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2011 Camelbak M.U.L.E./H.A.W.G. NV

By Tom Demerly.

With the inclusion of the excellent Antidote reservoir, Camelbak has made nice refinements to their H.A.W.G. and M.U.L.E. hydration/utility day packs.

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Camelbak has made significant improvements to their H.A.W.G and M.U.L.E. backpack hydration systems for the 2012 season. As they continue to dominate the growing reservoir-fed, backpack hydration category- a category Camelbak invented- their refinements show better performance and load capacity for these core models.

The M.U.L.E. and H.A.W.G. are acronyms that stand for “Medium to Ultra Long Endeavors” and “Holds A Lot of Water and Gear”. These day-capacity packs provide enough room for the new 100 ounce, 3 liter Antidote reservoir and essential all day gear for off road athletes, adventure racers, hikers and fast packers.

The single largest improvement to Camelbak H.A.W.G. and M.U.L.E is the Antidote reservoir system. Antidote is a new line of Camelbak reservoirs that are easier to clean and dry, easier to remove and replace in the pack and have greatly improved fill caps with integrated drying legs. Antidote is an enormous improvement over previous reservoirs from Camelbak and leads the industry in reservoirs. The Antidote uses a new, larger cap/opening to bridge the gap between roll-top reservoirs such as Ultimate Direction, Platypus, Hydrapak and Source. The larger opening permits rapid refilling while the reservoir is in the pack without unrolling a roll-top style closure at the top of the reservoir. The large opening in the Antidote reservoir also facilitates easier cleaning.

The large fill cap on the Antidote reservoir combines the best features of a roll-top reservoir with the better durability of a threaded-cap closure. The new Antidote reservoir cap uses a 1/4 turn, easy to use closure.

The Antidote reservoir also uses a quick disconnect hose, borrowed from Camelbak’s military designs built to use with in-line water filters and protective masks in a contaminated environment. The quick disconnect hose on Antidote is easy to use and virtually leak proof during attachment/detachment. In line water filters, insulated hoses and other accessories are built around the Antidote reservoir system.

Camelbak Antidote is also one of the most durable hydration reservoirs in the industry. In general, screw-on cap style reservoirs are less prone to bursting than roll top designs. Rob Curtis, contributor to the Military Times Gear Scout website, performed an interesting impact test of reservoirs in his blog post.

Curtis’ test shows what might happen if you were on a guided bike tour and a lot of luggage got unloaded from your tour van on top of your hydration pack.

The Antidote reservoir is the best designed reservoir in the industry. The new baffle in the center of the reservoir helps it maintain a flatter shape in your pack when full. The extendable drying legs keep the reservoir fresh between uses and the detachable hose makes for easy reservoir changes and the use of insulated hoses, in-line filters and other accesories.

The bite valve on the new Antidote reservoirs used on the M.U.L.E. and H.A.W.G. is angled ninety degrees for ergonomics and has a dependable on/off spigot that prevents spilling. If there is one change I’d like to see in most reservoir/hose hydration systems it would be a slightly larger diameter hose for better flow rate. Anyone who has done a long adventure race, hike or mountain bike race with a tube-fed hydration system knows that your mouth gets sore sucking on the narrow tubes.

Camelbak H.A.W.G. NV.

The H.A.W.G. NV is well suited for gear organization on a long one day excursion on bike or on foot.

Camelbak’s 2011 H.A.W.G. NV is a panel loading 1159 cubic inch volume pack with 9 total pockets. There are two small accessory pockets on the waist belt for energy gels, small sunscreen container, keys, a small GPS or cell phone/radio. The side pockets on the pack bag are perfect for flat repair kits, a headlight, gloves, a light hat, spare batteries, multi tool and any small items regularly used that you don’t want to open the main compartment to search for.

This long day load provides everything an off-road cyclist and hiker needs in the back country during changing elevations and weather conditions. With this load there is still a little room left over in the pack.

The back of the pack features a great helmet carrier for a cycling helmet that fits a large Giro road helmet and low profile climbing helmets like the Petzl Meteor. The deeper Petzl Ecrin Roc doesn’t fit well. When not in use the sides of the helmet holder zip shut and the entire thing nearly disappears. An outer pocket includes an organizer with a key lanyard and pockets, great for a small camera, memory card holder, multi tools, snacks, etc. At the top of the pack is a convenient hypalon-zippered fleece pocket for media or sunglasses. The pocket won’t accommodate full size ski goggles but will take larger sports sunglasses such as Oakley. The fleecy interior is easy on lenses.

The simple but elegant suspension system on the H.A.W.G. NV combined with the nice size means carrying moderate to light loads is comfortable and unobtrusive even during action sports like running and off road cycling.

