Saturday, May 02, 2009

Review of Gregory Palisade 80/Whitney 95

The first thing I want to say is that I plan to rewrite and reorganize this review as soon as I have used my new backpack enough to reliably judge its performance. Even in its current state, though, you should find this review very helpful if you read the whole thing.

Update: September 25, 2009 - If you found this post by searching for "Gregory hipbelt" or anything like that, I want you to know Gregory has fixed the problem with the hipbelt materials. After having lived out of my replacement pack for the last couple months, the hipbelt is still in great condition, and I can tell it's going to stay that way. So if you have been hesitant to buy a Gregory pack because you've heard about the hipbelt issues, I want to assure you there is no longer a problem. And if you found this post because you have a pack with the defective part, go ahead and contact Gregory because they will go out of their way to make sure you got what you paid for. (If you don't know how to contact Gregory, just scroll down and look for the dark blue text below my May 12 update.)

Update: July 17, 2009 - I have packed and unpacked my new Whitney many times the last couple days in an effort to develop a good system of organization before I hit the road again (which I'll be doing later today). Having not even taken the pack outside yet, I already have some bad news to report: A seam near one of the upper cinch straps is coming undone due to the tension created when the strap is tightened. Have I tightened the strap too much, or is it just a poor quality seam? I don't know, but I really don't think this should be happening with a pack I haven't even used. This likely means I will rate the pack at no more than 4 of 5 stars whenever I finally write a new review.

Update: June 12, 2009 - After some confusion with shipping, my replacement pack (Whitney 95) arrived from the Gregory factory two days ago. I have packed it up with over 50 pounds of gear and laid it on the floor with the hipbelt down to simulate some of the conditions that I'm sure caused my previous hipbelt problems (mentioned in the review below). If the hipbelt material problem has in fact been resolved, I will write a new, detailed review, giving these packs 5 stars (out of a possible 5 stars). Until then, go ahead and read my original review. This review, in conjunction with the more recent updates, may help you find what you're looking for.

Update: May 12, 2009 - I received an e-mail today from Gregory's Director of Product Development. After reading my review (below), he responded to me regarding the hipbelt problems I've had, informing me that the problem "stemmed from an isolated batch of defective plastic material from one of our suppliers," which has subsequently been fixed. He also offered to send me a new pack, which I am eager to receive.

Since you probably found this page by searching for reviews that discuss the problems some people have had with Gregory's hipbelts, I think you should read the letter I received from Gregory (in blue text) before you read my review:

Hi Ryan,

John Sears here from Gregory's R&D department. Since this response became so long-winded, I thought I would spare your blog and email you personally.

I apologize for the inconvenience this belt panel caused you, and certainly thank you for your otherwise positive thoughts on the pack. Your disappointment with the defective belt panel is justified, as it is certainly not up-to-par with our quality expectations. Please allow me to shed some light on the situation, which we have already taken your advice on and fixed. The problem [with] your belt panel had stemmed from an isolated batch of defective plastic material from one of our suppliers. A variance in the material that they injection-molded this part from resulted in a small number of defective belt panel units. Although each one of these defective units has indeed broken quite quickly in the field (if not quarantined in our warehouse) the number of units that escaped our strict, multi-tiered quality inspection procedures is very limited in scale. This special HDPE compound is an engineered plastic designed to ensure that it retains its strength and flexibility through a large temperature range, and it is important to note that this issue is related to an inconsistent material supply, not the material or part design itself.

Although we have proactively communicated with our customers on this topic to make sure they were aware of this issue, we will continue to talk about this issue on our blog to make sure it is 100% transparent to customers like yourself, jredler and Jordan from your blog, and a few other REI customers that have posted reviews (as you pointed out in your post). We’ve done our absolute best to get customers brand new packs if necessary or quickly replace this component with a guaranteed part, and will continue to do so when customers contact us directly. We of course prefer that we help customers directly rather than indirectly through a retailer, as we’d like to think we have the ability to provide the best possible customer service.

My advice to anyone that is concerned with this panel on their Gregory pack is to inspect the part for visible cracks and fractures, which will be immediately apparent upon bending the plastic part. Take off the belt panel padding so the plastic panel is fully exposed, and physically bend the gray plastic panel with your hands. No need to be gentle, as this panel is a special mix of HDPE composite plastic that was specifically engineered for this application. In the off-chance that you do have a broken panel, from all my experience it will be immediately apparent after this quick inspection.

