HPG Forum folks....just wanted to share what I wrote about the Umlindi and posted on FB, not only on the regular side, but also in a couple vetted groups on there for people from the Special Forces community.
HILL PEOPLE GEAR UMLINDI PACK REVIEW
By Ken Galbraith, October 2013
A few months ago, I was teaching a Personnel Recovery (PR) course for USDOJ folks bound for overseas postings. Near the end of our week of training, my fellow instructors and I were approached by one of our students. He was a senior member of the organization and about to be posted in a leadership role, charged with overseeing operations in a series of countries that experience more than their fair share of terrorism, crime, and natural calamities. He wanted to know if there was an existing "Go-Bag" or "Bug-Out Bag" within the system that he could procure for his people to have on hand in case they found themselves smack in the middle of a jam…what we like to refer to as an Isolating Event.
While we did, in fact, have an existing Go-Bag that the organization had bought some years ago, my colleagues and I felt that it really was inadequate for where these personnel would be operating. We also felt that the existing bag fell short of the mark for many places in the world….it really was just barely adequate for just a few places.
Once we informed the senior leader of this, he then asked if it would be possible for us in the PR Unit to design and spec-out a Go-Bag for him and his personnel. We based what we designed off of what we as instructors would want if we were operating in the same area, and have enough to sustain ourselves in austere and dangerous environments for 3 - 5 days. In my past life on active duty in the military, I had operated in several of the countries that the senior individual would have under his purview.
So, we set to work the following week. We looked at several different options but most all of the ones we saw just didn't seem to be right. Either they were "too tactical", too small or too big, not versatile enough, poorly designed, not strong enough, or simply….cheaply made junk. Some of the packs we took close looks at were from major players in the outdoors and tactical gear world. None hit the mark as well as the pack we chose.
The pack we chose seemed almost destined to be the right one for our needs:
It's constructed so well that you could probably Will it to your grandkids.
It doesn't scream "tactical", but would still blend in with the bush, and yet would not stick out terribly in more urban environments.
Incredibly versatile, modular, comfortable, adjustable, and user friendly.
Best of all…it's made completely in the USA.
The Umlindi from Hill People Gear:
I already had a little experience with some of the gear that Coloradans Evan and Scot Hill of Hill People Gear (HPG) produced. Yes, a clever play on words and perhaps serendipitous that these guys would be into the outdoors, run a backcountry gear company, and have a last name befitting such a business.
I had purchased one of their Kit Bags (their original piece; more about this later in the review) a while back and have used it often ever since. A bit later, I purchased one of their Tarahumara daypacks…also still seeing lots of use. Then I had to have one of their Mountain Serapes (also in this review). Then, I had to have…you get the picture. Then, of course, I became just a wee bit…how do I put this…addicted…like you read about. The quality and craftsmanship that the Hill brothers put into their designs just led me to manufacture "reasons" why I "needed" more of their gear. Those out there reading this review that know me from our shared past will undoubtedly be chuckling…because they know I am a major Gear-Whore. Admittedly, I am…and they say admission is the first step toward recovery, but I would actually rather stay addicted when it comes to proper kit such as that offered from Hill People Gear.
But enough about my gear-whoreness…on with the review!
The Umlindi (which means watchman, caretaker, or guardian in Zulu) got its name because as the Hill brothers were nearing completion of this pack, some South African folks who were standing up a rhino poaching interdiction unit contacted them. The name seemed fitting for a robust pack that the users could carry with most everything they'd need to sustain themselves while hunting down bad-guy poachers of the robust (but vulnerable to bullets) rhino.
The dimensions of the Umlindi are as follows: It's 19"x11"x6.5", around 2000ci, and weighs 2lb 13oz. There is a padded back panel, a plastic framesheet with a single aluminum stay, and signature HPG features such as their superb yoke-style shoulder harness and ingeniously designed pulley-style compression system.
Another feature on the pack is a pair of slot pockets at the bottom of the side panels, large enough for just about any water bottle, but could also be used for ski slots, tent poles, or similar items. Also, seen in the photo above, is a simple webbing tab attached near the bottom of the pack with a length of user-replaceable paracord and a cordlock. Yes, a simple thing, but also a very useful thing. It can be used to secure the bottom of a tool (such as the axe above), or for things such as a piolet (ice axe) during winter use. There are two pair of compression straps that are mated to ITW G-Hooks, Looplocs, and double-adjustable side release buckles, which work in concert to create the HPG pulley compression system. This is one of the nicest features on this pack. The load within the pack bag is always evenly compressed using this system. Additionally, if the pack is nearly empty, this same system allows the entire pack to cinch nearly flat. There are no buckles to get in the way on the sides. Another part of this system allows the user to add on different pockets for increased capacity to the pack, such as the outstanding Palspocket (seen up close later in this review), or the Tarapocket. Two more G-Hook straps run underneath the pack, and one additional extra long strap comes over the top flap.
