Nashville Packs is a new cottage backpack manufacturer that’s fundamentally reinventing the way that vest-style backpacks are sized and made. I’ve been testing out their flagship product, the Cutaway Backpack, which is a frameless rolltop pack that’s hands-down the most comfortable, best-fitting, and functional vest-style shoulder strap system I’ve ever used. The Cutaway is a narrow, 27-33L pack, depending on torso length, with a total of 40L of storage including external pockets. It’s also modular and available in different fabrics with a variety of options, including conventional J-straps, on a made-to-order basis.
- Type: Frameless
- Shoulder Straps: Vest-style
- Weight: 16.2 oz
- Volume: 33L (closed storage) 7L open storage
- Torso length: 20″
- Strap length: 19″
- Max recommended carry: 25 lbs
- Material: Liteskin (LS07), Dyneema Stretch Mesh
- Pad attachment straps
- Removable hip belt
- Bottom pocket
- For complete specs and options, visit Nashville Packs
The Cutaway is an ultralight style pack with a roll-top closure and a front mesh pocket. There aren’t distinct water bottle pockets on the Cutaway, but side openings into the mesh pocket. While you can position water bottles in those side openings, you can also reach past them into the center of the front mesh pocket, so you don’t have to stop and take off the pack when you need something stashed there.
That’s pretty much true of every feature on the pack and vest harness. The Cutaway is designed for hikers, especially thru-hikers, who want to hike all day without stopping. You don’t have to be a thru-hiker to use the pack, but with a max carry of 20-25 lbs, you’re going to want to keep your base weight, food, and fuel as light and compact as possible while minimizing heavy water carries.
The Cutaway is a tall and narrow pack. Nashville doesn’t provide any dimensional measurements but my backpack measures about 11″ across and 33″ high (roughly speaking – I used a tape measure). The narrowness makes it a very responsive pack that is easier to maneuver with vest-style straps. The pack bag is cut from a single piece of fabric and closed with two side seams to increase its water resistance. The seams on my LS07 pack are not taped although this would be a great option, particularly on Nashville’s DCF packs.
The Cutaway I’m testing has external pad straps to hold a foam sit or sleep pad against the back panel I use a 4-panel Therm-a-Rest Zlite with mine (20″ torso length) without any trimming. Shorter torso lengths require different length pads. I found that the Cutaway barrels when stuffed and having a foam pad as a back panel makes it less noticeable.
I also opted for a removable hip belt on my pack, not for load transfer but to keep the pack close to my hips, and a bottom pocket. The bottom pocket is open at the base of the sit-pad but sealed closed on the other sides so you can stuff or retrieve hats, gloves, or food, again without stopping.
When you order vest-style straps from Nashville Packs, they have a unique way of measuring the length of the straps you need. You can read about this more on Nashville’s sizing page. They write,
“Please follow these steps when taking your strap measurement:
- Stand up straight with your back against the wall.
- For Vest Straps: Find the base of your sternum and imagine a horizontal line traveling across your rib cage. For women, this may be at or close to your bra-line. Determine if you would like to wear your straps wide or close in on your chest and find a point on the horizontal line that would represent this strap position.
- With a measuring tape or string, measure from this point up over the middle of your shoulder, and to the wall behind you at the same height as the top of your shoulder.”
I was skeptical when I took my vest-style measurements, but I now understand the logic behind it and appreciate how innovative it is. Different people have different volume torsos in addition to different torso lengths and these measurements are designed to accommodate that.
When I reflect back on the other vest-style packs I’ve tried none of them were ever this meticulous in fitting the vest straps, taking a one size fits all approach, which is why I’ve never felt that vest-style straps fit very well. But I really think that Nashville Packs is onto something here because the Cutaway vest straps fit me really well, they’re load-bearing and quite comfortable to wear.
In addition to getting the right length, Nashville has devised a system where it’s easy to position the straps more widely or narrowly on the pack. Instead of being sewn to the pack bag, the vest-style straps are attached to a daisy chain that spans the width of the pack. Each side of the vest is secured with three small webbing straps, as depicted below.
The sternum straps (2) use the same daisy chain fitting mechanism, letting you remove one or even add more if that’s what you prefer.
The vest straps themselves have three pockets each. The long pockets are large enough to carry 500 ml bottles and flasks or a Smartphone. They’re all mesh, which can limit their utility if you hike in wet weather. While the snaps prevent items from popping out, they can also be used to hang items like my swiss army knife or a compass lanyard, as in the picture above. Having all of these pockets, again, reduces the need to stop during the day.
The Liteskin (LS07) pack I’ve been testing doesn’t have a lot of body, like higher weight DCF or X-Pac, and is much more sensitive to packing style than I would have expected. I’ve found that a loose packing style works best with the Cutaway to fill the volume in the pack and stabilize the load. I start by packing a hoodless down bag first and stuffing it in the bottom of the pack inside a trash compactor bag before piling the rest of my gear and food on top, mostly loose, with a minimum number of drawstring stuff sacks that are easy to squeeze the air out of.
I carry a number of odds and ends in the vest, including a camera and smartphone when it’s not raining, water treatment tablets, a knife, and my compass. I prefer carrying water bottles in the sides of the mesh front pocket along with a mug-based cook system and loose layers. The water bottles are really easy to grab and replace without stopping but they are pretty loose, so you have to make sure they don’t fall out if you take a tumble.
I’ve found it ungainly to carry more than two liters of water in the Cutaway on a hike, although this depends on what else I’m carrying, and found that the pack carries best when I limit myself to just one liter.
I haven’t used the bottom pocket much because I really don’t need the storage. People refer to it as a trash pocket, but seriously, the last thing I want to do is make my backpack smell like food.
When fully loaded with 20 lbs, the weight is surprisingly easy to carry even though the Cutaway is frameless and the weight rests entirely on my upper torso. I don’t feel any pressure on top of my shoulders or collar bone at all. The weight rides close to my core and I barely notice it at all. The vest fabric is super breathable and doesn’t make me sweat or chafe. It’s really pretty remarkable given all of the lackluster experiences I’ve had with vest-style hiking and running packs.
The Nashville Packs Cutaway is a 40L frameless backpack that’s designed for ultralight backpacking. It’s available in a wide range of different fabrics and modular features so you can tailor it for your needs. The Cutaway has a maximum recommended carry of 20-25 lbs, so you’ll want to pare down your gear list to the bare minimum for the greatest comfort. While the pack design is optimized for thru-hikers who want to crush miles all day long, you don’t have to be a thru-hiker to benefit from using it.
Nashville offers J-style straps in addition to the Vest-straps I review here. For vest-style straps, they’ve devised a unique way to fit them for customers that takes into account torso volume as well as torso length. This is a real innovation that sets them apart from other backpack manufacturers that offer vest-style suspension systems. If you’ve been looking at vest-style packs, I’d encourage you to give the Cutaway a try. I’ve been quite impressed with the quality of the product and its ease of use.
Disclosure: Nashville Packs loaned me a backpack for this review. I don’t have a business relationship with Nashville Packs. I’m just a guy that likes pulling backpacks apart to see how they work.
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