This article first appeared on TheTrek.There is an undeniable influence on thru-hiking from the ultrarunning community, as evidenced by the growing use of items such as trail running shoes. However, there are some elements from long-distance running that lightweight backpacking has improved upon and made even better—and packs are a prime example.
Success in ultrarunning relies on efficiency, not only in movement but also in accessibility of gear. Most gear designed for ultramarathons is riddled with pockets and pouches to stuff snacks, drinks, electrolytes, and electronics within reach so that the runner doesn’t need to stop in order to access them.
As hikers continue to push their limits for faster thru-hikes, bigger-mile days, or simply a more comfortable ride, efficiency becomes ever more important. As the demand for this style of hiking has increased, gear manufacturers and cottage companies have responded. A typical ultrarunning vest has a capacity of 10 to 15L with a weight of 12 ounces or more depending on features, bladders, bottles, etc., whereas ultralight packs of this style, such as The Cutaway by Nashville Pack & Equipment Company, tend to have twice the volume (or more) for only a few more ounces, making them ideal for this style of hiking.
The Cutaway at a Glance
Weight: 13 ounces
Volume: 40L (max)
Carrying Capacity: 25 pounds comfort, 30 pounds max
Body Materials: LS07
Available sizes: Smaller and Taller
Features of the Cutaway
Pockets on pockets. This style of pack, specifically The Cutaway, gives you all the storage you need without extra zippers, pouches, or fabric getting in the way. This pack features ten exterior pockets (including a large polyester/spandex pouch sewn to the bottom of the pack for extra snacks or trash). You can store a day’s worth of nutrition, a water bottle (or two), a phone, camera, external battery charger, tracking device, or just about anything else you’d need to access without having to stop.
Open rear wraparound pocket with mesh. This allows for easy access to the rear mesh pocket without having to take off the pack. Grab a water bottle or your rain jacket without stopping!
Adjustable sternum straps. Loosen or tighten the straps for a more relaxed or aggressive fit depending on the circumstances, and whether a thunderstorm is approaching.
Roll-top snap closure with Y-strap. Easily adjust the volume of The Cutaway by rolling the snap closure down to the appropriate level, which helps secure a tight fit on your gear and less opportunity for water seepage (although this pack is not seam-sealed, the material itself is highly water resistant). The Y-strap secures the roll-top and allows for the attachment of an external bear canister, sleeping pad, or other equipment.
Circumstances of Review
As an ultrarunner and AT thru-hiker, I have spent many thousands of hours between a pair of straps and know what I like in a pack. I am also an ambassador for Nashville Pack & Equipment and overall proponent of lightweight backpacking and was provided a Cutaway for the purposes of putting it through its paces. Dozens of hikes and days of testing later, I can see why these packs have become so popular. After using this style of pack, I can’t see myself using anything else on future hikes unless the season warrants it.
Benefits of a Minimalist Running-Vest Style Pack
Freedom. Putting on a large, framed, and heavy pack can sometimes feel like getting strapped in for a roller coaster. You feel encumbered and slightly out of control. By shedding the extra weight and straps, your world opens up and you can experience nature in new ways. When you’re cruising down the brown ribbon with half the average load you feel better, move faster, and are less prone to injury. It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to put in large-mile days, but it gives you options and energy you may not otherwise have.
You figure out your gear. For better or worse, minimalist packs do not allow for the transport of extra heavy loads. This forces you to really think about your gear in new ways and discover how items can have multiple uses, their weight reduced, or simply be left at home or discarded as they are not needed. When you strip away all the excess items on and within your pack, you get to the core of what you actually need to make for a safe and enjoyable trip. Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts to this and each hiker must embark on this journey to determine their ideal kit.
Simplified sizing. The Cutaway is offered in either a “smaller” or a “taller” size, as opposed to most pack manufacturers who provide multiple sizing options depending on the measurement from your hip to C-spine. Because The Cutaway doesn’t have a hip belt, this number is not as important and thus you’re more likely to get a good fit on your first try without fussing with a tape measure or testing multiple packs (as each manufacturer is slightly different).
Limited capacity. This style of pack is stripped down to its core in order to cut as much weight as possible. As such, your carrying capacity is limited. You won’t be able to comfortably carry loads of 30+ pounds because there is no frame or hip belt to assist with distributing the weight. As such, your gear will have to very dialed-in or you must have the ability to resupply every few days—a luxury not available on all trails.
Temptation to go “stupid light.” Getting your gear weight down to a personally acceptable level can be a long, expensive, and experimental process. The temptation to simply not bring most of your extra clothing, food, or other necessary items is strong as it’s the easiest way to cut your baseweight. However, it can be a dangerous endeavor that can leave you in a tough spot if you’re alone and get injured or caught in extreme weather. Instead, focus on practicing with your gear and cutting weight slowly when and where you are comfortable doing so.
Wait time. Most packs of this style, The Cutaway included, are made-to-order and can be customized to varying degrees. While this does provide an enhanced customer experience, it also means that you may have to wait weeks (or even months) for delivery of your new pack depending on the demand and manufacturing capabilities of the company. For those leaving on a long trip in short order, this can be a significant obstacle. The solution, of course, is to plan far in advance but sometimes that simply isn’t an option.
Comparable Minimalist Packs
The Cutaway hits the mark in a lot of areas for me as a thru-hiker because of its light weight, large capacity, and details such as the trash pocket and dual sternum straps. However, that’s not to say it’s the best choice for everyone. Here are a few other options for those who may value other features:
Ultimate Direction Fastpack Series
17 ounces to 26 ounces, 15L-45L
11.8 ounces, 28L
(Used by Joe McConaughy for his 2017 Self-Supported AT FKT)
YAMA Mountain Gear Sassafras
22.3 ounces, 34L
Ultrarunning and lightweight backpacking continue to swap ideas and improve on equipment, and running-style packs are a trend that has taken a strong foothold as it’s one of the best options for cutting your baseweight. This type minimalist pack is not ideal for all trips, but every hiker could certainly benefit from taking a closer look at their setup to lighten their loads and make for a more comfortable journey.
Choosing a pack will always be a highly personal decision, especially given the multitude of viable options. While The Cutaway is just one of many packs in this niche market, its features stand out among competitors and would be a great choice for ultralight backpackers—especially those transitioning from an ultrarunning background.
To check lead times or purchase the Cutaway, visit Nashville Pack & Equipment Company’s website.
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Brandon Chase is a writer, endurance athlete, and guide based in Maine. He is a former Foreign Service Officer with the U.S. Department of State and spent nearly a decade overseas serving at embassies in Egypt, Cyprus, and Pakistan.
Along with a 98-day thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, he has summited Mt. Kilimanjaro, hiked the West Highland Way, fastpacked in the Himalayas, and trekked around New Zealand and South Africa. He also regularly competes in ultramarathons at the 50k, 50-mile, and 100-mile distances.