Can A Backpack Really Handle Both The Trail And The City? Let’s Find Out

Monday, June 19, 2017

The first indication you have that MHM Gear’s new Sultan 50 multi-day backpacking-sized pack is different than other bags on the market is the signature S-shaped zipper wrapping around the length of the product. From the top pocket to the base, the trademarked “Snake-Loader” zipper allows users to access the entire contents of the bag at any time without unpacking.

A scenario to illuminate this zipper’s awesomeness: when the weather turns, you can grab your rain jacket stuffed in the bottom of your bag without unloading all of your food that’s chilling in the top part of the bag.

In the words of MHM, “Once you go snake-loader, you never go back. It’s our most awarded design and we invented this bad-ass zipper system so our moms are super proud.” Backpackers who don’t have to rummage through their entire bag for their poorly packed GORP will be super proud that MHM designer/owner Jeff Popp conceived of the zipper, too.

While I often car camp, I am not an avid backpacker — but it’s not because the idea doesn’t appeal to me. I would love to wake up in the backcountry with the sun peaking over the mountains, birds squawking upon light’s first tendril and a hot cup of coffee just a JetBoil away. It’s a romantic ideal.

But here’s a secret: I hate backpacking because my current bag totally sucks! It was my dad’s bag from the 90’s, and no matter how much I fiddle with it to fit my shape, the bag never seemed to properly grasp my hips. Whenever I used it — even on two-mile gumby hikes — the pack’s weight invariably settles on my shoulders, making hiking excruciating. It definitely doesn’t help that outdoor brands in the 90s were guilty of the “shrink and pink” method of designing products for women.

The last time I used my dad’s existing backpacking bag — a grueling skin up to a 10th Mountain Division hut perched at 11,620′ — I literally had to talk myself out of crying due to how much my bag hurt. When I collapsed in front of the fire upon arrival, bruises were already starting to materialize on my shoulders.

So when the Denver-based MHM reached out to suggest I review one of their bags, I immediately accepted. Was it possible for backpacking to be comfortable, or at least not agonizing? How much of a difference could a well-made, well-fitting bag make to the experience of trudging through the woods? And was MHM’s design truly unique in the crowded backpack market?

I met up with Popp here in Colorado at a coffee shop so he could take me through the bag’s many features. Aesthetically, the bag differentiates from competitors due to its clean-looking exterior design. While other bags feature outdoorsy bungees and straps out the wazoo, MHM’s Sultan 50 was noticeably sleek.

If you want to strap your Chacos to the outside of the bag, no sweat: straps are smartly tucked inside hidden pockets. This minimalist take on the Sultan is in line with the ethos of MHM’s sister backpack brand designed for urban commuters, CO.ALITION: both brands implement functionality when you need it and hide it when you don’t. It’s like Marie Kondo’s minimalist doctrine in bag form: if something doesn’t spark joy, then you shouldn’t deal with it.

To really get a handle on how Sultan 50 would perform in real-life usage, I set out to test it in both travel and outdoor settings. I wanted to see how the bag would function on a trip, say, backpacking across Europe and see if it could withstand a backpacking trip through Colorado.

Would the bag weather the slings and arrows of being tossed around in steerage and feel comfortable enough loaded with backpacking crap?

City Gal Test

Up first, a trip to arguably the most cosmopolitan place in the world, New York City. For a weekend trip, I packed Sultan 50 to the max — the seams protesting when I shoved in my second pair of stilettos. For those with reasonable footwear choices, the bag is perfectly sized for a four-night city excursion if you wear an outfit or two twice.

While I had hoped to carry the bag onto the plane, I quickly realized that it was too unwieldy to fit inside economy’s overhead compartment without annoying my fellow passengers. So inside the cargo it went, admirably surviving the beating of baggage handlers well.

In New York, I was particularly impressed with the Sultan 50’s sleek design. While it still looked like an outdoorsy pack, I didn’t feel overtly like I stepped out of the pages of a Patagonia catalog. It could totally pass in Paris or Spain.

When I arrived to my accommodations, I zipped open the bag’s slithery zipper in one go, causing the contents to explode across the floor like a gutted fish. It sounds bad, but the zipper made it particularly easy to transition from my comfortable flying apparel to a fancy, overpriced dinner. Also, packing upon departure was a cinch, too.

City Gal score: 8 outta 10

Colorado Dirtbag Test

To test Sultan 50’s backpacking prowess, I filled it with 40 pounds of anything I could get my hands on — boots, rocks, water bottles, food, etc… — and took it on an eight-mile hike into Boulder’s foothills.

I was initially apprehensive about the fit with such a heavy load, as the Sultan 50 is a unisex model, which historically means it will fit men perfectly and fit women horribly. But this backpack is like one of Vin Diesel’s retrofitted American Muscle beauties: it’s chock-full of surprising attributes that beat out the competition.

Take for example, the hip belt. MHM’s version pivots in either direction and secures in place thanks to heavy-duty straps. It was a welcome change to have a bag that fit snug enough to absorb the load, but that allowed me to move freely as I walked. Both the hip belt and the shoulder straps (also adjustable) attach to an internal “V” frame for optimal weight distribution.

The one suggestion I have to make this workhorse-of-a-bag truly perfect for women is to extend the length of the chest strap sliders. For well-endowed ladies, it’s preferable to move the chest strap rather high on your chest to avoid placing pressure on your bust. While I made the mistake of wearing a tank top for the bag test, the shoulder straps were supremely padded, making this bag one of the more comfy models I’ve tried.

What stands out most about the Sultan 50 are the smart design features that obviously took a lot of thought and creativity to add. The coolest hidden pocket is found at the base of the bag: a waterproof, stink-proof internal stuff sack that protects disgusting gear such as climbing shoes or week-old underwear (worn inside out for half the time) from contaminating your sleeping bag, food and other necessities you would like to keep relatively clean. And it goes without saying, the curved zipper truly shined while hiking in variable weather.

Dirtbag score: 9 outta 10


About the Author

By Jenna Blumenfeld / Jenna Blumenfeld Twitter

Jenna is a writer and editor in Boulder, Colorado, who is willing to give backpacking another shot.

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