In terms of fixing the issue, I can tell you that we have changed the material supply source as well as the manufacturing location, now in the U.S., to ensure we have 100% control over this material. At any rate, if you’ve managed to read this far, I apologize for the long-winded explanation and on behalf of Gregory, sincerely apologize to you and anyone else that has had the misfortune of experiencing a breakage on this part. Please know that as we have for over thirty years, we do stand behind the quality, durability, and comfort of our packs and will continue to listen to customers like yourself to constantly strive to find new and innovative solutions to help take us all into the backcountry in comfort and confidence.

Feel free to email me or better yet, give me a call and we can jump on the phone to discuss in more detail. I’ll be happy to answer any questions for you or help out anyone from your blog with this issue. Given your seemingly great experience in the past with Gregory backpacks, and your passion for adventure, I’d hate to see you shy away from Gregory products in the future, as you are certainly one of our most valued customers. With that said, please let me know if there is an address I can send a pack to with the latest and greatest CFS waistbelt panel and adjustment configuration for your upcoming travels.

Take care and I hope wherever you are, life is treating you well,
John Sears
Gregory Mountain Products
Director of Product Development

My immediate impression from this e-mail is that the folks at Gregory want to make sure you get what you pay for when you buy their products. If, for whatever reason, you don't get what you paid for, they are willing to go out of their way to fix the problem and make you a happy customer. I am very impressed by how they've handled my situation, and once I get a chance to test my new pack, I'm sure I will recommend Gregory packs to anyone who asks for my opinion.

Revision of a review I posted on

I've changed the bulk of this review to strikethru text for at least the time being, if not permanently, because when products change, reviews should change. I chose strikethru as an alternative to deletion because I want people to know the whole story from my perspective. (That is, I don't want people to stumble onto this review and read only part of it, thus receiving only part of my story and absorbing the wrong message.)

Title: An incredible backpack with one deal-breaking flaw

Rating: 1 star (may soon become 5 stars) out of a possible 5 stars.
Pros: Comfortable; Easy To Load; Good Padding.
Cons: Difficult to reach water bottle; Possibly weak seams; Sleeping bag compartment should be larger (all very minor issues); Hipbelt reinforcement breaks with normal use.
Best Uses: Extended Hikes.
Describe Yourself: Avid Adventurer; Tramp; Hobo.
Bottom Line: No, I would not recommend this to a friend. (See "Important note" at the end of review.)

Here's the deal: If you buy the Palisade 80 (or the Whitney 95) AND ACTUALLY USE IT for more than a couple days, the plastic reinforcement behind the hipbelt will break. It might take a week or it might take a couple months, but it WILL break, no matter how much you baby it. And when that happens, you will probably be nowhere near an REI store, so you'll be stuck carrying 50+ lbs of gear on your shoulders instead of your hips.

The worst thing is that these plastic pieces are not available separately as replacement parts. The only way to get a new one is for an REI employee (or manager) to dismantle a brand new Gregory pack from their stock and transplant a new part onto your broken pack. It takes a lot of time and labor, and then you end up feeling like a jerk for asking them to take care of a problem that shouldn't exist in the first place (and wasn't their fault).

I started using my Palisade 80 in August 2008. Within a week or so (mid/late August), I noticed that the seams holding the gray material at the bottom of the pack were unraveling at every tension point. I was a little bothered by that, but I didn’t rush to REI to have it replaced. Aside from that issue, I still loved the pack because it feels great in almost every way.

But in early October, after spending a couple weeks walking from Santa Monica to Palm Springs, I woke up one morning to find half of my hipbelt totally disconnected from the frame, held on only by the tension strap and a snap. (Upon reflection, I now realize the hipbelt actually broke quite a while before this; I just didn't recognize it until it finally broke completely.)

So instead of walking any further east (into a big, empty desert), I had to try to hitch a ride back to Rancho Cucamonga, to the nearest REI store. I wanted to replace the entire backpack, but since there were no medium Palisade 80s available at any of the southern California REI stores, I accepted the store manager's offer to replace the plastic hipbelt reinforcement pieces, using parts he had to transplant from a brand new Gregory pack.

