoulder pads also have plastic rings to attach a GPS or pocket to the straps, hose control loops to keep a hydration hose in place, and load lifters which are anchored to the top of the pack frame.
The Katabatic Gear Helios 55 is a well-appointed cuben fiber pack good for multi-day backpacking trips and alpine hikes, when you need to strap a lot of extra technical gear to the outside of your pack. The pack carries a bulky load very well but also compresses down nicely when you need less capacity. The combination of a single aluminum stay, firm foam padding, and the sewn-on hip belt wings make for a very responsive carry. I also like the fact that the pack is fairly narrow at the hips but flares out a bit higher up, making it easy to use ski poles.
I rate the maximum comfortable load at 30 pounds, but you can certainly take it higher with careful packing. My only caution is the stretch mesh on the hip belts and the bottom of the side pockets which is likely to rip if you take the Helio 55 off-trail into dense or thorny vegetation. But for on-trail use, the Helios 55 is a delightful cuben fiber pack that can be used year round for multi-day backpacking, section hiking, and long distance thru-hiking.
- Spandura/Cuben fiber back pocket is large and convenient for stashing layers or snacks
- Reversible compression straps can be used to strap bulky gear or snowshoes to rear of the pack
- Hip belt is sewn to back of pack providing excellent load transfer
- Teardrop shape is narrowest around the hips providing good load control
- Pack bottom is reinforced with much heavier duty fabric
- Ventilated back panel accumulates forest debris
- Spandura side pockets are not protected from abrasion or tear along bottom with hard faced fabric
- Pack seams are not sealed; be sure to line pack with trash bag
- Size medium, tested
- Max recommended load 30 pounds
- Weight: 32.3 ounces
- Torso length: 17.5″-20″
- Hip belt size: fits 28″-46″
- Materials: Cuben fiber, 800 denier Dyneema ripstop for bottom of pack, aluminum stay
Disclosure: Katabatic Gear loaned a Helios 55 to Philip Werner for this review, but he has to send it back.