Black Diamond 40L Speed Backpack
Reviewed by Jon Griffith
I seem to have amassed a wealth of backpacks over the last 2 years. For as long as I can remember I used a second hand Lowe Alpine Attack backpack for everything from multi day climbs in the Alps to mushroom picking in Wales. A great backpack indeed and a true workhorse, however gradually it started giving way and the hip belt started to rip apart. But still, as we all do in these times of need, I turned to our friend mr Duct tape who extended its life for a good many years. Then for Christmas I was given a new ski backpack, a Frenzy 28L, and dutifully bound to my new present I left for the hills with it. It’s maybe the best present anyone has even given me- it was phenomenally comfortable and practical. Since then, the floodgates opened and I seem to have a backpack for every occasion (very extravagant but then as we all know when a family member finds a climber a present he/she likes its like opening pandoras box and before you know it Osprey’s sales are moving suspiciously in line with any celebratory occasions)
Backpacks are of course a very personal thing and what works well for me may not necessarily work well for you. I spend a lot of time in the Alps and so I want some thing that is made for that. So what do I look for in a perfect backpack? Well as usual weight is a key feature but its not something I get fanatical about- Id rather it weighed a few hundred grams more and be comfy than the other way around. To me these are the key features:
- An external holder attachment for crampons
- 2 ice axe holders
- An internal emergency bivi mat
- Water pouch
- Padded hip belt
- Semi-rigid or rigid frame
- Zed compression straps (for sleeping mat/ tent etc)
The Speed Backpack is part of the Black Diamond Ascent series of backpacks. A quick glance at the specs will show you that this is maybe their spearhead backpack. Its incredibly well designed and very light. That’s actually the first thing you notice about the pack as you pick it up. For a well accessorised 40L backpack its pretty damn light. At a ‘complete’ weight of 1.1kg and a stripped weight of 690gr you cant really complain.
Durablitiy/ Outer shell
Of course there is the usual compromise in all this. ‘Light’ may be ‘right’ but its certainly not if as you enter your first granite chimney squeeze you catch sight of your stove flying down the mountain side as your pack’s ripped in half. With the bulk of the outer shell resembling ultra-thin parachute material I did wonder at how the pack would fare against the quartz crystals that seem to hold most of Chamonix together. So how did it? Well I tend to use and abuse a lot of my gear and my pack is no exception. As many an alpine partner can testify I always climb with a pack on and if I have to use it to wedge into a small chimney or other feature then I do so with gusto- being a bit of a weedy person I prefer my pack to take the rips and cuts than my back. So far the pack has come out looking better than I have.
My next test was to see how it fared with sharp objects inside the pack. I tend to be pretty lazy after long winter climbs and the last thing I want to do is place ice screw protectors back onto ice screws before legging it for the last cable car down- so in everything goes. The first time I did it I was painfully aware that at least 2 screws were being jutted straight out into the outer shell- normally I would move them but I figured that what better way to test the ruggedness of this material. So off I stomped hoping that I wouldn’t arrive at the Midi with 2 giant bore holes in my pack and a trail of dropped gear down the mountain. Good news then that I arrived with a still complete backpack.
So it took me a while to trust the strength of it. However when I realised how deceptively strong it was there was no stopping me and I was quite happy piling it full and attaching skis or sleeping mat to the outside and pulling the straps as tight as they would go. The outer shell is actually made of two materials, 210d nylon for low abrasion areas and stronger 400d for high abrasion areas.
Testing grounds on the Eugster Direct, photo © Gavin Pike
Top marks on ruggedness then (which to me is really important). So next up is how comfy it is. The very first thing I noticed as I put it on was that it fitted like a glove…except for your back. The foam padding that forms the cushioning between your back and the pack is very comfortable but firm- it doesn’t have any of that ‘mesh breath-ability’ stuff but I don’t like that as my back gets cold when I stop. This pack was designed for Alpine use at the end of the day, not long warm day hikes where you might sweat a lot causing discomfort. Having said that it wicks away sweat incredibly well so that even on long approaches with a heavily laden pack, I didnt find that it was uncomfortable or ‘rubbing’ my back.
