so at the expense of starting a brand loyal war - my question is - does brand really matter? What is the big differences to look for in comparing packs of the same size by the big brand names vs the middle of the road brand names (I know you generally get what you pay for in quality and cheap will not last) but what other sort of "extras" are you looking for? what makes a pack better than another?
Dicks has field and stream bags obviously a lot cheaper than the big brand names - for someone like me who is not going to be thru hiking the AT anytime - (think a dozen nights a year max or so) will something like that last me more than long enough?
Loc: Gateway to Columbia Gorge
Never mind the brand. Never mind the gewgaws, or even price. The three most important aspects of a pack are fit, fit, and fit. The pack must fit your body. It must fit the gear you're putting into it (which is why it's recommended to buy your pack last). Above all, it must be comfortable for you to carry with your gear inside (a completely different proposition than weights and sandbags). Pack fit is as individual as shoe fit! If it doesn't fit, you will be miserable.
so at the expense of starting a brand loyal war - my question is - does brand really matter?
Yes, it does! Whichever brand offers backpacks that are 100% waterproof, not just "water resistant" like all the rest, becomes a brand of importance when choosing a backpack for me, because as an ultralight backpacker it means not having to carry the additional weight and inconvenience of a waterproof cover with me to protect my backpack, and/or it's contents, from the elements. When researching all the different brands out there, it wasn't long before I discovered that all of Mountain Hardware's RT Outdry backpacks are guaranteed to be 100% waterproof (In fact you can go swimming with them, or even use them as flotation devices!). Whilst there are lighter backpacks available, they are not as ruggedly built as Mountain Hardware's Outdry range either, so you get more product life for your money. And lastly because I found them relatively inexpensive. I decided to buy my Scrambler RT35 Outdry backpack from them, precisely for the reasons I mentioned.
I'm with OM. Brand doesn't matter. It is how it fits you and your gear that matter. With a high quality brand it may last longer... but it will last a real long time if it sits in your closet because it is uncomfortable.
In terms of doodads and options, I think less is better. They all add weight which make the pack heavier on your shoulders. Even waterproofness. I just shove my quilt and clothes in a garbage bag. It ends up being lighter (or similar weight) to buying a waterproof backpack. Unlike a waterproof backpack, when I get a hole in it I just grab another one.
Loc: Portland, OR
In 2002 I bought a completely off-brand backpack for about $45. Before purchasing it I examined the materials, fit and finish very thoroughly. It was well-made, large enough for the purpose I intended and felt very comfortable.
It was heavier than I wished, but I modified it at home, removed some excess weight, did some hand-sewing to facilitate the modifications. I subsequently used it to hike a 210 mile section of the PCT. It held up fine to the loads I carried and did everything it needed to do.
Since then I purchased a better pack that was a pound lighter, but I still use that older pack frequently on conditioning hikes and on occasions when I need to be the "pack mule" for heavier loads than I normally carry. It is the most comfortable backpack I own and has seen close to 1000 miles of use without any issues.
Brands are not backpacks. You do not put your gear into a brand name or carry a brand name on the trail, except in the most trivial sense. What matters is the pack itself, how it fits your body, how it feels under a load, how well it is designed, how well it is made, and how well it meets your needs.
Off brands are usually not as well made as reputable brand name products, but the name is never the issue. You can see and feel quality and if it is there, it is there. If not, not. The name attached to it means very little by comparison.
Since then I purchased a better pack that was a pound lighter
And that is precisely why you need to go to a branded product...Not just because they use better quality materials, it is because they are often a lot lighter. There is an old saying, "An ounce in the morning becomes a pound by the evening". In other words, what might seem like a light weight backpack in the morning, when you are refreshed and full of energy, will often end up feeling like a huge and heavy burden by the evening, after you have hiked many miles with it and are low on energy and tired. So reducing the base weight of your backpack, should always start with reducing the weight of the backpack itself...The simplest way to accomplish this is by buying the lightest possible backpack that still has the capacity and features you feel are important. Problem is, most ultralight backpacks are very expensive, but heavier packs are cheap...So the pack you end up will be a compromise...It may not be the lightest backpack out there, but it will probably be the lightest one you can afford.
Loc: Portland, OR
And that is precisely why you need to go to a branded product
I think each hiker gets to make that particular evaluation. Perhaps you missed that I am still using that off-brand pack and I'm still perfectly happy with it for a certain sub-set of uses, for which I find it to be a better pack than the lighter brand name one.
Every quality in a pack that you named as valuable to you does not inhere in the brand name, but in the pack itself. Using a brand name as a proxy for "the lightest possible backpack that still has the capacity and features you feel are important" can get you in trouble, since most brand name makers have a wide range of packs for many kinds of activities and market niches.
To get the right pack, I look past the brand name and concentrate instead on fit, weight, capacity, and features, which is really what I am looking for. And of all those, I'd say fit is the most important one. But disagreement is what makes a horse race, so if you are happy with your pack (or packs), then you've done just as well as I have at picking them.
Ignore brand at first. Start with fit, and what you plan to do with it. I still hike with a GPV4 (now Gossamer Gear)...super lightweight pack that holds a huge volume but takes advantage of a lot of "double duty" feature such as no foam. Your socks and other clothing articles make your padding. Decide whether you really need ladder locks, ice ax loops, crampon patches, zippers, and all the other junk you'll find on your typical mass produced pack (even book bags at walmart!!). Hip belts! My lightest packs don't have hip belts and I don't miss them.
I want the lightest thing (that's still durable) on my back, as well as my feet, so fit and function come first. If I can find that in a branded product, great. Otherwise, it will be DIY or cottage industry gear. I've found the big brands offer nothing I could ever use. You'll find some dandy offerings on this very website! Go here: http://www.litebackpacker.com/ultralite-packs/index.html