A team of 6 backpackers set out to hike the length of the Grand Canyon.
It would be a journey of 57 continuous days, never leaving the Canyon for resupply.
They were on their own.
The entire team chose the Hyperlite Southwest for the journey.
Only 2 of the group finished the trek that year, in 2015.
Nowadays, Grand Canyon backcountry rangers use Hyperlite backpacks as standard-issue gear.
The Hyperlite Southwest 3400 is one of the best all-round, mid-volume backpacks available in 2021. As of now it’s the only pack I’m using for backpacking. I like its best-in-class light weight (2 pounds) and durable waterproof fabric, negating the need for a rain cover.
The Southwest is great for thru-hikers, and best for those that expect to see some rugged off-trail terrain (Hayduke trail hikers, I’m talking to you!). The 3400 hits the sweet spot in volume for most weight-conscious backpackers, with an interior volume of 55 liters (plus 10 liters exterior. Those needing more volume can find more in the Southwest 4400, or likewise go even smaller and lighter with the 2400.
If you’re heading into more of a wet climate, you may prefer the Hyperlite Windrider or Junction. These packs are basically the same as the Southwest, but provide exterior mesh pockets for drying your gear throughout the day (delicious wet socks).
Specs and Dimensions
Some stats are pulled from the Hyperlite Mountain Gear website, others are personally measured.
WEIGHT: 1.98 pounds (white), 2.18 pounds black (both size Medium)
VOLUME: 55 liters internal, 9.8 liters external, 64.8 liters total
MAXIMUM WEIGHT: 40 pounds
WIDTH: 10.5 inches
FRAME HEIGHT: 21.5 inches (measured personally)
FABRIC HEIGHT: 34 inches
THICKNESS: 8 inches (measured personally)
The Southwest in Black vs White
Since its inception, Hyperlite made all of its backpacks in white. Due to popular demand, it was only in recent years that they started offering the color black as an option. Here’s some things to consider.
The color black is known (of course) for absorbing heat. This could work in your favor (helping to dry out the pack) or against you (warming the pack’s contents). Most users state that the color actually has no overall effect on temperature, and as an owner of a Hyperlite Daybreak day pack, I’d tend to agree.
Regarding aesthetics, there’s a little more to it than which color you think is more fashionable. The white fabric is quick to show stains… but most backpackers don’t seem to mind.
The black material is reputedly more durable, but most hikers with the white versions (including myself) are more than happy with the pack’s durability.
It may be easier to find loose gear in the white pack vs black one.
The black version is generally 2 ounces heavier than the white.
The black version is often more expensive.
Yes, it’s basically waterproof.
The most stand-out quality of Hyperlite’s packs is that they’re waterproof. The Southwest is made with Hyperlite’s classic Dyneema material, also known as cuben fiber (see below).
I have not submerged the pack under water for a period of time. I feel that if put to such a test, a small about of water would eventually find its way inside the pack. After all, the founders of Hyperlite Mountain Gear admit that their products may not be 100% water proof, but rather that they’re “high water resistant.”
In particular, the top of each side of the pack has a velcro sealed hole for threading a water bladder hose. This, along with the roll-top access, are the places most likely to leak water in the event of total immersion. I’ve heard that the seams are capable of leaking too, despite the fact that they’re sealed with tape.
With that said, I’m confident that the pack’s contents will stay dry in a heavy rain storm. Even further, I’m confident in its ability to repel deluges of whitewater, and in its integrity when dunked in slot canyons with deep pools.
Its main compartment is sealed with a roll-top system, mimicking the style of genuine waterproof dry bags. It’s clear that the pack was designed with extra care, ensuring its waterproof integrity with details like its taped seams.
The Drawbacks of Water Resistance
A drawback to the pack’s waterproof quality is its lack of ventilation. If you get moisture inside the pack and are negligent to leave it sealed for a period of time, there’s a viable risk of mildew growth.
I have first-hand experience with this issue. During a time last winter when I wasn’t doing any backpacking, I loaded the pack up with some water containers to add weight for training. Unbeknownst to me, one of the containers leaked and caused a significant amount of moisture to be sealed in the pack for a long time. The interior had an unpleasant odor for several months afterward.
