Moonbow Gearskin Pack, Field Report
- Oops, dunno what happened there, I'll try again...
Hi all, please feel free to read and comment--I look forward to
hearing your thoughts. -Dawn
Moonbow Gearskin Pack, Field Report
Tester: Dawn Harkins, age 47, female, 5 feet 3 inches (160 cm), 187
pounds (85 kgs), torso 16.5 inches (42 cm), chest at sternum 40.5
inches (103 cm), hips 42.5 inches (108 cm).
Email Address: dawnhark "at" yahoo "dot" com
Location: Lake Tahoe, Northern California, USA
Backpacking Background: I began backpacking in 1973, went infrequently
in the eighties and nineties, and now backpack regularly. Almost all
of my hiking is done in the High Sierra in areas within a day's drive
of Tahoe, though I also frequent the Great Basin High Desert
(northwest Nevada) in winter. I've hiked in Oregon, Idaho, Colorado,
Montana, Wyoming, British Columbia, and Alaska. I have the good
fortune to live in the middle of the mountains while working
part-time, so it's easy for me to go camping, day hiking, and
Manufacturer: The Moonbow Company.
Date of Manufacture: August 2002
Manufacturer Web Site: http://moonbowgear.com/
MSRP: $125.00 USD and up (price varies with options and materials chosen)
Listed Weight: Around one pound (454 grams). Moonbow gear is
custom-made, so no two packs will weigh the same.
Weight as Delivered: 20.1 ounces (570 grams)
Listed Capacity: 2500 to 6500 cubic inches (41 to 106 liters)
The Moonbow Gearskin pack system is an innovative lightweight design
that should be seen to be understood and appreciated. Before reading
on, I strongly advise you to go to http://moonbowgear.com/, click on
the Camping/Hiking link, click on the Custom Packs link, and finally
click on the Gearskins link. Here you'll find photos that will do much
to de-mystify the Gearskin.
Location: The Sierra Nevada mountains of Northern California, at
elevations of 5,000 to 10,000 feet (1,500 to 3,000 meters).
Description of Location: The terrain in the test area is mountainous,
with granite peaks and ridges, alpine meadows, streams, canyons, talus
slopes, lakes, and alpine and sub-alpine forests. This is a semi-arid
Weather Conditions: The weather during this testing period was
generally dry and sunny, with temperatures ranging from 22 F (-5 C) to
85 F (29 Celsius).
Backpacking Style & Experience: I backpack a couple times a month in
the Sierra Nevada in a wide range of alpine conditions. Most trips are
two to three days long. As far as pack weight goes, I'm slowly
upgrading to lightweight and hope to arrive eventually at around 15
pounds (6.8 kilograms) for everything except fuel, food, and water.
(If I was really serious about it, I could go to ten pounds/4.5
kilograms base weight, but I find I'm not happy without a book and my
big Therm-A-Rest pad.) My current base weight is around 20 pounds (9
I use tarps or floorless tents for shelter when backpacking, carry an
umbrella (for sun) and a poncho, and hike with poles. Jesse, my dog,
always comes along. I hike both on and off trail, and I like to avoid
my fellow human beings as much as possible. I am an ambler who takes
frequent breaks, as opposed to those who like to cover a lot of miles
on their hikes. One of my favorite tenets of lightweight backpacking
is to try and have every item I carry serve at least two (preferably
Having just reviewed my Initial Report, I find I've already commented
on many aspects of the Gearskin that would normally belong in this,
the Field Report. I'll proceed by expanding on areas where I gained
more knowledge through field experience, and by updating where
One thing I want to make clear up front is that I had never used a
frameless pack for backpacking prior to testing the Gearskin, I prefer
to carry almost all of my load on my hips, and I succeeded in doing
this with ease. This is great lightweight pack.
