"All those in favor of sticking with the plan, raise your hand,” challenged Steve Howe, founder of southern Utah-based Redrock Adventure Guides, as raindrops began hitting the hot sandstone rocks around us. Without hesitation, all six hands shot up. Yes. Hell yes. It was day three exploring Capitol Reef National Park with Howe and despite the impending rain, our group couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see what this veteran guide had in mind for our final day hiking and rappelling through the captivating maze of slot canyons and arches. With rain shells zipped up and harnesses double-checked, we inched our way out onto the small ledge next to the postcard-worthy Cassidy Arch and lined up for the 120 foot free rappel below.
A former field editor for Backpacker Magazine, Howe is a 5 foot 6 walking encyclopedia of local knowledge with calf muscles that can only be earned by logging thousands of miles on the trail. After decades of exploring mountains around the globe, Howe settled in the tiny town of Torrey, Utah (population: 182). Torrey’s small cafes, local art galleries, and authentic outdoor vibes are a welcome and calming contrast to the high intensity of other gateway towns like Moab. Situated on the edge of 20 million acres of sandstone wilderness, Torrey serves as the perfect jumping off point to explore the surrounding desert landscape.
"Our crew was all in. And luckily, we were in good hands."
Composing much of the 20 million acres is Capitol Reef, which, according to Howe, is the least discovered of “The Mighty 5,” southern Utah’s collection of National Parks. Capitol Reef is rugged and vast with much of its treasures far off the beaten path. “It’s an undeveloped park—a lot of the adventures here are off trail,” explains Howe. “You gotta leave the herd.”
The desert is a tricky environment, prone to rapid changes in climate and a demanding landscape. The saying “if you don’t like the weather, wait ten minutes” is not just a worn out cliché here but a hard truth that can catch—and punish—hikers unprepared for huge temperature swings and sudden precipitation. Though sketchy, there exists no better place to put new outdoor gear through the paces. So, we took to the canyons of Capitol Reef for three days of adventure to test Thule’s newest line of technical packs. The Malmö-based company is known around the world as the leader in roof rack gear design with over 70 years of experience making schlepping your skis, bikes, and boards to your destination as safe and easy as possible. More recently however, the brand has taken this mission one step further in creating a line of innovative technical packs with clean, contemporary designs and loads of functionality.
“We’ve done our fair share of metal fabrication and plastic injection molding and intimately know about the challenges of carrying loads in extreme environments,” said Colorado-based Global Project Manager and 10-year Thule veteran Graham Jackson. The launch into the pack market was a calculated, multi-year endeavor, made possible by a team of world-class designers, outdoor industry experts, and Swedish engineers.
Jackson describes the Thule brand as being built upon a foundation of “The Perfect Fit”, a mantra that holds as true with roof racks as it does the newly introduced technical backpack line. The Stir Hiking Pack is the brand’s standout design, taking inspiration from climbing haul bags with a streamlined look that is at home on the streets of Stockholm or the local crag. Available in 15, 20, and 35-liter options, the Stir covers most all of your needs, so long as you’re not going too far from civilization. Hip belts make all three models capable of carrying a proper load and can be easily stowed out of sight when a less crunchy and more city-friendly look is desired. The lower volume designs are hyper lightweight and highly packable—great for stuffing into your duffel or larger pack as a backup when traveling—but for the more technical portions of the trip, the more substantial 35 Liter was our tool of choice.
The mid-sized 35L pack comes with four inches torso adjustability, making fine-tuning in a few-seconds an instruction-free ordeal, and is outfitted with a shoulder strap mesh pocket capable of fitting everything from chapstick to an iPhone 6—crucial for firing off ‘grams on the fly. The pack felt nearly weightless on the trail, and managed to hold up to three days of squeezing through 18-inch slot canyons without a tear, thanks to Thule’s uncompromising use of high quality materials. In all, from a 7-mile aerobic hike up the Grand Wash and class 4 slab climbing to bushwhacking and technical canyoneering where any excess dangling material threatened to jam your ATC, the Thule Stir excelled.
For longer hauls, Thule designed the Versant series, available in 50, 60, and 70L volumes. With a lightweight internal frame and a top lid that converts to a sling pack, the Versant series aims to be your go-to pack for travel or multi-day backcountry trips. It also excels in terms of weather protection. Thule’s StormGuard system—a waterproof drop liner and three-quarter rain cover—keeps gear drier than most traditional designs, while the fully waterproof bottom quarter allows you to set your bag down without worrying about a wet sleeping bag when you get to camp. Whether you are hiking the PCT or hitting the Eurorail circuit (or anytime when you practically live with your pack on) the perfect fit is key. To address this, the Versant has adjustable torso and hip belts along with an internal suspension system, which proved itself as a genuinely comfortable load carrying system. A water bottle holder, weatherproof pouch or DSLR friendly camera case can be added via customizable hip belt pocket attachments too.
After seven rappels through Cassidy Arch Canyon, a stunning gorge carved out of Navajo sandstone, we exited the dark grottos of the canyon into the golden light of the main wash like a scuba diver resurfacing from underwater. It was disorienting at first, but all thought faded as the fading sun warmed our faces.
Throughout the final day, the sandstone cliffs of Capitol Reef had changed colors multiple times, shifting between different amber hues as the sun dipped in and out from behind clouds and then set below the distant horizon. Thankful for such a talented and seasoned guide. For thoughtfully designed and well built products equal to the rugged environment, and for the impending morning rains that never fully materialized, we descended back to the truck.
Back at base camp the distinct sound of beers cracking welcomed us. And a campfire soon followed. Though the whipping winds and three days off the trail had us beat, the IPAs were cold and stories aplenty.