The Marl is Hanchor’s first mid-sized pack aimed at backpacking. It’s strengths include outstanding craftsmanship, excellent material choices, a refined feature set and excellent load capability. Downsides are few and are either easily remedied, or inherent to the design choices. The result is a coherent and functional pack that is arguably the best mid-sized lightweight backpacking pack on the market today. Some hikers will be better suited by a lighter pack, but those valuing above average durability and load capability will find the Marl to be an excellent choice.
– Top craftsmanship
– Excellent feature set
– Capable suspension
– Quality materials
– Moderately heavy (1062g / 37.5oz)
– Buckle slip
Unlike tents, I like buying packs because they exist in a world with fewer trade-offs. If a pack carries the intended load well, is easy to use and sufficiently durable, then it has the makings of a good product. Successful pack designs exist that are very good in nearly all conditions they face, making them quite satisfying to own.
Into this world arrives the Marl from Hanchor. The Marl is Hanchor’s second pack with a focus on backpacking – the other being the Marble which was released a year sooner and is much larger (67L vs 42L). I’ve given the Marble a mixed review previously, commending its quality construction and suspension but finding the choices of materials, features and volume somewhat mis-matched and thus appealing to a smaller niche of users.
The Marl incorporates some elements from the Marble – notably Hanchor’s “two track” suspension – into a smaller pack with a different feature set and tougher materials. At 42L (2550 cu in) and 1kg in weight, the Marl competes with popular lightweight packs like HMG’s Windrider, Gossamer Gear’s Gorilla, ULA’s Ohm 2.0, Katabatic’s Helios and Sierra Design’s Flex Capacitor.
I started using the Marl only 3 months ago, but my current lifestyle as an unemployed, van dwelling nomad has been quite conducive to getting outdoors. Thus I’ve already used the Marl for about 30 days of backpacking, winter camping and ski mountaineering. Additionally, my wife also has a Marl and has been using it on most of the same trips, so this review incorporates some of her comments as well. The views here are moderately well developed but I will use this pack on a 100 day thru-hike this summer which will undoubtably refine my views further. An update is likely in the fall.
Main Pack Bag
Like many packs, the main bag of the Marl increases slightly in girth from the bottom (34″) to the top (36.5″). This taper makes packing a bit easier and allows a bit more of the volume to be carried higher up (although this effect is mostly trivial).
Subjectively, Hanchor’s rating of 42L capacity seems conservative. I’d put it at more like 45-50L. It seems like the ideal size for most lightweight backpacking trips. I’ve managed to stuff two packrafts, a full kit and 4 days worth of food in the Marl. With light gear and no rafts, heading out for a week or more wouldn’t be a problem. In fact, I intend to use this pack on several 10 day legs on my thru-hike this summer. Below is my wife on a 60km hike with her Marl pretty close to fully loaded (she’s 5’6″).
Compared to a Windrider 2400, the Marl should be similar in capacity (42L vs 39L rated volume) but the Marl is actually notably larger. This occurs because the Marl has similar girth (34″ tapering to 36.5″) as the Windrider 2400 (33.5″ tapering to 37.5″) but a much taller unrolled height (35.5″ vs 30″) – adding about 20% to the capacity. Thus the Marl’s volume is closer to the Windrider 3400. I was hesitant buying the Marl because I was worried it would be too small, but it is actually a great size for most trips.
A neat attribute of the Marl’s main bag design is the flat bottom with raised grosgrain edges. This design shifts some of the bottom wear onto the very durable grosgrain, and also makes the pack pretty good at standing up on its own. One potential downside of this design is that the non-rounded bottom edge may rub on your lower back a little. I’ve never noticed this, but wife occasionally notes it as a mild annoyance.
The Marl uses a relatively simple suspension with three aluminum stays. There are two vertical stays – similar to an HMG pack – but then a third horizontal bar is added near the shoulders to prevents the pack from rounding into a cylinder shape.
In the photo below you can see the functionally of this third stay. It is present in the Marl at the left, but removed in the Marl at the right, which thus has a more rounded shape. Such rounding (or “barreling”) is a moderate downside for packs with only vertical support. In fairness, I do suspect this point translates poorly to the real world, where the shoulder straps pull a pack flat against the users back unless the load is truly at an impressive pressure. I do like the horizontal stay, but can’t confirm this isn’t a placebo. Regardless, it is removed easily (saving 40g / 1.5oz).
