It might very well be that Arc’teryx has no desire to match up their Altra and Bora in some sort of backcountry cage match. Different packs with different purposes, they might say. One is the bomb-proof grizzled veteran of 1000 psychic wars and an icon of the Arc’teryx brand. The other is the brash upstart newcomer, Rick Vaughn if you will, with lighter weight, a 21st century suspension system and new features galore.
That’s all fine and dandy, but the undeniable truth is that many a Bora owner will be looking at the Altra and wondering, “Is this the upgrade I’ve been waiting for?” And among our expansive Granite testing staff, there are four of us asking that very question. So let’s get down to it.
TALE OF THE TAPE
What’s so great about this new Altra, you ask? Well, here are the Cliff Notes on the marketing sludge:
The Altra comes in three different capacities, two for men (65/75) and one (62) for the ladies. Interestingly, perhaps tellingly, the Altra follows suit with all of the new Arc’teryx packs, and is offered in just two sizes (Regular/Tall) whereas the Bora is still offered in three (Short/Regular/Tall).
The Altra series adopts the trick Advanced Composite Construction (AC2) suspension system that garnered serious attention when it appeared on the Arc’teryx Naos line. Also, the Altra boasts the GridLock shoulder strap adjustment system, a compartmented lid, HydroPort (Arc’teryx-speak for a hole in the side of the pack for your bladder hose), perforated shoulder straps, and an inverted U-zipper that allows you to completely unzip the front of the pack and dump everything out onto the middle of the trail. And finally, thanks to a steady diet of weight savings measures, an Altra 75 weighs in at a keen 1.75 pounds lighter than the Bora 80. Now that we have your attention…
For this test, we put a pair of 75’s and a 62 into the field for our testers to beat up (and no, we’re not talking some cupcake gravel road in Switzerland, for crying out loud). Our Altras logged hefty mileage throughout the Sierra Nevada and the Rockies in late spring/early summer conditions. Combined, we put over 40 trail days and close to 280 miles on these puppies.
MEAT AND POTATOES
With the miles under our belts, here’s a close breakdown of the Altra’s primary features:
Its U-shaped zippered main compartment means complete accessibility to the contents of your pack, without digging through the roof in traditional top-loading fashion, though you can still do it missionary if that floats your boat. This U-zipper is being touted quite a bit by certain annoying salespeople across the continent, but our testers could take it or leave it. Most experienced packers don’t need mid-day access to the main compartment; they’ll put the stuff they might need in the lid or kangaroo pouch. It should be noted that completely unzipping it means unclipping (count ‘em) eight buckles to get to the U-zipper, and unstrapping anything that you’ve strapped to the outside. That’s convenient? We’re filing this feature firmly under personal preference, while reaffirming that newer doesn’t mean better.
However, if the U-zipper is here to stay, a unanimous consensus was: why isn’t it (and the one on the exterior kangaroo pouch) waterproof, like the ones on the Altra lid? We’re apparently not the first people to wonder about it. And, if you’re stuff-and-cram packers like ourselves, the U-zipper will face some mighty high stresses over time. We hate zipper stress points. We say: dump the zipper and save another few ounces. It leaks anyway.
Speaking of the lid, the Altra’s is removable but doesn’t make itself into a waist pack, one of the features of the Bora lid. If you’re on the move each day of a trip, this is a non-issue. But if you’re the type who hikes into the backcountry, sets up camp for a few days and then enjoys day hikes or summit runs, then you’ll miss this feature. A super-light day pack can fill this need, though that takes space and weight that you thought you’d just gained with this nifty new Altra. Personal preference, once more.
Aside from that, the lid now has two zippers on top, dividing this space very efficiently. It’s an excellent upgrade from the Bora’s single cavernous lid compartment.
The Altra takes the hydration pouch and relocates it to the right side in a zippered sleeve, away from its previous central location in the Bora. This is proving to be a somewhat controversial change. One of our testers loved this new feature, as he felt the hydration sleeve on the Bora was difficult to access/refill once your gear was jammed in there. It’s a fair point, though some of us never found it to be a problem, and preferred the centralized location of all that liquid mass. Still, you might think all that weight (a 2 liter bladder weighs about 5 pounds) will cause you to walk around the world to the right, but the AC2 suspension’s load transfer disc mostly neutralizes that side-heavy tendency. Key word: mostly. But try setting your pack upright on the ground, and it tips over as easily as a drunk Lindsey Lohan walking to her car.
