heading into Zao Ice Garden. Photo John Price Photography

i first noticed large dyneema Cilogear packs being used by military in Central Asia. coming in pure white i assumed them to be some sort of winter warfare thing, and noticed some users daubed theirs in enamel paint to change the appearance. the dozens of dangly D-rings had an industrial look to them and the way the material wore certainly seemed to be some sort of other-industry derived. unlike the packs usually used, these things were very light. later i found the packs were actually available commonly, but were fairly rare. in part because they were very expensive. aside from a few top alpinists the only people talking about them were gear geeks and non-climbers startled by the price tags. a few places in Japan stocked a random selection – even more expensive due to importing and currency differences.

having dealt with high performance textiles a bit, different versions of Spectra/Dyneema/Cuben came up now and then, with Cilogear being a common example of left-of-field producers. other dyneema packs were about, but since times in Central Asia i wasnt seeing anything new on them, until meeting Cilogear’s front man Graham at the Bozeman Ice Festival in 2014. on a high octane tour of backwater Galatin county, Graham clarified the Cilogear dogma with inscrutable detail on all sorts of aspects of the packs. operating at an impressive level of nuance i got a look behind the curtain of the colour, the Dyneema and the price tags and came back to Japan 2 packs heavier.

tho Graham had sold me the Kool-aid it was +175 days of abusive use over the next year that made me drink it. over that time i hauled (as in actually hauled) them up granite walls, trained with them full of rocks, over-stuffed them most of the time, carried them to altitude, got them wet, frozen and filthy and generally made no effort at all to prevent them being damaged. i dont doubt that many other packs would have survived the same ordeal, but i seriously doubt they would have done so smilingly. with a selection of other packs, over time ive blown out the seams, torn out the features, shredded the fabrics, exhausted the shoulder pad foam, had the frames fail and been less impressed by the design and construction of enough of them to both not trust anything new and yet crave a solution to my load carrying demands. i found i usually went thru a pack every 200 days of use, ending with a failure that compromised the ability to carry 25kg loads. after 200 days using Cilo’s W/NWD worksack it remains unchanged from its original condition aside from a small hole where i melted it then fixed it with seamgrip.

i understand that many people find the prices offensive. i also understand that many people never carry serious loads for serious reasons for serious time. high on a Tibetan wall like we were in November, the ability to move gear is as related to mortality as helmets, shelter and food. the confidence in the packs we used was worth the price several times over; knowing they wouldnt fall apart, wet out, puncture, the straps fail or lose integrity day after day of using them as packs, pillows, snow bags, sleeping mats and storage. this may sound like hyperbole, but a high-functioning load bearing set up lets you do things you may not without it. personally i make price about the 10th thing on the list of factors.

the pain of heavy loads – whether yomping miles across terrain or carrying hundreds of meters up mountains – never goes but when you have the right tools it can be mitigated. and thats whats behind the curtain of Cilogear Worksacks. its easy to be distracted by the colour, the money, the material and the cult-like attitude, but after all that wears off its the once unrealistic loads that become doable, which translates into real time climbing.

Cilogear Worksacks: the whole is greater than the sum of the parts

Piece by piece:

the white Woven/Non-Woven Dyneema fabric is the star of the show and far, far more than a gimmick. that its light and tough is really a given, and the least interesting of its properties. the stuff is rigid so it never gets that limp, saggy form that results from compromised seams and stitching. retaining its integrity, a half packed sack stays solid on your back and lets hardware remain on the outside. the stuff doesnt absorb water. in fact it floats. this means the weight is barely affected when wet, and that it dries fast. moisture doesnt remain in the weave nor the seams and lead to rot and mold. at very cold temps (@ -20c say) it does feel slightly stiff. the stuff is waterproof. being a dyneema membrane bonded with a protective face theres no traditional fabric for water to permeate, nor is there a cheap membrane stuck to it – the material is the proofing. the stuff is easily fixable with common adhesives, not some silicone covered stuff nothing sticks too.

the internal compression strap is where its at, more than anything else this thing makes a difference. consolidating the load up into the pack this strap resolves load-stabilizing issues i never even knew existed. both compressing the interior and minimizing the ‘barrel effect’ by reeling in the lateral center of the load, weight sits closer to the part of your body best structured to carry it. it is as integral to load stabilization as the sternum strap, shoulder and waist stabilizers and external compression – and that no other packs seem to copy it is amazing.

the shape is a subtle but profound element in load bearing. despite the utilitarian name ‘worksack‘ these sacks are not simple tubes of material with straps on them. yet nor are they over-complex shapes easily compromised by incorrect use. wider at the top than the base, loads stack both intuitively and integrally. Cilogear knows compressible things like sleeping bags get jammed in the bottom, bulky things get stuffed in the middle and lots of jumbled things get stacked in on top and the shape exploits that making it easy to pack and load.