The most novel attribute of Hanchor’s “two track” suspension lies in how the user is protected from pressure from the metal stays. Other manufacturers commonly add a padding to the back to insulate the user from the frame. Instead, Hanchor has extended the shoulder straps right down the back panel of the pack to pad the stays. This is a clever idea and it works well. I’ve used the Marble and Marl with this suspension a lot and always found it comfortable – similar to packs with more elaborate padding.
Since there is only the VX21 fabric between the pack contents and your back in some areas, it is possible that a sharp object in the pack would poke the wearer. However, the padded straps move the pack away from the back slightly and the frame bar holds large objects back. I’ve never noticed any issues here, and if there were some, it would more likely indicate an amateur packing strategy.
The Marl also has load lifters, which work like any good set of load lifters does. The suspension stays properly extend above the shoulder straps to the load lifters, so the lifters easily pull the pack closer to the wearers back. Some other packs don’t have load lifters (HMG Windrider) or have lifters without frame support, and thus are less effective at keeping the load close to the pack. I personally don’t get much use out of load lifters with loads under 25 lbs, but quite like them above 30 lbs. If your pack weights are typically 25 lbs or less, you’re likely better off with a lighter/less capable pack.
I don’t like putting specific numbers on a pack’s weight carrying ability, since much of this depends on user comfort tolerances more so than anything else, but it’s safe to say that the Marl is capable of carrying anything you can stuff into it. Hanchor’s Marble uses this same suspension and I’ve carried up to 65 lbs (including skis and boots) with that pack. I don’t like carrying that much weight, but the Marble handles it fine and repeated incidences of this have uncovered no suspension durability issues. Thus, with a much smaller bag, the Marl should also easily handle whatever weight you can stuff in it unless it’s 42L of water.
The main bag of the Marl is constructed of X-Pac VX21, which is 6oz/yd2 and currently my favourite pack material. I’ve been using it for years in other packs, such as this one. VX21 consists of an outer layer of 210D nylon (hence the “21”). Beneath this lies an X grid of reinforcing “Dacron” (PET plastic) strands, a 0.25mm thick layer of PET plastic and then finally, an inner protective layer of 50D nylon.
It’s a good pack material because the 210D outer nylon is quite durable – similar to most packs on the market – AND because the PET layer provides genuine waterproofing. Rather than no waterproofing (like many packs) or ephemeral waterproofing (from a vulnerable PU coating inside), VX21 has a legitimate layer of plastic sandwiched into the construction providing lasting resistance against water intrusion. It’s true that the seams aren’t sealed (you could do this), but even as is, very little water gets in. I flipped my packraft for about 30 seconds with the Marl on the bow, and didn’t find any water inside (the roll top also helps). It phenomenally wet conditions you might want a pack liner, but I find un-seam sealed X-Pac sufficient for the soggy PNW and all but the wildest packrafting.
The inner 50D nylon provides valuable protection for this waterproof layer. Competing fabric options – notably hybrid cuben (see HMG and Zpacks) – also have legitimate plastic layers but the lack of interior protection means eventual damage to the plastic. I’ve found the inner plastic (mylar) of cuben can have a lot of damage after 100 days of use.
The outer 210D nylon is also quite a bit more durable than then 30 – 150D polyester used in hybrid cuben. Thus, despite lacking cuben’s dyneema strands, I consider VX21 substantially more durable than any of the hybrid cuben variants. Hanchor’s larger Marble pack uses primarily VX07 fabric instead of VX21 (70D outer nylon instead of 210D), which is lighter weight and more comparable to hybrid cuben. While a great material, the use of VX21 instead of VX07 is not without downside, as it is the main reason why the Marl weighs about the same as the Marble while being much smaller.
VX07 is a good fabric for primarily on-trail use, while VX21 allows both on-trail and most off-trail use. For occasional or even regular sessions of busting through brush, VX21 is entirely sufficient. The only damage I’ve ever managed on this fabric has been from ski edges, although I’m sure you could wear it out pretty quick canyoneering on sandstone.
Besides the main bag, the Marl uses more VX21 in a black color for the bottom of the pack, hipbelt pockets and shoulder straps. The hipbelt pockets also use a water resistant (uretek) #5 zipper, so they are quite waterproof.