The Advantage of Water Resistance
In addition to the obvious advantage of having a durable, waterproof pack, the feature carries a significant weight benefit. Specifically, there’s no longer a need to carry a rain cover!
My favorite rain cover (made by ULA) weighs 3 ounces. So when you’re comparing a Hyperlite pack to those made by other brands that aren’t waterproof, I can effectively shave 3 ounces from the published weight of the Hyperlite.
The Dyneema DCH150 / Cuben Fiber Rabbit Hole
I’m going to get technical for a moment, and explain some of the details behind the material that Hyperlite Mountain Gear uses in its products.
Hyperlite’s signature cuben fiber was developed in the early 2000’s as a material for sport sailing. It’s known for having exceptional strength and durability in relation to weight, and for being more resistant to UV rays. It lasts longer than Kevlar, and it’s waterproof.
Cuben fiber is based in a specialized polyethylene (ultra high molecular weight), which is laminated in polyester.
In 2015 the Dyneema company bought the rights to cuben fiber, and re-branded it as Dyneema Composite Fabric.
The acronym DCF refers to Dyneema Composite Fabric, which is essentially the original Cuben Fiber.
The acronym DCH refers to Dyneema Composite Hybrid, which is DCF (above) that’s been laminated to an extra layer of polyester.
The published materials used in the Hyperlite Southwest are DCH150 and DCH50. The numbers 150 and 50 refer to the 150-denier and 50-denier polyester that’s used. “Denier” is a unit of measurement used for fiber weight and thickness.
A higher DCH number means stronger, more durable material.
Will My Bear Canister Fit the Southwest 3400?
The BV500 bear canister will not fit horizontally in the 3400 Southwest pack. Some hikers choose to strap a bear can horizontally over the top with the Y-srap.
The BV500 will fit in a vertical position.
The same principles apply to the 2400 version of the Southwest backpack. The 2400, for the record, shares the same dimensions as the 3400 – the 3400 is simply taller.
Regarding the Southwest 4400 version, a BV500 will fit horizontally, but it’s a tight squeeze that stops at about the middle of the height of the pack.
Similar to the BV500, a Bearikade Expedition model will fit all of the aforementioned Hyperlite Mountain Gear packs in a vertical position, but not horizontally.
Sizing & Fit
The Hyperlite Mountain Gear website has very specific and reliable instructions for dialing in your personal size. You can go here to see them, or even watch an instructional video. So don’t be afraid to order online – it’s how I’ve always bought Hyperite packs.
You’ll want to have a measuring tape on hand, and a friend to measure your torso via the length of your spine. Torso length will determine the overall size of your pack.
The hip belt is a fixed size, sewn directly into the pack. If you contact Hyperlite they may be willing to make a custom pack for you with a removable belt, though it would weaken the integrity of its load carrying capacity.
Most (if not all) backpackers are happy with the fixed hip belt.
The backpack is held together by 2 pre-bent aluminum stays. They’re consistently spaced about 5 inches apart, from the top of the pack all the way to the bottom. Each is encased in a sturdy nylon material, and accessible at the top of the pack via a velcro strap.
The back pad is inaccessible. It feels as though it’s made of a thin piece of foam, encased entirely with the Dyneema composite fabric.
If you came here from my Ultimate Gear List, you’ll know that I’m big fan of breaking down backpacking gear by its primary function or purpose.
A backpack of course, simply carries things.
So let’s look at where the Southwest carries things.
The Main Compartment
The main internal compartment of the Hyperlite Southwest is only accessible via the top of the pack. There is no sleeping bag compartment, so the main storage area extends from the top of the pack clear down to the bottom.
The roll-top closure
The main compartment is closed via a roll-top system, exactly like you’ll find in a waterproof dry bag. After squeezing as much air as possible from the pack, you’ll secure the Velcro strip at the top.
You’ll then roll the strip as many times as possible, fastening it taught via the buckles located on each end of the strip and at the top of the pack’s side pockets. Finally, a Y-strap buckles from the top of each shoulder strap over the top of the pack for added stability (or to strap down an exterior piece of gear).
