User Review: McHale Super Inex Alpineer (Spectra fabric)
Design: Top loading internal
Number of Pockets: 2 (1 top, 1back)
Max. Load Carried: 93 pounds
Height of Owner: 5 feet 10 inches
Price Paid: $1000
This is an update of an older review of this pack.
The McHale Super INEX Alpineer (spectra)
I was a long-time Dana user. I carried an Arc Flex Astralplane for several years on many long trips. Although overall, I really liked the Astralplane, I found it somewhat lacking for carrying REALLY heavy loads (upwards of 75 pounds). After a great deal of research, and testing out packs by Gregory and Osprey (which I didn't like as well as the Dana Astralplane), I bought a McHale Super INEX (McHale's biggest) in spectra fabric. This was in 1995. After many years of use, and over 300 miles with this pack, here are my thoughts as to how the McHale Super INEX stacks up versus the Dana Astralplane: Please note: My Dana Astralplane was a 1992 model. Dana has changed their packs since then, although I haven't noticed big changes in the suspension just looking at them on the shelf at the store. Also, the spectra fabric version of the McHale pack is no longer made, but based on a peek at McHale's web pages, the suspension and other features of the McHale packs appear to be the same or similar to those of my pack.
The McHale pack has a super wide waistbelt, so wide that you need two buckles to fasten it properly. McHale's waistbelt is definitely more comfortable than the Dana, or any other pack I have carried. Even with a big, heavy load, the McHale waistbelt is so wide that the weight gets distributed very evenly all the way around your hips. The waistbelt on the McHale can be left relatively loose and still support the load and not ride down on your butt. The McHale waistbelt also hinges as you walk, and the pack doesn't sway or bounce up and down when you walk, because it isn't locked into your hip movement, in contrast to the Dana, which tends to bounce and sway a bit when walking fast or taking big steps, particularly when going downhill. The Dana waistbelt tends to focus much of the weight on your front hip bones, and the belt has to be pulled very tight under big loads, resulting in more discomfort than the McHale, which is simply snugged down. After long days hiking with the Dana, my hips would get sore under heavy loads. This does not happen with the McHale.
The Dana waistbelt allows for several inches of adjustment up and down on the frame, to compensate for varying back lengths. The waistbelt is held in place by a big piece of velcro. I found that under really big loads (75 lbs. or more), the velcro which holds the Dana waistbelt to the pack frame slips little by little, moving the waistbelt higher and higher up the pack's frame. This causes the pack to ride lower and lower, placing progressively more weight on my shoulders and causing the pack to bounce on my butt. This problem is what finally convinced me to buy a McHale. The McHale pack doesn't have this problem, as it is custom fit and the waistbelt is anchored in place with massive metal fasteners and will not slide up or down under any size load a human can lift.
Shoulder Straps and Stabilizer (load lifter) Straps
The Dana shoulder straps are in some ways a bit more comfortable than the McHale shoulder straps. McHale doesn't believe in contoured shoulder straps Having tried both, I think that Dana's contoured straps work fine and provide slightly more clearance for my arm swing. I like the softer cloth on the Dana shoulder straps too for hiking without a shirt. McHale's straps are comfortable as long as I have the sternum strap buckled, but when it is unbuckled, they tend to interfere with my arm swing a bit. This isn't too big of a problem, because I usually keep the sternum strap buckled, but is a point for the Dana.
The McHale pack has separated the stabilizer straps from the shoulder strap tightening straps, so you can adjust the tension of the shoulder straps independently of the tension on the stabilizer straps which pull the pack into your back. It takes a while to get used to this feature, but it is a big improvement and is not only more convenient, but also allows you to maintain a snug wrap of your shoulder straps over your shoulders, while really cranking on the stabilizer straps, improving lateral stability. With the Dana, cranking on the stabilizer straps lifts the shoulder straps off your shoulders, decreasing pack stability. You can compensate for this somewhat by re-adjusting your shoulder straps, but the Dana system doesn't seem to provide quite the same fit as the McHale system, even after much fiddling with fit adjustments and years of experience. This feature sounds relatively insignificant, but it does contribute to long term comfort and stability, two issues which become increasingly important, the larger the load you are carrying.
Pack Bag Features
The McHale Super INEX is a HUGE pack. It holds as much without the extension sleeve as the Dana with the extension sleeve. With the extension sleeve extended, the McHale could hold more than I could lift. With the extension sleeve extended, the McHale would also be incredibly tall. Even without the extension sleeve, the McHale is substantially taller than the Dana when packed with the same amount of gear. McHale's philosophy is to keep the load as close to your back as possible, and he accomplishes this by making his packs wider at the base, thinner front to back, and very tall. The balance on the McHale is better than the Dana, although you would never guess this by looking at the McHale, which is reminiscent of the Empire State Building. The result of the McHale's shape is that you hunch over less because the weight is pulling you back less, and overall balance is improved for things such as skiing and boulder hopping. The McHale really is more comfortable and easier on my back, although the height is a real anoyance while bush-whacking.
I missed the 2 back pockets on the Dana. They are very convenient, and are big enough to carry nalgene bottles and other largish items, unlike the single back pocket on the McHale which is sized to hold smaller items like mittens and maps. I sometimes use attachable pockets on the McHale, but the pack is so huge, it seems like a waste to add more capacity. The main compartment of the McHale is easier to access than the Dana because of the GIANT sleeping bag compartment, which is big enough to hold a 4 season synthetic sleeping bag AND my 3 man Kelty Windfoil tent AND a pile jacket. Access to this compartment is via a big wrap around zipper which is easy to get into. Although the McHale lacks the organizational benefits of Dana's 2 external pockets, the ease of access to the zippered lower compartment makes up for this, as it makes my spare clothing easy to get to. The easily removable back-pad on the McHale is a nice touch. It makes a great sit-pad.
