Superior Wilderness Designs
Big Wild Review
*At the time of this writing I was not affiliated with SWD, although they were kind enough to give my a 15% prodeal since I work in the industry. I should disclose that after I published this review in November 2022, they sent me a prototype Ultralight edition in April of 2023 to test it's longevity. They have also gave me a larger discount on accessories and a Movement pack. I can honestly say that I would happily pay full price for the Big Wild, or even a lot more since I use it so much
November 2023 Update: It has now been two full years since I started using my first Big Wild pack. I used a size L (pictured here) with blue pockets for over 100 days until I recieved a custom XL Ultralight edition in April of 2023. The XL fits me even better, so I've used it exclusively for 90 days now and resigned the L to loan to friends. The UL version came with lighter Ultra fabric, tubular stays, and a light hipbelt. I have experienced no durability issues with the light fabric, I love the stiffness and weight of the tubular stays, but the hipbelt developed bad sag by September, so I had a dual density one made to replace it. This edition is now everything I could want a pack of this size to be. I ended up getting a Movement for small/day trips and now am more strongly considering the 95L. Bottom line, I've now used Big Wild packs for 200 days and absolutely adore them, I would even say that they've changed my life.
These days, I am an avid multisport adventurer and a full-time backpacking guide, spending 200 nights/year outside. But, like many, I started backpacking at lesser quantities. Back then, I used packs from traditional pack makers like Osprey, Gregory, and Deuter. Actually, I had 1 pack from each of these brands, having the Osprey Atmos AG 50 for the longest at 4 years. In fall of 2019, I began going on more ambitious backpacking trips and multisport adventures, and therefore appreciating the value of lighter gear. In 2020 I made the leap and purchased a number of kit upgrades, among them a Hyperlite Mountain Gear backpack. Due to the popularity of Hyperlite, this seems to be a common trajectory.
I'll move on to the Big Wild shortly, but this review would not be complete without a few more words about Hyperlite. As you are likely aware, Hyperlite has a a massive user base not just in thru-hiking but also in the multisport/off-trail adventure crowd. It is my belief that they have bought their way into this market via sponsored athletes and marketing prowess. Now, I am very grateful to Hyperlite for changing the game here, in two ways. 1) convincing us of the advantages of lightweight, simple gear using cutting-edge materials, and 2) convincing us that packs don't have to be heavy to haul heavy loads and therefor be multisport-friendly.
Unfortunately, when I began using my Hyperlite Southwest 4400 for loads of over 30lbs, it became painfully (literally) obvious to me that although point number 2 might be true, Hyperlite wasn't providing the right product to actually meet this expectation. I think a lot of Hyperlite users follow my trajectory to here, but then stop. They don't find the pack comfortable over 30lbs, but they are so excited about the simplicity, durability, and lightweight that it feels worth it.
But I knew that with a few simple additions, a pack could be truly comfortable at 50lb loads without weighing a dramatic amount more than my Hyperlite. I was armed with the confidence that I could re-sell any pack that didn't work, so over the next 1.5 years I releentlessly purchased packs attempting to solve every issue I found with each. These included, the ULA Epic, REI FLash 55, Hanchor Marl, old Durston 40 (the new Kakwa seems much better), Seek Outside Divide, and finally the SWD Big Wild. When SWD created the Big Wild in 2021, I was one of the first to recieve a production model, and since I first used it I knew all of these other packs were obselete. If they hadn't been sold already, they were shortly. Now, let's get to what makes the Big Wild special. But first, a highlight reel:
Carrying an extra tent for my brother when the Paria destroyed his feet was no problem.
The Big Wild is light enough that it doesn't feel ridiculous for light simple backpacking loads.
Ignore the empty bottle that's not fully seated in the pocket. 50lbs here, due to a full 10L dromedary.
Let's first review what a backpack needs to do to be truly comfortable at heavy loads. This is an important step: it helps cut through marketing hype surrounding extraneous features with names including "air" and "gravity".
Have a torso length that's truly long enough, and load lifter straps attached to the top of a frame that extends above one's shoulders, ideally to around the bottom of the ears.
Have an adeqautely stiff frame and hipbelt to preserve that torso length at heavy loads, i.e. resist collapse
Have adequate padding on the shoulder straps and hipbelt
Not have any "weird stuff" - things that poke, rub, cut off circulation, or cause any any unnecessary discomfort. This is the only point where different packs might produce varying comfort for different users, because we all have different bodies. Examples include: frame members poking your butt, shoulder straps being too close together, a hipbelt that doesn't cinch tight enough (please never tolerate a pack with this!)
I will note, here, that Hyperlite fails miserably (due to lack of effort) at steps 1 & 3. That is their downfall, their packs are competitive in ever way except comfort.
