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Northern Ultralight Sundown 46 Backpack Review

The Northern Ultralight Sundown Backpack is a modular 46-liter rolltop pack designed for ultralight-style thru-hiking. Weighing 25.8 oz ounces, it’s made with XPac, 210 Dyneema Grid, and heavy-duty mesh for extra durability. Northern Ultralight is a new Canadian cottage backpack manufacturer company founded by a husband and wife that met while they were thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail and subsequently honeymooned by hiking the Continental Divide Trail together. Based in Nelson, British Columbia, the Sundown is the first backpack sold by the company.

Specs at a Glance

  • Weight: 25.8 oz in size medium
  • Volume: 46L (36L in the main compartment, 5L total in the side pockets, 5L in the front mesh pocket)
  • Gender: Unisex  (w/ S-shaped shoulder straps)
  • Type: Roll-top
  • Price: $310 CA (approximately $230 USD)
  • Frame: 2 Aluminum stays
  • Hydration compatible: No
  • Pockets: 3 (hip belt pockets and a shoulder strap pocket are optional add-ons)
  • Sizing: Four torso sizes ranging from 14.5-24.5″, Five hipbelt sizes ranging from 25-47″
  • Materials: XPac X21 RC, XPac X42 RC, 210D Nylon with Dyneema ripstop grid, Heavy-duty  lycra mesh
  • For full specifications, visit Northern Ultralight

Backpack Organization and Storage

The Sundown is designed to function as a multi-day backpack in addition to a day pack for hiking, travel, and urban use. That’s a broad mandate, but it helps motivate the decisions underlying the pack’s design.

The Sundown has a standard UL pack configuration with a front mesh pocket. side water bottle pockets, and a long extension collar.

The backpack is set up like an ultralight roll-top backpack with a front mesh pocket, side water bottle pockets, a long extension collar, and top compression strap. The width of the Sundown is noticeably narrow at 11″. That is even narrower Hyperlite Mountain Gear’s packs, which are also on the narrow side. This makes the pack less likely to snag on overhanging vegetation on narrow trails and quite responsive when scrambling up rocky trails and ledges. But it also results in a taller main compartment requiring more gear storage in the extension collar when the pack is full, with ramifications for balance, weight distribution, and packing style.

In a further departure from mainstream backpack and daypack design, the Sundown does not have a hydration pocket, there are no hydration ports and no place to hang a bladder in the main compartment, even if you wanted one. I don’t personally care about this, although I have a lot of backpacking friends who prefer using a hydration system instead of bottles on day hikes so they don’t have to filter water or refill water bottles.

Typical day hiking load, with extra gear for fly fishing

Given the low volume of the main compartment (36L), overnight and multi-day loads extend beyond the top of the shoulders and into the Sundown’s extension collar even if you carry highly compressible, minimalist or summer weight gear. For overnight trips, I’ve found it best to pack my heaviest and densest items, such as my food bag, tent, electronics, and layers somewhat lower in the bag than I normally would to keep the center of gravity as low as possible, since a top-heavy load is more difficult to control. You can’t pack the Sundown’s main compartment too tightly, however, since the pack does barrel into your back, pulling the shoulder straps wider which can lead to some armpit chafing. Just be advised that it takes some experimentation to “figure out” how to pack this pack for lightweight backpacking loads.

The side water pockets are reachable when wearing the Sundown so you can pull out and replace bottles without removing the pack. The pockets are generous in size and can fit two 1-liter soda bottles each. They’re a little shallow, so it’s best to secure the bottle tops with a side compression strap so you don’t lose them when the pack tips over or you face plant after tripping on a tree root.

The front mesh pocket is made with a heavy-duty mesh for added durability but tightly tensioned limiting the amount of gear you can store in it. It’s also finely woven, making it harder to tell whether you have packed all of your necessities with a casual glance.

Full backpacking gear load packed up into the extension collar

The Sundown comes with elastic water bottle holders on the shoulder strap, while an add-on hip hip belt pockets and a shoulder strap pocket are available as extra purchases.

The hip belt pockets are made with XPac and come with waterproof zippers. They’re sized to carry multiple snack bars and are just barely large enough to hold an iPhone X. They’re girth hitched to small webbing loops sewn into the hip belt. I store my camera in one and map, compass, and snack bars in the other. They’re a nice addition to the pack but an added cost.

The hip belt pockets are made with XPac and have water-resistant zippers.

You can also purchase an add-on shoulder pocket for the Sundown. It is attached to small plastic rings sewn on pack’s shoulder straps. While you can fit in iPhone X into this pocket, it’s a frustrating two-hand operation.

Unfortunately, this shoulder pocket is the only pocket compatible with the Sundown, since there is no other way to attach a shoulder pocket unless it can be attached using these small plastic rings. There are no daisy chains, sunglass glass holders, hydration loops, or other points where you could attach a better shoulder pocket like the waterproof Hyperlite Mountain Gear Shoulder Pocket or the Gossamer Gear Shoulder Pocket.

If you wish to shrink the volume of the Sundown for day hiking, travel, or urban adventures, the pack comes with volume reducing clips at its base, like those provided on Golite’s old backpacks. These fold the base of the pack and reduce the depth of the back, so it will hold less. The ones that come with the Sundown can be difficult to release, however, so do practice securing and releasing them at home before trying it in the field for the first time.

