Over the last year I have been using the Vargo ‘Ti-Arc‘ Backpack and I have to say, I have pretty much fallen in love with it.
The ‘Ti-Arc‘ is an external titanium frame backpack, so, old school style meets up with new school hardware.
Yes, you read that right, I have fallen in love with an external frame backpack!
There are a few really big stand-out features of the Vargo ‘Ti-Arc’ backpack, let us take a look at some of them:
- Obviously the biggest one is the titanium external frame. As our grandpas knew and understood all too well, when it comes time to carry big loads, the exo-frame is where it is all at. If you have been following me for any length of time you have probably seen me use the term load weight distribution – thereby meaning “distributing the load weight of the backpack down to your hips” – and nothing does that better than external frames. Read more on this below in the section ‘comparing exo frame backpacks‘. Simply put, the Vargo Ti-Arc has the best load weight distribution of any backpack I have used in the last decade. Exceptional, truly exceptional.
- 3/4 length bag. This is also a standout feature of the Ti-Arc. It is also cause for a lot of discussion by folks who see me using the Ti-Arc. Most folks just do not “get it” and thankfully it takes very little explaining before they do. By going with a 3/4 length bag/pack you have the ability to attach a bear canister outside of your backpack (and at the very bottom, so the 10+ pounds of weight for canister+food are as close to the hips as possible!), or if you have a larger volume sleeping pad (thinking of you Therm-a-rest Ridgeline) or maybe you have one of those tents that takes up the size of the Houston Astrodome, this would be the spot to store it! Check out the video at the bottom of this article to see my tiny tarp+groundsheet attached to this area of the pack – it looks goofy, admittedly, but it also makes for a really good spot for any wet gear to be stored at.
- Front Panel Loader. Yeah, you know it. Old school all the way. Not just an external frame, but a Front Panel Loader (FPL) too! There is no secret I have a special place in my heart for any front panel loader backpack. I am not sure what first caught my eye when I saw the Vargo Ti-Arc… the exo frame or the FPL. Can a guy really be made this happy?
- CF and non-CF packs. The Ti-Arc is available with a cuben fiber bag and a non-cuben fiber bag. The non-CF is 1077 grams and the CF is 879 grams, so a 198 gram (6.98 oz) difference. The price tag for the non-cf is $299.99 and the cf is priced at $399.99. I think that works out to $1.98 per gram difference between the two. The non-CF version also has two additional top-side pockets. I have both and have put a fair amount of miles on the CF bag, and more recently have been using the non-CF bag (they are interchangeable on the frame) and my vote goes to the non-cuben fiber bag. I feel the extra durability of the fabric, the top side pockets, the less expensive option, and the fact that this is an external frame pack – thereby making 7 ounces totally inconsequential – all just make the non-cuben fiber bag the better option of the two.
Usage & Thoughts:
I have used the Ti-Arc with loads up to 32 pounds and did not have any issues with it. The load weight distribution made it feel in the low to mid teens TPW. The vast majority of the time I wear it so that the shoulder straps are doing nothing more than keeping the pack from tilting backwards – able to get one or two hands under the straps – yeah, the load weight distribution is that good! Full weight is driving down onto my hips. That aspect is key for those hikers with bad/injured necks or backs, be it upper, mid, or lower back injuries. Not an issue I have, but a fair amount of people have asked me about that issue with this specific backpack – and never had anybody ask me about that with any other backpack. For those with thick necks, the shoulder straps are fairly wide apart, wide enough that they do not cause me issues, and almost every backpack I have used the last five years has caused me problems with pinching my neck because of the straps being too close together.
The shoulder straps could seriously use some additional padding. My recommendation is buy a pair of these shoulder strap pads and add them onto the Vargo Ti-Arc shoulder straps.
One interesting thing is that the hip belt pockets are all mesh on the outside. Very unusual for packs these days. They are constantly reminding me of the Matt Kirk Sub60 pack. Whether this is a positive or a negative really comes down to you and what you use your hip belt pockets for. I like the ability to look down and see exactly where something is.
The titanium frame has some extra titanium at the very top and curved parts on the very bottom. These ‘antenna’ are my biggest issue with the Ti-Arc. They also seem to annoy other Ti-Arc owners. Thankfully they are being removed in a future update of the Ti-Arc. They are by no means a deal-breaker, something that would keep me from buying the Ti-Arc, but they are something that you always have to keep in the back of your mind… especially those of us with cuben fiber gear. For example, if you have a cf tent floor, you want to be careful you do not drop the backpack, antenna-pointed-downwards, into your cf floor, or get them caught onto the netting while you are getting out of your tent.
Besides the above antenna design, the only other feature I would like to see changed would be to have longer zippers on the front panel. They are, simply put, about 3 or 4 inches too short. In my four years of developing my own FPL backpack (the zpacks zip) an insane amount of man hours of R&D went into the front panel zipper. The shortness of the Ti-Arc front zipper is just annoying to me. By no means it is too short to make it non-usable, I can easily get a winter sleeping bag inside of a stuff sack through the front panel… it would just be nice, well, for it to be longer.
The side mesh pockets are good. Never had any issue with them. Neither too short nor too tall. As for getting water bottles out of them while the backpack is on… my standard response to that is “I do not own a backpack that I can get bottles out of the side pockets on… not because of the backpacks, but because I cannot get my arms back there to reach them!” So, consider this a YMMV issue. I envy those that can.
