Welcome! Ultralight backpacking is my passion, and keeping up on new technologies, gear, and techniques relevant to UL backpacking is what floats my boat. I'm always looking for the lightest, most functional gear to improve a lightweight or ultralight backpacking kit, and report my impressions and field testing results here. For hikers wanting to keep up on the latest and greatest ultralight backpacking gear, this is a good place to hang out. Also, there is a lot of information here (and on our informational website Southwest Ultralight Backpacking) on useful techniques and backcountry etiquette -- food for thought for hikers wanting to lighten their load and their impacts.

My goal for Ultralight Insights is to understand, test, and report on new technologies and gear of interest to lightweight and ultralight backpackers. It's a passion after all, so we just plain enjoy talking about it. I hope readers will add their own wisdom and comments, respond to my questions, ask their own questions, and correct me if I get something wrong. Happy hiking! Will

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

GEAR REVIEW: Elemental Horizons Kalais Backpack

By Will Rietveld

The new Kalais pack is a smaller version of Elemental Horizons’ Aquilo pack, which received the coveted Highly Recommended rating from Backpacking Light Magazine (subscription required). The Kalais at 2920 cubic inches (size Medium) is about 600 cubic inches smaller than the 3587 cubic inch Aquilo. The frame and suspension system are the same but the feature sets differ in order to downsize and lighten the Kalais, and tailor it to its intended user.

The new Elemental Horizons Kalais (manufacturer photo and specifications) has 2920 cubic inches of total volume (size Medium) and weighs 26 ounces. Cost is $190.

As the following photo gallery shows, the Kalais is a traditional design. It’s constructed of 210 denier Dyneema ripstop in high wear areas, 70 denier coated ripstop nylon in the body, and spacer mesh for padding.

Frontpanel view: The front has a gusseted Dyneema and mesh pocket that provides the perfect place to carry a wet shelter or rainwear. The pack’s top compression strap connects to the top of the pocket. There is a very lightweight bungie attachment system on the front of the pocket.

 Backpanel view: The backpanel, shoulder straps, and removable wide hipbelt are all padded with spacer mesh. The shoulder straps are 2.25 inches wide and have load lifters at the top. The hipbelt is removable; three sizes are available.

Sidepanel view: Each side of the pack has a durable mesh pocket and three compression straps.

 Top view: The Kalais has a large extension collar with a rolltop closure and top compression strap.

Inside the pack, there is a large sleeping pad sleeve to use a partially inflated sleeping pad (or closed cell foam pad) to provide additional pack rigidity to facilitate weight transfer. It can also accommodate a hydration bladder (two hose ports are provided).

Elemental Horizons offers the Kalais in three unisex sizes with a choice of three hipbelt sizes. Options include a removable curved aluminum stay, sit pad, hipbelt pockets, and sidepanel mounted hydration sleeve with zippered storage pocket (0.8 ounce).

The short answer is the Kalais is one of the best backpacks I have ever tested, and I have tested a lot of packs. As with the Aquilo, Elemental Horizons got (almost) everything right the first time, and the Kalais is another winner.

The volume of the Kalais at 2920 cubic inches is in the “sweet zone” of 2500-3000 cubic inches preferred by many lightweight backpackers. It has a bit too much volume for ultralight backpacking, but if you consistently carry over 20 pounds, and rarely carry over 30-35 pounds, this is the pack for you. For that type of use, the 26 ounce pack weight beats most every comparable pack in its category, except the Gossamer Gear Gorilla and Six Moon Designs Swift. The weight of the size Large pack I tested is 31 ounces with the optional stay.

The Kalais will function well for ultralight backpacking because the combination of its internal pad sleeve and three compression straps on each side will provide all the volume reduction and compression capability you will ever need. However, its 26 ounce weight is overkill for carrying sub-20 pound loads that a 12 ounce frameless pack will carry almost as well.

I tested the Kalais on several hikes carrying loads of 16, 25, 25, 32, and 35 pounds, all with the tubular frame inserted, and the heavier loads (25 to 35 pounds) with a partially inflated Klymit X-Lite pad in the internal pad sleeve. Basically I tested the Kalais with heavier and heavier loads to determine its limits.

