Spring has finally arrived in Western Pennsylvania and the time has come to dust off the hiking gear that has sat idle all winter and load up Blackhawk’s latest Ultralight 3 Day Assault Pack to head to the trails to test out the goods.
I have a backpack fetish and the chance to review a Blackhawk Industries product is like Christmas, a birthday, and tax refund day all rolled into one. I am a traditionalist in that I have used military surplus gear exclusively through many years of hiking. However a few years ago I bought a CamelBak day pack with a standard hydration system. That pack fills a great niche but what I have been looking for is lightweight backpack that could hold enough gear for an overnight trip while offering all the utility of the military style gear that I own. This is the first Blackhawk backpack I have ever handled and compared to several military and civilian packs in my collection of hiking and camping gear this is a special treat. I have used Blackhawk’s Ultralight 3 Day Assault Pack for about a month hauling my laptop, books and papers back and forth to work as well as getting in some woods time during a day hiking trip. The Assault Pack is constructed of lightweight and durable rip-stop nylon that weights just over 2.5 lbs. There is S.T.R.I.K.E. Webbing covering the entire pack which allows for optional use of A.L.I.C.E clips, MOLLE gear and Blackhawk’s Speed clips to attach additional pouches and gear to the pack.
In a pinch you could also use plastic ties to secure extra gear. The placement of the some of S.T.R.I.K.E straps seem unnecessary. If you placed additional pouches on the side of the pack it would cover up access to zippers and compression straps. In addition, there are two hook and loop sections on the front of the pack for unit patches, identification or reflectors. On either side of the bag are two compression straps (4 total) that can also be utilized for stowing gear. The compression straps are adjustable. In addition, there are two pull straps toward the top of the bag that be used to secure yet more gear. The top of the pack has a sturdy pull handle and an opening for a hydration tube. The bottom of the pack has straps that can be used to store a sleeping bag or pad.
Blackhawk’s Assault Pack utilizes lightly padded adjustable shoulder straps with four metal D-rings for securing gear and an adjustable/removable chest strap. Including metal D-rings is an interesting choice. Most packs that I have handled use plastic rings or nylon straps to secure gear. The shoulder straps can be adjusted while wearing the pack and is accommodating to users with large shoulders and chest. The waist belt is lightly padded, removable and easily adjustable even while wearing the pack fully loaded. As with the shoulder straps the waist belt will fit folks with larger waists. This is a big plus in my book as civilian packs tend to be made with only average sized people in mind. I have a 54 inch chest and 40 inch waist and had no difficulty making this pack fit my frame comfortably. I did move the chest strap down one notch so it spread the weight of the pack more evenly across the middle of my chest. The portion of the pack that rests against your back includes a very thin layer of padding. Some might prefer thicker padding, especially on the shoulders straps and waist belt, but keep in mind that the more padding used also increases the overall weight of the pack and makes it more bulky.
This pack is cavernous with three separate compartments that combine for 2000 cubic inches of space. The main inner compartment measures 20” Lx13”Wx6”D and is easily accessible by two well made zippers. This includes a pouch for a water bladder. Blackhawk sells its own hydration reservoir which is not included with this pack. I scavenged a water bladder from my day pack and secured it by using one of the hook and loop straps on the inside of the bag. Blackhawk’s Hydration reservoirs have two holes in the top part of the bladder to make use of both hook and loop straps. To be honest, I found this a little annoying. My water bladder was secured by the strap to one side. Many of Blackhawk’s backpacks come with a hydration reservoir and I am not sure why they don’t include one with this particular pack. Without the water bladder I was able to get a sleeping bag in a stuff sack, a self inflating sleeping pad and a change of clothes in the main compartment. I do not have an ultralight sleeping bag but would recommend one if you prefer storing one inside the pack. With an ultralight sleeping bag there would still be enough room for the water bladder and more gear.
The top front compartment measures 14.5”Lx12.5”Wx2.5”D and is also accessed by sturdy zippers. When I packed for hiking I put my camp stove, fuel, knife and food items in this compartment and still had plenty of room leftover. It would easily accommodate a camp cook set, mess kit or other gear. The front compartment opens by an angled zipper. The compartment also had a decent amount of space and I was easily able to stash my survival kit, first aid kit, rain poncho and another knife. It would be easy to over pack with tons of gear. If I actually had the opportunity to use the backpack on a three day or overnight hike I would pack much more carefully.
For the first three weeks that I have had this pack I used to carry books and my laptop back and forth to work. I realize that it wasn’t ever designed for this purpose. My daily backpack for work over the last two years has been a Swiss Army laptop bag that has taken quite a beating. Since I haven’t had the chance to hike extensively I thought the daily wear would be a good test of the bag’s durability. The pack isn’t ideal for hauling around a laptop without a protective sleeve but the compartments were large enough to hold it and several large heavy textbooks. The smaller front pouch I utilized for computer peripherals. The only thing I was missing were two bottle holders for my daily caffeine fix.
No test of a pack would be complete without actually doing some hiking. I loaded about 25 pounds of gear into the pack and went out for some light hiking on some nature trails. The bag was comfortable to wear during the hike and didn’t feel much different than the civilian day pack I would normally use. It didn’t fatigue my shoulders or lower back. If I were going on a longer hike I would have packed differently and would probably have at least 10 more pounds of gear. One other item missing from the pack that I noticed while hiking is a clip on the shoulder strap for the water tube. I looked at Blackhawk’s website and they sell a clip for a couple of bucks.
One of the things that most impressed my about the pack was its construction. I inspected the bag for at least an hour looking for loose threads and slight imperfections in the materials and stitching. I pulled at the zippers and straps for signs of weakness and I couldn’t find any. This shows a great deal of quality assurance in their products and it is one of the reasons I would consider their products in the future. Clearly Blackhawk Industries intends to deliver a quality product that will hold up the rigors of rough use.
All in all I really liked Blackhawk’s Ultralight Pack. I would definitely purchase this backpack. However, I do have a few minor issues with the pack. First why not include the hydration reservoir even if it cost a few more dollars. Secondly, the water tube clip could have also been included considering how little it costs. Lastly, the hook and loop straps used in the hydration pouch are best suited for Blackhawk’s hydration reservoirs. Using another companies water bladder requires a bit of fiddling. So if you consider purchasing this bag realize you are going to need to buy a couple of extras.
The Blackhawk Ultralight 3 Day Assault Pack’s suggested retail prices is around $160.00. and is available in two colors Coyote Tan and Black. A search of the Internet can find slightly better prices but most online retailers were close to suggested price. I looked at a number of civilian packs that were comparable in size, features and price. Given that the pack was designed for military applications, Blackhawk’s bag in my opinion is a better value. Most civilian packs don’t have the ability to be customized in the way that current military equipment can be customized. Modular design is a huge selling point that is not available on most civilian models. So no matter what type of trip or adventure you’re gearing up for Blackhawk’s Ultralight 3 Day Assault Pack won’t disappoint!