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9/11/12

Review: Hill People Gear Highlander/C25M Pack Combo


I've quite enjoyed Hill People Gear's Mountain Serape and Kit Bag, so I was interested to check out their first foray into larger, multi-day packs. They've taken an interesting approach - instead of a complete, off-the-shelf pack system, they've come up with a modular system to attach to another manufacturer's frames. The resulting system has its benefits and can certainly offer an upgrade to a pack with a good frame but a lackluster bag.

The heart of the system is a compression panel system - an outer layer, smaller capacity pack that is used to cinch down and compress the main load against the pack frame. HPG currently offers two bags that will work for this purpose - the Tarahumara and the larger Highlander. The Highlander is more "purpose-built" for a compression panel, and I figured the extra capacity couldn't hurt, so that's what I went with.

To go along with the compression panels, HPG has developed two different sizes of pack bags. These are very simple, zip top bags with two straps for attaching to a frame. They are devoid of any bells and whistles - really, basically a large, zipper-topped pillow case. They're relatively inexpensive at around $50-$60. They come in two sizes (20M and 25M) and two different materials (500d cordura and silnylon). I went with the cordura 25M - the C25M.

To attach the system to your chosen frame, you'll also need the Hill People Gear Compression Kit--essentially a bunch of straps ending in metal ITW G-Hooks, and with web dominators to control the excess webbing. These straps are used to attach the compression panel to the frame and help secure/compress the pack bag.

So - three different HPG components--Highlander, C25M pack bag and Compression Kit--to attach to the frame of your choosing. Got it?

For a frame, I went with a high-end Kifaru duplex frame, though the HPG system can work with a wide variety of frames, including the ALICE Frame, Mystery Ranch NICE frame and many old-school externals. You've seen the Kifaru frame before, on my review of the Kifaru Longhunter. It's a very good, very comfortable frame.

LOTS of pictures of the system, full, honest review after the jump - slow connections have been warned!

There are no instructions that come with the kit, so expect to spend some time experimenting and scouring the HPG website for ideas on how to best attach the system to your frame. Part of this is because there's no "right" way to attach the system - there's any number of ways that will work well enough. That said, figuring out the purpose of the various sizes and types of straps, and then out how to best attach them to secure your load can be a bit frustrating when you want it to just work right out of the box. Go in expecting for some trial and error. A video tutorial on "how to attach" from the Hill People guys would be a wise and welcome addition to their website.

Having spent some quality time with the HPG system, I can say that it has some qualities that I like about it, and a few things that, well, just plain bug me. We'll start with what I like.

What I Like
After some experimenting, I settled on a compression configuring that I think works pretty well. The pictures will do a better job than I can explaining it.
Yep, you've seen this picture before. Makes more sense in a series, though. Highlander is on top, C25M
is compressed underneath.
The compressing action at work. I'm using the three straps that come with the Highlander here.
The bottom attachment with the Kifaru frame - close up on the G-Hooks and Web Dominators - the
strap retainer thingies.
The top straps. The side release buckles are part of the compression kit - they are slotted, which lets you slip
them in between existing webbing loops. I wish HPG used more of these!
I like this set up because it allows me to dump the C25M fairly easily.  With the C25M gone, you can use the pack to carry an odd sized load, like a 5 gallon can or a quartered animal.

Buckles released.
Highlander flipped out of the way. You can see the back panel and the multitude (overkill) of attachment points
on the back of the Highlander, here. 
C25M gone.
And a military water can in its place.
Buckled up and cinched down, the water can is quite secure.

Or you can drop the load entirely and cinch the Highlander down to the frame to go light.

Just the Highlander on the Kifaru frame. Carried this way, I drop the top compression straps and use the
Highlander's grimlocks to secure it to the Kifaru frame.
I think this is where the HPG set up excels--you can carry an odd-sized load, secured tightly and still have your essential gear with you. This idea isn't unique to HPG, there are several different variations on the idea across the tactical/hunting pack makers - the Mystery Ranch Crew Cab, Eberlestock Dragonfly & Skycrane and others - but the HPG setup is the most minimalist and weight-conscious that I've seen. Great for backpack hunting, which is largely what they are intended for--you go out with your basic load, kill your animal, butcher it in the field and pack your meat back out.

The Highlander/C25M/Compression Kit setup also give you a wide variety of options for attaching gear to the top, bottom and sides of the pack, as well as inside the Highlander's back sleeve. The top straps work very well for securing a sleeping mat or bedroll, and a rifle will fit well inside the Highlander's sleeve, compressed against the pack bag. If you're regularly carrying a variety of odd-sized items--from animals to tripods to shovels to chainsaws--you can find a way to attach them--somehow--with this kit.

What I Don't Like
Quick version: Even after experimenting with a variety of configurations, I still find it annoyingly difficult to access anything in the pack.

There are lots of straps--and the picture To access anything on your pack, save the Highlander's water bottle pockets, you'll need to undo at least two side release buckles (SRBs). The G-Hooks used throughout are prone to falling off when tension is released--like when undoing a buckle to access pretty much anything. So, you'll be undoing buckles and fiddling with/reattaching G-Hooks whenever you want to access something inside your pack.

