Gossamer Gear Gorilla Backpack - a 3,000 Mile Review
Gossamer Gear has been refining their ultralight oriented backpacks since 1998, including multiple iterations of the Gorilla – their medium volume framed pack. The newest version was released in early 2015 using gray Robic fabric instead of the white Dyneema Grid fabric as seen on older packs. The shoulder straps are now unisex, more contoured, thicker,and slightly narrower than the previous version. The hip belt was also redesigned to have more padding with a mesh inner face to wick sweat. Trekking pole holders were also added along with heavier stitching for prolonged pack life. As a result, the listed weight increased slightly to 26 ounces for the size medium pack.
The Gossamer Gear Gorilla is a typical ultralight style backpack with one large main pocket, but it uses an integrated lid to close the pack. It features two large side pockets that each easily fit a 1 liter Gatorade or Nalgene bottle. There is a small zippered pocket on the non-removable lid which can fit maps or other small items, a single large mesh pocket on the front of the pack, and a pair of mesh pockets to hold the included sit pad or other compatible foam pad on the back on the pack. The pad is the only back padding of the pack to save weight. The pack also features an ice axe loop, side compression straps, and trekking pole holders. The bottom of the pack and side pockets are made of a heavier duty version of the Robic fabric to resist abrasion. The pack hip belt (available in 5 sizes) is purchased separately and has one large zippered pocket on either side, sized for 3 cliff bars or a large point and shoot camera. It is attached to the pack with a large swatch of Velcro and sandwiched between the pack and the included sit pad (or your own sleeping pad). Note that the extra-small hip belt does not include pockets. The Gorilla is available in 3 torso sizes and a pack + hip belt goes for $245.
I purchased my size large Gorilla nearing the end of Rachel and I’s through-hike of the Arizona Trail to replace a larger volume frameless pack that was giving me shoulder pain. I used the pack for the remaining 100 miles of the Arizona Trail (AZT), 75 miles of backpacking in Zion and Buckskin Gulch, over 2,200 miles of the Continental Divide Trail (CDT), and about 500 miles on the Grand Enchantment Trail (GET). Round it all up slightly and I have about 3,000 miles in 7 states over 7 months on this pack. I typically carried a base weight of about 12 to 14 pounds with some variation along the way. My longest food carry was 7 days and the most water I carried was about 5 liters. I used this pack both on trail and off-trail to bushwack on the Grand Enchantment and for many cross country alternates on the CDT. Most recently, the Gorilla has served as my winter day pack for snowshoeing in Colorado. To call this a long term review would be an understatement. As a bonus, Rachel purchased a Gossamer Gear Mariposa at the end of our AZT hike and used it for the CDT and GET. She decided to downsize to the Gorilla after we got home, so I have some comparison photos of an almost brand new but size small Gorilla.
Prior to this pack, I was used to large volume frameless packs that had lots of excess room taken up by only partially compressing my sleeping bag and down jacket. This strategy worked well when the food carries were 5 days or less with ample on-trail water, but my shoulders were not happy with the long dry stretches on the AZT. My daily mileages were also lower than normal due to an injured partner leading to longer food and heavier water carries. The two problems led me to move to a more supportive but still lightweight framed backpack, and Gossamer Gear was the only ultralight backpack manufacturer at the time that had anything in stock. I had heard good things from my friend Section Hiker on his review of the Mariposa and “pulled the trigger” last May but opted to go for the smaller volume Gorilla.
