Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Budget Gear Review: CUSCUS Expedition 88

There are so many options out there for backpacking gear that often times it can be a headache deciding what gear to actually purchase, especially if you're new to backpacking. When I first started backpacking, I really didn't know what I was doing when I jumped online to shop for gear, so naturally (and because of my budget) I gravitated toward cheaper gear. I remember my first trip into REI. I was looking for a tent. I saw the prices REI was charging, and my jaw dropped to the floor. "This place is a rip off" I told myself, and I walked out of the store and bought a $30 two-man "backpacking tent" from another outfitter. All summer I lugged that heavy piece of crap into the mountains. It wasn't just a tent either. I bought a budget backpack, a budget sleeping bag, and a budget sleeping pad. nearly 5 years later only one of those items passed the test, and remains in my garage (okay 2 actually, but one of them is out the first chance I get). 

Even now I'm on the lookout for good buys on gear. It's just the nature of the beast when good quality gear is so expensive. Up to now I have avoided reviewing the cheaper gear that I buy, but after using one of those items in a backpacking trip last week, I thought the public had a right to know before buying some of this stuff. So as of now I am going to review a few of the budget off-brand items I have purchased and used over the years. 

CUSCUS Expedition 88 Liter Backpack.
A newer version of the same pack. Mine is gray and black.

This was the first backpack I ever bought. In the beginning, like I mentioned above, I didn't understand the need to spend $200.00 on a backpack. I found this baby on Amazon.com for $35.00 and was sold. The CUSCUS Expedition is about the cheapest backpack you can find on Amazon, and that, combined with it's huge carrying capacity is the reason I bought it. Of course, since then I've learned that bigger is not better in the world of backpacking, but at the time I thought I needed a huge pack to carry all my crap, and actually I did because all the crap I bought was as equally huge.

The CUSCUS Expedition is actually not a bad looking pack. It's gray and black, which I like. It's made of a thick canvas material. It looks durable. It has 3 huge outside pockets, and a pocket on the inside for a water bladder... And that's about the only positive things I can say about this pack.

One thing I noticed immediately was how stiff the zippers are. When those outside pockets are full of gear, it is actually very difficult to close the zippers. Now, that's not a huge problem, but let me tell you it can be a major annoyance when you take a pit stop on the trail and are holding everyone up because it takes so long to zip your pack up. The zippers however are nothing compared to the hip belt, which I will flat out say is a total piece of crap. First off the hip belt will only tighten to a certain degree, and any further attempts to tighten it will only result in the pack actually twisting on your back, or the buckle coming apart. Even while hiking, the buckle will sometimes just come apart for no apparent reason. It's quite frustrating. I bought a replacement buckle from REI in the hopes of fixing the problem, and while the buckle actually stayed together I still could not tighten the hip belt. I found the only way to adequately tighten the belt was by actually unbuckling the belt, and individually sliding either end further apart from each other, and then sucking in your gut and buckling them together. Which in the end only revealed another problem. The belt would quickly work it's way loose. When I say "quickly" I mean within 10 minutes of tightening the help belt, it will be so loose on your hips that you can look down and see a gap between the belt and your waist.

With my cousin Luke on the Tucannon River, notice his backpack rides above his shoulders.
All this of course leads to the biggest problem with this pack. It does not carry weight well at all. When I first started backpacking I was carrying 35 pounds in this pack, which should be no problem for a pack this size. But I was pretty much always miserable wearing it. You will spend much of your time trying to adjust this pack so it rides comfortably, but all your efforts will be wasted. No matter what you do the shoulder straps will hang off your shoulders causing pain and discomfort. Sure, it has an adjustable torso, but it does no good at all. The pack sags, and the weight is carried on the shoulders. I tried everything, including packing it a variety of ways, but nothing worked. Once while taking this pack on an overnighter in the William O Douglas wilderness in Washington, my hands swelled up enormously.  My fingers were like bratwursts attached to my hands. In the end the only way to carry this pack with any semblance of comfortably is to physically hold the shoulder straps up with your hands.Not fun.

The last thing I'll say about this pack is that after several years of barely any use, the stitching is coming out in a variety of places, but mainly on the zippers, the belt, and the inside pocket for the water bladder, which has completely separated from the seam.

Summary:

Sure this pack is only $35, but you get what you pay for. A poor quality, cheaply made, poorly designed backpack, with a suspension system that flat-out does not work. If you like pain, then buy this pack, but I would suggest forking over some extra dough and buying one that actually works and will last... Of course if you keep it light, and only do short mileage overnighters, then it might work okay. In that case you can buy it here.



Backpack
Low rider.