To Pocket, or Not to Pocket:
From the Initial Report: "Jonathan McCue of Moonbow had asked if I
wanted a pocket on the back, and I said yes, even though it probably
wasn't necessary because, in a sense, the whole Gearskin is a pocket
or pocketsyou can stick maps, snacks, water bottles, etc into the
pack at any point along the sides and top simply by unclipping a
buckle, stuffing the item in among your gear (or between your gear and
the Gearskin), and redoing the buckle Compression prevents things
from falling out."
I use the pocket on the back of my Gearskin, which is made of the same
silicone-impregnated nylon as the rest of the pack, to hold my 2-liter
(68 ounces) water bag (I'm still not a convert to hose-hydration). The
pocket wasn't specially designed for this use, so I can't really
complain that it doesn't fit my water bag. When the Gearskin
compression straps are cinched tight, the pocket has very little
volume left. It is gusseted so that the center portion of the pocket
does retain volume, but both sides, amounting to at least half of the
total pocket, are flattened firmly against the pack body. I think the
gussets should be moved out toward the outside edges of the pocket so
that more of the pocket volume is useable. Meanwhile, I used it for my
water bag anyway, but I only carried about a liter (34 ounces) of
water at a time, which did fit into the pocket.
Other pockets: I wear glasses, so I Velcroed a case to a shoulder
strap for them (I switch between clear and darklensed glasses). This
When I first began using the Gearskin, I too had the
fear-of-being-pocketless-ness experienced by at least one other
tester, so I added a small pocket to the other shoulder strap, but
here's where my individual hiking style makes my needs a bit different
from other hikers'. I ended up removing that second pocket, because I
take frequent short breaks. How do pockets relate to frequent breaks?
On many of these breaks I take my pack off, so my pants pockets are
then easily accessible for small items like lip balm, and the Gearskin
is easily accessible for larger items. (Moonbow will add as many
pockets as you wish, however, if you prefer.)
The only concession I've made recently to pocketphilia is that I've
attached a long narrow nylon fabric "quiver" to the left side the
Gearskin, using the compression straps threaded through the carry loop
on the quiver so that it hangs somewhat loosely. It then functions
wonderfully as a receptacle for my umbrella and/or one or both of my
hiking poles. Ideally, these items would be stored under the side
compression straps, but I found I wanted an option where I would be
able to switch from poles to umbrella quickly, without having to
remove the pack and undo the compression straps.
Regarding making the leap from using a lot of pockets for organizing
my stuff: I segregate most of my smaller gear into two or three
stuff-sacks and zip-lock bags, and my water filter goes into its own
sack. I keep my poncho folded into a zip-lock bag (hehe, haven't had
to use it for the past six monthsnow that I've been so bold as to put
that into words, it should soon commence to snow like hell). Larger
items, like jackets, bags, pads, and shelter, are laid into the
Gearskin without additional bagging. I'll address loading the Gearskin
in greater detail below.
To conclude the Pocket section, no pack, however festooned with
weight-adding pockets it may be, offers easier access to each and
every item one carries than the Gearskin. Admittedly, it takes a bit
of getting used to, but it's a worthwhile shift to make. It helps to
devise a system you like for loading your gear, and then use that
system every time, so that you know where things are and can simply
undo the compression strap nearest the piece of gear you want to access.
Upon arriving in camp, I normally pull things out of my pack as I need
them and leave the rest of my stuff in the pack. One of the funniest
(remember, I'm easily amused) unforeseen results of using the
Gearskin was that I soon had all my gear strewn madly about, sitting
on rocks and hanging from branches and tossed hither and yon,
willy-nilly. I learned to establish a new camp set-up routine that
included first pitching any shelter, as usual, and then arranging most
items neatly inside the shelter. When I go without shelter, I now put
my things in a semi-neat pile at the head of my sleeping area on top
of the opened-flat Gearskin.