It’s worth noting that the roll-top doesn’t always have to be rolled with precision. Personally I only take extra care with it in wet conditions. Otherwise, I’ll lazily roll the top and fasten the over-the-top strap. Sometimes I won’t even bother to fasten the side buckles, but it leaves their corresponding straps dangling, which looks untidy.
Be More Organized with Pods
I’ve been backpacking for long enough that I don’t have much trouble with organization, but I must admit I’m interested in Hyperlite’s fancy, form-fitting pods. A pod is simply a lightweight stuff sack that’s created in the same exact dimensions as the shape of your pack.
For example, you would ditch the manufacturer’s stuff sack for your sleeping bag, and replace it with a pod. Place it in the bottom of your pack. If you get an additional pod for your shelter, you can do the same, and so on. The idea is that by using a pod (or multiple ones), you’re placing vertical layers in the pack that make use of all its little nooks and crannies, thus optimizing the pack’s given volume.
I don’t own any pods, but I’d be more than happy to try them for my sleeping bag or shelter. I just can’t justify their cost at this time for what I classify as simple convenience. If I were hiking more often in bear country, however, I wouldn’t think twice about trying them (Daggum bear canisters!).
A mesh sleeve for a water bladder is situated against the back pad in the main compartment. It’s a nice feature to have, and it weighs virtually nothing. Both sides of the top of the pack have designated holes through which you can thread the bladder’s hose. Each opening has a Velcro seal, which is so effective in sealing itself that it could even qualify as a minor annoyance.
The mesh sleeve is centered in the middle of the back pad. This is generally a good thing, as it provides the best balance, but it can become a complication for big water hauls where you use a second bladder.
The bottom of the sleeve reaches all the way down to the bottom of the pack, which is worth keeping in mind to avoid having to repack everything for a mid-day water refill. In the morning it’s best to pack your sleeping bag and shelter in the bottom first, before inserting the bladder.
Front Exterior Pocket
Hyperlite’s Southwest model has a large exterior front pocket. This is a common feature in most packs, which I most often refer as the “mesh pocket,” whether it’s actually made of mesh or not.
The Southwest’s version of this pocket is made of Dyneema material (DCH50) for extra durability. This is what makes the Southwest especially suited for off-trail travel. In fact, the structure of this pocket is literally the only difference between Hyperlite’s Southwest and Junction models – the Junction has a genuine mesh pocket in its place.
Backpackers that value ventilation over durability will prefer the Junction. Such a mesh pocket comes in handy for wet socks or a wet shelter, for example. You can read more about the nitty gritty comparisons and see a chart of Hyperlite’s packs at the end of the review.
The pocket has a small drain at the bottom, and lacks a compression strap or shock cord. I don’t miss having a shock cord one bit. A shock cord here tends to get snagged on tree branches when traveling off trail. Mesh would get caught too, thus the solid fabric.
Hip Belt & Pockets
As mentioned above (under the sizing and fit subhead) the Southwest’s hip belt is sewn directly into the pack. There is some padding, but not as much as you’ll find in packs made by other brands, such as Osprey. Newcomers will often balk at the lack of initial comfort, but soon grow used it and begin to love the Hyperlite.
The hip belt has two roomy, zippered, waterproof pockets, made with the expected Dyneema material (DCH50). I measure their height at 4 inches, and thickness at 3 inches. The length is about 7 inches, but this sells it short to a small degree because the pockets are curved.
The pockets are a perfect size to fit the length of my iPhone XS with a Lifeproof Fre case, in addition to more items.
Early versions of Hyperlite’s packs had the zippers for these pockets situated in an awkward direction. Since then, they’ve improved the hip pockets and the zippers are pulled inward to close.
The side pockets are (again) composed of durable Dyneema fabric (DCH50). Each one can easily fit a pair of 1-liter Smartwater bottles. Their height is tapered (high toward the front, lower toward the back pad) to facilitate the ability to reach a bottle while wearing the pack.
Different people report different results in the ability to reach a water bottle. Hyperlite states that you can access the pockets, but I think it depends on personal flexibility and ergonomics (long or short arms, etc.). Personally, I can manage to remove a water bottle just fine, but I struggle to put it back in its home.