At that point, I thought maybe I was at least partially to blame for the damaged hipbelt because I sometimes sat on the sleeping bag compartment while the pack was in a horizontal position. Consequently, once I had that part replaced, I stopped putting any kind pressure on the pack whenever I laid it down. Nevertheless, it broke again less than a month later, possibly still in October. I can’t remember exactly when it broke, but I know I found my way to the Arcadia, California REI store on Election Day (November 4th?).

In Arcadia, I ended up trading in my Palisade 80 for a Whitney 95 because there still were no medium Palisade 80s available anywhere in SoCal. With this new pack, I took great caution to make sure there was never ANY weight or pressure on the hipbelt. Whenever I was not carrying the pack, I always made sure to find a way to lean the pack against something, to keep it upright, thus keeping the weight from ruining yet another hipbelt reinforcement.

But guess what: The hipbelt still broke.

Analysis, Suggestions, & Conclusion
From what I can tell, Gregory makes incredible backpacks. Their packs feel comfortable and they do what they’re supposed to do. But Gregory packs have one major design flaw that cancels out all the good qualities. Like I said before: If you actually use one of these Gregory packs how they were designed to be used, the hipbelt reinforcement pieces will break, no matter how much you baby it. It’s that simple. When this happens, it will suck big-time and it will leave you really screwed and pissed off.

I think the problem lies in the hipbelt’s adjustable angle feature (which I also don’t think is a necessary feature). The plastic simply is not strong enough to support unreinforced holes for the angle-changing mechanism. I’ve used setting 5 as well as setting 2, and I didn’t feel like either setting was any more ergonomic than the other setting. They did feel slightly different, but I could have used it either way, even though I tend to be pretty picky--obsessive-compulsive even--when it comes to comfort issues. Additionally, once the plastic part breaks, you can no longer change the angle anyway.

The multiple hipbelt angle feature needs to go. If that’s not an option, then Gregory needs to use a stronger material for the piece behind the hipbelt, and/or they need to put some kind of reinforcement around the holes.

I’m going to return my Whitney 95 for an Osprey or something whenever I get a chance because even though I think the Gregory could and should be a great pack, IT ALWAYS BREAKS, and I don’t want to deal with that anymore. Unfortunately, the nearest REI store to me is 200 miles away.

If anyone from Gregory should stumble upon this review, here is some valuable information I want to share with you: You have to fix this problem RIGHT NOW, regardless of the immediate costs. If you continue to manufacture backpacks with this flaw, you will quickly lose your reputation as the maker of the finest backpacks, most of the packs will be returned, and your business will disappear. While the hipbelt problem is the only real quality issue with your packs, it is a deal breaker. I, like most people, do not need my hipbelt to be adjustable. You absolutely must begin using a stronger material for the hipbelt reinforcement pieces, even though it will surely add a few ounces to the overall weight, because a few extra ounces is much less inconvenient than an imminently useless hipbelt. A few extra ounces is not a deal breaker. As you can see on the REI review pages, a lot of people are beginning to experience the same problem I've had. If you would like more input, feel free to contact me.

*Important note: If not for the hipbelt design flaw [defective belt panel material], I would have given each of these backpacks FIVE STARS. Aside from that problem, these are amazing backpacks.

Some other gear I may eventually review in more detail:

REI Quarter Dome T2 Tent - Totally awesome tent! Almost perfect. Tons of room (especially head room), lightweight, durable, easy to set up. You almost never need to stake out this tent. It may be 12 ounces heavier than the Big Agnes Seedhouse SL-2 (reviewed below), but the ultralight weight is the ONLY redeeming quality about the SL-2.

Big Agnes Seedhouse SL-2 Tent - Sucks. No room, not durable, too labor intensive, expensive, smells funny. This is not truly a freestanding tent; you always have to stake it out. (I returned it for a Quarter Dome and got a lot of money back. Very good move.) I have no idea why REI customers give this tent good reviews. Probably because most of them haven't used it outside of the back yard.

Vasque Breeze GTX XCR Boots - I've put 1,100 miles on these boots, and they could last another 500 miles. Reasonably lightweight. Comfortable. Good support.

Kelty Red Cloud 6650 Backpack - Huge backpack. Unfortunately the tightest hipbelt setting is not tight enough for average sized people, which means all the weight ends up on your shoulders. The hipbelt worked for me in the beginning because I had a pretty big gut when I started. But within a month or two, my gut was gone and the hipbelt was useless. I'm pretty sure the shoulder straps gave me permanent nerve damage in my hands/arms.

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