Packing the Gearskin:
From the Initial Report: "Instead of an enclosed bag, [the Gearskin]
has a flat rectangle of fabric bordered by compression straps (four
on each side, plus two on top), plus shoulder, load-lifter, and
sternum straps, and a padded hipbelt. There is no frame, nor are there
any stays in this pack; weight-transferring stiffness is obtained by
tightly compressing the load."
I've used the Gearskin on five weekend trips so far and I am amazed at
the simplicity and effectiveness of this pack's design. It's a bit
difficult to get used to at first: No stuff sack for my sleeping
bag?!? Unheard of! And yet, the unstuffed bag, along with your other
large or bulky items, functions to keep everything in place within the
Gearskin, resulting in a solid, unshifting, steady load with no empty
spaces. This is one of the best things about the Gearskin: the pack is
always the exact same size and shape as your load! Can't beat that.
I try to keep most of my loads to 30 pounds or less. Here's what I
brought on an overnighter in August, when the weather was still warm:
Total weight was approximately 25 pounds (11.4 kgs) and included my
Thermarest Base Camp pad, bag, Hex 2 tent, Thermarest chair, a big
trash bag (used in combination with the chair to create a ground
sheet), umbrella, nylon pants, fleece jacket, windbreaker, about a
liter of water, MSR Miniworks filter, two days of food (about five
pounds including dog food), stove and kitchen items, a few first aid
and repair items, and a bunch of smaller things like matches, cordage,
spare socks, etc.
I put all the food into one large zip-lock bag and organized the other
small items into small zip-locks inside a silnylon stuff sack. The
water filter was in its own mesh bag, as were the kitchen items.
To pack the Gearskin, I first spread it out flat on the ground, all
buckles unfastened and moved to the far ends of their respective
straps. Hip-belt and shoulder-straps were on the ground; the inside
surface of the pack was facing skyward.
Next, I positioned the tent very loosely over the pack, lengthwise. I
folded my pad into thirds and placed that on top of the tent,
positioned over the part of the pack that would later be resting
against my back. I placed the chair, which includes inflexible support
rods, on the pad with the rods oriented vertically and placed at the
sides. Next came my sleeping bag, tossed loosely over the rest, also
The rest of the gear was placed on top of the bag. I put the food bag
at what would soon become the bottom of the load (just over the
hip-belt) and lined up the other items horizontally above that, with
the lightest things placed toward the top.
Finally, I folded the edges of the tent inwards lengthwise and then
folded the whole big wad of stuff in half. If I've lost you here, my
apologies, and please go to the Moonbow website for clarity
I usually fasten the top two compression straps first, and then the
sides. At this point it's all a fairly amorphous mass, and now is a
good time to make sure the load is centered over the back of the
Gearskin properly. Now all you have to do is tighten all the straps,
put it on, and walk. My gear tends to extend about four inches (10 cm)
beyond the pack body on each side.
Right about now you're remembering a few things you forgot to pack,
but don't despair. It's easy as pie to unclip the appropriate strap
and put whatever gear you forgot anywhere in the pack. Which is very,
I still have concerns about leaving my gear partially exposed. From
the Initial Report: "By design, the Gearskin exposes my tent, tarp,
ground sheet, or sleeping bag to damage by tearing or abrasion, unless
I take the additional step of using either a pack cover or a nylon
I've given a lot of thought to this, and I think the answer, for me,
will depend on what I'm carrying for shelter on a given trip.
If I'm not carrying a tarp to use for a ground sheet, I'm thinking
I'll want to use a large, say about 25"x30" (64x76 cm) silnylon bag to
enclose my fabric gear in order to protect it from snags. This will,
of course, mean that I'll have to pack a bit differently. I haven't
tried it yet, but I envision it this way:
Lay out tent, pad, and bag as usual (for Gearskin packing), but don't
put it on top of the Gearskin yet. Fold lengthwise, then in half, and
slip this big wad into the large silnylon bag. Position the filled bag
on top of the Gearskin and proceed as usual, placing smaller items
such as clothing, mess kit, food bag, and water filter on top of the
bag, and then folding the back of the Gearskin up and over everything.
