Backpacks are a sore point for many backpackers as it is both the defining and the most painful item if not used correctly. I have used my share of backpacks, starting from the worst kind (case style, no frame with about 90L of volume) to the lightest and simplest (28L running packs for a weekend of hiking) and everything in between.
If you have been part of the lighter gear movement at all in the last few years, there are some brands you couldn’t have missed: Golite (now gone…), Gossamer, ULA, ZPacks, Laufbursche and more. There are of course some other traditional backpacks companies such as: Gregory, Osprey, Mountainsmith, Deuter etc. Lastly, you can find high end backpacks by any big outdoors brand, some even claiming to make ultralight backpacks. When I was searching for a backpack I wasn’t sure what I was after; I had a list of ideas and no clue what to get until I stumbled upon a small US-based backpack maker: Elemental Horizons, and specifically the Kalais backpack.
But first thing first – what is the deal with backpacks? Well, backpacks are here to allow us to carry stuff from one point to another. The first packs used thin leather straps that were strapped to the forehead, shoulders or chest of users. Then, some padding was added and over time, waist straps were added to more modern backpacks to help with weight transfer from the back to the legs. A chest strap was added to reduce pressure on the upper arm caused by the shoulder straps. External frames were added to the canvas bags to distribute weight better and height-adjusting straps offered better control and adjustment of weight. Later the frames were moved into the packs and they became lighter and more agile, while the latest backpacks are frameless, going back to more basic designs when lighter loads were carried.
A backpack is considered one of the “big 3” of backpacking gear, along with a shelter and a sleeping bag. These are considered the big 3 because they are usually the heaviest single items and have the best return on investment in terms of weight cut from dollar (or pound) spent. Backpacks, though, tend to be the last of the big 3 to be upgraded as backpacks have an ideal carrying weight range (comfort carrying weight). There is no point on getting a light, frameless backpack with a 15kg comfort weight when your gear is still exceeding 20kg. Getting the right pack is the final stage in getting the right gear, and when that happens it is a small victory.
Choosing a backpack is a very personal process, so instead of making a lame attempt to explain through the screen how to do it, I will recommend that you go to a store and pay full price for a backpack (if you don’t have one). If you are a seasoned backpacker, you already have packs and your own way of choosing them.
My route to the Elemental Horizons Kalais started when I got my first serious backpack, before going to explore the Andes for over 6 months: the Gregory Katamai 3D. The Katamai (later known as Pedro) is a civilian version of a backpack made for the Israeli special forces with 68L capacity and weight comfort of 20-55kg (!!). I used Pedro for a long time – it served me very well and even saved my life a few times – but when I stopped going on 6-month-long trips, it became too big and very uncomfortable for weights under 20kg. In my search for a simpler, lighter and more forgiving backpack, I decided to look for a 40L (of the bigger kind) pack that has a big mesh pocket at the back, big mesh side pockets, can be highly customizable. I have spent a few years trying several other options including climbing packs (Osprey Mutant 38), or combining day packs with external pockets, but non worked well. After about 3 years of searching and continuing to use the Katamai for any big trip, I found the Kalais; it had all I was looking for and is even a bit waterproof, so I decided to invest and try.
There are other alternative to the Kalais like the ULA CDT, Gossamer Gorilla, Laufbursche huckePACK LITE and more, but the Kalais struck the right balance of cost and customization that was so important to me.
Elemental Horizons is a small, one person company in Southport, North Carolina that only makes backpacks. The founder, designer and backpack maker is Matthew Lagas-Rivera (Matthew, in emails) and he also deals with orders and customer service.
Elemental Horizons offers 3 packs at the moment:
- Aduro SL – the smallest and lightest pack that has no frame, but will fit an air beam support system. Comes in 41.8L in total pack volume (body and pockets). $200
- Kalais – a 42.2-61.5L total pack volume (size dependent) that can either be stripped bare or accommodate a lumber pad and v-stay internal frame. $245
- Aquilo – the first pack made by Elemental Horizon and the biggest: 50-77.3L (size dependent) and has a v-stay internal frame and optional lumbar pad. $255
All the Elemental Horizons packs are bear canister compatible by having an extra wide opening and a rill top (Aduro uses a top wide water tight zip). The Aduro is slightly different and only comes in two sizes: S/M and M/L, while the Kalais and Aquilo come in 4 sizes: small to extra large.
What I like the most about the Elemental Horizons offering is the ability to mix various needs, sizes and interests for your final pack, based on the same basic design. When you buy a pack from them, you can choose:
- Torso size – the length of the back frame which is also what the determines the final pack’s volume. This makes much more sense as bigger frames fit bigger people who, in turn, can carry more weight
- Hip belt size – also small to extra large with standard waist sizes
- Main body fabric and colour – 70D blue, green or internally coated camo, or, 210D Dyneema X Evergreen. These have different prices that are added to the basic pack cost
- Bottle pocket style – using either mesh or Dyneema (another $18)
- Lumber pad – yes or no, for $8
The ability to have such a specifically made backpack comes with a cost of money and time. The Elemental Horizons backpacks are not cheap but they pretty much on par with other, similar packs on the market. The big cost here is time as each pack is usually made to order so will need time to be made and shipped; after you order a pack, you get a lead time of the shipped backpack.