The hip-belt is also very comfy and doesn’t skimp on the foam padding which is a rare thing as its an easy and obvious (and cheap) way to shave down on weight- for a bag that’s pushing for its lightweight appeal its nice to see that it isn’t doing it by taking the easy way out! There are also two handy slots in the hip-belt that allow you to loop a karabiner through to act as an ice clipper.
The pack nestles very comfortably in your back. By incorporating a plastic frame sheet with a single metal wire to support it in the back panel you get a nice supported feel to the backpack when it is on- I loathe ‘floppy’ backpacks, but then again that’s a personal preference. Something that I did notice was that the metal wire is not properly attached in at the top (see photo) meaning that it didn’t actually fully support the top section. However since the shoulder straps are attached below the ‘bend line’ it doesnt actually affect the support or comfort of the pack in any way- its really mainly a cosmetic thing. Obviously if the pack is full this doesnt happen its only when you have it half-full with quite a bit of weight in it..
On the left you can see that the wire doesnt hold the corners properly. On the RHS is a simulated heavy load causing the plastic to ‘bend’
Ice Axe and Crampon Attachment
The ice axe attachment is via a Velcro strip. Whilst I have been used to dealing with straps this is a much faster and welcome addition. They have yet to come undone but I can imagine that this is possible being Velcro and all (wait until they get iced up). However they are fully removable leaving in its place a small loop allowing you to thread through a proper strap if you so wish. The exterior crampon attachment system is pretty primitive and you have to provide your own straps. I suppose by not having them sewn on it saves weight and gives you the option but I do feel that it would have been a nice touch instead of having to thread your straps yourself. I loved the Alpine Attack system which was simply a very tough external pouch sewn onto the back of the pack meaning that you just slipped them in and out in seconds- obviously this adds weight but I thought that it was brilliant and it would be great if this pack had a similar pouch system.
Hood/ Top Pocket
The removable hood which has become a much seen feature on rucksacks is unfortunately not something I am a big fan of. I am not saying that this exact hood is bad but just that I don’t like having a removable hood. Unfortunately they are nearly impossible to avoid nowadays on these light and fast packs as they are the obvious thing to get rid of when you want to strip down on weight. Personally I always keep the hood on because I keep my food (and keys) in the top pocket meaning I can access it en-route by simply reaching back for the zipper and fishing something out. It does however come with a clever ‘ladder’ system at the back meaning that you can raise or lower the point of attachment of the hood depending on how full or empty your pack is (see photo below). This allows the hood to always end up sitting ontop of the pack and not pulled in tight to the side as often happens when you pack your bag too high. The hood actually has three compartments (normally you have two) allowing you to keep your keys / money in a completely different small mesh one meaning that you wont drop them by accident when rummaging around (we’ve all been there havnt we?).
The ‘ladder’ system with a close up on the RHS
The Zed compression straps serve their purpose very well. Instead of having just one strap per side there are actually two separate systems. However I do feel that the straps could have been a bit longer as I struggle to attach anything that is large to the outside (ie my tent). Otherwise the double system works very well.
Unfortunately the pack does not come with an emergency bivi mat but the compartment that holds the plastic frame sheet is easily large enough to slip one In there so I’ve just fahsinoned one myself and slipped it in.
Well I actually really really like this pack. I’ve used it constantly over the last month bashing my way up whatever there is left of the winter ice and its proven itself over and over again. Its large enough to be a good overnight bag but also light enough so that I can also use it as a day pack without thinking that the 40l weight and size will get in my way (those Zed straps really come into play here). If you do end up wanting to go superlight, removing the hipbelt, plastic frame sheet, and top hood allows you to speed along with an impressively light 690gr on your back which for a 40L rucksack isn’t too bad at all! But it is an alpine pack and that’s really worth remembering. This is not a cragging pack and I don’t think it is going to last anywhere near as long as my Alpine Attack but that’s the compromise I have to take to keep it all lighter. It is a rugged pack and there is no doubt about it but if you’re looking more for something to ‘throw’ about then this isn’t for you. As for as an alpine pack goes its fantastic and it will follow me wherever I go until Mr Duct tape has to make another appearance, but its not going to follow me into the woods or on any summer camping trips. Black Diamond have a good history of providing very comfortable and top-class packs and this is no exception. If you’re in the market for a new lightweight alpine pack then I cant recommend it highly enough- it’s functional, its light and it works.