As an outdoors writer, you sometimes find yourself overloaded with gear. While that doesn’t seem like a bad thing on the surface you often find yourself loaded down with test equipment and camera gear every time you hit the woods or trail. And that’s in addition to your normal water, food, clothes etc. that you’d normally take with you. That’s also how I ended up reviewing the Mountainsmith Clear Creek 20 pack rather than assigning it to one of the other Monkey staffers!
The down side to writing about outdoors gear is that you rarely get a trip outdoors any more that’s purely for fun or relaxation. You’re always testing gear and so you need to take every opportunity that you can get to try stuff out in the woods. Whether it’s a day hike or a weeklong trip you need the time to see how products work and to get some good field photos. On a recent spring trip I was going to see a bunch of my writers all in one place so I loaded up on gear that needed to be distributed to reviewers. As Executive Editor of the Monkey I usually have my paws full so I try and have most of my minions, err I mean staffers, do the bulk of the actual reviewing. I had a lot of gear to pass out on this trip and when it came time to organize it I needed a way to carry it all. As luck would have it, one of the review pieces was a Mountainsmith pack, the Clear Creek 20 to be exact. Now this wasn’t a huge pack but I managed to stuff it pretty full of gear. I was honestly surprised at what I could stuff in there. Over the course of the week I used the pack daily toting around gear and my camera equipment. I helped out with photos and handed out gear and by the end of the weekend I realized that all of my folks had at least a couple of projects each to work on already and I was still sitting here with the Clear Creek pack. By this point I’d become rather attached to it so, despite my efforts to pawn off the review work on my staff, I decided I already had a good week with the pack, I may as well just do the review myself!
We’ve worked with some Mountainsmith products in the past and a number of my staff were already well versed in the company’s products and have been favorably impressed with them. As I gained some experience with this pack I soon found out why. The Clear Creek pack is lightweight, weighing in at only 16.5 ounces, but it feels solidly built of 210d Duramax Junior RipStop Nylon and 420d Duramax Nylon with a 210d RipStop Liner. Honestly, I don’t necessarily know what all the differences in the nylon types mean either but suffice it say that the bag is rugged and seems very well put together. The stitching is solid and has bar tack reinforcements and sturdy YKK Zippers are used. The pull tabs on the zippers use 3M reflective cord and there’s also a reflective Hypalon (a synthetic rubber type material) loop at the bottom of the bag to ensure visibility while hiking or biking along roadways.
As the name implies the pack is a 20 liter capacity which works out to 1220 cubic inches. It’s rated for about 20 pounds of load and measures 18 x 10.25 x 6 inches. The pack consists of a main compartment accessed by dual zippers which unzip about halfway down either side of the bag to allow for easy top loading. A smaller front access panel pocket sits near the top of the pack, and dual mesh side pockets allow you to carry Nalgene sized water bottles or other items. The back panel is padded and made or an air mesh material for comfort and breathability. Side compression straps allow you to stabilize your loads and a set of lightly padded, adjustable shoulder straps are fitted along with a removable 1 inch waist strap. The shoulder straps themselves have loops integrated for affixing gear to or for running a hydration bladder hose through and they also have an adjustable chest strap. One really nice feature is the adjustable “rail” that the chest straps are affixed to allowing you to adjust the height of the strap to what’s most comfortable for you. Mountainsmith suggests that the pack will adjust to fit anywhere between a 15 and 19 inch torso. In practice I found that it was a little large for my 8 year old boy but worked well for kids a little older all the way up to slightly chubby adults in the 6 foot range. A haul handle is sturdily attached to the top of the pack to allow you to grab the pack easily when not actually wearing it on your back.
