I bought a Unaweep Fortress 4800 backpack a few months ago from Seek Outside after using testing a loaner Unaweep 3900 over the summer (see my Unaweep 3900 review). The Unaweep packs are external frame backpacks with a roll-top pack bag. Both the 3900 and the 4800 packs are made with an extremely tough, waterproof fabric called X-Pac (VX21) and are optimized for carrying heavier loads well in excess of 40 pounds.The Unaweep 3900 and the 4800 are nearly identical, so I’m not going to repeat the detailed review I gave the 3900 previously. See the link above for more information.
While I don’t use the Unaweep much for three-season trail hiking, it’s quickly filled an un-met need in my gear closet, as a pack that is tough enough to take the abuse of off-trail New England bushwhacking. That’s the main reason I bought it.
But the Unaweep has also proven to be a great winter day hiking pack, even when I don’t need all of its capacity. The secret sauce is the Unaweep’s compression system, which makes it easy to streamline the pack’s profile, even when it’s lightly loaded.
The Unaweep 3900 and 4800 backpack have five major components: the external frame, the main pack bag w/ side bottle pockets, a hip belt, shoulder harness, and an external pocket called a Talon (shown in orange, above). The Talon has a zipper along the long side, so it can be used as a large external pocket, with 1000 cubic inches of storage space. The Talon can be connected to the three-tiered compression system and is great for lashing gear to the outside of the pack. You can also use the pack without the Talon, since the compression straps can be connected behind the pack without it.
The torso length on the Unaweep 3900 and 4800 is adjustable using simple webbing straps, by raising or lowering the shoulder harness. You can also adjust the position where the load lifters attach to the front of the shoulder straps, which is a super-nice feature you only find on very high-end expedition packs. It helps ensure that the angle of your load lifter straps is 45 degree, so you really get some leverage out of them. This is a feature I wish my Cold Cold World winter pack had, but it doesn’t.
There are a couple of other nuances to the Unaweep 3900 and 4800 design that I won’t cover here…check out my Unaweep 3900 review for full details.
I had Seek Outside customize a number of features on the 4800 for me to facilitate the use of the pack in winter. The customization fee wasn’t expensive and these features really enhance the utility of the pack for cold weather use.
Increase the Depth of the Side Pockets
I asked Seek Outside to increase the depth of the side pockets by an additional 4 inches, so I could use the side pockets to store gear and help reduce the frequency of having to open my pack to get at it. When hiking in cold weather, I drop an insulated water bottle in one of the side bottle pockets (while storing my other bottles in the pack’s main compartment) and a cuben fiber stuff sack containing my extra gloves, balaclava/face mask and ski goggles in the other side pocket for easy access above treeline. The pockets are deep enough that gear stored in them is not at risk of falling out or getting ripped up.
Bar Tack the Shoulder Straps
The stock Unaweep shoulder straps have front webbing sliders on them to adjust the height of the sternum strap, but there’s no way to easily attach a camera pocket, a GPS pocket, or a map case to the shoulder straps for easy access while you are hiking. So I cannibalized the front webbing straps and had Seek Outside bar tack the webbing, creating daisy chains along the front of the shoulder straps. This lets me hang gear pockets from the straps using Gear Aid Tri-Glides and other similar plastic attachments. I like fast transition times in winter and having my camera, GPS, snack bottle, or map case on my shoulder straps means I don’t have to stop and dig around in my pack every time I need something.
Add Side Zipper to Main Compartment
Seek Outside offers a side zipper as one of their standard customization options. It’s a great feature for winter because it means you don’t have to stop and undo the roll top closure on the main pack bag to access gear from inside your pack. If you pack the gear you’re likely to need during the day at the top of your pack, like a fresh hot water bottle or a down coat, it’s easy to reach in and grab them through the zipper.
The only other customization I opted for was getting a blaze orange Talon pocket (only available in Pack Cloth), instead of a stock grey one made out of VX21. This isn’t really a winter-specific customization as much as one for bushwhacking, so hunters won’t shoot me when I’m off-trail.
While not specifically designed for winter hiking or backpacking, the Unaweep 4800 can be easily adapted for it.
I pack my microspikes or crampons in the rear talon pocket along with a bag of snacks, map, compass, and headlamp. The hip belt has ample webbing loops and I slip a carabiner in one to hang miscellaneous gear. There are dual ice axe loops at the base of the pack but no shaft holder, so I rig a cord lock and some elastic cord around a talon buckle to secure the shaft in a vertical position. Snowshoes are easy to carry between the Talon and the main pack or along the sides of the pack under the compression straps. An accordian foam pad is easily lashed under the Y strap on the top of the pack. Skis can be lashed to its sides under the compression straps, and so on.
The rest of my gear is organized as I would for any winter pack, with my sleeping bag at the bottom of the main compartment with my “night-time” clothing, kitchen gear, heavier food, etc, and more frequently accessed items including water and “day time” clothing higher up for ease of access.
Needless to say, the Unaweep 4800 is just phenomenal when fully loaded with 40+ pounds of winter backpacking gear, water, and consumables. The comfort of the hip belt and the ease of going heavy with winter loads is a revelation. It’s a pretty amazing pack, considering that it only weighs 3 pound 10 ounces.
Disclosure: The author paid for the Unaweep 4800 discussed above with his own funds.