The Short Version
The Granite Gear Crown VC 60 has some excellent features and the craftsmanship is detailed and precise. Above everything else, the hipbelt shines. Despite its relatively light weight (5.68 oz / 161 g), the dual-density foam is both adaptive and supportive for my oddly shaped hips. If it were not for the hipbelt, this pack would have been returned long ago.
Unfortunately, the pack’s frame system does not hold up under the same scrutiny. There are two chief problems: (1) the framesheet itself is not stiff enough to provide the support the pack needs, and (2) the cutouts on the Vapor Current foam backpanel create thin sections which cause the back to fold in and out like an accordion when packed without a frame. Whether framed or frameless, I found the suspension lacking and progressively more frustrating. Thus, the pack has been returned to REI.
The Long Version
First, let me talk about what the Crown VC 60 does well. The belt is relatively simple, with no bells and whistles. It focuses on one thing alone—excellent carry. There are very few hipbelts on the market today that do what the Vapor Current belt does. It manages to be relatively light (5.68 oz measured) while still using a very durable fabric (what appears to be 500 denier Cordura), a full wrap-around design (31 inches of padding, in size Medium), and dual-density foam that molds over time to the shape of the individual hiker’s hips.
Granite Gear claims that the upper limit for the Crown is 35 lbs. The most that I ever carried on an actual trip was a 28-lb. load at the beginning of a shoulder season hike in April. I did exceed the 30 lbs.—perhaps going as high as 32 lbs. or so—on a test hike when I strapped my wife’s pack to the top of mine. Even so, I never had to over-tighten the hipbelt to avoid it creeping down my hips. The only issue I have had with the hipbelt is that when worn over very slick nylon, such as that on the Patagonia Houdini, the belt tends to creep down some. But even in that situation, it was a minor problem. I simply shrugged my shoulders and slightly re-adjusted the pack.
Were I to make any suggestions for improvement, it would simply be to use a slightly stiffer foam as the foundation for the belt. This would allow the belt to carry heavier loads, such as those above 35-40 lbs. However, that would likely mean a denser, and thus heavier, choice of material. As it stands, Granite Gear has made an excellent compromise between weight and load support. The hipbelt more than exceeds the needs of the lightweight backpacker.
Whereas the hipbelt burnishes the pack’s allure, the rest of the Vapor Current suspension tarnishes it. Granite Gear claims that the pack is good to 25 lbs. without the framesheet in, good to 35 lbs. with it. Neither has proven to be true.
I noticed the beginnings of a problem on my first trip out with the pack, but I was excited and enthusiastic enough that I ignored what was then only a burgeoning problem. As I continued to take the pack out, the trouble with the suspension grew worse. To describe the issue, let me quote myself on the BPL forums, in the midst of trying to solve the quandary of the Crown’s suspension:
The problem has been this: After about 10-12 miles of hiking without the framesheet, the Vapor Current suspension begins to collapse—quickly and significantly—regardless of the load I am carrying. This has happened with 18 lbs. at the beginning of a trip and with 12 lbs. at the end of a trip. I’ve re-arranged the pack contents several times mid-hike with the same result.
Initially, I used a 1/8″ CCF pad folded up to add a little stiffness to the backpanel. This worked well at the beginning of the day, but by the end, the frame sagged poorly. In the middle of one trip, I even stuffed it tightly into the frame sleeve, but the problem came right back. Then I cut a section of a RidgeRest into the exact shape of the HDPE framesheet, and that provided excellent load transfer for light loads—for about 10 miles. So far, my experience has been extremely consistent after about 125 miles with the pack.
What is so odd is that I don’t experience torso collapse from the beginning. But when it goes, it goes fast.
When carried as a frameless pack (i.e., without the high-density polyethylene framesheet—supposedly good up to 25 lbs.), the culprit is the Vapor Current suspension. The cutouts in the foam backpanel create weak points. The depressions are supposed to allow air to circulate against one’s back (the effect is marginal at best, driven more by marketing than performance), but the unintended side effect is that the foam is so shallow there that it has little strength. The repeated up-and-down stress of a half-day’s miles causes the back to buckle. As the stress continues hike after hike, the foam loses its resistance and readily collapses. On one trip, it took less than four miles of the second day to experience serious failure.
Looking critically at the Vapor Current backpanel, this ought not be a surprise. When examined laterally, there are several weak sections across the backpanel that simply do not have enough support. The collapse was linear—in the picture below, the frame would buckle in along the red lines and jut out along the yellow ones, producing an effect much like the bellows of an accordion.
Yet when carried as a framed pack, the HDPE framesheet continued to frustrate. While having the frame in place prevented the collapse of the backpanel, the framesheet was stiff enough to keep it from fitting the shape of my back well but flexible enough that it carried poorly. My whole purpose in going frameless in the first place was so that the pack would hug my back better. The side panels of the Crown are contoured to produce exactly this effect, and before the backpanel collapsed, it did this very well without the frame. But the HDPE sheet negated the effect enough that the pack lost the dialed-in fit which sold me on it in the first place.
Furthermore, the framesheet suffers from problems common to all framesheets I have used. It flexes well laterally but not longitudinally—the exact opposite of what a hiker would want in a pack. The pack remained stiff against my back when moved side-to-side or turned one way or the other, but it the frame was flexible enough that the two inches that stuck out above the shoulder straps were always curved backward, pulled back by the webbing meant to cinch down the top. This meant that the pack always pulled slightly away from me no matter how I adjusted it. At the same time, it was unresponsive to my movement along the trail.
A far better solution would be to use dual aluminum rods in place of the framesheet. It would allow more effective load transfer to the hipbelt as well as providing a more useful structure to cinch the pack against. It would also be much lighter: the stays for the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Porter weigh in at 4.02 oz / 114 g for the pair, and the Gossamer Gear hoop stay in Large weighs 3.65 oz / 105 g. Conversely, the Crown’s framesheet weighs in at 5.75 oz / 163 g despite a significant loss in function.
If a capable MYOGer were to find a good deal on the Crown—something more than the 20% off one can easily find throughout the year—, it could be fitted with a hoop stay. In fact, the Gossamer Gear hoop stay in size Large would provide a surprisingly nice, tightly-fitting replacement for the stock framesheet. For me, however, it is not worth the trouble.
When I first bought the Crown VC 60, my biggest concern was the long-term durability of the 100 denier fabric used for the main body. However, I was never able to push the limits of the pack’s materials—or truly come to understand its other features—because of continuing problems with the pack’s suspension. When evaluating packs—or designing my own—two issues stand above all the rest: fit and carry. While the Crown VC 60 fit me very well, it’s load carry proved fatally inadequate.
Yet, the hipbelt remains the pack’s best feature. I have been so impressed with the fit of the belt and its balance of comfort and support that even after I determined to return the Crown to REI, I had my new pack modified to accept the Crown’s belt. It is too early for a long-term review on the new pack, but I have few complaints.
The Crown VC 60 could be a very excellent pack—a standout among 2-lb. framed packs, a category dominated by the ULA Circuit and the HMG Porter. But the choice of a framesheet over aluminum stays and the hype of air-circulating cutouts on the foam backpanel make the pack’s suspension woefully inadequate. The solution for dramatic improvement is simple: (1) remove the cutouts along the backpanel so that it is a solid piece of foam, half an inch thick, and (2) replace the framesheet with dual aluminum stays. Sometimes the simplest remedies are the most revolutionary.
After nearly a year hiking with the Crown, I for one am happier elsewhere.