Close-up on a G-Hook. I'm not a fan.
The fix for the G-Hook problem is to squeeze the hook's opening down with a pair of pliers. They can/will still fall off after this has been done, and I think most people would rather have hardware that didn't need to be attacked with a pair of pliers right out of the box. HPG could have accomplished the same thing using slotted side release buckles instead of the G-Hooks - in fact, they use slotted side releases on the top straps, but for some reason nowhere else in the compression kit. Quality side release buckles are capable of holding up to a lot of tension and are pretty much the go-to hardware in this capacity (and for good reason), so I'm not sure why HPG chose to go with the frustrating G-Hooks instead.

The C25M is a top loader, which means lots of digging if you want to get something at the bottom. Especially un-fun in the dark, wet outside and when you've got to basically dump out the bag to find something on the bottom. When you've got the Highlander compressing the C25M, pulling things out can become quite difficult--they're held tight by compressing power. So, you'll need to loose up some of the straps, which means freeing excess webbing from Web Dominators, loosening tension, potentially dealing with a G-Hook falling out of place, etc., and on several straps.

The Highlander is better for access than the C25M, as you'd hope--it's meant to hold the gear you'll need to access throughout the day. The single zipper doesn't give great access to the pack's interior - I'd prefer a full panel - but it is decent. The Highlander comes with three compression straps, and you probably only need to run two. These need to be undone in order to access the pack's contents. When you've got the various compression straps tightened down, this will add tension to the Highlander, which can make accessing various corners of the pack a bit more difficult.

The Highlander's interior and close-up on the daisy chains. 
The Highlander has two daisy chains sewn into the pack for attaching pouches/organizing. I wish this was just MOLLE/PALS webbing, even just a few rows--I don't think the weight savings trade-off would have been significant. You can attach MOLLE/PALS stuff, but sideways. You will want to use the daisy chains to help with organizing/distributing your gear--the Highlander lacks any other internal organization, and its tall/skinny shape means your stuff will have a tendency to sink and pile at the bottom.

The Highlander's water bottle/wand pockets are not accessible while you're wearing the pack, and they use a compression strap for retention--not really good for water you need to access regularly.  The C25M has zero side pockets--cost savings, but I'd pay an extra $5 for some water bottle pockets--probably would still be difficult to access, but would keep that weight closer to your body and give you more options. Given the placement of the pockets, you'll need to go with a hydration bladder (my choice) or belt-mounted water bottle pockets (what the HPG guys use).

All the fiddling with G-Hooks, web dominators, buckles and digging gets old, fast, and make the pack system a bit of a frustration to use. I'm used to smaller panel loading packs with built in pockets and plenty of organization, where accessing any piece of equipment is a zipper and maybe a buckle away, with no digging or strap wrangling needed.

If you're used to hauling around a big ol' single compartment top loader and don't mind a fiddling around with buckles and hooks to access any of your gear, then none of the above may bother you. Your mileage will vary.

But, for a pack specific for our purposes, where there may be the need to pack up and go at a moment's notice or access a piece of gear in a hurry, there's a lot to be said for ease-of-use and efficiency of access. I'm admittedly a bit obsessive in this department, but hours spent studying and practicing drawing handguns, knives and changing magazines will do that to you. This set up may be versatile in what you can strap to it, but it does not fare well in the easy to use/efficient to access department.

Overall
If you're looking for a lightweight system to handle a wide array of odd-sized objects, the Highlander/C25M/Compression Kit system has a lot going for it. If you want that capability and have an existing frame that you'd like to use (Kifaru or other), then it's even more attractive. If you're not picky about doing some experimenting to figure out how you want it set up, and don't mind a bit of strap/buckle/hook wrestling to access gear, then all the better. If you fall into that niche, I think you'd be very happy with this system.

However, for the average end user, especially if you don't have an existing frame, you're probably better off with something else. A Kifaru frame and the HPG setup pictured here, purchase new, will run you close to $600, maybe more, so we're talking a lot of money for a pack. For that kind of money, a pack's got to be pretty much perfect, and I don't think the average end user is going to get their bang-for-the-buck here.

I've got this pack set up for sale on a couple forums (looking to get around $500) at the moment. If you're interested, drop me a line.

15 comments :

  1. $600! The bag better have a missile launcher turret for that price! This bag seems to big a "big hauler" type bag. While there are some applications for such a bag I'd much rather go for a light-weight system. Something simple and relatively cheap. Cheap because otherwise I will nitpick and drive myself crazy over it for ever. If something is $600 you'll go nuts if it has even the smallest problem.

    I remember a few years ago watching a Dave Canterbury vid where he made a pretty decent bug out bag out of an old jansport bag and some junk he found at thrift stores. I think there's a lot to say for Dave Canterbury's "kit mentality"--the 10 piece, 20 piece, and 30 piece kits. Dave is as tough and skilled as they come but still puts light weight and simplicity above most everything else. Most bug out bags are way too heavy and complicated--I know mine is. My goal from now on is to keep things as simple and straight-forward as possible.