When I unboxed the pack sitting at a picnic table in front of the south rim general store, I was a little shocked by the small size in comparison to my voluminous frameless pack. How was I going to make this work exactly? I quickly realized that smarter packing was the answer and that I had all the volume I needed. My sleeping bag would have to be more compressed and instead of simply piling food in my 20 liter food bag I now had to carefully pack it, fitting smaller items in the spaces between the larger to reduce volume. Fully packed with 5 days of food and three liters of water, the Gorilla felt dense but carried much better than my old pack. The center of gravity of the pack was much closer to my body than my old pack and the shoulder straps were much more comfortable with very thick padding. The pack’s frame did an okay job of transferring weight to my hips, I would estimate about 50-75% of the 30 or so pounds the pack weight versus the 25-50% of my frameless pack. I also found that the size large fit my 21 to 22 inch size torso perfectly without much of a gap between the shoulder strap and my back. I would not recommend buying this pack if your torso measures significantly larger.
I also immediately noticed several minor things I didn’t care for on the pack. Gossamer Gear sized the straps that cinch the lid and compression straps on the side of the pack excessively long and included clips on the ends of the shoulder straps. The shoulder strap clips are supposed to be clipped together to create a second lower sternum strap but the shoulder straps were the only straps not sized extra long! I tried to remove them to trim a little useless weight but was only able to get one off without pliers. In the end I decided not to cut the straps since I could foresee using the extra length for strapping snowshoes or ski’s to the pack in the distant future, which I do now.
Further, the size large torso length is several inches longer than the 20-inch Gossamer Gear Nightlight sleeping pad I know and love. That meant the pad rides up the pack as you hike and exposes the lower 2 inches of the hip belt. It’s not a big issue and can be mitigated somewhat by stuffing your extra socks or liner gloves into the top of the upper pad pocket. Rachel did not have this problem with the size small pack using the same sleeping pad as her pack is shorter. Hopefully in future versions of the Gorilla, Gossamer Gear will attach the mesh pad holder separately from the top of the pack and lower so solve this issue.
I really like the traditional layout of ultralight packs which consist of one large pocket and several exterior pockets and the Gorilla follows suit perfectly. A typical day for me involved stuffing my sleeping bag into the bottom of the pack sans stuff sack but inside a waterproof trash compactor bag, piling my sleeping clothes on top, closing the compactor bag, and adding our Fly Creek UL2 tent and gas canister on top. Next in was the 1/8” foam sleeping pad I double over and put under my legs. My food bag sat on top of everything and was accessible by opening the main compartment of the pack and held in place by stuffing my down jacket around the edges. My maps, first aid/repair kit, and electronics would slide in between the food bag and front of the pack. My wind jacket, rain skirt, stove, and pot lived in the front mesh pocket and umbrella in one of the side pockets held in place with the side compression straps.
While hiking I could easily reach either water bottle, eat snacks from one hip belt pocket or use my camera from the other hip belt pocket. If I needed the next map, it was easily accessible in the top of the pack. Lunch breaks just meant opening the pack and accessing my food bag. Being able to continue moving without stopping for food and water is the key to putting in those big miles. The pack is not waterproof but in my experience everything waterproof eventually wears holes so you end up using some kind of pack liner anyway. The Robic fabric also doesn’t seem to soak up as much water as silnylon so a pack cover wasn’t needed. At camp, I would remove the food bag and immediately be able to access our tent, stove, down jacket, and food. The sleeping pads, sleep clothes, and quilt would come out last inside the tent. This system negates any need for a sleeping bag or other compartments in the pack, simplifying the design and shedding the weight of additional zippers, seams and fabric.
3,000 Miles Later
It goes without saying that if I didn’t replace the pack for 3,000 miles that I must really like it. To me, it’s a good compromise between weight, durability and load carrying capacity. I also find the size and shape of the pack to be perfect for what I carry for 3-season backpacking and exceptionally good for off-trail travel. The narrow shape doesn’t snag on brush and the small size means my balance isn’t thrown off as badly on talus or scree as a larger pack would. However, this is a review and I want to delve into the nitty-gritty. That said, I did have some minor issues. The pack shoulder straps start extremely fluffy but quickly compress. On my size large the solid material that actually carries the load is only about half the width of the shoulder strap and squishes down the foam within one to two hundred hours of use. This puts more weight on a narrower section of the shoulder straps so I did experience some discomfort, but only with more than 25 pounds in the pack and only after hiking for close to 2 hours without taking the pack off.
