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Review: The Packa, hybrid jacket/poncho || A for innovation

The Packa is a unique jacket/poncho hybrid with an integrated pack cover. Photo: Shannon Keeton

When I wrote the Core 13 Clothing series, I was frustrated with the existing rain gear options. Manufacturers were (and still are, three years later) unquestioning of waterproof/breathable fabrics, which fall short of their hyperbolic claims; and there was little innovation in format, with everyone stuck on traditional jackets and pants.

Subsequently I was contacted by Edward Hinnant (“Cedar Tree”), who thought that I might be interested in the Packa — a hybrid rain jacket and poncho with an integrated pack cover — that he designed and distributes. I was game, of course, and he sent one over.

Since I backpack mostly in semi-arid and arid locations in the West, testing rain gear can be a challenge. But after using the Packa for three seasons — specifically, to yo-yo the Pfiffner Traverse, guide trips in California’s High Sierra, and hunt elk in Colorado — I think I can speak fairly to it.

Maybe you had to be there. I’m hunkered down at the top of Northeast Gully, the crux feature on the Pfiffner Traverse. An out-of-view thunderstorm hit me when I reached the top, forcing me to hunker down between boulders at 12,000 feet and drape my shelter over me.

Review: The Packa

I grade the Packa as follows:

  • For innovation, A;
  • For execution, C (at least for my version from late-2015, since which time it’s been improved);
  • For overall performance, B.

The Packa successfully protected me (and my pack) from precip and expelled trapped heat and moisture with its generous ventilation. But I struggled with its fit and sizing, and was annoyed by some unrefined trims and details.

I found that the Packa excels most when hiking on-trail in calm weather, and in cool to warm temperatures. It seems tailor-made for conditions on the Appalachian Trail (or similar).

But when using the Packa off-trail or in high-winds, I longed for a more athletic garment that didn’t snag, flap, or drape. When it was cold and snowing, I would have preferred the warmth of a traditional shell. And in hot conditions, I believe that the only rain gear with adequate ventilation is an umbrella like the My Trail Company Chrome.

Furthermore, the Packa cannot be worn as intended (i.e. over the backpack and backpack straps) if sharp or oversized objects are attached to the exterior of the backpack, such as a trekking pole, ice axe, or snowshoes. Similarly, it cannot be worn as intended while wearing a hunting safety vest, which doesn’t have the girth to wrap around a body and backpack. In these situations, my solution was to wear the Packa under my backpack, compromising its ventilation.

The Packa cannot be worn as intended (over the backpack and backpack straps) if anything sharp or long is attached to the backpack. It is also not compatible with a hunting safety vest.

Specs

My Packa is a size Medium and is made of 20d waterproof nylon. It weighs 10.0 ounces (283 g), which was consistent with the advertised weight. The seams are taped.

This fabric is no longer available. Currently, the Packa comes in two fabrics:

  • 30d silicone/PU nylon (15-16 oz, $100); and,
  • eVent (18-22 oz, $170).

A 15d sil-nylon version will be available around January 2019 and cost about $130, according to Hinnant. The estimated weight (9.0 oz for size Small) is attractive, but I’m unexcited about its seams, which are not taped — DIY seam-sealing is messy and time-consuming.

My Packa is size Medium and made with 20d nylon weighs 10 ounces.

Which fabric?

The 30d nylon is coated with silicone on one side and polyurethane on the other. A two-sided silicone coating would be stronger and more waterproof, but it’d be more expensive and the seams could not be taped. This 30d fabric is commonly used for tent flies and floors.

I’m generally skeptical of waterproof-breathable fabrics like eVent. Its waterproofness is compromised by abrasion, dirt, and body oils. And while its breathability is measurable, it’s insufficient to keep up with normal rates of perspiration.

I chose the waterproof/non-breathable option, for its more reliable long-term performance. It was also a rare opportunity to experiment with non-breathable rain gear.

When the Packa is closed up (i.e. zipped fully, closed pit zips, and cinched bottom hem), the build-up of perspiration inside is noticeable. In fact, it’s actually visible, due to the transparency of the fabric. My hunting partner, Steve, said that he felt clammy just looking at me, although I was more comfortable than I appeared: my fleece mid-layer buffered the moisture that had built-up.