the frame is usually an unseen and esoteric part of a pack. we know what its for and esoterically how it works, but its usually not for us to meddle with – Cilogear reverses that. smaller packs have a folded sheet of high tensile, dense foam – the fold itself adding to its integrity – and larger packs have that combined with a composite board given form and integrity by an alu stay down its length. robust, basic and functional its easily the heaviest part of the whole pack and compared to most other packs, its clunky. but it works, protecting the back, coping with huge loads and maintaining form even when awkwardly loaded, which is where its seemingly over-designed form comes in –  no matter how grim the load it wont barrel out.

the adaptable strap system maximizes on the frames resistance to barreling by better cinching down both internal and external loads. with a solid base to pull against theres much less of the formless squishing of a softer pack and the infinite possibilities of strap configuration reduces this further. various strap choices negate the problems of being confined to prescribed ways of loading – another problem most climbers dont know they are subject too – and that is a huge factor when it comes to serious loads. ive heard complaints about how much the dozens of metal D-rings must weigh, and if youre an ultra-runner theres an argument to be had (and they can be removed for those who care), but the function is easily worth the grams. its actually probably offset due to better loading options. for the wonky (over)loads of multiday climbing – extra ropes, portaledges, extra footwear etc – freedom from the standarized attachment systems is as important to load bearing as the frame and waist belt.

the grab handles make a large heavy pack manipulable. from lifting into vehicles to wrestling onto your back, sturdy grab loops front and back focus the stresses where its designed to be. more than one pack has been damaged due to unknowing helpers picking them up by gear loops, so for anyone on expedition a whole element of manhandling is resolved. front & back loops let you clip it to anchors more conveniently.

the stitching. when Graham says much of the weight is actually in thread it can be easily verified – the number of bar tacks in each pack is huge. all the straps and connectors, stress points and joinery is banged out in tacks, with several of the high-wear seams being double stitched.

the details. Cilopacks are not an endless list of features and gizmos. there are no spot-lit, show-stopping elements that solve all the worlds problems. what there is is a series of details that make the big factors like the material and compression systems function as well as they can. little tabs in the right place for hydration systems, reflective strips, crampon pockets, well-sized pockets, the angles of seams, the placements of joints. these things are found in every pack but against the background of the innovations on a Cilogear pack they have real affect.

alone any of these features is useful yet minor, but combined they mean more can be carried further with less energy – the fundamental baseline of real climbing. seemingly from the ground up Cilogear has addressed the need to carry loads under duress. other packs do it, Cilogear packs ignore all else in the drive to do it the best way possible.

are there problems? if we negate problems that no other load bearing system has solved either then, honestly, not many. ive broken every squeeze lock thingy on every draw cord so far, but that hardly rates. the ice tool attachment system isnt my favorite but it works without fault. some of the D-rings clink together when walking……im clutching at straws here. compared to the long lists i have of woe with competing packs its negligible, more so when weighed up against the pros.

at about 1/3 the price will the standard fabric Worksacks do the same job just as well? no, they wont. they will do a very good job, still better than the vast majority of packs out there for lumping real loads – which goes a long way to show just how good the suspension, compression, load bearing and adjustable elements are  as standalone elements – but they are limited in their durability, especially when wet, and miss out on the endemic rigidity/non-stretch of the W/NWD that pulls all the other pieces into line. for a trip or two a year the regular packs will do nicely, but if a consistent capacity to move stuff in hard places is a foundation in your lifestyle the W/NWD versions simply do it better. when normal packs are showing signs of wear the dyneema is just getting worn in. seriously. knowing your pack will still do a dependable job after months of round the clock abuse is easily worth the asking price for anyone faced polar, big mountain, remote or working trips.

am i a convert? hell yes. and not just by lip service or wanky blog sycophancy. when the next opportunity came around i laid down a weighty stack of my own ¥10,000 notes to get 2 more – not because they needed replacing, but because i came to see the way a top shelf load bearing system changes what can be achieved and how id been blind to this. harking back to the military users i now get what they saw; not so much a burly pack to dump stuff in, but a carrying system that opened up options with their planning.

if $$$ equals better carrying of heavy loads, im sold.

should you pay the price? not if you dont carry more than about 25kgs over distance more often than not when you climb. anyone who regularly carries serious loads like a week+ of gear, big wall stuff, LPG bottles, work gear etc will know that $775 is a no-brainer to make it easier  – about $10 every 2 weeks for a few years to nail a significant part of the climbing equation…sold. other packs will get you thru weekends and the occasional big yomp, and you will go thru 3 or 4 of them by the time the costs add up. for the weekend warrior that will never happen. personally i dont even think durability has much going for it – often enough you can limp home from a weekend with a damaged pack and the chances of blowing another are pretty slim. for that level of use im sure Graham will happily oblige and you wont be disappointed. BUT if the combined problems of robustness, loads, loading options and climbability all overlap and influence what your objectives are these packs are the best options going. if youve ever done the numbers of the weight:distance:ability:objective equation and not been able to crunch it, these packs can square a big chunk of the algorithm. its kind of nice not having to think about what i will use to carry big loads with for the rest of my days.