Part of the problem is because the hip belt lacks shape and doesn’t do a the best job transferring weight to my bony man-hips; it’s basically a rectangle with rounded corners and a wide strap across the center. In my experience hip belts with two strap attachment points further back from the edge of the belt contour to your hips better and transfer the load more efficiently – like the ULA hipbelts. In fact, my girlfriend/hiking partner Rachel converted a ULA hipbelt to work with her Gossamer Gear Mariposa by removing the Velcro and replacing it with the opposite type to match the Mariposa Velcro – apparently an easy thing to do for something with some sewing abilities. She says it made a huge difference and recommends buying the Gossamer Gear pack and a separate ULA hipbelt (if you can sew) since Gossamer Gear sells the packs without hip belts. I did not do the same because it was a minor enough problem that I could just ignore it. Like I said – it’s a compromise. You can’t expect a 26 ounce pack to carry weight like a traditional 50+ ounce pack.
Other minor issues include the fact that the trekking pole holders don’t work when you set the pack on the ground. The pole tips easily push up out of the holders and the poles fall out. I think you’re better off securing them upside down in a side pocket with the side compression straps. Also when using an ice axe, the handle is secured with the top lid of the pack strap – presumably to save weight over using a dedicated Velcro loop. However, if you want to open the pack you now have to let the ice axe fall to the ground and re-secure it when you close the pack. Both are minor inconveniences but could be redesigned with just a minor increase in weight.Also a note about the weight – my pack with hipbelt and aluminum stay but no foam back pad weighs 28.5 ounces whilethe listed weight for the pack and hipbelt in size large is 24.8 ounces.
Where the Gorilla really shines for an ultralight pack is durability. Rachel and I saw many lightweight packs fail completely on the CDT but both of our packs held up exceptionally well. Rachel’s pack had virtually no wear on it by the end of our trip, mine has multiple small holes in the front mesh, significant wear on the lower pad mesh pocket, and one tear on the water bottle pocket where it got snagged on a door latch in town. I did tear some cosmetic stitching from the right shoulder strap and reinforced it with dental floss but that was over 1,000 miles before we finished hiking with no further damage. The remainder of the stitching is in great shape. Most impressively, the hip belt zippers lasted the entire trip which to me is almost inexplicable for a zipper!
Considering the amount of talus our packs were dragged across and the number of barbed wire fences we crawled under, this is a very small amount of wear for a 26 ounce pack. I think with some minor repairs to the mesh pad pocket I could easily get another multi-thousand mile hike out of this pack. Even better, it has replaced my old winter day pack as the lid easily fits snowshoes since I left the straps long as previously described.
Overall and in the lightweight backpack market, the Gossamer Gear Gorilla strikes a great balance between comfort, weight, durability and price and is best suited for lightweight, low volume loads for trips up to 7 days long. The pack does exceptionally well with off trail travel and is very user friendly. An average user could easily expect this pack to last a decade or more. There are some minor inconveniences that I hope Gossamer Gear will address with the next generation but in day to day use these issues amount to very little. In summary, and while there’s room for improvement my experience the Gossamer Gorilla was very good and it’s a great choice for those looking for a suitable long-distance pack that can handle the miles.
The Gorilla backpack retails for $245 (with a hipbelt) and can be found at Gossamer Gear.
The Author: Mike "Hiker Box Special" Henrick and Rachel "Heartbreaker" Brown spent 8 months of 2015 backpacking over 3,600 miles across the American West on the Arizona, Continental Divide and Grand Enchantment Trails after meeting just two months prior. Mike thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in 2013 and has been bike touring, backpacking and traveling since 2008. Look for more stories from Mike and Rachel's hikes in future issues of TrailGroove Magazine and on the TrailGroove Blog.
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