Ergonomically, if you have anything lashed to the outside of your Altra, then of course it must be removed, the side wing unbuckled, and the U-zip unzipped partway to access the hydration sleeve. We’re not sure that’s any more convenient than going in the top compartment.
Marketing hype aside, the Altra’s biggest strength, bar-none, is the suspension. The pegged GridLock shoulder adjustment system is the shit, period. It’s a level of precision that puts the Bora in the shade. And the Altra’s ultra-stiff but still comfy waist belt, combined with the AC2 rotating load transfer disc, is incredibly effective. This pack moves with you, and that’s a huge bonus when on skis, scrambling talus or dodging mountain lions.
The Altra’s coup de grace is its weight. As mentioned, the Altra shaves a very significant 1.75 pounds off of the Bora’s heft (yes, we double-checked the manufacturer data, and found it accurate enough). From our perspective, it was long overdue for Arc’teryx to create a load hauler that weighed less than the Bora’s heft of 7 pounds, which is just too heavy by modern standards.
On the flip side, nobody rides for free, meaning that the Altra makes certain concessions to reach its light-weight goals. The pack material is less beefy than the Bora’s, which we always felt was the toughest hombre this side of an old school Dana Design Terraplane Overkill. Also, the Altra is not water repellant, a longtime feather in the cap for the Bora. An Arc’teryx rain packcover weighs 9 ounces (and an additional 50 bucks), which takes a significant bite out of your wallet and your net weight savings.
The last part of our test involved talking to several retailers across the country to get their feedback about the pack, and how their customers were responding to the Altra series. First off, the retailers seemed pleased that there was now an Arc’teryx pack designed for the masses, and not something “over-built” as one merchant put it. Whether or not that’s a good thing, only time will tell.
Some retailers related that people seemed to either love or loathe the backpad on the AC2 suspension; it fits many people like a glove, while others immediately bemoaned its uncomfortable placement. Customers seemed unanimous in their appreciation of the light weight, the compartmented lid, and the GridLock shoulder adjustability. Side location of the bladder pouch seemed a mixed bag, for reasons we highlighted earlier, with some customers outright hating it while Arc’teryx fanboys seem to love it. Also, no shortage of people noticed that the load transfer disc tends to creak/squeak, and while silicone lube is recommended as the fix, one of our test packs was squeaking again just four trail days later. You’ve been warned: your trail partners might toss you off a cliff from disturbing their mountain solitude.
GIVE ‘EM THE HEATER, RICKY
No question, the Altra can boast certain huge improvements over the Bora. In other areas (lid, hydration sleeve, U-zipper, pack material), you’re trading one set of features for another, with neither one being necessarily superior. It depends on your personal preferences and where you’re headed on the trail.
As far as we’re concerned, the Altra’s suspension is the difference maker here. It’s really that good (assuming it fits you, of course). The AC2 is a great example of how Arc’teryx battle-tested the system on other packs, and then adopted it for the company’s new flagship. And while there are many factors to consider when choosing a pack, can any of them outweigh the manner in which that pack carries a load, how it feels around your waist and on your back, and how your body feels at day’s end? The Bora can’t keep pace with the Altra in this regard.
So, would we spend our own money on this newcomer? Some of us already have, others are clinging to their Boras for the durability, weather resistance, versatile lid, and nostalgia. The holdouts also seem to think the Altra will evolve into something better over the next 1-2 years, which might be worth waiting for. And, there’s also the hope that the AC2 suspension will find its way onto the Bora in the not-so-distant future.
Bottom Line: For most backpackers, we’re saying that the Altra is the superior choice in the majority of situations. But you guides and 200 day per year people… hang onto your Bora a bit longer… for now.
No Duh Disclaimer: The pack that fits me perfectly may not fit you perfectly. As wonderful as the world of online shopping can be, we always recommend trying on a pack before you buy. Certain brands just fit certain people better. There are many quality products out there: do your own research, and just don’t rely upon us boneheads on the internet for your decision-making. Product photos courtesy of arcteryx.com.