Because of the modular nature of HPG packs, the user can switch things around as desired…adding or taking away pockets or belts, attaching stuff sacks, securing mission gear or camping items, or even using components from a different HPG pack and adding them onto the Umlindi. Very well thought out, to say the least. The user can set the Umlindi pack up as a small unobtrusive daypack, and then build it up into a full-on 3-day(+) pack, complete with overnight gear, food, water, and shelter. Even loaded up big, the Umlindi carries very well. Better than just about any pack I've used, and I've carried plenty of others over the years. I've had about 30lbs of gear in this thing and it handled the load easily. That is, however, a subjective thing…the individual user really must determine how much weight he or she is comfortable with.
One of the things that I base pack comfort on is this:
If I can carry a pack in this capacity range with a fairly heavy load (maybe around 25-30lbs), go up and down hills, off-piste, over logs and rocks, for several miles, and then get to a destination and not feel like I absolutely have to get the pack off my back, then it is pretty much good to go. During testing, the Umlindi really shined brightly. It carries well with or without the HPG Prairie Belt (not supplied with the pack, but an available option), and the load never swayed around on my back. Those of us that remember skiing with the infamous ALICE pack know all about a pack that will shift and sway at exactly the same time that you are trying to execute your best uphill stem turn on steep terrain! I've had it out on my mountain bike and have done some speed-rucking with it…it just stays put. Once the snow starts flying, I'll see how it does at backcountry skiing. Once it gets cold enough for ice climbing, I'll see how it performs when I'm swinging tools and moving crampons. Right now, I have every confidence that it will do just fine.
Does this pack have limitations? Absolutely….every pack does. I wouldn't suggest this pack for a full expedition, but as a solid 3 day (or even up to 5 during warmer months), and as a rock-solid Go-Bag to have on hand for operations and potential survival situations in "fun" countries…it is right in the A-zone.
Once you get beyond the Umlindi's reasonable packbag capacity, you can add a pocket to the back and maybe add bulky, light items in a stuffsack to the top of the pack, or you must go to a bigger pack, such as the Umlindi's bigger (and older) brother…the Ute (~3500ci). According to Evan and Scot Hill, when adding capacity to a pack, it's generally better to go up rather than out, or down (underneath) the pack. Adding to the sides is okay in the form of additional pockets and such. This is also okay (within reason) on the back of the pack. Too much, 'though, and the user's center of gravity is thrown too far off.
What makes Evan and Scot Hill so qualified to give such pack advice? Well, Evan began sewing up his own gear starting at age 12. He and brother Scot have spent pretty much their entire lives outdoors in the American West. Colorado, Wyoming, Oregon, Washington, New Mexico, and Texas are among the states where they both sought out the wild and high places to traipse around in for both work and pleasure. Both are college grad anthropologists (so you know they're smart). Both are Eagle Scouts. Both are former wild land firefighters. Both are life-long high country hunters, skiers, backpackers, and outdoorsmen. Evan worked for a while as a Wyoming Hotshot. Scot spent several years as a backcountry ranger for the Forest Service on horseback. Both have spent quite a bit of time felling trees on rugged terrain in all seasons. Both are also avid shooters and 2nd Amendment proponents. Vickers course grads, too. Just good Americans. 'Merica…damned right. The Hill brothers have learned a great deal on their own about what makes a pack or piece of kit worthy of hard backcountry use and they have turned that knowledge into a family-owned American Business that believes in giving the customer the very best US made products that they can, for a fair price, and no BS. They have a well-deserved reputation for outstanding customer service, and I can personally attest to that. They can't do all of this gear design, sourcing materials, and building out the gear on their own, so they teamed with one of the best tactical gear manufacturers in the US today…First Spear. First Spear takes HPG designs and produces them exactly to HPG specs, from US only material sources. Any time I can, I'd just as soon put money into American hands rather than some big name brand that outsources all of their production to some backwater third-world Crapistan-type locale. So, that's another reason why I like HPG. I tend to become a brand loyalist once a company proves they are worthy. HPG sits firmly inside that circle.
Photo of the larger HPG Ute pack (L) next to the Umlindi (R):
When we began working on this Go-Bag project, we knew we'd also need the right things to put in it, ensuring that there was enough survival gear to allow for a few back-ups. The components needed to attend to all of the standard fire/water/shelter keystones, but also needed some specialized tools, with room left for mission-specific operational items, comms, spare mags, and some food. Basically, we needed top shelf components to go into a top shelf pack. We knew right away who to turn to for actually kitting-out the packs with "the right stuff"…..Bart Combs, CEO of SOLKOA, Inc.
