Northern Ultralight creates packs that are, well, ultralight. Editor Vince Hempsall offers the skinny on the company’s Sundown backpack.
Scott Matson knows a lot about putting one foot in front of the other. In 2016 he thru-hiked the 4,260-kilometre-long Pacific Coast Trail from Mexico to Canada and then followed the feat by hiking the Continental Divide Trail, another border-to-border pathway spanning close to 5,000 kilometres. In between the two excursions, Matson, an engineer by trade, designed a backpack prototype for super-long forays. After thousands of kilometres of testing he called his creation the Sundown, partly because it’s his favourite time of day but also because he was “really digging the song ‘Sundown’ by Gordon Lightfoot” at the time. That was in 2018, the same year he moved to the Kootenays and launched his Northern Ultralight company. This past month he handed over a Sundown backpack for me to test.
Snapshot: Northern Ultralight Sundown Backpack
- Pros: This thing is crazy light! It only weighs 767 grams, which is less than the weight of four iPhones.
- Cons: I’m not a fan of the top Y-strap, which came with the model I tested. I think the single top compression strap is more streamlined.
- Price: $351.00 Cdn
- Who Should Buy: People who like to hike.
- Who Shouldn’t Buy: Rock climbers.
- Helpful Hack: The hip belt and aluminum frame stays are removable, making the already light pack even lighter for summit bids.
- Author’s overall rating: Weight – 10/10; Features – 9/10; Comfort – TBD; Durability – TBD
The Sundown backpack I tested was a size large with a 32-inch hip belt and it was the Y-strap version, meaning the top compression strap configuration allows for more external storage options. (The pack is also available in a single top compression strap model.) Unfortunately I didn’t have it long enough to take on a long trek into the mountains, which is exactly what this is designed for. However, I did go on multiple trips in the forests around Nelson, British Columbia, carrying 15 kg (35 lbs) of rock climbing gear, including 70-metre-long rope, trad rack, draws, harness, shoes, chalk bag, and full water bottle. There was also room for my helmet but I couldn’t find it in my basement. (Had I stored all my climbing stuff in the Truckit Bucket tote, which we also reviewed on this site, I would’ve located it no problem.)
I used to be a huge fan of ultralight gear. I even owned half a sleeping bag once: it was down fill on the top side and straps on the bottom. I’d strap it around my Thermarest and the cells of the pad were supposed to trap air and keep my bottom warm while the down bag did the same on top. At least, that was the theory. In practice it was agonizingly uncomfortable but damn it was light! Now that I’m older and wiser I want gear that’s comfortable yet efficient, light yet robust enough that I don’t have to replace it every year. The Northern Ultralight Sundown backpack definitely ticked two of those boxes and the jury is still out on its durability and comfort over long distances.
The first thing I noticed about the Sundown backpack is it lives up to the company’s name: it’s ultralight. So light, in fact, that the first thing I did was chuck it onto a kitchen scale: 767 grams! My regular go-to 40-litre backpack weighs over three times that yet the Sundown has all the same features including side and front pockets, elastic compression straps, ice axe attachment, and built-in whistle on the sternum clip. My favourite components include the volume reduction clips on the bottom of the pack, which allow you to cinch the bag tighter for smaller loads. (Although I’m curious how the plastic clips will hold up after more use.) I also like that the hip belt and aluminum frame can be removed, thus turning the Sundown into an ultra-ultralight day bag. The one feature I wasn’t a huge fan of was the top Y-shaped compression strap but my reasoning is simply aesthetic – the model with the single top compression strap looks more streamlined.
Unfortunately I didn’t have a chance to take the Sundown backpack on a long journey so I can’t speak to its comfort or durability. It felt fine on my hour-long forays in the nearby forests carting around 15 kg of rock climbing gear but it’s not until you’re in hour three of a steep slog in the mountains that a pack’s design really shines. For example, there aren’t any airflow features on the back of the pack, which makes me wonder how sweaty my back will get while wearing it on a hot day.
Nor can I weigh in on how robust the bag is but it’s been my experience that ultralight gear needs to be babied. I asked Scott his thoughts, and he said, “When selecting materials, I deferred to durability over weight. I definitely don’t baby my gear, and I have yet to have any rips or tears over the course of my personal use with the pack. I traversed Enterprise Ridge in Kokanee Glacier this summer and was quite surprised I managed to escape with the pack unscathed. It took some serious abrasion while scrambling over some sharp granite on the ridge. I also had to fight through a few hundred blowdowns in Blue Grouse Basin and a couple kilometres of thorny bushwhacking after getting knocked off trail all without damage.” He did go on to say he wouldn’t recommend dragging the Sundown backpack up the face of Gimli Peak because “it’s designed more for hiking than climbing and probably couldn’t handle that level of abrasion against sharp rock while fully loaded.”
Given that Scott has hiked well over 10,000 kilometres in his lifetime, I’m going to defer to his expertise. This is hand’s down the lightest backpack I’ve ever worn and the fact that it’s sewn by Scott’s hands right here in the Kootenays makes me like it even more. If you’re an avid hiker, I highly recommend you get your own hands on a Northern Ultralight Sundown backpack.
Northern Ultralight Sundown Backpack – The Deets
All measurements are for size large.
- Weight: 767 grams (1.69 lbs)
- Frameless weight (without aluminum frame stays and hip belt): 537 grams (1.18 lbs)
- Total capacity: 46L (main compartment = 36L; 2 side pockets = 2.5L each; front pocket = 5L)
- MSRP: $351.00 Cdn
- Main body material: 210 denier nylon face fabric with polyester reinforcement grid, laminated to a waterproof PET barrier and 50 denier inner polyester backing
- Bottom and back panel material is two-layered: 420 denier face fabric with polyester reinforcement grid. laminated to a waterproof PET barrier
- Two removable aluminum stays with a layer of 1/4″ foam padding sewn-in along the back panel
- Built-in whistle on sternum strap buckle
- Easily removable hip belt and frame stays
- Volume reduction components for use as a daypack
- Thumb loops for quick webbing adjustments
- Stretchy front mesh pocket
- Ice axe attachment
- It’s able to fit most bear canisters internally
- Attachment loops on the shoulder strap provide quick access to bear spray or water bottle
- Torso sizing: S, M, L, Tall
- Hip belt sizing: XS, S, M, L, XL
- For more info: northernultralight.com