You’ve seen one hydration pack, you’ve seen them all, right? Well, I kind of let myself get into that kind of funk as well. But, just like everything else in life, time marches on and so does technology. I got my wake up call on this fact recently as I had a chance to review the new Camelbak Fourteener.
I first started using CamelBak gear about 15 years ago (if I remember correctly) and the packs of today are much better engineered and more ergonomic than the packs of old. Since the beginning, I’ve had a number of CamelBak Packs including a MULE, a Motherlode, a BFM, a HAWG Max Gear (in the picture) more recently, and a couple of others which I can’t remember their names. I really came to appreciate the hands free hydration concept, especially on hot summer days hiking in the North Carolina mountains. Packing the reservoir with ice, I’d fill up the 3 liter bladder and have cold water for most of the day. However, as time progressed, I was also getting into more of a preparedness mindset and my packs kept getting bigger and bigger. I wanted to have everything that I might possibly need in case an emergency happened and the packs not only got bigger, they got heavier. So, even for just a dayhike I was carrying a pack that weighed in excess of 40 pounds or more. Let’s just say that going for dayhikes was no longer as fun as it used to be, but I just couldn’t make myself not carry that much gear. I’m glad to say that I eventually overcame that somewhat obsessive equipment need, though not completely.
From what I have observed over the past couple of months, the Fourteener makes a perfect dayhiking pack–at least for me. It fits my needs quite nicely with regard to cargo capacity and the bladder size. There are several packs on the market that have bladders in the 70 ounce range. I’ve found that for a whole day in the outdoors, the 100 ounce bladder is necessary for me. On especially warm or hot days, I’ve found that isn’t even enough and have carried an extra bottle or two to supplement the pack. This has been especially helpful lately with my dog Jethro. It’s much easier to just pour his water from a bottle rather than try to finaggle it from the bladder. The CamelBak Fourteener comes with the 100 ounce bladder and it also has two elastic pockets on the side of the pack that are the perfect size for 1 liter Nalgene-style bottles. With a full bladder and two 1 liter bottles, you’ve got a good amount of water–around 1.32 gallons. Keep in mind, though, that much water will weigh just a hair over 11 pounds before you even start packing gear. Once the bottles are tucked into the pockets, there are compression straps that you can tighten up to help keep them snug. However, no matter what your hydration needs are for your outing, you’ll have more than enough room in the Fourteener to take care of them.
What impressed me most about the Fourteener were all the new designs incorporated into the pack to make the fit and carry more comfortably. The first such design was the DFit rings where the shoulder straps attach to the main pack. Rather than just have straps that are sewn to the pack, the straps are attached to a D shaped piece that allows the strap room to slide back and forth. This helps with the positioning of the straps to make a more individual fit for the wearer rather than a one-size-fits all approach. The straps themselves are very comfortable as well. I’m not sure what the construction is but they are quite thick and there’s a substantial amount of padding provided. At no time while using the Fourteener did I feel any pinching or feel the straps cutting into my skin which I’ve encountered with other pack straps.
Another design piece that helps with comfort for the pack wearer is the N.V.I.S. back panel. The panel is somewhat soft to the touch, though it helps provide some support and rigidity for the pack overall. The shape of the panel helps the pack mold to the contours of the body and helps make the entire package extremely comfortable to carry. Additionally, the back panel has strategically placed ridges to help with ventilation. Anyone that’s pulled off a pack on a hot summer day knows what it feels like to have a wet back from perspiration and with nowhere for it to go. The ridges allow air to circulate between the user and the pack so that’s not quite the same problem as in the old days. All of this works in concert with the load-bearing belt to shift the weight of the load from the shoulders down to the hips where it’s more manageable. All in all, it’s a nice system that works quite well in bearing the burden of the pack weight. In conjunction with the straps and the DFit system, it almost feels like the pack was custom made for the wearer. It really is that comfortable. Of course, you can load it down so much that comfort goes out the window, but when packed to the recommended load level by CamelBak (10-25 pounds), you’ll hardly notice it’s there.
