Enduro-ing is all the rage. Strap a tube to your bike, fill up your water bottle and go for a rip. Yee-haw! Riding without a pack is a liberating experience, and I won't lie, I do it as much as possible. But lately, when a ride comes along where extra storage is a necessity, I have been reaching for the Thule Vital 8L. And I find myself reaching for it more and more often, shorter rides included. The Vital 8L is just a really good pack.
I'll start with size. Eight liters doesn't seem like much. For the long, punishing rides managing editor Will Ritchie regularly drags me on, I have filled bigger packs to the gills. Surprisingly, I haven't been frustrated with lack of room in the Vital though. On a recent all-day epic across the technical trails of Sedona, Arizona, the Vital 8L was sufficient. The pack makes up for its small stature with an expandable elastic panel on the back (front?).
Eight liters is somewhat of a misnomer, because that elastic panel can expand a lot. I was able to stuff a lightweight jacket into it, and then when one of my riding partners ran out of room, I was able to stuff his jacket into it also. The bottom of the panel is sewn to the pack to create a pocket, and the top is buckled on either side. At first, I was worried my extra layers might slip out the sides, but after a number of rides, that risk was never realized.
Along the waist belt extra storage is available in the form of jersey-style pockets where I store snacks and trash. This meant I have more room inside my pack, but it also means I don't have to take off the pack to reach items I want quick access to. The snacks, not the trash.
Inside the pack is one small fleece-lined pocket for valuables, and one larger pocket separated by a sleeve for the included reservoir. It is refreshingly simple. There are no tool pockets, confusing sleeves reminiscent of school backpacks waiting for a host of pens, or pockets to small for anything but my drivers license. Instead of taking time to organize every little piece of gear, you just load up an ride.
For loading up on water there is a 2.5 liter Hydrapak reservoir—an interesting choice given that most packs are either 2.0-litre or 3.0-litre. But mountain bikers love splitting the difference. Speaking of splitting, the Vital 8L bladder has a thin plastic sheet, essentially separating it into two tubes connected at the bottom. By confining the water into a smaller space, there is less room for it to slosh back and forth as I ride. This translates into a planted, secure feeling. The pack moves with me instead of carrying lateral momentum and changing my balance point.
Attached to the bladder is, of course, the hose. Follow the hose up the pack, out the top and over the shoulder and you will find the last quarter of the hose is wrapped in an elastic sleeve with a magnetic strip sewn into the side. There is a matching magnetic strip sewn onto the shoulder strap. This made me with giddy with excitement when I first realized what it was. Yes, I get excited about magnets. Mostly because on other packs, hose management is always a pain. Metal clips require a degree of precision that is difficult to master while riding and other magnetic systems only hold the hose at the very end, leaving the rest to dangle free. Thule's magnet strip, coined ReTrakt, runs the length of usable hose, holding tight what would normally dangle free. And after grabbing it for a drink I can drop it and the magnets find their mate with no effort on my part. Simple, convenient, genius.
The pack sits flush and low against my back. It is flexible, comfortable, moves with me and keeps my center of gravity low. But the fact that it sits flush against my back means it doesn't really breathe. The backing is mesh and does have slits in the foam to help air circulate, but even on cooler days my back ended up wet.
The shoulder straps are just as form-fitting. They are more breathable than the back, but they are fixed in such a way that doesn't allow for much movement in width. I have narrow shoulders, and I found that the straps wanted to be farther apart than was most comfortable for me. A small, but noticeable annoyance. Perhaps only noticeable because before riding with the Vital 8L, I was regularly riding an Evoc with its Brace Link technology—a metal link that attaches shoulder strap to pack, giving the straps freedom of side-to-side movement to fit any shoulder width.
Ultimately, it is the clever design elements like the magnet strip, jersey style pockets, split bladder and expandable back panel that make this pack what it is. Soggy back and imperfect shoulder width be damned. This is a damn good backpack. Dayum!