Hiking in the summer, you can pack light. Food, water, a map and compass and a pair of shades might be all you need. Climbing hills in winter is a different story: the temperatures drop, the days get shorter and it gets harder to keep your feet on the ground. All of that requires some extra kit, and a bigger pack to handle all of it. Needing to carry extra layers, extra food, emergency shelter and winter mountain gear, Bergans of Norway stepped up with their Helium Pro 40 pack.
Bergans is a well-established maker of packs for winter conditions – their gear was worn by the first expeditions (both Amundsen and Scott) to reach the south pole, in 1911. Since then they haven’t let up, and they’ve become one of Europe’s highest regarded manufacturers of outdoor equipment, to the point that in Britain many people will refer to a rucksack of a certain size as a Bergan, regardless of its origin. The Helium Pro 40 is part of that tradition, being built with a mind to winter in the Alps, or the Scottish Highlands, where I found myself.
Getting it in my hands, I could see the Helium Pro really earned the title of ‘technical pack’ – every part of the design seems well thought out, as part of some feature or another. There are attachment points on the floating lid, ice-axe holders, hidden zips and compression straps galore. The pack isn’t heavy from all that, either. The body material is lightweight but solid – Bergans have used a mix of 420d and 210d Velocity Nylon to hit a great balance between durability and weight. A crinkly, 70d ripstop material around the snow collar and lid really drops the grams and gives more flexibility where the pack needs easy manipulation for access.
The Helium Pro weighs in at 1225g / 2.7lb which, for example, is actually half a kilo lighter than the Triple Aught Design Litespeed, despite being nearly double the capacity, and I never once felt like I was compromising the integrity of the pack in this way. Longer periods of use may show the difference, but a bag like this is a specialized use, and might only come out for a few months of the year anyway.
Weight is there, where needed: hip belt is molded and firm, and wraps solidly around the waist. In fact, the first time I took it out, the belt felt a good bit too stiff. This may have been due to a poor fit or disagreement with the clothing worn underneath, but I did have some rubbing against my hips when I first took this pack out. After a day in the hills, it got better, so I might advise owners to give the Helium Pro a ‘breaking in’ run before really putting things to the test. Even as things began to ease up I found that the belt dug into me when sat, or lifting my legs above a 90 degree angle.
Fitting the pack was a dream. The harness needed setting up out of the box, but with instructions included on a printed tag, it didn’t take much work to get comfortably resting between my hips and shoulders. Bergans call this their QuickAdjust Pro system and I can tell you it was quick and easy to adjust – a velcro flap at the base of the yoke conceals two rails for sliding the shoulders up and down, which are secured in place by a g-hook and the velcro itself. The foam used for the straps and belt is spongy but rigid, which lead to a very comfortable ride, even with 15kg of gear loaded in. Better still, it didn’t absorb any moisture when laid down on snow, which I know can be a risk with airmesh. This property suggests to me that the Helium Pro might get uncomfortable in warm weather but, despite some vigorous climbs, I didn’t find myself particularly hot nor swampy with this on my back (As a side note, if anyone is looking for a warm, breathable jacket for winter activity, the Rab VapourRise Guide jacket has been amazing!).
Ventilation aside, the winter sports design of the Helium Pro is obvious. The 40-litre capacity gives room for warm layers as they come on and off across the day, with a tall baffle and floating lid for carrying a helmet. The ice-axe holders are a great design, tucking the pick of the axe away safely. I even found that reaching back with the pack on, I could unbuckle the axe and drop the handle safely through the velcro loop near the spike end. Those who dislike spike-up carry can securely stow their axe in the side straps and still draw easily, although I found that I wasn’t able to comfortably slot the axe between the pack and my shoulders, as some of my club-mates like to do; this is the price of a well-fitted harness, I suppose.
There’s a wide front compartment separate from the main bag, designed for ‘avalanche gear’ like a probe and shovel. It’s quick to get into (which is pretty important) and has a drainage grommet, which meant I didn’t need to worry about taking the snow with me. The bag also has a zip running along its side, which means it can be filleted open from the drawstring down for easy packing. There’s even a second zipper pull at the bottom to get around the load on top: I used this often to get at water bottles, which were packed close to my back, underneath my helmet, crampons and rainjacket. I would have liked that pull being a little chunkier, to grab with gloves on, but since it probably wasn’t intended to be the primary access point to the pack, I can let that slide. The bright orange detailing against my charcoal pack did make clips and zips easy to find, even through goggles.
There are no ‘bottle pockets’ on the outside of the Helium Pro, but that’s a good thing. Open-topped pockets become buckets in heavy snow, and keeping water inside the pack helps stop it freezing. Instead, Bergans do make 6L side pockets, which would be great for adding a little extra capacity should the need arise. Furthermore, the compression straps on the Helium Pro are designed to mount skis to the pack, which I regret not being able to test out for myself. There is, however, a hydration sleeve inside, including a strap for suspending a bladder and a pass-through point in the collar, near the back of the lid. I never used this and was surprised to find it on the Helium Pro, since I’m aware that bladder tubes and mouthpieces will often freeze up in winter conditions. One more zipped pocket can be found inside the main pack, which I used for an emergency kit like a foil blanket, first aid kit and a knife.
The lid itself also has two pockets, one on the outside and one underneath, the lower compartment containing a further mesh area with a key hook inside. This lower zip bugged me at first since it’s positioned near the ‘hinge’ of the lid, and requires opening the lid the whole way to be accessed, but I realise that it being there allows the lid to hang loose without emptying its contents. These lid pockets share their space, but I found room to keep my wallet and keys, a Petzl headlamp, and also goggles, sunglasses and a watershed notebook with a pencil.
Winter hiking, climbing and skiing can be awesome, but they need to be taken seriously. Any outdoor activity carries a bit of risk, but where ice and sub-zero temperatures are involved, the consequences can be severe. With the Helium Pro 40, Bergans have taken a century of experience working in these conditions and built something that works brilliantly.
This bag was supplied by Bergans of Norway for the purpose of this review. No discussion about the written content was made been parties.