Another nice improvement is the one made to the chest strap area of the straps. Much like the DFit rings near the shoulders, the new chest strap system strives to provide a more individual fit for each different user. Like other chest strap designs, the straps span from each should strap to buckle in the middle of the wearer’s chest via a quick release buckle. Where the design takes a rather nice turn is how the chest straps are attached to the should straps. On each shoulder strap there is what I’ll call a rail. It’s curved to match the contours of the shoulder strap. The chest strap actually attaches to another piece that is in place on the rail. To get a more comfortable fit, the user can simply slide that piece up or down the rail until they find the most comfortable position. This is a unique approach to providing a more tailored fit for the individual, and quite frankly, it’s just a neat idea. If you’re concerned about the piece sliding up and down the rail too much, don’t be. There’s some kind of material on the rail that gathers a bit to prevent the piece from sliding around freely. It takes a deliberate effort to get that piece to slide on the rail.
The improvements aren’t just limited to the pack, though. The bladder system is a lot better than even the recent models I’ve used. Their most recent iteration is dubbed the Antidote Reservoir. The thing I like most about it is the very large mouth of the bladder. First, it’s a lot easier to load ice than the smaller openings in bladders past. Second, and probably more important, the larger opening makes it much easier to to clean the bladder when you’re done with your adventures. In the past, it was a tricky proposition to make sure the bladder was clean. With the larger opening and available tools, the job is now much easier to finish. Included with the bladder is a handle that makes filling and cleaning the bladder easier as well. Some of us can remember trying to balance and handle older bladders without such a handle, and though it wasn’t prohibitively complex, the new offering is just that much better. Finally, there’s a valve lock near the bit valve on the tube. Ever sat your hydration pack down on the bite valve and have all your water leak out? I have. The valve lock is in place to prevent that from occurring. When you don’t need water from the bladder, just simply turn the lock into the correct position and you’re good to go!
And, speaking of being good to go, you’re going to have to carry some stuff with you even on the shortest outings. No worries there either. There’s plenty of cargo space in the Fourteener for whatever gear you need out on the trail. Besides the two elastic side pockets mentioned earlier, there are three other cargo pockets (aside from the bladder compartment) totaling almost 1600 cubic inches. The first I’ll mention is the small pocket near the top of the pack. It’s large enough for an ipod and a compact phone. This is an excellent spot for such electronic devices because it keeps the delicate items away from the main load of the pack so they don’t get crushed or broken. Also, there is a weather resistant seal along the zipper track to help keep the interior a bit drier. I wouldn’t say the pocket is waterproof, but it’s a good step closer for those of us that just can’t do without our music or other data on the trail.
Next up is the the outer pocket of the pouch where you can put rain gear or other items. This is a flat compartment where you can keep smaller items safe and organized. I found all kinds of uses for this pocket over the past couple of months. I carried everything from keys to ink pens to pocket knives to flashlights and even a small Rite In The Rain journal for jotting down my thoughts. Though flat, this compartment is fairly wide and long allowing the user to stuff in a map or other materials they’ll need during their outing. There are also a couple of small, zippered pouches for items like coins, safety pins, and the like.
As mentioned, this compartment sits atop a large pouch/flap where you can store loose items like a helmet or extra clothing items like rain gear. During most of the outings where I took the Fourteener, I just carried a nice extra fleece jacket to keep warm. Some days, it got warmer and I was able to shed a layer or two and just stuff them away in this area. I’m a big guy and fleece isn’t the thinnest material, so you can tell there’s quite a bit of room in this pouch to stuff some of that extra gear. On this flap, there’s also a mount for trekking poles or an ice axe if you’re so inclined. I’ve never used an ice axe, but I’m thinking I’d look pretty cool with one attached to the pack. It would make people wonder where I’m going in West Virginia that I might need it. If you’re not inclined to pack rain gear or similar items, this pouch area would be a good spot to drop in some other items, though I’d make sure they were in Zip-Lock bags or dry pouches in case you encounter weather.
