McHale Zero SARC
I purchased a Zero SARC primarily as a replacement for my Dana Design Bomb pack, which cannot adequately support any loads in the twenty-five-to-thirty-pound range let alone heavier loads. As with all McHale's packs, this pack is custom constructed to your measurements and packing needs so the pack-fabric composition, pack-fabric and strap colors, frame dimensions, and other components -- including the extension sleeve and belt handles -- are designed and/or included dependent on your wishes. No other backpack manufacturer offers this degree of flexibility in pack construction and design.
The Zero SARC took 10.5 weeks for me to receive from the day I placed my order. That is an unusually long period. It usually takes several weeks less than that to receive a pack after the order is placed. In this instance, I clearly informed Dan McHale I was willing to wait as long as necessary to obtain the 840 denier Junior Ballistics nylon I desired; that is a fabric that he no longer stocks or advertises.
At a cost of $349 (just prior to spring 2000 price increases), this pack satisfies my need for a large day pack with a frame that is sufficiently supportive to control fifty-pound loads. Since McHale constructs each pack to best fit each person's needs, a Zero SARC constructed for me might not have the same volume as a Zero SARC constructed for you so the stated volume figures in McHale's literature as well as my own estimates should be viewed as approximations and not as absolutes. Having written that caution, the stated extended volume of this pack in the literature I received is 3200 cubic inches. I estimate the total extended pack volume to be in the range of 3500 to 4000 cubic inches with my best (point) estimate equal to 3800 cubic inches. In my experience with owning three of this company's packs, McHale & Company consistently tends to understate its volume figures.
The most weight I carried so far is 54.5 pounds (combined weight of the pack with its contents). That is about the maximum weight I expect to carry in this pack, and the pack controlled the load quite well and comfortably.
The bag of my Zero SARC is comprised of a combination of 840 denier untexturized Junior Ballistics nylon (obtaining this fabric was worth the wait) in the bottom, lower third, overlays, and interior harness side (the harness side actually consists of a double layer of fabric) with 1000 denier Cordura Plus nylon for the rest of the main bag (including interior bottom layer) and lid. The bag also came with a seven-inch extension sleeve. The extension sleeve appears to be made of rip-stop 400 or 420 denier untexturized nylon that is coated for water repellency. The remainder of the pack interior also is well coated with polyurethane.
The bag contains no exterior pockets and is a single compartment bag without interior dividing shelf. However, the Zero SARC came equipped with dual, detachable wand-water-bottle pockets (as do all McHale packs). Each of these pockets easily is large enough to hold a liter-size water bottle or a 27 ounce bicycle-style water bottle with a set of 4 tent poles.
All patches (for example, lid crampon patch and large, main-bag daisy-chain patches) are stitched onto the pack as overlays. The patches are constructed of 840 denier untexturized Junior Ballistics nylon. I requested and received this pack with horizontal-zipper access. The zipper is located about 1/3 of the way up the pack, extends from side to side across the back, and permits loading and unloading of the entire main bag. The color combination also was to my specification: black for the overlays and bottom, royal blue for the main bag and lid, and red compression straps and daisy chains. All main-bag compression straps can be removed easily; they are not stitched to the pack bag or lid.
I was lucky: 840 denier cloth isn't advertised anymore as one of McHale's options, but one of the nice things about dealing with a custom pack manufacturer is that it doesn't hurt to ask questions. I asked about the availability of the cloth, and as it turned out, Dan McHale was able to acquire some for the construction of my pack. This is one reason McHale's packs cost a little more than others, but let's see any other manufacturer match that service!
As with my other two McHale packs, the Zero SARC's lid floats and can be removed easily for use as a waist/hip pack. The lid contains an interior zipper pocket. The lid also can be removed to expose a summit/weather flap that seals the top aperture.
The overall bag construction is superb. The seams are all taped and well stitched, and there is no loose fabric anywhere.