In short, the Big Wild is the first pack I've used that does all of these things well for my body. Now, I have a uniquely long torso at 22", That means I need a frame that's at least 26", a rarity in the present market. As you actually see in the above photo, at 50lbs the frame does not come up to my ears, but it works well. Brandon at SWD says if I'm going to carry 60+lbs a lot, I should order a custom XL Big WIld with a 28" frame. I will say that I think the XL should become a standard option. My friend Daniel is only 6' but would be better served by an XL, and my dad's torso is even longer. It shouldn't be crazy to put a 28" frame in a pack - people need these.
Those with shorter torsos than I could potentially find load hauling comfort with a different pack, such as a ULA or REi Flash 55. But, why choose those when you could choose an SWD that gets everything else right, too? Some options that offers a slight weight savings are the SWD Long Haul or Wendigo.
The next step is adequate padding, and the Big Wild provides. The shoulder straps are well shaped and appropriately cushioned without being heavy. The hipbelt does the same; it's nice and wide.
Finally, "weird stuff". I'm quite sensitive to it, but for me, the Big Wild has none. Hopefully it doesn't for you, either.
The Big Wild has one other unique comfort feature worth praising. The suspension is designed around a "hanging hip belt". This is an effective way of transferring weight to the hipbelt. But there is a unique benefit; the packbag can move independently of the hipbelt. I find this to be wonderful for off-trail movement. The pack can swing left or right when I rotate my torso, or move up when I raise my arms or downclimb, and all the while the hipbelt remains locked in place, ready to bear the full load again when I resume normal walking posture. It's a hard feeling to put into words, you have to try it to understand the benefit. This comes with the downside of a floppy belt when you take the pack off, so if you are walking only on trail you can run the belt "captured" using two ladderlock buckles midway up the backpanel.
Features and Layout
First, the main packbag. It's big, and it's lacking anything at all inside, until you put your gear in there. As it should be. Internal division/pockets are unnecessary, and only impede gear accessibility once you establish a packing strategy. The bag has a well-executed roll-top closure. This is good because it resists weather and is light but versatile. The most interesting thing about this part of the design is that it's tapered; wider at the top than the bottom in both dimensions. This is different from the Hyperlite "tube" design, and I don't have strong feelings about it. It can be easier to pack, but it can be harder too. It's just something to get used to. What I do want to say is that this design is preferable for load hauling; contrary to what you might assume, it's anatomically better to have more weight in a backpack near the shoulder blades. Higher weight can make the bag "top-heavy", but that's not actually a problem while hiking. Heavy items too low in the pack can cause lower back pain. The packbag is also rounded on the bottom, which I like. With effort, the pack can still stand up if placed against a small rock, but the shape prevents it from taking as much abuse when downclimbing. The pack also comes in a 95L version. I can't speak to this directly. For packrafting, I'd definitely prefer it, but for standard backapcking it would be slightly annoying. If I was going to have 2 packs, I would get the 95L as my "big one" and something like a Movement to complement it.
Next, side pockets. The mainstream pack industry has an incredibly hard time getting them right, but it's really quite easy. Use durable non-stretch material, make them huge, make the opening diagonal cut so it's easy to reach things, and put elastic at the top. Thankfully, lot of pack makers in the ultralight industry get side pockets perfect (including Hyperlite), and the Big Wild is no exception. In fact, it's the best ever. These pockets are big enough to hole 4 paddle blades, as pictured, or 3(!) Smartwater bottles each. But, they're also secure enought to hold only a single Smartwater bottle. All this while maintaining great accessibility; I can retrieve and replace a Smart with one hand while walking. On mine they're made of Ultra400, which I'll talk more about later, but this is important since they take perhaps the most abuse of the entire pack.
I ordered my Big Wild with two custom features: a solid fabric front pocket (right) and hipbelt pockets (above). The hipbelt pockets are excellent - big, and open/closable with one hand. Once again, I'm not sure how so many go wrong here. The front pocket is nicely shaped, my only complaint is that it's not as tall as I might prefer. I actually think Hyperlite does a great job with these. This one is limited because it's presence is not default and being an afterthought, it has to fit between the two strap rails on the front panel.
Speaking of strap attachments, there are as many as you could hope for. SWD sent my pack with 4 side/front straps (pictured throughout), which can be moved between points for an nearly infinite number of combinations for attaching things. They hook in place with a little plastic G-hook. These are almost perfect - they're pretty easy to use after some getting used to, but rarely fall off and never break. SWD has informed me they are moving to gatekeeper buckles soon - seems to be a good choice. The pack also comes with one top strap, rather than a Y or double. I find this plenty secure, but I do gripe that the one I recieved was hardly long enough to attach anything when the pack is completely full. I made my own that is over 4ft long, so I can use it to secure large items like my PFD, packraft, and helmet (pictured above).
Otherwise, there is little to discuss. The pack has a dump loop at the bottom of the front panel. Unnecessary, but I like it. I'm a dumper.