All of that and we haven’t even gotten to the main cargo area! This is where my gear-head mentality starts to kick in and it takes me no time to get it filled. Even though I’ve cut back on all of the uber gear with triple redundancy that resulted in those heavy packs, I still carry a fairly complete survival kit. I’ve got kits all over the house, but this one is specifically designed for what I might encounter on dayhikes. From first aid to navigation to signaling to starting a fire, I’ve got my bases pretty well covered. I won’t live like a king, but I’ve got enough in the kit to make it long enough until help is found. That kit is packed into a Pelican hard case which is waterproof. Since packs get dropped and banged around, I wanted to make sure the gear was protected from impact and also from inclement weather as well. As you can see in the picture, the main cargo area will carry quite a bit of gear. When it’s packed, you can’t see everything since some of it is toward the bottom of the pack. The flap only opens up enough to expose about two thirds of the space.
The first time I took the Fourteener out, I was testing some different gear, so in addition to some personal items like the survival kit, a SnugPak microfiber towel, snacks for Jethro, and a portable speaker for my Ipod, I also packed in three knives as well. As you can see, these were full size knives with their sheaths and even one with some rather large leg straps. Even after all of that, there was still room left over to throw in some more stuff if I liked. I was in Heaven! On subsequent trips I included other items more germane to an enjoyable outing. Snacks for me like some Cliff bars and jerky were at the top of the list. I typically carry a Sierra cup with me as well. Besides its survival purpose, it’s what Jethro uses as his drinking bowl while we’re in the woods. There have been times that hikes have lasted longer than I thought, so I usually take along a good headlamp like the Princeton Tec Apex in the picture. I’ve had that lamp for 5 or 6 years and it’s saved the day numerous times. It’s a handy item to have along.
Finally, if I’m taking a documented trail, I like to take along a book with me to reference along the way. Though most documented trails are pretty well marked, you sometimes end up with extra time on your hands and might want to try out another trail while you’re out. Many states have a network of trails that intersect each other, so it’s nice to have this kind of information along. You might want to know the difficulty or length of the trail which will give you an idea of how much time it will take to complete. And, finally, I’m going to always have a larger fixed blade with me when I’m out. If I’m around more mainstream folks (you know who I mean), I’ll carry it in the pack so I won’t scare the natives. Anyway, the point is that there’s plenty of room in the main cargo area of the Fourteener. Even with all of this, there’s till a bit of room in the pack to stuff in a little more gear, but let’s not get carried away!
If you step back and take in the whole picture of the CamelBak Fourteener, it’s hard not to appreciate everything it offers. I’ve used small hydration packs in the past, but found them a bit lacking when it came to cargo room. And if the cargo room was ample, something in the comfort level wasn’t quite right. While I’ve pared back on my gear to save weight and extra work, there’s still a minimum amount of gear that I’d like to carry. The Fourteener strikes just about the perfect balance for me in this regard.
When you factor together the capacity of the bladder, the amount of space for your gear, and all the design appointments for user comfort, the Fourteener makes an outstanding choice for a dayhiking pack. It offers a lot of features, some not even on full sized packs and gives up nothing in comfort or portability. Over the past couple of months, I’ve had it out in the woods with me on numerous occasions and have yet to find anything that I don’t like about it. All told, I probably have somewhere between 15-20 different kinds of packs ranging from lumbar packs on up to full blown expedition packs. In the middle, I’ve got around 5-10 packs you could consider a “day hiking pack”. The CamelBak Fourteener beats them all hands down. Even though the review period is over and I don’t have to keep “trying it out”, it’s still the one that keeps going outside with me. I like it that much. I’ve used it in the snow, on wet days, and on days that are perfect to be outside. It hasn’t missed a step along the way.
CamelBak boasts that the Fourteener is an award winning pack. I did a Google search and couldn’t find out which award that was exactly. But, as far as I’m concerned, it gets a definite thumbs up. If you’re looking for a rugged pack that’ll see you through your days of adventure, I’d highly recommend that you give this one a close look before you make a choice you regret. I’ve been there, done that, and got the T-shirt. If you consider everything the Fourteener has to offer, it’s well worth the price of admission!