To be fair, clamminess is a common compliant among WP/B rain jackets, too. It’s just not visible, because WP/B fabrics are opaque.

Due to the transparency of the fabric, moisture build-up can be seen inside the jacket. Uncomfortable claminess can be mitigated with a next-to-skin layer, like a long-sleeve shirt or mid-layer fleece.

The moisture build-up was solved, however, as soon as I opened up the jacket. With help from the billowy cut, the Packa’s vents allowed relatively dry outside air to exchange with the relatively humid air inside. My damp layers even seemed to dry out with the resulting airflow — except for my lower arms, which are trapped in an un-vented zone.

Sizing

The Packa is available in three sizes:

  • Small (5’7″ and shorter);
  • Medium (5’8″ to 6′); and,
  • Large (6′ and taller).

In addition, the Medium and Large are available with extra large pack cover volume (for packs that are 65 liters or more), referred to as Medium-X and Large-X.

This 65-liter cut-off is consistent with my experience. When I used my Packa with a fully loaded Osprey Aether Pro 70, the pack cover seam was scarily tensioned. Also, the pack messed with the fit, making it impossible for me to get my arms out of the sleeves without assistance.

If pack volume exceeds 65 liters, a size Medium-X or Large-X is required. Otherwise the pack cover will not fit properly, and may skew the body fit, too. Photo: Shannon Keeton

Comparisons

How does the Packa compare to more traditional options?

Versus a rain jacket

The Packa expels internal heat and moisture much better than a conventional rain jacket. Its secret is ventilation. The Packa:

  • Creates an air channel between it and the user, because the Packa is worn over the backpack and backpack straps (like a poncho);
  • Has an over-sized silhouette that billows with movement or wind; and,
  • Features huge pit zips and an open bottom.

In this respect, the Packa is head-and-shoulders better than any jacket, even fully featured models like the Outdoor Research Foray with pit zips, side zips, and/or two-way zippers. Without an air channel between the user and the jacket, the value of these vents is limited. And “breathable” fabrics are not good enough to offset the difference.

But the Packa is unwiedly and cumbersome. The preponderance of loose, draping fabric is a liability in high winds and when off-trail, and makes it impractical for any athletic activity like running or scrambling. I often felt “lost” in the Packa, like when trying to find its arms and hood so that I could put it on, or when I wanted to adjust my pit zips or hood cinch. Product familiarity will reduce this sensation, but it will always feel more poncho-like than jacket-like.

Versus a poncho

The Packa rivals a poncho in its ventilation, but sacrifices the expected low cost and simplicity for enhanced user-friendliness, weather-resistance, and features. Unlike a poncho, the Packa has a:

  • Full-length front zipper, for easy on/off;
  • Full-length arm sleeves with wrist cuffs, for enhanced protection; and,
  • Stiffened hood with a cinch cord.

In addition, the Packa stores more easily when not being used. Instead of taking it off entirely, it can be hung over the pack, where it’s easily accessible for rapid deployment. This is very convenient during on-and-off rain showers.

During on-and-off rain, the Packa can be kept ready for rapid deployment by taking it off the body but keeping it as a pack cover. Photo: Justin Simoni

Execution and room for improvement

First, I would like to applaud Hinnant for designing an innovative option for hiking in the rain that remedies some problems of traditional waterproof/breathable jackets and pants.

But the Packa has issues of its own, some inherent to the design (mostly already discussed) and others related to the execution of it. To improve the Packa, I would recommend consideration of the changes described below. These generally are aimed at improving its finish, which currently feels cottage- or garage-level.

I have added Hinnant’s responses in italics. Some of my suggestions have been addressed over the last two years.

1. Replace the current front zipper with a shorter, smooth-sliding watertight #5 model with an easy-to-grab pull that would reduce a potential water-entry point and that would allow the user to:

  • Reach the zipper without leaning over; and,
  • Operate it while wearing gloves.

To retain the option of sealing flush the bottom hem, install a plastic snap.

I looked at some waterproof zippers and could not find any that were dual separating. To me dual separating is key for the front zipper. The front zipper flap now has Velcro closures to keep the flap closed.