Approximate measurements of each side pocket are as follows:
Height (front): 13 inches
Height (rear): 6 inches
Width: 6.5 inches
Each pocket has a small drain at the bottom, a compression strap over its main body, and an upper compression strap near the top of the pack for tall items, like tent poles, trekking poles, or a foam pad.
The shoulder straps are typical of those found in Hyperlite’s other products, featuring their white-on-black grid design. A thin daisy chain strap runs down the front of each shoulder strap, which you can use for add-ons or to thread a water bladder hose. The lower end of each shoulder strap terminates where it’s inserted into a tough triangular weave of Dyneema fabric, attached to the back pad.
The shoulder straps can be joined via your classic sternum strap.
The buckle used in the sternum strap doubles as an emergency whistle.
Hyperlite chose to eliminate the traditional “load lifting” straps from the top of the shoulder straps, and I don’t miss these at all. In my old ULA Catalyst (and even my ancient Gregory Shasta) I’d end up leaving the load lifting straps permanently fixed in their tightest position.
The Back Pad
The back pad feels like it’s a simple, thin piece of foam. It’s inaccessible, encased entirely in Dyneema waterproof material.
The back pad on Hyperlite’s packs are void of any sort of ventilation system. This is one of the brand’s greatest drawbacks, a sacrifice made in their effort to cut weight. The signature Dyneema fabric sits snug against your back, encouraging a buildup of damp sweat.
The result is that even on a moderate day in cool weather, you can expect to accumulate an inordinate amount of sweat in the shirt on your back. You’ll notice over time that the bright white fabric will take on a shade of yellow and brown, especially in the back pad.
This is the price that one must pay for such a waterproof, ultralight backpack. Consider the change in the pack’s color as a token of pride.
Numerous accessories are available for the Southwest. Some may prove to be useful, depending on your needs.
I mentioned the pod stuff sacks under the Main Compartment heading (above). Pods are useful for organizing and maximizing your pack’s volume.
Hyperlite offers shoulder pockets, handy for electronics such as navigational devices, cell phones, and more.
They also offer a fanny pack called the Versa. It fits over your hip or sternum strap, and is ideal for large cameras, paper maps, and more. A thru-hiker could keep essential items like a wallet, phone, or handgun (whoa there!) in the Versa to keep with him at all times, like when hitchhiking or in businesses in town that don’t allow large stinky backpacks.
My Review & Overall Experience
Hyperlite Mountain Gear was founded in 2010, and quickly made a name for itself as the latest and greatest thing in ultralight backpacks. I’d been happy with my ULA Catalyst for a long time, so the Hyperlite Southwest wasn’t in my radar until late 2014, when it was decided that my friends would all be using the Southwest for their continuous hike of the Grand Canyon (as referenced at the beginning of the article).
They were joined by a couple journalists for National Geographic, so their ensuing journey gained a fair amount of publicity. Since then, Hyperlite’s popularity among Grand Canyon hikers exploded to the extent that I’d call it a bandwagon.
I bought a Southwest for my girlfriend the next year in 2016. I personally joined the bandwagon in 2019, when I could finally justify the cost of replacing my old ULA Catalyst.
In those past 2 years of using the Southwest 3400, I’ve admittedly only backpacked a cumulative total of about 60 days. In that time, no single element of the backpack has failed whatsoever. I managed to shred a single, small hole in the front exterior pocket. But beyond that, the pack is almost like new. I expect to be using it for years to come.
Overall I’m totally sold on Hyperlite’s product line – they’re doing great things.
Southwest 3400 vs other packs
Here’s a comparison of how the Southwest 3400 compares to Hyperlite’s other offerings.
At first it may seem confusing to look at the differences in their packs, but soon you realize that they’re all virtually the same. The only difference in the named packs (like “Southwest” vs “Junction”) is the composition of their exterior pockets. Your choice in outer pockets is mainly a question of durability vs ventilation, with negligible weight differences.
Each named pack then simply has a choice in volume, like 2400 vs 3400.
I wrap it all up at the end of the review with a simple chart.
Hyperlite Southwest 3400 vs the 2400 & 4400
The difference in these 3 backpacks is simply a matter of volume – otherwise they are all the same. The Southwest 3400 hits the sweet spot in volume for most weight-conscious backpackers and thru-hikers alike.