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    Replies
    1. Ya, it is spendy. Most of the competitive, higher end military/hunting larger capacity packs are, too. Even if you roll on down to REI, you're looking to spend ~$300. There are definitely deals out there, like the $40/a week bag we found...and I actually probably prefer the pack back on that over this.

      There's just a certain amount of capacity you need if you want to get into carrying a sleep system, decent shelter, change of clothes, a few days worth of food, etc. That's about what's in Dave Canterbury's extended kits--30/40 piece ones. He busts out a bigger pack for those.

      You don't need a GIANT pack, but it's a bit more than you can fit in the average ~2000 cubic inch 3-day pack.

      Now whether you NEED all that stuff is debatable, and whether you need it all in one big backpack is, too. 3-day/EDC sized pack and a duffle bag with extra gear, a couple guns and ammo, thrown into the back of the car would do well, I think.

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  2. Thanks for doing that review. It was very interesting. That you are selling the thing pretty much says it all. The a la carte nature of this setup really drags up the price. You need a good frame which is even more. Yes you could put it on an ALICE but spending $250 on a bag to fit to less than totally comfortable $30 frame seems ridiculous. I think that I will pass (it was on the list though a way down) unless the opportunity to handle one comes up and I feel differently seeing it.

    It seems to me like you need a high end pack that is really compartmentalized. Have you considered the Eberlestock stuff? The products I have seen were nice and the compartmentalized nature seems to fit your bill.

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    1. I am actually looking very closely at a couple of Eberlestock's packs. Having been disappointed with this pack, I finally took the time to watch some of the videos on their website--it was a forehead-smacking "this is what I need!"

      They just scream organization and well thought through design. The rifle scabbards are icing on the cake. They are a few pounds heavier.

      If you haven't checked out their packs, I would recommend heading over to their website and watching a few of their videos. You would think that something like a simple backpack wouldn't need a 12-minute video to explain, but they're chock-full of features.

      I'm looking at a few of their designs, the Skycrane II is probably the top of the list now. Looks to do everything this pack set up does, and a whole lot more, and easier to work with, and the penalty of a few extra pounds.

      Ryan, I know they are pretty popular in the .mil - have you had any firsthand experience with them?

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  3. First hand no. I knew a sniper who had one of the smaller ones and raved about how great it was.

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  4. great write up. i've been eyeing this pack system for awhile, and your review is by far the most honest. i had some concerns about the all the straps and what not, and with the super high cost, i think i'll look at other brands.

    thanks again for being straightforward about the pack.

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  5. Ive got the skycrane 1 and 2. Both packs have carried some large loads while hunting but thay have a lot issues as well. The skycrane 2 is still going to cost you close to $600 when its all done, and thier new scabbard system on it sucks

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    Replies
    1. What's the problem with the new scabbard? Curious to hear.

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  6. The new scabbard itself is nice but the way it attaches with hooks doesnt really work well. If you put the pack down scabbard first it can dehook. If you fall or put the pack at a downhill angle with a heavy rifle it will slide off the hooks as well.
    The skycrane 2 uses smaller pockets than the original. If you plan to go out for a few days your going to need the little brother just to hold your gear. With Scabbard , little brother, and top pocket your looking at 11 lbs just for the pack!
    The pack does have some nice features but i still find myself useing the skycrane 1 more often. Your welcome to borrow it if you like.

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    1. Would be very interested in taking it for a test ride...send me an e-mail (teotwawki.blog@gmail.com).

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  7. I spent the $700 plus on a Kifaru Pack and it is the greatest pack for Really any purpose I have ever seen. I bought it specifically for a BOB, deciding to go with the Tactical MMR with many of the bells and whistles. I can remember back in the 90's when Patrick Smith owned Mountainsmith gear out of Golden, CO. I used to think it was the best gear around. When he was forced to merge for money reasons, the new owners started making all of Mountainssmith's gear in China (still do today). Patrick left his name sake, took all his US employees and began creating the Kifaru Line. I know the price is out of Control, but there is no equal to the quality of these packs. I love it- its a bit heavy, but it will carry anything, any weight, and will be a critical aspect to long mountain treks north or south when TSHTF.

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    1. Kifaru does make an excellent frame, but their big packs are little more than Cordura/PALS garbage bags - and overprice at that.

      The C25M pack bag here is not a whole lot simpler than say, the Kifaru Longhunter pack bag, yet costs $55 instead of $250. Both made in America from the same materials...

      Delete
  8. Does anyone have a review of the Eberlestock Destroyer or Battleship they can share? They seem a little pricey, but they also have a lot of what I'm looking for.

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    Replies
    1. They do look nice...and you don't run into the weight penalties of some of the more complex designs.

      I'm also eyeballing the Operator...

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  9. Eberlestock GS2 here, love it. Wouldn't change a thing on it, although you will have to get use to how to distribute the load when pack a rifle. Awesome pack

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