Materials and Build Quality
I have the old "rugged" Big Wild, meaning it's made mostly of Challenge Ultra 400 with 800 on the bottom. The alternative, "standard" Big Wild, is made with Ecopack. The downsides of the rugged version can be counted on 1 finger: color choices. That's right, the "rugged" version is also lighter! I was in disbelief when I discovered this. Ultra fabric is awesome. It has a laminated waterproof membrane. This, for me, means I don't need to use a pack cover. I keep my important things inside a rolltop DCF packliner, but I pile food and other less sensitive items on top, and they stay mostly dry thanks to the waterproof fabric. I will note that I attempted to seal all my seams with Seam Grip, but for some reason this hasn't helped much. Unlike my Hyperlite pack which was nearly airtight due to the taped DCH fabric, my sealed Big WIld is far from a drybag. The good news is, this doesn't really matter. Insulation needs to be kept in a pack liner regardless of what pack you use. For packrafting, the pack and everything else go inside the TiZip.
In regards to durability, let me first assure you: I have used this pack hard. I attached it to rope and hauled it up rocky cliffs. I have bushwacked and scrambled extensively. But equally important: I have used it for regular backpacking for over 80 days. In short, the fabric is all completely fine. It has no rips, no significant scuffs, no fraying. All of the seams are double stitched and still in perfect condition. Functionally, the pack is perfect.
Cosmetically, it looks far from new. But that's actually preferable to me. This is mainly a result of the white fabric, which gets dirty an stained. My seam grip job also looks like shit, haha. The blue fabric, I would say does look like new. The bottom panel has some wrinkling - I think this might be a feature of Ultra800 and is likely absent from the newer packs with 400 only.
The webbing where the frame intersects the hipbelt is undamaged.
All good here
The last consideration, quite purposefully, is weight. A maker of a load hauling pack should first make sure that they are meeting comfort and durability goals. If this is done in the most minimal way possible, the end result is a light pack. My Big Wild weighs 41oz.
This weight competes excellently with any other pack in the same class. It's the same as a Hyperlite Porter of the same volume, which is sort of unbelievable to me considering the massive difference in comfort (and pockets!). It's almost as if... generous foam and a couple extra inches of frame don't weigh much! Imagine that.
The pack is slightly lighter than the REI Flash 55, but rather than having pointless features is larger and dramatically more durable. It's the same weight as the Hanchor Marl, but larger and more comfortable. It's lighter than the ULA Epic because it's dramatically simpler, although not as waterproof (also way more comfortable).
The biggest competitor to this pack's comfort is Seek Outside, the longstanding favorite of backcountry hunters and some packrafters. The Big Wild achieves the same (if not better) comfort at loads of 60lbs or less. It does this while weighing a full pound less.
If you are going to be carrying loads of 40lbs max, but usually less, the Big Wild may not be the pack for you. Especially if you have a shorter torso than I do. SWD's Long Haul (left) is a great option for people like this and comes with a nice weight savings. This may even apply to many packrafters. My partner is a 5'8" woman and loves her Long Haul, she has tried the old Durston 40 and ULA Circuit but found them uncomfortable for the curvature of her back - another example of "weird stuff".
Stuff I've tried and other ramblings
Because I am at the top end of the torso size, I have been interested in trying to prevent collapse as much as possible. I bought some tubular aluminum stays made from Dan Ransom, which are both lighter and stiffer. They are the black stays pictured on the left, the silver are stock. I am unbothered by the less dramatic bends and do find them to resist collapse a bit better. I have had an issue with them spinning inside the sleeves, irreversible without removing and reinstalling them. This is infrequent, but Dan has suggested he make a 3d printed endcap that is flat on the bottom to prevent spinning. Pretty cool, hopefully we can do it.
I also have discovered that the stock hipbelt on my Big Wild has become increasingly prone to collapse. After about 30 days of carrying above 40lbs, and 30 days of carrying less, it has developed a permanent crease that allows it to deform in the same way that all hipbelts deform, but more easily. This is demonstrated below in two pictures. I have seem it happen with every lightweight pack I have used, and the Big Wild is the most resistant.
To mitigate this, I talked to Brandon from SWD about a replacement hipbelt using more rigid foam. Fortunately, he had already made hipbelts with some "dual density" foam - soft on the hipside, hard on the outside. Brandon only found these belts necessary for carrying hunting loads above 70lbs, but suggested that's both because he is shorter than me and has not used a singular pack for as many days. He was kind enough to give my a great deal on a new dual density foam belt, which I recieved a month ago, and have about 15 days on. Happy to report that it fully resolves the issue. I'll have to see how long it lasts, but I expect it to last much longer. I recently heard from SWD that these will be standard on load hauling packs going forward.
Looking repeatedly at this photo of my backpanel, you may have noticed there is no padding. SWD actually makes the pack with a lycra sleeve on the back and includes a removable piece of foam that can double as a sit pad. I always sit on the ground, I pack carefully so sharp things don't poke my back, and I wanted easier access to the buckles that capture the hipbelt, so I cut off the lycra sleeve.