The Dana pack looks a bit more refined than the McHale. Touches like the "headspace" feature, the more tailored cut of the top lid, the contoured shoulder straps and the overall sleekness of the Dana pack are a big contrast to the McHale, which looks somewhat rough and boxy in comparison. The top lid on the McHale looks especially home-made, and needs flaps which will extend past it to cover the top opening better. When I bought it, it tended to flop about a bit when the pocket was stuffed full, and didn't function very well as a covering for the top of the pack and keeping rain out. (see modifications section) The top pocket to fanny-pack conversion feature on the Dana is better than that on the McHale. In fanny pack mode, the Dana top pocket is more stable and snugs the load into your lumbar region better. This is because you can use the pack waist belt for the Dana, and the McHale makes use of a fabric waist belt. As for overall quality, both packs are built like tanks, and I doubt I could wear either one out.
Because of its height, I expected the McHale to have more side to side motion than the Dana, but this proved not to be the case. Even without the stability straps cranked down, the McHale was pretty solid against my back, and with the stability straps cranked, the pack was glued to me, although my headroom suffered a bit with the pack pulled up close. McHale recommends bending the stays back a little if you need more headroom. I did this, and headroom was improved. The Dana pack has more headroom because it is substantially shorter and also because it has a slick "head-space" feature which pulls a chunk of the pack away from your head by means of an internal load control strap. This is a feature I wish the McHale had. (See below for modifications I have had made to the pack.)
Neither the Dana nor the McHale fully loaded would be stable enough for real climbing or skiing, but who is going to climb or ski anything hard with that much weight on your back anyway? Both are adequate for easy climbing, off trail hiking, boulder hopping, and moderate x-country skiing, again with the edge going to the McHale. If you can dump some of your stuff and make do with a smaller pack size, the McHale makes use of two piece removable aluminum stays (the "bayonet" feature)which allow the pack to convert to a much smaller, shorter pack which has substantially better stability, balance, and excellent head room. This feature will not replace a real climbing pack for hard climbing (too stiff and heavy), but for easy to moderate climbing routes requiring a big pack for the approach, this feature is quite useful. I've also used it for side trips on skis and it worked well for that purpose.
The McHale weighs a few ounces more than my old Dana, but it has substantially larger capacity, so that is not surprising. I had expected the spectra fabric to cut more weight off the McHale and make it lighter than the Astralplane, but I guess that the really heavy parts of the McHale pack (the waistbelt and the frame) are not lightened by use of spectra fabric.
After using the McHale for about a year and a half, I sent it back to McHale for a few alterations, which he performed for a modest fee. At my request, he added a long load stabilizing strap lengthwise inside the pack which I can use to compress and stabilize tall loads and improve headspace (an idea borrowed from Dana). This added feature really made a big difference. Dan also added a couple of straps to the top pocket, which helps the top pocket stay put on top of the pack when the pocket is filled up and bulging with stuff. With these additions, I find the McHale close to perfect.
The McHale really is better at carrying big loads than the Dana or any other pack I have carried. The combination of the super wide and super comfortable McHale hipbelt design and the overall balance and stability of the pack makes it significantly more comfortable than the Dana with lots of pounds on my back. I can stand more erect, and never developed any sore spots on my hips with the McHale. The McHale more stable than the Dana, which is pretty good considering that the Dana is a pretty stable pack. It is easy to adjust the way the McHale pack rides and take more or less weight on your shoulders and still maintain the pack's stability because of the unique separated stabilizer straps.
The McHale is ridiculously expensive (my spectra pack cost about $1,000, the same pack in packcloth is about $600) but for carrying really big loads, it is by far the most comfortable pack I've ever used. On all accounts, the McHale pretty much delivers as promised, and is the best BIG load pack I have carried. If you (like me) often find yourself carrying loads which are more fit for pack mules than humans, I would recommend the McHale. For me, at least, it has been an excellent investment.
McHale INEX vs. Super INEX (how big is big enough)
When I received the Super Inex, it was so large, my first thought was that I had made a mistake and should have ordered a regular Inex, which is a bit smaller. After having used the pack for quite a while, I am glad I got the REALLY big Super Inex. There have been several occasions when I have loaded my Super Inex to the max, and was glad of the extra space, for example:
A two week trip to the Bugaboos, loaded with food, camping, and climbing gear used up all my space. My partner had stuff strapped and bouncing all over his pack. I was able to carry the monster load in a much more controlled fashion. Every summer, I go on week-long camping trips with my boy scout troop (I'm a scoutmaster) and because 12- and 13-year-old boys who weigh only 70-90 pounds can't carry all that much, I end up carrying the greater part of the food for the whole group for the whole week. When I go backpacking with my wife and two small children and a toddler, I also tend to stuff my Super Inex full, as my wife is carrying a kid carrier backpack, and I carry pretty much everything else (tent, 2 adult sleeping bags, kid bags, food, etc. In short, I think the extra space is worth it, especially because the weight difference between an Inex and Super Inex is not that great. The cost difference isn't that great either, if you think about how long you will own the pack. Some people argue that a smaller pack makes you pack smarter and lighter, but I tend to disagree. I always pack as light as possible, and the only thing a too-small pack does for me is make me curse as I try stuffing things into a space that is too small. I own other smaller packs that I use for smaller loads, light-weight excursions, and week-end camping and climbing trips. The McHale comes out for those trips where I'm going to suffer under the weight of multi-day big load hauling, and for this purpose, I find that I want the biggest pack I can carry.