My colleagues and I already knew about Bart's work from our past years on active duty. If you've ever worked in the SOF community and were issued a really nice metal-cased soapdish-style survival kit that had all kinds of intelligently chosen components….that was one of Bart's.
We got in touch with Bart and explained what we wanted to accomplish. He was more than willing to help, so we linked him up with Hill People Gear to work together on our Contingency Go-Bag (CGB) project. Fortuitously, both companies are based in Colorado….the Hill brothers in Grand Junction, and Bart Combs' SOLKOA in Colorado Springs.
We conducted several Skype conversations with Bart discussing our project…the creative juices were flowing like a river. Eventually, we came up with several versions of our Go-Bag….one being a sort of "light" stripped down version, another Umlindi-based full-on version that included all the bells and whistles, with a HPG Kit Bag, Palspocket, and lots of other items, and still another, cold weather-focused version, with the HPG Ute as the base pack.
The Umlindi on the left in the above photo is the base pack for what would be the "light" version of the CGB. The one on the right serves as an example for the fully kitted out version, complete with the HPG Palspocket and a quick-detach HPG Kit Bag.
The following pages are a series of photos that point out some of the specific features of the Umlindi:
The yoke-style HPG Shoulder Harness has a removable shock cord system for carrying things like water bottles or other trail necessities. Super comfortable.
The padded back panel features a slot pocket that can house flat objects like a sil-nylon tarp shelter, maps, even a laptop. Some folks have used it as a rifle scabbard, mostly for lever actions. The Umlindi is also hydration bladder compatible.
The back (outside) of the Umlindi has a small interior pocket, big enough for a few quick access items.
At the top of the slot where the framesheet and stay are housed, there are 3 webbing tabs to attach items such as a bladder or "pull-out" style pockets. Uncomplicated and versatile.
The removable framesheet has a single aluminum stay that is shipped outside of the pack….that's on purpose. It's intended for the user to bend the stay to match the contours of his back. HPG has a video on their website outlining how to accomplish this task…an important step for carry comfort.
The Umlindi comes ready to accept either the HPG Prairie Belt (not supplied with the pack, but an available option), or just about any "battle belt". I highly recommend the Prairie Belt…ultra comfortable, and detaches very quickly for stand-alone use on side journeys from camp, or as a range belt. The hook-loop US-version padded Hypalon panel captures the belt. Adjustable webbing straps with G-Hooks attach to the sides of the belt as delta-load stabilizers, pulling the load into your lumbar and center of gravity. The belt closes with a reverse-pull style buckle system up front, providing superb control of the pack from the hips. This is such an efficient system that the user barely needs the shoulder straps…making the Umlindi sort of like a tall lumbar pack.
The optional Palspocket is also a worthwhile upgrade. Quickly attached and detached via HPG's pulley compression system with G-Hook ends, the attached pocket can have an "almost sewn" level of security on the back of the Umlindi. The Palspocket is big enough to keep items that need quick access, including a rain jacket, snacks, et cetera. However, the main feature of the pocket is its use of First Spear's 6-12 Pals system, where each row can be a positive or negative space, allowing the user to attach pull-outs, Molle, or Pals-backed organizers. The pocket also has a loop-sided surface for attaching Velcro-type items. This 6-12 grid is especially nice for discreetly housing magazine pouches, an IFAK / trauma kit, or radio pouch. Hidden from the casual observer in third-world "garden spots", but ready for access at a moment's notice.
The top strap on the Umlindi is long. This allows the user to attach a stuffsack with a sleeping system or shelter on top of the pack, taking the load up, rather than out….which is better for carrying purposes. As long as the item on top isn't too bulky, this configuration isn't an issue if in the prone position.
Inside of the stuffsack pictured above is the HPG Mountain Serape. This is a Primaloft insulated item that takes the venerable poncho liner every soldier cherished to the nth level. They come in both Multicam and Ranger Green. This is really a versatile piece, with an ingenious zipper and draw cord system allowing the user to morph it into a few different configurations…it can be worn as a poncho (or serape, hence the name), zipped into a greatcoat "smoking jacket", or zipped into a lightweight sleeping bag. Why hadn't anybody from the Army come up with this years ago? We in the PR Unit recently conducted a full week of Bushcraft and Survival training out near the West Virginia border, in George Washington National Forest (just prior to the government shutdown). Temps dropped into the low 40s / high 30s at night. I slept in my Mountain Serape with a puffy coat and pants on underneath it. Absolutely fine through the night. The Mountain Serape truly allows a lightweight sleep system, building on multi-function versatility. It has been included as an integral part of our Contingency Go-Bag project. Photos of the Mountain Serape in both sleeping bag mode and poncho mode are on the following page.