Snap and tighten compression straps.
Alternatively, you could put everything inside the large bag, but then
you would loose one of the very useful features of the Gearskin
design, which is easy access to every item.
If I am carrying a groundsheet, it can be positioned under tent, bag,
and pad and folded inward around same so as to protect that
more-essential gear from snags. The only drawback to this method as
opposed to using a large bag is that the ground sheet becomes the
outermost layer and is susceptible to snags. Where I backpack, summers
are usually long and dry, so I wouldn't be too worried about the holes
letting in water. I could also easily patch small holes. For winter or
rainy-weather camping, I would be unwilling to expose my groundsheet,
and thus my sleeping bag, etc, in this way.
I think that if I hiked in very wet conditions, I might go with the
pack cover instead of these two methods.
Fit and Comfort:
Generally speaking, the Gearskin is the most comfortable pack I've
used. It's not as comfortable as going naked, though, for which I
bitterly blame the Moonbow Company. Be that is it may, I'm pretty
satisfied. The concern I had about the shoulder straps laying flat
still exists to some extent, but not as much as it did initially.
I plan to play around more with the way I pack the Gearskin, possibly
removing the rigid supports from my chair and stowing them
horizontally, and shaping the load a bit so it fits the curve of my
back. As it stands now, however, I'm pretty pleased with it. The
weight savings alone account for a great deal of added comfort.
The buckle on the hip-belt still digs into me towards the end of the
day, but I fixed that by positioning a square of foam padding behind
it. I plan to attach the foam permanently.
I like to vary the tightness of the shoulder straps and load lifters
as I'm walking along; the variety seems to help prevent soreness from
developing in any one spot.
I do wish that, even though this pack is custom-made to my
measurements, there was some way to adjust where the shoulder straps
attach to the pack body (ie, adjust the torso measurement). The pack
was built to my specifications, but I'm no expert, and it can be tough
to get an accurate torso measurement. Adjustability of torso length
would give me one more way to play with the fit.
The best things about this pack are its extremely light weight, its
variable capacity, its comfort, and the way it provides easy access to
all one's gear.
From the Initial Report: "After the Dardanelles trip [this was the
first trip with the Gearskin] I was disappointed, but not particularly
surprised, to find that there are two spots (at the back where the
bottom of the hip-belt is sewn to the pack) where the fabric is
tearing away from the stitching. When I initially examined the
Gearskin, I noticed that these areas looked susceptible to too much
stress for the way they are constructed (ie, with a line of stitching
that extends about a half inch/1.3 cm downward from where the hipbelt
is sewn to the body fabric)."
This problem could be prevented with a slight change in construction:
Don't extend those two lines of stitching beyond the area where the
belt is sewn to the body with a long horizontal line of stitching. On
my pack, the silnylon is ripped out for the short length of this
extension, but the inner reinforcing fabric has held. I think the pack
will survive these wounds, but they are unnecessary and preventable,
and they probably weaken the pack to some degree.
I would also like to see care, loading, and fitting instructions
included with the pack.
Here's a thought I just had which actually applies to all packs with
hipbelts, not just the Gearskin. As stated earlier, I carry all or
most of my load on my hips. Because of that, there's a lot of downward
pressure, and belts inevitably slip down too low and need to be hiked
back up, and often tightened. To help minimize this, I try to wear
shorts and pants made of fabric that has some friction, some texture
to provide resistance against the fabric of the hip-belt. Wearing
smooth or slippery nylon, for instance, just doesn't work for me. I
wonder if it would be a good idea to put some dabs of silicone
caulking on the inside of one's hip-belt to help it grip better? I
might give it a try, and if I do I'll let you know how it worked in
the Long-Term Report.
Thank you to BackpackGearTest and Moonbow for the opportunity to
participate in this test.