Top side pockets. As mentioned above, the non-CF version bag offers top side pockets. These are zippered pockets. I really like them. Strangely, one of the primary purposes I like the non-cf bag over the cf version of the bag. Seems like such a small thing, but whatever it is, I just like having them. In one of them I keep my highly accessed garments (wind jacket, wind pants, beanie) and on the opposite side I keep my ditty stuff.
Being a Front Panel Loader backpack, it does not — and properly so, if I may say so — have a front mesh pocket. That could be why I seem to enjoy the top side pockets so much. Somewhere to stuff that stuff. It does have the standard elastic cordage, but like every backpack that has them, I have yet to actually use it. I do not get those elastic straps… why would I want to take the risk of a piece of my clothing getting lost (falling off) while I am hiking on down the trail. Shrugs. Big kudos to Vargo for not designing a FPL backpack with a front mesh pocket! That’s wrong… I’m telling ya… just wrong!! (lol)
Comparing Exo Frame Backpacks:
Ok, let me just talk about this, as I know folks are going to want to know what I have to say about it…
In recent years a number of backpack designers have been playing around with what I can only think to call hybrid exo-frames.
Currently a small handful of external frame backpacks are within the cottage industry, or perhaps it is better to say, the non-big-brand companies.
In many ways the Six Moon Designs ‘Fusion 65‘, which I gave my 2015 Backpack Gear of the Year award too, is a hybrid exo-frame backpack. Some might call it a full external frame if you take the bag itself away – which has no structural support (minus the delron internal shafts which provide lateral stability – only on the Fusion 65) because all of the structural support is handled by the yoke->spine->hipbelt design. The max-load-weight of the SMD Fusion 65 basically goes as such, “if you can fit it in there, it can carry it“, and I have found that to be absolutely true! What sets the SMD backpacks apart from the rest is the yoke->spine->hipbelt approach – it works, and works very well for both load weight distribution and allowing a very wide range of torso heights. I have carried significantly more weight (water for very long water sections of trail) with my Fusion 65 than I have the Ti-Arc, but that is because the max volume of the Fusion 65 is twice that of the Vargo Ti-Arc.
The patented ZPacks backpacks are also external frames, however one has to remember that the best way to have load weight distribution is with straight downward weight force. So in order to have the best load weight distribution of the ZPacks backpacks, you have to remove any ‘arc’ from the frame, otherwise you are having the load weight distributed into a backwards direction, not a straight downwards direction – this is something I have spoken of in the past, and somebody nobody else seems to really want to acknowledge or talk about. Think of it like this: an arch door works great in a house for load bearing, but it does not work when you are trying to have downward weight distribution and the arch is pointing in a direction other than downwards. Of course, the design of the ‘arc’ is to allow airflow between your back and the fabric of the backpack, so we have to keep that in mind, but if you do own a ZPacks backpack and you find yourself with a heavier load, the wisest thing you can do is just deal with some back sweat and reduce, or totally remove, the tension on the downwards stays, so you get a straight-down load weight distribution. In doing so, you do end up with a good load weight distribution frame design. It is not designed to handle the total pack weight of what the Ti-Arc can handle, so allowances must be made and accepted. I have thousands of miles with the ZPack patented frame and it has proven to be a solid design, especially when you allow the frame to handle the load weight distribution by not having the arch in it.
I think those two backpacks are the two primary backpacks that folks are going to be comparing to the Vargo Ti-Arc when it comes to the external (hybrid?) frame backpacks that are currently being used by the vast majority of the ultralight hikers. So it is absolutely worth talking about them in the scope of this third external frame backpack, the Ti-Arc.
The Ti-Arc offers something the other two mentioned packs just do not… cannot… offer… better load weight distribution.
That is not to say the ZPacks or the Six Moon Design backpacks are poorer performers – far from it – rather it is that they are sort of in a different classification of backpacks. It would be like trying to compare the Varo Ti-Arc, or any of these three, to the KUIU Icon Pro 7200, which has a freaking awesome solid carbon fiber backframe. The KUIU is a pack that just outclasses these other backpacks. No fault blame anywhere, or with any of them, just different classes of backpacks. Classification goes in the other direction too. One would not compare any of these external/hybrid frame backpacks to a non framed backpack. Again, two different classifications of backpacks.
Thankfully I do not have to pick just one of these packs to use, as I own a framed ZPacks Zip backpack, a SMD Fusion 65 (and Flight 30) and the Vargo Ti-Arc (cf and non-cf) so I am really able to grab the backpack I need for the given trip/adventure I am taking. When people ask me which one to buy, I always answer “buy whichever one best matches up with your average total pack weight“. Why overbuy, or worse, underby and thus deal with pain.
It was recently revealed that Vargo is planning their next/second generation of the Ti-Arc.
It has some changes to it that might appeal to the larger/mass population of hikers.
Being a sponsored hiker of Vargo Outdoors has allowed me the opportunity to do a pre-release ‘Interview/Q&A’ with Vargo on this next generation backpack, which you can read by going to this article of mine.
Where To Buy:
You can buy the Vargo ‘Ti-Arc’ backpacks directly from the Vargo website:
Non-CF Version: http://www.vargooutdoors.com/ti-arc-backpack.html
Cuben Fiber Version: http://www.vargooutdoors.com/ti-arc-cf-backpack.html
And from Amazon.Com too! (affiliate links, hey, help the cause!)
Non-CF Version: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00I9GV0M4/
Cuben Fiber Version: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00NYYIU24/