The side and rear pockets are built of a moderately stretchy mesh. It’s not quite as tough as the non-stretch mesh used by HMG, but much tougher than the very stretchy lycra mesh used in packs like the GG Gorilla and ULA Ohm. It’s a good compromise.
I should also note that Hanchor’s quality of construction is superb. There isn’t a stitch out of place and all the sewing is beefy. I haven’t seen a lightweight pack from any company that is this well sewn. Quite a few lightweight companies make quality products (e.g. HMG, ULA, Gossamer Gear) but the construction here is easily better. It’s surprising considering the stigma that accompanies a product from Taiwan, but Hanchor sews packs better than any North American ones I’ve used.
With dual mesh side pockets and a mesh rear pocket, the Marl has a classic hiking pack feature set. It’s similar to modern packs like the Windrider and packs from era’s past, like Ray Jardine’s “Ray-Way” packs.
Most importantly, the execution of these features is extremely strong. The side pockets are a bit taller than average to securely hold a water bottle, yet are fairly easy to access because of the stretchy material and angled top. Ease of use is similar to an HMG Windrider, while bottle security is better. Hanchor has also widely eliminated the lower compression strap so there is no conflict between the strap and pocket like there is on the Marble, Windrider and many other packs. The utility of a lower strap rarely outweighs it’s constant inconvenience, so I’m glad to see it omitted here. In a pinch, I’m sure a substitute could be rigged up from the daisy chains. All said, the Marl’s side pockets are close to the best I’ve used, lagging only ULA’s Ohm. I do wonder if the material will sag over time and lose some security, but there is no indication of this yet.
The rear mesh pocket is a little bit narrower than some because it doesn’t quite extend all the way across the back of the pack, but it is also taller than most and thus still holds quite a bit of gear. With moderate stretch and a tall height, it’s more secure than the Windrider’s rear pocket, yet easier to see the contents than packs using lycra mesh (e.g. GG Gorilla, ULA Ohm). Sometimes I wish it was a little wider for holding items like a shovel blade (which barely fits), but other than that, it’s a great rear pocket.
Other features include a single side compression strap, and dual daisy chains running between the side and rear pockets. I think of the side straps mostly as a tool for securing taller gear in the side pockets, or skis in a pinch, rather than for compression. Actual compression is overrated and would be more easily achieved by rolling the top of the pack down to the desired volume. Thus I don’t use these side straps often, but when I do (e.g. securing a avalanche probe in the side pocket), they work as expected. The daisy chains are great. They allow for nearly anything to be strapped on and make it really easy to attach this pack to packraft.
Similar to the Marble, the Marl has an excellent roll top. The stiffener works well and it has a nice buckle and webbing edges. It’s the best roll top I’ve used.
The hipbelt pockets are large but not huge. The size is good and I like how they are constructed of waterproof fabrics and a water resistant zipper so electronics stored here are safe in all but the wettest conditions. The zippers are fairly easy to use but typically require a second hand to close entirely, as it’s hard to pull the zipper around the corner. Mostly I leave this last inch un-zipped as the contents are still quite secure. I do wish Hanchor would add some zipper pulls to these zips, but this can be easily done at home.
Overall, the Marl has a fairly common feature set, yet it is executed very well. The little details have been thought of and everything from the roll top to the side pockets is a pleasure to use. The Marl avoids the issues found on the Marble (e.g. low durability side pockets, interfering lower side straps) and improves upon the usability of competing packs. Other than adding an inch of width to the rear pocket and some zipper pulls, I can’t think of any areas for improvement.
The hipbelt fits somewhat large, so most folks will want to size down. I wear 31-32″ waisted pants and find that a medium hipbelt is borderline too large – it can’t be cinched quite tight enough. A small hipbelt (rated for 27-31″ waists) works great. Even folks with a 34″ waist would be well suited with a small. If you’re >34″, then go with a medium. I haven’t tried the large but the medium will easily accommodate folks up to about 38″. If you’re still unsure, rest assured that the hipbelt is easily removed as it is held in place via a velcro slot.
For the torso sizing, the regular and large packs actually use the same bag and most harness components, so they only differ in where the shoulder straps are sew on. In the regular size, the should straps are sewn on about 4-5″ below the load lifters, whereas in the large they are 2-3″ below. Thus the load lifters are a bit more useful with the regular size. I haven’t used the “small” torso but Hanchor has actually chopped 2″ off the bag height here.