The Mountain Serape stuffs very small and is very warm for its weight. I wish I would have had one of these a couple years ago in Afghanistan at a small COP, when I was snowed-in with all helo and vehicle movement out of the question.
Another outstanding piece from HPG (and also a part of our full-on Contingency Go-Bag) is the Kit Bag. Yet again…an innovative, multi-function, solidly built item from the Hill brothers. It is designed to be worn as a true chest-mounted concealed pistol carry pack. While wearing a backpack, riding in a vehicle, or on a bike (motorized or human powered), the Kit Bag allows quick access to the pistol using either a hand assist rip cord method, or a shove-in method (HPG has an instructional video for this on their site). The main compartment can also be used as a map case or tablet-style computer holder. There is also a middle pocket for a spare magazine, firesteel, small folder or fixed blade, signal items, or maybe a tourniquet and a couple Quik Clots. The outermost compartment easily holds a compass and/or small GPS unit. The original Kit Bag also comes with a pair of "docking straps", allowing the user to dock the Kit Bag to a main pack during long movements and place the weight carried in the Kit Bag onto the backpack's suspension system. There are three other models, too….the Recon, the Runner's, and the Snubby. Pics of the Mac-daddy original Kit Bag are on the next page.
Below is an example photo of a full layout, which shows just how much the Umlindi can handle, and still have room for some food and spare clothing items. For an all-rounder pack that can handle heavy loads and yet still shrink down to small daypack size, I really think you can do no better than the Umlindi. It will fit in an airplane overhead bin, carry great with or without a belt, and handle any abuse you can throw at it. The craftsmanship and thought that went into this pack (and all HPG offerings) sets the bar very high…a height that I'll wager that hardly any other pack manufacturer can attain. The price point on the base Umlindi is $220. That's not a small amount, but not as expensive as many others in the same size category.
I am a firm believer in "you get what you pay for". Why spend hard-earned cash on junk that will rip or fall apart before the end of the season?
Plus, the outstanding customer service provided by HPG is especially refreshing, in a time when many other shops and sites act like they are doing you a favor if they grace you with their…whatever.
Anything I'd change? Yes…but they're just nitpicks. If the top strap on the Umlindi is disconnected using the side-release buckle and left to hang off the pack, it sometimes falls off the pack because the G-Hook can slide out of its webbing tab…which could result in losing it. The fix? Just always detach the top strap using the G-Hook end. I would also like to see a small zippered compartment on the underside of the top flap, which could allow the user to secure keys, etc. inside (like the one on the Ute). Either that, or put a zipper on the existing compartment inside the packbag. Once again, these are just nitpicks. I am incredibly happy with this pack.
I would equate the Umlindi to being the Jeep Rubicon of the pack world….not huge, but can go anywhere while carrying a good bit of gear along. Rugged, more than capable of tackling the terrain ahead, and comfortable on a long journey. I would then also consider the Umlindi's bigger brother (the Ute) as the Ram Power Wagon of the pack world, for the same reasons.
Shameless plugs for the vehicles I like as a backpack analogy aside, my colleagues and I are firmly convinced that we made the right choice by going with Hill People Gear to provide their outstanding Umlindi as the base pack for our Contingency Go-Bag. Kudos also to Bart Combs and his company SOLKOA for working diligently with us to get the procurement and Go-Bag components ironed out. We've already gotten a lot of orders for this system to be provided to a couple outstations, and I expect we'll be getting even more requests once other DOJ and USG interagency organizations get the word and have funding for their global operations.
Many thanks to Evan and Scot Hill, and also Bart Combs, for working so closely with us to make this Contingency Go-Bag happen. These are some cool dudes. I had previously mentioned that our PR Unit recently conducted a week of Bushcraft and Survival training out in the Blue Ridge Mountains. We had many LE and DOD professionals in attendance there to learn new skills and share ones they already possessed. Evan, Scot, and Bart all flew in from Colorado…on their own dime…to join us out in the forest and take part in our PR Unit Rondee. They were most definitely value-added. How's that for going the extra mile? Spot-on in my book.
Hope this review provided you all with some good insight and maybe helped nudge you in the direction of Hill People Gear for your next proper kit purchase.
How to contact our friends at Hill People Gear and SOLKOA:
Kenny G. sends.