The Starlite is a standout with the highest comfortable load carrying capacity of any backpack tested by Backpacking Light. The pack comes very close to the performance of an internal frame pack at a fraction of the weight. The Starlite is engineered so that a virtual frame is created by inserting a folded sleeping pad into an exterior zippered pocket that locks the pad to the harness. This creates a frame much stiffer than is possible with a rolled-up ground pad inside the main pack bag. In our load testing of the Starlite’s predecessor, which used the same design to create a virtual frame, the Moonlite was the only pack capable of carrying 35 pounds without a frame collapse. (Frameless Backpacks: Engineering Analysis of the Load Carrying Performance of Selected Lightweight Packs). In our field-testing, the Starlite outperformed its predecessor.
Designed with long distance hikers in mind, the Starlite is a large volume pack with multiple exterior pockets, a hydration port, and a tool loop. On the downside, the Starlite does not contain smaller loads well. There are few compression straps and these are concentrated at the top of the pack. In addition, the folded sleeping pad puts the main pack bag some distance from your back. You must correctly pack the Starlite to prevent heavy items from being too far from your torso and throwing you off balance. However, for its intended purpose (heavy loads and long trail distances), the Starlite offers a good balance between weight, durability, features, and cost. For those with tender shoulders who intend to carry more than 30 pounds, it may be the only 1½-pound pack to do the job.
- Backpack Style – frameless, top loading, roll-top pack. Optional 6061 aluminum stays are available to convert the Starlite to an internal frame pack.
- Fabric Description – the pack body is constructed with 6.5 oz 420 denier ripstop packcloth (tested in this review). This can be upgraded to a 4.5 oz 1/8 inch Spectra Gridstop (a 210 denier high-tenacity nylon with 215 denier spectra ripstop reinforcement). The other fabrics used in this pack include a 2.3 oz silnylon for the extension collar, 4.5 oz DriGlide wicking fabric (used on the backpanel, hipbelt, and shoulder straps), and a 4.5 oz 210 denier ripstop nylon for the harness.
- Sizes – one size adjustable to fit torsos from 18 to 24 inches (46 to 61 cm).
- Volume – 4100 ci, 67 L (2600 ci main + 600 ci pockets + 450 ci pad pocket + 450 ci extension collar). As an option, a pocketed vest harness can replace the hipbelt and shoulder straps, adding 200 ci via four additional pockets located on the front of the vest.
- Weight – 25.4 oz (720 g) as measured, without stays and heavier packcloth fabric option (manufacturer claims a weight of 27 oz). Expect to save about 4 oz (113 g) for Spectra Gridstop fabric option. Aluminum stays add an additional 4.8 oz (verses a claimed 5 oz).
- Volume to Weight Ratio – 161 ci/oz without stays (based on 4100 ci and Backpacking Light measured weight of 25.4 oz).
- Load Carrying Capacity – 35 lbs as claimed by Six Moon Designs and confirmed by Backpacking light.
- Carry Load to Pack Weight Performance Ratio – 22 (based on 35 lbs and Backpacking Light measured weight of 25.4 oz).
- MSRP – $135.00 without stays ($125 with webbing belt and $165 with vest harness; add $25 for Spectra and $10 for aluminum stays).
Manufacturer’s Contact Information – Six Moon Designs, (503) 430-2303, www.sixmoondesigns.com.
Numerical ratings follow on a scale of 1 to 5 (1 = poor, 5 = excellent).
Frame and Suspension – 4.5
Photo from Six Moon Designs
At first glance, the Starlite may appear like any other frameless rucksack. However, Six Moon Designs incorporated a unique, technically advanced "virtual frame" in their design; the zippered pad pocket. Aside from conveniently storing your sleeping pad, the pad pocket locks the harness and hipbelt to the tightly folded sleeping pad forming a much improved "virtual frame," as compared to the loosely rolled or folded pad methods. This greatly extends the load carrying capacity of the Starlite. At 35 pounds, the Starlite had the highest load carrying capacity of any pack tested.