The pack's frame is comprised of two vertical stays inserted into thick, nylon sleeves that easily can be removed -- along with the interior foam back pad -- at the owner's discretion. This pack lacks the curved, transverse stay present on all Alpineers and Critical Mass SARCs. This less substantial frame results in a pack that is more compressible and -- if stripped -- can be taken onboard an airplane. The frame stays in my Zero SARC are 1.5 inches shorter than the vertical stays in my Critical Mass SARC but still extend above the tops of my shoulders by about 3 inches (with an unloaded pack) so even with a full load the pack frame does not collapse onto my shoulders.
The Guide harness of the Zero SARC is designed so that the shoulder pads themselves function as the load stabilizers because the tops of the shoulder pads are directly attached to the tops of the vertical frame stays. Transferring load onto the shoulder area and stabilizing the pack occur by pulling down the shoulder pad straps; there is no additional set of stabilizer straps to adjust. Securing this pack to your body is very simple: you connect the double buckle hip belt and pull the shoulder/load-stabilizer straps; connection of the sternum strap is optional.
The Zero SARC lacks the Critical Mass system present in the Alpineers and Critical Mass SARCs so it comes with a less sophisticated but nevertheless completely adequate three-piece, length-adjustable belt with integrated lumbar pad. The vertical frame stays in the Zero SARC sufficiently diverge at the base of the pack to straddle your pelvic structure with the interior back pad positioned between the pack's harness-side fabric and stays. The three-piece hip belt is available with handles and twin, cam-lever-action buckles, but I opted for a belt with fully removable handles and side-release buckles since most of my loads will be in the 20 to 45 pound range and won't require the sturdier cam buckles. The three-piece belt also comes with gear-attachment straps on its exterior.
There is one aspect of this pack's design that I questioned: the foam back pad fits inside a sleeve that is inside the pack (this is not the extension sleeve but another sleeve designed to hold the foam pad and frame stays). With the pack's extension sleeve folded inside the pack, the foam pad is entirely protected from sharp or hard objects that might shred the pad. However when the extension sleeve is deployed, the top three-or-so inches of the foam pad is exposed to objects that could damage it.
When I telephoned Dan McHale to discuss this, he stated that damage to the upper part of the pad does not occur. His designs are based on a minimalist principle: don't include anything in a pack's construction that doesn't have a clearly discernible purpose. Since he has been manufacturing SARCs in this fashion for years without any complaints about easily damaged back pads, it is very likely I have nothing to worry about.
The fully removable handles are an accommodation McHale made for me upon request. Normally, the hollow handles are threaded with nylon webbing that is stitched to the belt at one end and attached at the other end with a sewn in (to the belt) tri-glide. This permits the owner to undo the handle strap at one end to remove or replace the handle(s), but the strap itself remains attached to the belt at its other end. McHale's accommodation permits removal of the straps as well as handles. The minimization of dangling straps is a boon when traveling via mass-transit systems, and it becomes necessary to stow a pack in a luggage rack or beneath a seat.
Finally, I also requested -- as a separate accessory -- a detachable shovel pocket. This pocket is fully enclosable (with a drawstring) so it can hold a variety of items up to approximately 350 cubic inches of volume. Dealing with a custom manufacturer is a welcome experience, and I never have been disappointed in any finished product from McHale and Company.
Update: June 21, 2000
In my recent review of the McHale Zero SARC, I erroneously stated that "The vertical frame stays in the Zero SARC sufficiently diverge at the base of the pack to straddle your pelvic structure." The Zero SARC (as well as McHale's other non Critical Mass SARCs) does not possess a frame wide enough to straddle a person's pelvis. The frame actually rests directly between your bone structure and the pack's contents and does not permit the pack to fit your body quite as closely (even after reshaping the frame) as McHale's Critical Mass SARCs and Alpineers. I apologize for my misstatement.
Design: internal frame
Size: 3,500 to 4,000 cubic inches
Number of Pockets: zero
Max. Load Carried: 54.5 pounds
Height of Owner: 5'8"
Price Paid: $349 US (March 2000)
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Reviewers Paid: $349.00