Well, this is a first for The Alpine Start: an exclusive review of The North Face’s new Banchee pack. I’m super excited to have gotten a chance to use this pack for the last couple of months, and to bring you this review.
Please note that as a prototype pack, my sample’s colour scheme, including the contrasting zippers and details, will not appear on the production version. Other than this, the only major differences on the production packs will be more easily accessible hipbelt adjusters, slightly more padding on the hipbelt (an additional 2mm of soft closed-cell foam) and additional reinforcement to the frame joint. Also, I apologize for the back-of-the-truck photos — I’ll update with some proper images when I’m back from Outdoor Retailer.
The Banchee was designed as an all-around, ventilated, backpacking workhorse. As such, it has numerous pockets, attachment points, straps, as well as all the fit adjustments you could ask for: a well padded hipbelt with variable-length ‘arms’; fully adjustable harness; and body-sculpted shoulder straps. Despite its backpacking-leanings, it is also performs very well as a climbing-approach pack, with some features and capacity that appear to be aimed squarely at climbers. Do note, however, that due to the stiff nature of the suspension and backpanel, this is not a good pack for actually climbing with (and given its 50L+ capacity, it is not a size of pack I would typically climb with anyway).
Out of all the fit features, the most obvious is the very prominent lumbar pad. Initially, it appears hugely out of proportion, a pronounced hump sticking away from the pack’s back. It doesn’t look comfortable, but it most certainly is, nestling comfortably into the small of my back. Combined with the pack’s hipbelt, the lumbar pad situates the pack in the ideal position for heavy load-bearing, and the pronounced ‘hump’ helps prevent the pack from sliding down your butt. It is, despite appearances, extremely comfortable.
The hipbelt is adjustable by flipping up a tab hidden inside the hipbelt pockets. It is, basically, two independent ‘pods’ with padding on the inside and a stretchy pocket on the outside. The pods slide along on a stiffened belt, and are locked in place by a plastic buckle locked onto a webbing strap. Hard to explain, impossible to illustrate (due to their hidden nature) but let’s just say that after I adjusted the hipbelt to my waist size, it hasn’t budged since.
The final component of a pack’s fit are the shoulder straps, and the Banchee’s contoured straps are comfortable without being overly padded. The foam is generously perforated, though as I haven’t used the pack in summer conditions, I cannot yet comment on their breathability. The load-lifter straps are attached quite low, over the chest, however they do have sliding adjusters to fine-tune the angle and location of pull. It’s details like this that really show how much thought went into the Banchee.
Ventilated back panels are nothing new these days, though the Banchee’s seems particularly sturdy. The mesh panels are wrapped around and stretched over an aluminum frame, and somehow the whole thing is forced into the pack. It appears very well put together, with no creaks or squeaks coming from the components.
The biggest drawback of any ventilated backpanel is the shift it creates in a pack’s centre of gravity. However, through a combination of effective lumbar support and a wide-not-deep pack design, the Banchee manages to feel like a regular pack. Again, as I haven’t had a chance to use the pack in warm temps, I cannot comment of the effectiveness of the ventilation at this time.
Let’s move on to the pack body. This 50L pack has one main compartment, without the typical zipper access to the bottom of the pack that is often seen on packs of this size and larger. Personally, I like it as a 50L pack is not big enough to cram with so much gear that unloading all of it to get to the bottom becomes a chore. Due to the vented backpanel, the inside of the main compartment has a slight curve to it, however it is wide enough to still pack easily and comfortably. There’s also a hydration-bladder pouch against the backpanel, with a hanging loop at the top and a hose port on the right side.
Complementing the single main compartment, the Banchee has a number of outside pockets for all your organizational needs: two stretch-mesh side pockets, a large rear shovel-like stash pouch, two vertically-zippered compartments on the back and a huge lid.
The side pockets, made of a stretchy mesh, are big enough to swallow a 1L Nalgene. The rear stash pocket is easily big enough for a shovel blade and has stretch-mesh panels on the sides for expandability. It also functions as the upper compression strap for the pack body. Attached to its outside are two vertically-oriented zippered compartments, each big enough to fit a pair of crampons, or a 1L Nalgene with room to spare. I love these pockets, great for stashing sharp or wet items (crampons) or stuff you want quick access to (water and snacks). Finally, the lid is large enough to fit a helmet inside! It has a zippered mesh pocket, with a key clip, inside the main compartment, but to me the standout feature is the overall size.
To accommodate all your ice-tool carrying needs there are two traditional-style ice axe loops, complemented by two stretch-cord handle retention clips. The ice axe loops are made of narrow webbing, easily twisting around the heads of modern ice tools (I forgot to snap a picture of my Fusions attached to the Banchee: I’ll post an update on Monday!). Naturally, straight-shafted mountaineering axes attach without issue. There is no provision for on-the-go stowing of trekking poles, however.
As this is not a climbing pack I am not particularly concerned with weight so I haven’t even bothered to weigh the Banchee! It doesn’t feel any heavier than most 50L packs, and anyways, I feel comfort is more important in a pack of this type than a few dozen grams.
Speaking of comfort, the Banchee doesn’t disappoint and carries very well. I don’t think I’ve ever overloaded it – I’ve had maybe 50lbs in it, max – and with a reasonable load it stays comfortable even over rough terrain. If anything, it becomes more comfortable the longer the hike. It is very stable and the load well controlled, adding to the feeling of comfort and security when side-hilling or stumbling over snow-covered scree.
Into a crowded backpacking market, The North Face adds another contender with the Banchee. It’s a comfortable, stable pack with numerous pockets for organization and a comfortable, ventilated backpanel. Stay tuned for an update once I’ve had a chance to hike with the pack in summer weather but even without that experience I would seriously consider this pack as an all-around workhorse. It is the most comfortable and close-feeling pack of the ventilated back-panel models I’ve tried, and the only one that I actually choose to use on a regular basis.
Pros: ventilated backpanel without the loss-of-stability feeling, numerous pockets, comfy suspension
Cons: single main compartment not to all tastes
Overall: a great pack suitable for all types of walk-powered outdoor activities
Note: The North Face provided The Alpine Start with a pre-production prototype Banchee 50L, however this in no way influences our opinion of the product.