Saturday, December 6, 2014

Mountain Laurel Designs Burn Backpack Review

Disclaimer: I bought this pack used with my own money and have no sponsorship or affiliation with MLD at this time.  

I picked up a Mountain Laurel Designs (MLD) Burn from a PCT friend last spring to use as a day and overnight pack over the summer since my only other pack big enough for the job was my enormous Six Moons Designs Starlight.  I got the idea from another PCT hiker I met who loves the Burn - Lint of  He uses the Burn for PCT, CDT and AT thru-hiking, although he typically averages 30-35 miles a day which means carrying 1 to 2 days less food on a typical section than your average thru-hiker.  He also packs very light even by my standards and uses every inch of the pack.  I'd rather be able to carry a bag of potato chips (aka ghetto electrolyte tablets), but that's me.  

Speaking of inches, MLD lists the Burn as 1950 cubic inches (32 liters) of total capacity with 1500 cubic inches (25 liters) in the main body and the remainder in the extension collar, side and rear pockets.  Without pockets the pack is listed at 15 ounces,  in the large torso size with one added hip belt pocket and some shock cord mine weighed 15.2 ounces; not too shabby.  As of Fall of 2014 it lists as $175 without hip belt pockets, which I think is pricey but I am a cheap bastard. 

Packed with usual overnight gear, minus food.
Side view with 20 ounce Gatorade bottle.  Note the curve in the back panel.

Opposite side with carbon fiber tent pole.

The MLD Burn is a frameless pack that uses a drawstring closure on top.  For structure you have to rely on how you pack the bag.  In my case I like using a Gossamer Gear Nightlight to sleep on so I used that pad in the back.  Putting the Nightlight in the Burn was my first taste of just how narrow this pack is; I could barely squeeze the pad into the pack.  The pack is so narrow it squeezes the pad into a slight curve shape, which is actually more comfortable to wear than a totally flat pack. The curve sort of sets the middle of the pack in line with the depression between your back muscles. The long extension collar doesn't help fitting the pad in either, especially since it isn't tapered like you'd find on a roll top bag.  To get the pad in, you have to squeeze the edges together to make it narrower and slide it into the pack.  Not a problem once I figured that out but I found myself having to really try to stuff anything into the pack since it would get hung up on the drawstring - especially my sleeping bag.  In the big picture it adds up to an extra few minutes of annoyance a day but I'm used to having a pack that is over sized and easy to access. 

Drawstring opening is rather small.
 I found the wing belt and shoulder straps to be fine for loads in the 15 pound range, although I can't imagine fitting much more than 20 pounds in this pack since the volume is so small.  The wing belts are on the short side and stop over an inch from the end of my hip bones on my 32" waist, so much more weight than that makes the belt dig into my hips.  I didn't experience any slipping of the shoulder strap buckles at higher loads like I do with my SMD packs.  I also like the curved torso since it left the sides of my back to breath despite the initial squeeze of loading the pack.  The construction of the pack is excellent with very neat seams and a professional look.  This clearly isn't some DIY job.
My finger is on the edge of my hip bone - the wing belt stops over an inch short.

Pack bottom with slight curve on the front side making for a comfy, low sweat carry.

Here's two photo's of me in the pack.  All photos show it loaded with a typical trip (minus food) - 15 degree quilt stuffed in the bottom of the pack (no stuff sack), SMD Wild Oasis tarp, 8 ounce feathered friends puffy jacket, wind jacket, wind pants, 850mL pot and alchohol stove, long underwear, nightlight sleeping pad.  I could compress the sleeping bag and down jacket more but at this point most of the main volume of the pack is used up, leaving the extension collar and any additional compression for food.

20 ounce Gatorade Bottle in pocket.

Size Large is just big enough for my 21" torso and my T-rex arms don't touch the hip belt pocket.
In use, I had a hard time getting to my water bottles back in the side pockets of the Burn.  The side pockets are tall and hold the bottles well but they aren't slanted like other MLD packs, which makes no sense to me.  The lack of slant makes it impossible for me to put the bottle back in without removing the pack from one shoulder.  Not a big deal for a light pack, but slightly annoying.  The MLD Burn's side pockets are too narrow for my usual Gatorade bottles.  They work for 1L smart bottles, 20 ounce Gatorade bottles (shown) and slimmer 1L "disposable" water bottles but wide mouthed 1L Gatorade/Powerade bottles won't fit.  Not a deal breaker and sort of expected for a pack this small. Again, the side pocket construction is another slight irritation that doesn't mean much in the big picture but adds up.  

My pack came with one hip belt pocket, which is probably the best sized hip belt pocket I've used.  I can comfortably fit a large point and shoot camera, snack and map in there without it bulging to the point where I hit it with my arms as I walk. The pocket connects to the hip belt with two elastic loops and a clip, resulting in a very stable but easily removable pocket. It also has a waterproof zipper and no drain hole, so Ron is clearly confident in the pockets water resistance.  I did a long dayhike with the pack in blowing rain on a Presidential Ridge traverse attempt and never noticed water in the pocket. Without wind I use an umbrella which shields the pocket fairly well but I would still zip lock my camera to be safe. If I get a pack without hip belt pockets in the future, you can bet I'll buy MLD pockets.  

Love Ron's hip belt pockets, shown with RX100 camera + leather case inside.

The rear mesh pocket is excellent and will safely hold your pot, ground cloth and a small stuff sack of random crap. I added shock cord but it's unnecessary with such a tiny pack. My past experience with storing wet items to dry by hanging them shock cord has left me dropping the wet items and walking away from them without noticing, so I only use it for compression in day-pack use.  The mesh MLD uses also seems tougher than average and looks like it would hold up well to moderate bushwacking and typical thru-hiker wear and tear.  

Overall the Burn would be a great pack if you can get over the narrow opening, oddly shaped side pockets and short hip belt wing padding.  I suspect you could ask Ron at MLD to make the side pockets slanted and with longer wing padding if you order from him but I picked mine up used with the default pockets.  A roll top would be nice but I imagine that would change the template he uses for his production.  I have heard he's very accommodating on making tweaks to his products so definitely ask if you're considering this pack.  Those changes with a tapered roll top closure would make an almost perfect shoulder season day and overnight pack for me.  Instead, I'm trading the pack for heavily modified a Z-packs zero.  

Afterall, I have to do something with my free time when I'm not thru-hiking.  Might as well try out different packs!


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. You're lucky the pack you had for a moment in time had padded hip belt at all. It's now made with just fabric wings. No padding!

    Did you ever use this pack over any extended period of time longer than a day hike?

  3. You're lucky the pack you had for a moment in time had padded hip belt at all. It's now made with just fabric wings. No padding!

    Did you ever use this pack over any extended period of time longer than a day hike?