Backpack Compression and External Attachment Points

The Sundown has a very simple zigzag style side compression system consisting of an elastic cord with a lineloc tensioner at the end. It runs through three of the small plastic triangles used elsewhere on the pack to hold cordage. It’s not really necessary for compressing the sides of Sundown since XPac has so little stretch, so its main function is to lash items to the side of the pack like a Tenkara fishing rod or your water bottles. I’m not a huge fan of elastic side straps like this because they do catch on vegetation on narrow trails and bushwhacks and make it harder to tell when you’re ensnared and need to back off.

Side compression is provided by a zigzag style elastic cord.

The roll-top provides compression by reducing the volume of the extension collar and compressing the load from above, which is one of the chief benefits of a roll-top pack. A single webbing strap runs over the top of the pack and can be used to hold a jacket or sleeping pad on the pack’s exterior as well. Many hikers carry a foam pad under a strap like this, so it’s a convenient external attachment point.

If you don’t carry a foam pad on top of the roll-top closure or cover it in some way, the roll-top can get caught in low hanging vegetation because the two end clips connect on top of the pack and not along the pack’s sides. This creates a loop that is easily caught on protruding branches if you have to duck under or belly crawl under trees that have fallen across the trail, a common occurrence in my neck of the woods. I think the Sundown would benefit if you could secure the ends of the roll-top to clips sewn on the sides or front of the pack. This would provide a much cleaner profile for plowing through dense vegetation.

The roll-top only clips together on the top and is not secured to the sides. This makes the pack susceptible to snags off-trail, under blowdowns, and crawl-unders.

The Sundown comes with a single ice ax loop sewn to the bottom of the pack and two elastic shaft keepers at the corners of the front mesh pocket. These shaft keepers also make a good place to dry your socks between washes and stream crossings.

Backpack Frame and Suspension

The Sundown frame consists of two aluminum frame stays which slot into stay pockets in the interior of the backpack. They are pre-bent, but can be shaped for a better fit. The shoulder straps are S-shaped so they’ll fit comfortably around female breasts and well-developed male chests. The hip belt, in contrast, is decidedly squarish but provides a surprisingly good, non-slipping wrap around my male hips. I can’t predict how well it will work with curvier female hips, though.

The Sundown hipbelt is not curved or molded to fit around curvy hips

The hip belt attaches to the pack with plastic C-clamp clips and can easily be removed if you prefer to day hike without them, for travel, or urban use. You can insert the clips into one of two pairs of webbing loops at the base of the backpack, giving you about an inch of torso length adjustability, within each size.

The shoulder straps are sewn directly to the top of the pack and quite wide at the top, just under 3.0″ thick tapering down to about 2.5″ at mid-way. The pack does not have any load lifters, which is not surprising on a pack of this volume, although they would be useful to counter the slight backward pull that a “high load” packed up into the extension collar exerts on them.

Plastic C-clamps (open and closed) attach the hip belt to the pack body

The back of the pack has a thin sewn-in foam pad so you don’t feel the frame stays through the pack body. The same holds for a bear canister carried inside, vertically.

The frame and suspension system work really well on the Sundown, even though it’s a bit novel with its modular and removable hip belt. You can’t really tell that the hipbelt is not sewn to the back of the pack and you can’t feel the C-clamps poking through the hipbelt padding. The narrow width of the backpack is also an asset in the way it carries, provided you don’t try to overstuff it full of gear or carry more than about 25 lbs of gear, on average.

Comparable Ultralight Backpacks

Make / ModelVolumeWeightPrice (USD)
Gossamer Gear Gorilla Backpack 40L40L30.5 oz$215
Hyperlite Mountain Gear Southwest 240049L30 oz$310
Northern Ultralight Sundown 4646L28.5 oz$230
Osprey Levity 45L45L27 oz$250
Superior Wilderness Designs Rugged Long Haul 35L45L29 oz$260

Recommendation

The Northern Ultralight Sundown 46 is purpose-built for ultralight style thru-hiking and while it has modular features that let you remove items for day hiking or travel, it’s clearly designed with a thru-hiking user in mind. While there are a few things that I’m not keen on with the Sundown, there’s no denying that it’s a fun backpack to use and carry if you fit into the user group and backpacking style that the pack is designed for. If there’s one thing I’d like to see changed on the Sundown, it would be to make the shoulder pad attachment system more “open,” by sewing daisy chains into the vertical webbing so you can attach best of breed pockets or camera clips to them. For good or ill, many hikers navigate with a phone these days, carry personal locator beacons, or carry extra camera equipment and it’d be good to accommodate their needs rather than preventing them from using third party accessories.

Disclosure: Northern Ultralight provided the author with a backpack for this review.

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4 comments

  1. I have had a Sundown for nearly a year, used on numerous day hikes, and 7 trips ranging from overnight to 7 days, max load was 28lbs. I love this pack, and I really like the hip belt! I have had no problems with balance, but keep heavy things low. I find it is way more comfy than my Exos.
    I do agree that the back mesh pocket could use a bit more stretch along the top edge.

    • Much better than an exos, but they’re really different packs. You do have to admit, your shirt will get wet next to the Sundown’s Xpac back panel. I don’t personally care a whole lot about that, but some people do.

  2. Philip, I am always really impressed at the depth of your backpack reviews. You actually use the products, understand exactly how they perform in real world conditions, and can explain why. It’s so different from all of the other marketing crap put out by other sites. It’s clear you really have a passion for it and I just wanted to say thanks. Your site is the gold standard for backpacking gear reviews. Keep it up!

  3. Looks like a pretty bare bones pack. Thanks for the review. As good as seeing it in the store.
    I’ll stick with my comfy Osprey EXOS 53, L.

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