Before I talk more about the interior of the pack, let’s talk about colors. Mine came in Midnight Blue, which I like quite a bit. Not overly bright but definitely a nice change from the tactical blacks, olive greens and coyote tans we see on a lot of bags. Nothing wrong with those colors and I like them too, but sometimes it’s nice to have a “normal” looking pack for EDC and trail use. Other colors available are Chili Red, Evergreen, and Heritage Black. Okay, so there is still a black available if you want a subdued look. One of the things I like best about the Clear Creek pack though isn’t the outside color, it’s the inside one. The interior of the pack is lined with bright yellow ripstop nylon. While I’ve seen this done on other packs this is the first one I’ve personally used with a bright contrasting liner color and I have to say that I’m smitten with the idea. I’ve long “lost” gear inside my pack pockets by dropping it in and then forgetting it was there. More than once I’ve pulled a pack out of the closet months later only to find a piece of gear that I’d been missing tucked into a corner unseen when I last used it. The bright interior of the Clear Creek makes it easy to see the contents of your pack making it much faster to find items and less likely you’ll leave them in there when you’re done with it. It seems like a small thing until you’ve used a pack like this but once you do, you won’t want to go back to a pack with dark, dingy interior again.
On the smaller outside pocket you’ll find a main section that’s 10 inches deep and a smaller pocket sewn onto the back wall of that compartment that’s 6 inches deep and that closes with Velcro. On front of this are a series of pen and pencil organizer pockets as well as a red strap with a clip attached for holding keys or other items. The pocket flap actually continues up above the pocket for another 2-3 inches so you can really stuff items up to about a foot in size in this pocket. When you unzip the primary compartment you’ll be greeted by one large spacious compartment with a simple pouch located on the rear wall of the pack. This pouch is large enough for a good sized hydration bladder or a laptop up to around 15 inches. My 10 inch iPad fit in this space in a case with plenty of room to spare. An access port for the hydration bladder hose is located at the top of the pack just beneath the grab strap. The port is covered by a flap to keep water out of the main compartment of the pack.
Okay, so the build quality of the pack is impressive and it has a lot of great features. How does it actually do in the real world though? That’s always the question with packs and the reason I have a closet full of them downstairs. A lot of packs look promising but niggling details can make or break them when it comes to actual use. I’ve used the Clear Creek for around 3 months now in a mixture of situations. I’ve used it camping, as a day pack, a range bag, as an EDC bag around town, and for travel. First, when it comes to capacity this is what Mountainsmith classifies as an All-Terrain Daypack and I definitely agree with that characterization. It works great for a day on the trail with a hydration bladder or a couple of water bottles, your lunch, some rain gear and other assorted goodies. I had space for all of that plus my camera bag on my excursions. I don’t use a big DSLR but I do carry a mid-sized Canon SX50 in a case with spare batteries and accessories so it definitely takes up more room than a pocket camera. Being a knife writer as well as an outdoors writer I’m usually carrying around a heap of steel as well and I was able to pack a Condor Bushcraft Parang around with no problems. That’s a 13 inch blade chopper that’s sits somewhere around 18 or so inches in overall length.
For EDC and travel use I’d generally have the bag loaded up with a stainless steel water bottle, my iPad and charger, a couple of books, a hat and raingear, some snacks, pens, pencils and notepads, a flashlight and spare batteries, and my camera and case. I found the bag sturdy enough to be lugged around all day and tossed in and out of the truck, thrown in the dirt, rained on and generally used without much consideration to what was being done to it. Aside from knocking some dirt off it occasionally I didn’t really need to do anything to the bag and the straps and zippers have held up well, even when I had the pack loaded with what was assuredly more than the recommended 20 pound capacity, especially when it was loaded down with ammo and a few handguns during a range session. While compact it proved to work plenty good for my daily carrying needs and I found the straps to be comfortable for my 5’11” mid-sized build.
While I started out reviewing this bag as sort of a default because I didn’t pass it off to another reviewer, I have to say that I’m really pleased that fate landed this one in my lap. I’ve been very happy with the quality and performance of this pack and think that the attention to detail that Mountainsmith provides with their design and features such as the contrasting interior color make it a pack worthy of consideration for folks needing a good day pack for the woods or for everyday use. Even better yet is the fact that the Clear Creek 20 carries an MSRP of a shockingly low $59.95. Honestly, I didn’t look at the price of the bag until I was getting ready to do the write up on it and I was pleasantly surprised to see just how affordable it was. I think the Clear Creek is a great bag regardless of cost and would have been just as happy to recommend it if there was another one at the front of that price tag!