My backpack is the Kalais with the following specifications:
- Medium torso
- Small waist belt
- 70D Digital Camo with Blackout coating fabric and mesh side pockets
- I did order the lumber pad to allow for carrying heavier loads if needed
Features (from the Elemental Horizons’ site):
- Includes 6061 Aluminium V-stay
- V-Stay Lite Suspension System
- Roll top closure
- 3 External pockets
- Dual hydration ports
- Modular accessory attachment system
- 8 lash loops
- Tool loop
- Bear can compatible
- Removable sternum strap
- Made in the USA
The additional features I’d like to highlight/re-iterate:
- Big and compressible kangaroo pocket at the back – great for rain gear, wet shelter etc
- Deep and high volume (4L x 2) bottle pockets that are easy to reach even while the backpack is on
- Hip belt with dual straps that allow for a much better adjustment and fit on the hips
- The blackout coating in my backpack makes the pack much more water resistant and robust
As for the actual specifications, I will only give them for my pack but you can get the variations on the Kalais page. Specifications:
- Volume (from EH site): 39.8L (body), 4L each external pocket, 47.8L total volume
- Weight (no belts, lumbar or stay): 22.2 oz / 630g
- Weight (all features): 30 oz / 850g
- Back length: M, 17-19 inches/43.2-48.3 cm (from EH), 18.5 inches/47 cm (measured from mid lumbar to shoulder strap curve, per my measurement)
- Waist size: S, 27-31 inches/68.6-78.7 cm (from EH), 26.5 inches/68 cm (maximum tightening measured, my measurement)
- Comfort weight: 25 lbs/11.3 kg without stay, 35 lbs/15.9 kg with stay, 45 lbs/20.4 kg with stay and lumbar
My version with the lumbar and digital camo blackout fabric costs $271.
How I use it
Over more then 2 years with the Kalais, I have used it in so many places and on so many trips – it is my main backpack for all trips lasting 3+ days, including deep winter ones or long expeditions. For summer overnight trips I use a smaller (20L) backpack, but if I need more food/clothing/other gear it is going into the Kalais. The ability to compress the main bag and the roll top closure gives the volume real flexibility and in reality it probably ranges from 30L to 45L of real use.
The main trips it has been on:
- Initiation on a spring over night trip on the Ridgeway – passed with flying colours
- Second Ridgeway trip but in hot conditions – compressed to accommodate very little kit
- High volume family trip (with a 4 month old baby) on the Ridgeway – worked well with the Ergobaby Performance and a mountain of baby stuff
- Family camping trip – carried even more gear for camping with a baby (8 months), probably overloaded above the comfort weight but still no major issues. Some chafing on the hips from the hip belt
- Two nights winter camping and navigation in the Peak District – below freezing temperatures and 4 season kit
- Two nights winter camping along the South Downs Way – 3 season gear but lots of warm clothes
- Early spring trip for two nights in the Yorkshire Dales – 4 season gear, no problem with carrying
- Two nights in the Lake District in spring – lighter kit and well compressed pack as last training for the Cape Wrath Trail
- 12 days in the Scottish Highlands walking the Cape Wrath Trail – 11 days walking then a family holiday and a flight from Inverness to London (checked in). Somewhere mid trip the stitches between the body and the back frame broke, probably from over loading it (over 20kg at the start) and keeping it very compressed. After contacting Elemental Horizon Matthew sent me a new body free of charge – excellent customer service
- Overnight in Snowdonia carrying wild camping gear for two
- Very wet two nights on the Pennine Way in the winter – the pack did some of the work to help keep my gear dry
As you can see, the pack is getting some real use and abuse and it will, once again, head over to the Cape Wrath Trail for 8 days of full unsupported walking.
- Lightweight – 850g fully loaded with a lumbar, internal frame and hip belt
- Versatile comfort weight – good for light trips or heavier expeditions
- Easy to access big side pockets – from water storage to waterproofs and maps, no need to stop
- Wide opening top entrance – allows bear canister carry and has a roll top
- Comfortable to wear on long days – as long as within the weight comfort, especially using the two straps hip belt closure
- Excellent service – makes a big difference when you can talk to a person to solve a problem
- Highly customizable – get the perfect fit even if you have less than standard shape
- Can cause hip abrasion – when used out of the comfort weight
- Possible construction issue as presented on the Cape Wrath Trail in 2015
- Not for heavy loads
- Thin back padding requires precise packing
- Pretty pricey for a backpack of this size
- Has importing costs, if ordered out of the USA
This is by far the best backpack I have ever used and owned. With so many nights outdoors and so many miles per hiking day, the Kalais is almost glued to my back at times and I have no problem with that. The right volume (~40L) is actually realistic and with a versatile weight comfort, this pack is good for anything but day hiking.
The excellent support by Matthew at Elemental Horizons makes owning the Kalais not only useful (in terms of pack use), but also comforting knowing there is such great care for each pack.
If you can find a way to comfortably get a Kalais (or the Equilo), make sure to properly measure yourself and get one of these light, comfortable and customized backpacks.