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.
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.
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
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 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.