With a 16 pound load I hardly noticed the pack was there. In a previous project I found that a removable stay significantly improves weight transfer and carry comfort for loads over 15 pounds.

The Kalais carried a 25 pound load surprisingly well. I noticed the weight, but the pack transferred all of the weight to my hips. It was at this point that I discovered that the Kalais’ four-pull hipbelt tightening system makes a big difference for carrying heavier loads. By separately tightening the upper and lower pulls, the top and bottom of the hipbelt can be tightened separately, which conforms the hipbelt to the hips and prevents it form slipping under heavy loads.

I further tested the Kalais with a 35 pound load, the maximum recommended comfortable weight, and found the same result – the hipbelt did not slip, and the pack still transferred all of the weight to my hips.

The four-pull hipbelt tightening system on the Kalais is remarkable, it allows you to tighten the top and bottom of the wide hipbelt separately, conforming the hipbelt around the hipbone, allowing the pack to comfortably carry heavier loads, with total weight transfer, and not slipping off the hips.

Elemental Horizons uses a removable contoured aluminum stay that is similar to the one used by Gossamer Gear and Six Moon Designs, but its integration into the pack is much better. Rather than a simple straight sleeve on the inside of the backpanel, the stay is more solidly anchored at the top and bottom of the pack, so it transfers weight to the hipbelt better, as my testing results indicate.

The Kalais is not as robust a pack as many sub-3 pound packs targeted to lightweight backpackers from other manufacturers, but it does fill an important niche. For backpackers who consistently carry loads between 20 and 30 pounds, the Kalais is an excellent choice; it’s 0.5 to 1 pound lighter than many other lightweight internal frame packs and does the job just as well, if not better.

What’s not to like? Three things:
  1. The shoulder straps are a bit narrow at 2.25 inches, especially if you use the Kalais as a frameless backpack. For me, the narrow shoulder straps were not a problem when carrying the pack with the frame in because the pack effectively transferred all of the weight to the hips, so the shoulder straps mainly provided stabilization.
  2. Water bottles fall out of the side pockets when you bend over. This could be fixed by making the pockets wider at the bottom so they don’t pop out.
The four pull straps on the size Medium hipbelt I tested are a bit short. On my 35 inch waist, the straps are 3-4 inches long, just long enough to grab and pull. If I were wearing the hipbelt over a jacket they would be too short.

A full water bottle inserted in a side pocket readily falls out when you bend over, unless you press the neck of the bottle into the back corner of the pocket as shown.

Quite likely Elemental Horizons will address these issues, and if so I will add an update to this article.

Overall, Elemental Horizons simply gets (most) everything right to create a remarkable smaller volume removable frame backpack for lightweight backpackers. It’s well designed and constructed, durable, fits well, comfortably carries a sizeable load, and its volume adjustment capability is outstanding. In response to the question of: “if I were to purchase only one pack, which one would serve most of my needs?”, the Kalais would be one of only a few packs I would recommend.

Addendum May 29, 2012
In response to my review comments, Elemental Horizons has corrected the problem with water bottles falling out of the side pockets by widening the bottom of the pockets so the bottles now sit deeper in the pockets, as shown in the following photo.

 With the bottom of the side pocket widened, a water bottle fits much deeper and is more secure, also the pocket volume increases a bit. Compare this to the previous photos above. Note that the standard pack color is red, not purple as shown

Elemental Horizons will try to accommodate custom color and feature requests; email Matthew Lagas-Rivera at matthew@elementalhorizons.com with your requests. I am very impressed with the quality of his designs and construction, and attention to detail.

Overall, the Kalais, while quite lightweight, is not the very lightest 3000 cubic inch backpack available, but (in my opinion) it has the best balance of lightweight, fit, features, comfort, and weight carrying ability of all the packs I have tested to date.


  1. Hey Will
    How Is the torso measured on LG pack. I'm worried about the fit.
    Thanks Ron