In choosing the 2400 versus the 3400, you lose 10 liters of volume for a meager weight savings of just 1.6 ounces. Personally I’d rather have the extra volume. The 2400 shares the same basic dimensions as the 3400 – the 3400 is simply taller.
In choosing the 4400 versus the 3400, you gain 15 liters of volume for an added weight penalty of 7.5 ounces – almost a half pound. The recommended maximum load of the 4400 jumps to 60 pounds, versus 40 pounds in the 3400. The 4400 is accordingly best suited for those needing specialized gear like packrafts, climbing gear, or extras for deep winter.
Southwest vs North Rim
The North Rim is Hyperlite’s only pack that’s more beefy and durable than the Southwest. It’s one of Hyperlite’s newer offerings. I suspect that the company’s founder saw a need for an even more durable pack after personal experience in Grand Canyon’s most rugged off-trail terrain.
The North Rim replaces all of the Southwest’s exterior pockets with the material that makes up the pack’s main body – DCH150. Even the hip belt pockets are made of DCH150 – unique to the North Rim. All the Hyperlite packs listed here otherwise use the same DCH50 material for their hip belt pockets.
I managed to tear a small hole in the front exterior pocket of my Southwest 3400. If I had been carrying the North Rim, this presumably would not have happened. In the 5 years that my girlfriend owned the Southwest, she’s torn small holes in the side pockets too.
The North Rim is 2.7 ounces heavier than the Southwest.
Southwest vs Junction
The Junction and the Southwest are virtually the same backpack. The only difference between them is the composition of the main front pocket. The Southwest’s front pocket is made of durable DCH50 material, whereas the Junction substitutes it for a simple mesh for added ventilation.
The Junction is listed as 0.3 ounces heavier than the Southwest, so weight is truly a non-issue here.
Southwest vs Windrider
The Windrider goes a step further from the Southwest than the Junction, substituting the Southwest’s main front pocket and the side pockets with a simple mesh for added ventilation. The hip belt pockets are still made of the same DCH50 material.
The Windrider is listed as the same exact weight as the Southwest – 1.98 pounds.
Southwest vs Porter
The Porter scraps all of the Southwest’s exterior pockets, for a much more slick and streamlined setup. In place of the pockets, Hyperlite added a string of daisy chain straps. This enables a build-your-own backpack sort of setup with maximum versatility.
A mesh front pocket and water bottle holders are available as add-ons.
The Porter is listed as 1.4 ounces heavier than the Southwest.
Finally, here’s the comparison chart of Hyperlite’s various models. Please note the following:
Pack weights are derived from Hyperlite’s published listings, for a size Medium.
When 2 separate weights are shown, the 1st is for a white backpack and the 2nd is the black version.
All backpacks include an additional external volume of 9.8 liters, with the exception of The Porter*
|Backpack||Weight||Volume||Front Pocket||Side Pockets|
|3400 North Rim||2.15 lbs||55 L||DCH 150||DCH 150|
|4400 North Rim||2.51 lbs||70 L||DCH 150||DCH 150|
|2400 Southwest||1.88 / 2.02 lbs||40 L||DCH 50||DCH 50|
|3400 Southwest||1.98 / 2.18 lbs||55 L||DCH 50||DCH 50|
|4400 Southwest||2.45 / 2.45 lbs||70 L||DCH 50||DCH 50|
|2400 Junction||1.88 / 1.99 lbs||40 L||mesh||DCH 50|
|3400 Junction||2.0 / 2.15 lbs||55 L||mesh||DCH 50|
|2400 Windrider||1.87 / 2.02 lbs||40 L||mesh||mesh|
|3400 Windrider||1.98 / 2.17 lbs||55 L||mesh||mesh|
|4400 WIndrider||2.43 / 2.43 lbs||70 L||mesh||mesh|
|2400 Porter||1.9 lbs||40 L *||none||none|
|3400 Porter||2.07 lbs||55 L *||none||none|
|4400 Porter||2.49 lbs||70 L *||none||none|
|5500 Porter||3.06 lbs||85 L *||none||none|