2. Increase the height of the hood, to improve mobility and to reduce tension on the hood when the Packa is worn under a backpack. Be careful, though: more slack may cause water to pool between the shoulders and backpack.

The hood has been completely redesigned. The length has been increased and there is an adjustment added to the back of the head.

3. Reduce the size of the cord locks and the diameter of the shock cord in the hood closure, bottom hem, and pack cover. Move the bottom hem cord lock to the side, where it won’t interfere with the user’s stride.

Most of the shockcord and toggles have been reduced in size. I did leave the packcover cord and toggle big so it is easier to manage behind your head.

4. Move up the bottom hem cinch, to the base of the butt. Here, it will not restrict knee-lift. Below this higher cinch point, let the Packa drape naturally.

Interesting

5. Replace the non-anchored wrist cuff cord locks with Velcro closures, which can be adjusted with one-hand and which distribute pressure more evenly than draw cords.

 For about the first 7 or 8 years I used Velcro for the sleeve closures.  I didn’t really like them, and they were heavy.  I’ve been selling Packas 18 years now.  The thought behind the shockcord closure is they allow for more air flow when opened.

The shock cords and cord locks on the hood, bottom hem, and pack cover cinch are all excessively large and heavy. The wrist cuff adjustment should use Velcro.

6. Reinforce with heavier fabric the parts of the Packa that touch the ground when the backpack is taken off. I fear that a 20d fabric will not withstand long-term abrasion from sharp rocks and sticks if it has a 30-pound pack atop it.

 I used a heavier fabric for the bottom of the packcover when I  used to make Packas myself.  I don’t let my Packa ever touch the ground.  I take it off the pack before setting my pack down.  But, point noted.

7. Move the pocket higher, so that it is more easily accessible and so that it flops less.

Questions about the Packa or have an experience to share? Please leave a comment.


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8 Responses to Review: The Packa, hybrid jacket/poncho || A for innovation

  1. Doug October 22, 2018 at 8:50 pm #

    I got a Packa last year and I like it. I thought it worked well when we got caught in last year’s September snow storm in the Sierra coming back over Bishop pass. I didn’t think it flopped around too much in the wind but I was on-trail during this time. I was very happy with the ventilation while climbing the pass.

    The only thing I don’t like about it is what to do when separated from your pack in camp. Either you or your pack is going to get wet. There’s no easy way to pack up camp if it’s raining in the morning without getting wet while putting the Packa on your pack.

    • Gordon October 22, 2018 at 10:20 pm #

      I take it you don’t use a tarp?

  2. Chris S October 23, 2018 at 1:06 pm #

    Apologies for going off topic. I noticed you using the CMT trekking poles with the 3k carbon weave. Are there plans to review them in the future? Interested to know if these poles offer more lateral stiffness compared to its predecessor.

    • Andrew Skurka October 23, 2018 at 1:32 pm #

      They’re nicer than the standard CMT Quick Lock poles, but it’s subtle. I think most people would be just as happy with the $30 original.

  3. Josh O. October 23, 2018 at 1:59 pm #

    Not exactly Packa related, but since we’re on rain gear……was curious on your thoughts of Colimbia’s Outdry fabric? Particularly the Ex Featherweight? Thanks

    • Andrew Skurka October 24, 2018 at 7:05 am #

      Haven’t used it, so can’t say. I have a jacket made of the original heavier material, but I haven’t used it enough that it should have failed by now.

  4. Mike Mathews November 5, 2018 at 1:59 pm #

    Interesting design and it looks like some of your suggestions have been implemented in updated versions. This design might give better results than my current summer and spring/fall selections. Generally I use a poncho in the summer, sealed raingear in the early spring and late fall, WPB in the winter snow (Goat Rocks, Columbia Gorge, Mt Hood, Clackamas drainage, Three Sisters).

    What do you think of this design versus a Gatewood Cape? Probably always keeping a minimal tarp handy.

    • Andrew Skurka November 6, 2018 at 5:37 pm #

      For rainy environments I prefer a dedicated shelter and dedicated rain gear. My experience is that combination items don’t perform well in either area, and then there’s that whole transition thing. Poncho/tarp-ish products are best for areas where it rarely rains, when you’re carrying shelter and rain gear mostly as a just-in-case.

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