The full-featured suspension includes shoulder straps, padded hipbelt, sternum strap, load lifters, and hipbelt stabilizers. Both the shoulder straps and hipbelt are padded with identical ½-inch thick closed cell foam. Our reviewer found that the shoulder straps were too narrow to comfortably distribute heavier loads. (Six Moon Designs is currently testing a wider prototype that should alleviate this problem.) The shoulder straps attach to the bottom of the pack rather than the lower backpanel seams. While this is a better design for durability, they criss-cross over, and often obstruct, the hipbelt stabilizers. Exacerbating this problem, the webbing for the hipbelt stabilizers is so short that the user may have difficulty getting a good enough grip to pull them tight.
The Starlite is offered in one size which adjusts to fit torsos from 18 to 24 inches. The torso height adjusts by individually raising or lowering the shoulder strap attachment points. The shoulder straps are attached to the pack along two daisy chains running up from the top of the pad pocket to the top of the main body (where the load lifters are sewn in).
Usable Features and Ease of Use – 4.5
The Starlite has three exterior mesh pockets trimmed with non-adjustable ¾-inch flat elastic at the top and bellowed at the bottom. The largest pocket on the back measures 12 inches wide by 13 inches high and provides 280 cubic inches of volume for storing wet or often needed gear. A shock cord across the back of the largest pocket provides some minimal pack compression and an additional place to store gear outside of that pocket. The other two mesh pockets, located on each side of the pack, measure 8 inches wide and 10 or 16 inches high. The smaller 10-inch high pocket (120 ci) on the right side provides a difficult but accessible while hiking water bottle pocket. Our reviewer found the larger 16-inch high pocket (200 ci) just right for storing multiple items such as a fuel bottle and ground sheet.
Another benefit of the exterior pad pocket is that the pad can be easily removed to make practical use of it at extended rest stops (no need to unpack and re-pack the main pack bag!). The pad pocket is accessed from the back of the pack via two YKK #4 coil zippers that open away from each other from the top left corner. Measuring 20 inches high, 11 inches wide, and 2-½ inches deep, the pocket will accommodate a ¾ length closed cell foam pad or up to a full length Therm-a-Rest or equivalent self-inflating pad. Six Moon Designs suggests the neatly folding ¾ length Z-Rest, but our reviewer found the thicker-when-folded ¾ length Ridge Rest to work as well or better. A Ridge Rest is probably the thickest pad that will fit.
The roll top closes like a dry bag with a Velcro closure along its top edge. There is no implication that it will prevent water entry though, as none of the seams are sealed. The Velcro helps in securing the top of the bag and makes rolling the top closed easier. However, take care when placing polyester knit and similar Velcro-loving fabrics through the opening as they will adhere and snag on the hook strip. To get around this, roll the top of the bag down a few times to hide the Velcro. A single compression strap completes the top closure and provides vertical compression of the total pack contents.
Two side compression straps along the top of the Starlite improve the function of the stabilizer straps by tightening the top of the pack. They also offer a means to secure the tops of long items like trekking or fishing poles that are sticking out from the side pockets. Although lacking a water bladder sleeve, there is a hydration port that would allow internal storage of a water bladder packed among the rest of the gear. We like this: it eliminates the extra weight of the hydration sleeve (we don’t like unloading a pack to refill the bladder anyway), but still provides a means to store water inside the pack, but in a more accessible location than a sleeve provides. Finally, of interest to mountaineers, there is a single ice axe loop, and a climbing rope could easily be secured using the top and side panel compression straps.
Load Volume Flexibility – 3.0
The Starlite does not adjust well to smaller volumes. The pack is compressed by the roll top’s single compression strap and the two upper side panel compression straps. There are no options for compressing the mid and lower portions of the pack. The lightweight shock cord over the outside pocket might provide some additional compression for lighter and softer loads; but heavier loads force it to stretch open. The best way to work around the issue of adjusting the pack during a trip is to transfer gear from the exterior pockets to the interior as food and water are consumed.
Six Moon Designs offers the Starlite with several options. Two aluminum stays can be added to increase the pack’s comfortable carrying capacity above 35 pounds. Weight savings can be achieved by replacing the padded hipbelt with a webbing belt, by leaving the hipbelt off all together, or by switching to 1/8 inch Spectra Gridstop for the body fabric (this fabric saves about 4 oz, 113 g). Finally, Six Moon Designs claims that switching the hipbelt and shoulder harness for a vest harness does a better job of distributing the pack’s weight over the torso. This option was not tested.