The main pack bag features an internal hanger to hold up a second hydration reservoir. There is also a hose orifice from the main compartment that threads through to the hydration reservoir sleeve to accommodate two reservoirs and hoses. That is a ton of potential hydration capacity. As with most panel-loaders there are four compression straps with Fastex style buckles to manage the size of the pack bag and compress loads. The hydration compartment houses the 100 ounce Antidote reservoir and uses an excellent retention bar to hold the reservoir up and orient the fill cap away from your back for better comfort and quicker filling. You can use other reservoirs in this pack of course, but there is no top mounted hanger for them in the hydration reservoir sleeve- only the support for the Antidote reservoir.

The vertically adjustable sternum strap takes load off the shoulders. Drink tube guides on both straps can facilitate two reservoirs.

Suspension on the H.A.W.G. NV starts with the “N.V.I.S.” system- pronounced like the word “envious”. The acronym stands for “Next Generation Ventilated Integrated System”, shortened to NV or “envy” in the name. It’s a system designed to make other pack users envious of its superior ventilation according to Camelbak. The system provides an open mesh and closed cell, slotted foam support system that stands the main pack bag away from your back. The system works well but is not as effective as Deuter’s “aircomfort” system that stands the entire pack bag away from your back. Shoulder straps use the D-Fit system for a great fit and location of shoulder straps even when you are moving quickly or don the pack quickly. D-Fit enables the pack straps to rotate and find their best, most comfortable position on your back. A sternum strap has vertical adjustment to pull the straps together removing load from your shoulders.

The self-adjusting "D-Fit" shoulder straps make the pack fit well on a wide variety of torso sizes. The "NV" feature provides good ventilation between your body and the pack on hot days.

The Camelbak H.A.W.G. NV also has an integrated rain cover housed in a zippered lower pocket. The cover simply pulls out and fits over the pack like a large shower cap.

Camelbak M.U.L.E. NV.

Among other great features the bright color of the new M.U.L.E. NV makes it visible and bright inside when digging for your last energy bar or a set of spare batteries.

Camelbak’s M.U.L.E. NV is a slightly smaller pack that eliminates the side pockets and goes down to 854 cubic inches or 14 liters claimed capacity. It uses the same 100 ounce Antidote reservoir. The arrangement of the pockets is slightly different with a small accessory pocket on the front of the pack and the organizer pocket behind that. These two pockets ride on the helmet carrying that doubles as a great place to shove a wind shell or a towel. There are two attachment points on the M.U.L.E. NV for safety L.E.D. lights, one low and one high. At the top of the pack bag is a fleece lined media/optics pocket. Behind this is the zipper for the main pack bag and the half zipper for the Antidote reservoir.

The two pockets on the waist band carry over from the H.A.W.G. NV. These pockets use an overlapping envelop style closure that isn’t as secure as a zippered pocket.  Don’t use these for keys or a cell phone- a heavy hit on a mountain bike could eject them.

Suspension on the M.U.L.E. NV mimics the H.A.W.G. NV including the great ventilation features.

With trim pack bag design this pack is built for high mobility. One missing adjustment is a set of load-control straps at the top of the pack to pull the pack bag closer to the shoulders.

The M.U.L.E. NV is sold in three colors with the bright “sulphur spring/graphite” color being my favorite not only for external visibility but for enabling you to see the content of the pack when you look inside it. It’s also easy to spot in an airplane overhead or on your buddy’s back when he’s gotten a half mile up the trail from you.

Having used many of Camelbak’s products in addition the competitors from The North Face, LaFuma, Salomon, Triple Aught Design, Blackhawk, Gregory, Mountain Hardware, INOV-8 and many others I know the design of these two packs is on par with most of the others except the higher end packs from Salomon, Triple Aught Design, Deuter and Osprey. Interestingly, the Octane series of packs from Camelbak including our previously reviewed Octane LR and Octane XCT seem to have better symmetry of construction and alignment of trim features. The Camelbak Octane series packs seem to have nicer workmanship and trim features. I’d also like to see a system that manages the free-running end of the compression straps so they don’t flop around when the pack is cinched down, although strap keepers are available aftermarket. Finally, Camelbak needs to find a zipper closure that doesn’t pull apart for these two packs. Two of the zipper pulls on my test bags came off on the first day of testing. I repaired them with a multi tool and tweezers, but it’s a hassle.

Three observations from our test: Camelbak would do well to integrate a strap management system for free-running strap ends. Zipper pulls can work loose, as they did on our test pack, but are easily reinstalled if you don't drop small parts. No matter how we packed it, the symmetry on our test pack was a bit lop-sided- a minor criticism but something we didn't see on competing brands.

The load organization on these two packs is very good because of the number of pockets. This load segregation prevents having to sort through a large main compartment to locate small, important items like a multi tool, sunglasses or camera.

I love the design of both of these packs and would like to see Camelbak tighten up the quality control so the pockets and trim features were symmetrical. It doesn’t change their function, but it puts them on cosmetic par with the other brands. Given their strong design, that is where Camelbak belongs.

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The 2011 Camelbak M.U.L.E. and H.A.W.G. are nicely refined multi-use packs that will serve you well across a range of outdoor and endurance sport adventures.