Thus far I’ve been quite favourable to the Marl – and it deserves it. The pack is a refined and coherent design. It’s a nice volume, uses great materials, carry weight well and has a thoughtful feature set. Thus my list of critiques is short.
First though – and this is something I also noted with the Marble – the webbing used with the shoulder straps does slowly slip through the ladderlocks. Maybe I’m just a bouncy walker (my wife tells me this), but with pack weights heavier than ~30 lbs I find that I need to tighten the shoulder straps by an inch or so every hour or two. The underlying issue must be that the grosgrain is a bit slick or ladderlock edges are a bit too rounded to fully bite. Fortunately, there is an easy fix for this. It is difficult to describe without pictures, but the loose end of the shoulder straps can be routed one more time through the bottom of the ladderlocks, adding resistance while still being easy to adjust. Rigged like this, there may still be a little slip at 40+ lbs, but the issue seems largely resolved.
A second critique is that the Marl is a bit heavy. Hanchor lists the pack weight at 927g but that excludes the stays, which add another 145g. All in, my Marl tips the scales at 1062g or 37.5oz. Quite a few competing packs are closer to 2 lbs (32oz / 900g), which is an appreciable weight savings. The weight of the Marl is well spent in durable fabrics and beneficial features, so trimming weight wouldn’t be easy, but it would be possible to create a less capable version that is lighter. A “Marl-Lite” constructed of VX07 with a VX21 bottom would likely land around 2 lbs and would be entirely sufficient for folks who mostly stay on trail. This pack could also ditch the load lifters. I prefer the Marl as is, but can sympathize with those wanting an 800g version.
What’s refreshing about the Marl is how Hanchor has kept all of the positive characteristics of their first backpacking pack, while addressing almost all of the weaknesses. Whereas the Marble is well suited only to a relatively small niche of folks, the Marl is excellent pack that most folks should take a look at.
I think of the Marl as a more refined, more capable and beefier version of the HMG Windrider. The suspension is a step beyond with the horizontal stay and load lifters, the pockets are better with waterproof fabric for the hipbelt pockets and better exterior mesh pockets, the material is tougher and the construction is better. It’s even cheaper ($265 vs. $340). In fairness, the Marl is 100-150g heavier than the Windrider 3400, so the choice depends on how you value weight vs. capability.
In terms of value, the Marl ($265 USD) isn’t as affordable as packs from ULA and Gossamer Gear (~$200) which use more traditional materials, but it is quite a bit lower cost than competing packs from HMG and Katabatic gear using more exotic hybrid cuben ($340 – $350). Thus the Marl is reasonably priced for what you get.
I’ve been really impressed with the Marl and strongly recommend that folks in the market for a mid-sized pack take a good look at it. Some hikers will find they can get away with a lighter pack, while others in dry climates might not value the Marl’s waterproofness and thus prefer a cheaper pack like a GG Gorilla or ULA Ohm, but those who value a waterproof pack and are looking for something that falls towards the beefier/more capable end of the spectrum, the Marl is the best option I’m aware of. The volume, suspension, fabrics and feature set are work together to achieve a coherent, functional design that is a delight to use.
Appendum – Further Thoughts After 150 Days / 3000 km
After using this pack for another 100 days, I am quite pleased with it and stand by the above review. The frame/suspension had indeed help up well, and I was able to carry all the food and gear for several 10 day legs.
My pack has almost no damage, which is impressive as I have little patience for babying gear. My wife’s Marl looks new, as she is much more careful with her gear.
The only durability related issue I noticed was that that the thread used to secure the elastic to the top of the mesh pockets seemed to break (and then start to unravel unless the ends were melted) more easily than I thought it should. I think Hanchor is/was using a stretchier, elastic thread in this application that what was used for the rest of the pack. I notified Hanchor of this, and I believe they have made changes to address this. The mesh used in the pockets held up better than I thought it would. I have a couple small tears in my side pockets but I did quite a bit of bushwacking and they are still quite useable. So I am pleased with the mesh, but I still would prefer solid fabric here, which Hanchor will do for an extra $16 if you contact them as ask for this modification.
So overall, I highly recommend the Marl. With solid fabric side pockets it’s the best mid-sized pack I’m aware of.