Pack Load Carrying – 4.5
Here the Starlite carries 42 pounds and our reviewer’s shoes bringing the weight up to about 44 pounds. Notice there is no discernable torso collapse at this weight and the load stabilizers are working effectively. All this with the aluminum stays in the left side pocket!
On extended backpacking trips, we tested the Starlite at various weights. We started with the pack loaded above the manufacturer’s recommended weight (without frame stays) and observed the pack’s performance as the weight reduced during the trip. The pack was tested at an initial weight of 42 pounds with and without the stays.
The following observations were made using a ¾-length Ridge Rest pad stored in the pad pocket. With the stays in, the pack carried very well at 42 pounds and could be pushed to 45 pounds easily enough for most backpackers. Upon removal of the stays and at 40 plus pounds, some degradation in load carrying performance was noted, primarily at the shoulders (due to the extra weight on narrow shoulder straps). Little pack torso compression occurred at these upper weights and the load stabilizer straps were taut and effective at transferring weight to the hipbelt – a result of the pad pocket/ground pad maintaining rigidity throughout the backpanel. As weight reduced from 42 pounds down to 15 pounds comfort only improved.
Six Moon Designs claims the maximum comfortable load for the Starlite is 35 pounds. We agree, provided pack volume is high enough to stiffen the pack. Heavy, dense (low volume) loads do not carry as well due to the pack’s limited compression. Without compression, we found the load stabilizers ineffective which prevented the effective transfer of weight to the hips. Bottom line: this pack was designed for big volume trips for long distance through-hikers. It does this well. Smaller volumes did not carry as well.
A final concern to note is the thickness of the pad pocket which puts the pack’s load 2-½ inches away from your back. When nearing the pack’s 35-pound (frameless) limit, take care to load heavier items close to the frame and higher up. Weight placed in other areas will make the pack uncomfortable and throw off your center of gravity (balance).
Durability – 4.0
In the era of delicate ultralight silicone-impregnated nylons and expensive ultralight fabrics, the Starlite is almost unique in offering a durable and inexpensive packcloth option while still keeping the pack’s weight around 1½ pounds. The tough 6.5 ounce 420 denier packcloth has ripstop running horizontally, vertically, and diagonally. We tested this fabric in Southern Utah’s slot canyon country and subjected it to countless bumps and scrapes with coarse sandstone. During the testing period, the pack fabric showed no signs of abrasion or weakness due to wear. Of potential concern are the mesh pockets which are prominently attached and surround the outside of the pack. However, they proved durable enough to handle abrasion and brush encounters as both were frequently encountered.
According to Six Moon Designs, the Spectra Gridstop upgrade option can shave 4 ounces (113 g) off the total pack weight. Although the Spectra Gridstop was not tested in this review another member of our review staff tested it in the Moonlite, this pack’s predecessor. He found it to have strong tensile strength but not be as resistant to abrasion. Our reviewer put a good-sized hole in it on an unintentional backslide down a scree gully. As such, the Spectra Gridstop may not be a good choice for climbers, canyoneers or anyone who is hard on equipment.
The Starlite is finished with double stitching and bar tacking in appropriate areas. However, several raw fabric edges were visible and required searing to prevent fraying. None of these presented more than a cosmetic problem.
Value – 4.5
The pack is feature rich, reasonably light, extremely durable for a 1½-pound pack, and a good deal at $135. Of course, the Starlite’s best feature is that it carries like an internal frame pack but weighs much less. If you need to carry heavy loads, we know of no other frameless pack that can match its performance, especially at around 21 ounces for the Spectra Gridstop version.
Recommendations for Improvement
The Starlite is an exceptional pack when used for its designed purpose – heavy loads and long distance backpacking. However, we do see some room for improvement. We suggest adding compression straps to improve compression of smaller loads, especially in the mid and lower portions of the pack. As mentioned above, there were several places on the pack that our reviewer had to trim and melt webbing to prevent fraying. Finally, the hipbelt stabilizers need longer webbing straps so there is enough strap free to get a good grip.