Backpack
Gregory Zulu 55 and Jade 53
$200, 55L/3,356 c.i., 3 lbs. 13 oz. (men’s S/M)
Sizes: men’s Zulu S/M and M/L, women’s Jade XS/S and S/M
Moosejaw.com

Our first day backpacking the Teton Crest Trail in late August was a fairly big one: about 11 miles and more than 3,000 vertical feet uphill. Farther than I prefer to carry an uncomfortable pack (and I’ve carried many over more than two decades testing gear). Fortunately, I didn’t. In fact, throughout that 36-mile, three-day, absolutely glorious traverse of the Teton Range (one of America’s 10 best backpacking trips), the newly redesigned Gregory Zulu 55 proved to be a comfortable and user-friendly backpack, and my complaints about it were minor.

Gregory’s men’s Zulu series and women’s Jade series packs are completely overhauled for 2019, with extensive improvements that have made what were good packs even more comfortable and nicely featured—and still at a good price. The redesigned Zulu and Jade feature a perimeter frame with a fiberglass cross-stay to improve stability and prevent barreling; and the FreeFloat Suspension System, with flex panels—located on the lower back panel, adjacent to the waist belt—that allow the hipbelt to pivot and flex with the natural movement of your body.


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The Gregory Zulu 55 suspension.
The Gregory Zulu 55 suspension.

I found the pivoting hipbelt reasonably effective at minimizing the side-to-side rocking that a pack makes when you’re hiking—although not as effective as the actual mechanical devices used in the rotating hipbelts of high-end packs from some brands (which are also more expensive and sometimes heavier in a comparable pack capacity; one example is the Arc’teryx Bora AR 50). I found the Zulu 55 carried up to about 30 pounds very well on days of 12 or more miles on the Teton Crest Trail, and was comfortable with nearly its recommended maximum weight—40 pounds—when I filled it with rock-climbing gear for hiking to crags in northern Spain.

The men’s and women’s packs each come in two sizes, with an adjustable suspension that has four inches of range for dialing in the fit. With a torso that falls in the upper half of the fit range of the S/M Zulu 55 (15 to 19 inches), I easily achieved a good fit. Gregory’s size charts indicate that the men’s S/M and M/L overlap for torsos measuring 18 to 19 inches, and the women’s XS/S and S/M overlap for torsos measuring 16 to 17 inches—a broad overlap, due to the torso adjustability, enabling options if you fall between sizes.

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The Gregory Zulu 55 hipbelt.
The Gregory Zulu 55 hipbelt.

The pack’s trampoline-style, ventilated back panel allowed nice air flow across my back on hot afternoons. The pre-shaped 3D Comfort Cradle EVA foam hipbelt wrapped smoothly around my hips, creating no pressure points, and the Zulu and Jade also sport the EVA foam shoulder-strap padding and generous foam lumbar padding seen in higher-end Gregory backpacks.

These top-loading packs have a huge mouth for easy loading and retrieval of contents, and a U-shaped front zipper that provides instant access to most of the main compartment—a feature I use a lot. Top and side compression straps compress the pack when it’s not full.

The Gregory Zulu 55 front.
The Gregory Zulu 55 front.

The packs have six external pockets (not including the one under the lid), including capacious zippered hipbelt pockets that can fit a large smartphone and an energy bar or two each; a spacious zippered pocket on the floating lid, and a stretch-mesh front stuff pocket that can easily fit a rain jacket.

The two stretch-mesh side pockets are large enough to swallow a liter bottle, and open on the top and side so you can reach into them while wearing the pack. But I found that when the pack is stuffed full, I couldn’t jam a wide-mouth liter bottle into those side pockets with the pack on (although a companion could easily stick that bottle into a side pocket for me).

Typical of Gregory, the packs appear to be built for durability, with a combination of 210-denier nylon and 210-denier high-tenacity nylon, a double-layer bottom of high-density, 630-denier nylon and 135-denier polyester, and reinforced fabric at the frame’s bottom corners.

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The Gregory Zulu 55 main compartment zipper.
The Gregory Zulu 55 main compartment zipper.

The Zulu and Jade come with multiple nice features:

  • The left shoulder strap has a loop for attaching sunglasses and a small bungee for temporarily storing trekking poles—and the pack’s front side has attachments that securely hold collapsed trekking poles for longer-term storage while hiking.
  • The sternum strap has a safety whistle.
  • A zipper accesses the segmented sleeping bag compartment.
  • The fitted rain cover, which comes with the pack and stores in the zippered pocket on the lid’s underside, has enough elasticity to stay on in fairly strong winds; but if yanked off by the wind, it also has a short lanyard-type clip to secure it to the pack, so that it doesn’t end up in the next mountain range.

At nearly four pounds, the Zulu 55 and women’s Jade 53 are not lightweights—you can find packs with more capacity that are lighter and may even be as least as comfortable. But many lighter packs will not have the adjustable fit, numerous features, and the durability of the Zulu and Jade.

The Verdict

While the Gregory men’s Zulu and women’s Jade are not the lightest or the most deluxe packs for their capacity, if you consider an extra pound or more of pack weight a smart tradeoff for an extensive feature set, good fit, and durability, these packs deliver the goods for weekend outings and trips up to about five days—at a competitive price for their quality.

The two series include models ranging in capacity from large daypacks to large backpacks: the Zulu 30 and Jade 28 ($150), Zulu 35 and Jade 33 ($170), Zulu 40 and Jade 38 ($180), and Zulu 65 and Jade 63 ($230).

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these links to purchase a Gregory men’s Zulu 55 at Moosejaw.com, or a women’s Jade 53 at Moosejaw.com; a men’s Zulu 65 at Moosejaw.com, or a women’s Jade 63 at Moosejaw.com; a men’s Zulu 40 at Moosejaw.com, or a women’s Jade 38 at Moosejaw.com; a men’s Zulu 35 at Moosejaw.com, or a women’s Jade 33 at Moosejaw.com; or a men’s Zulu 30 at Moosejaw.com, or a women’s Jade 28 at Moosejaw.com.

Tell me what you think.

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See all of my reviews of backpacks, ultralight backpacks, backpacking gear, and ultralight backpacking gear at The Big Outside.

See also my “Top 5 Tips For Buying the Right Backpacking Pack,” and my stories “Gear Review: The 10 Best Backpacking Packs” and “The Best Ultralight Backpacks.”

Want to make your pack lighter and all of your backpacking trips more enjoyable? See my story “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking.” If you don’t have a paid subscription to The Big Outside, you can read part of that story for free, or click here to download that full story without having a paid membership.

NOTE: I tested gear for Backpacker Magazine for 20 years. At The Big Outside, I review only what I consider the best outdoor gear and apparel. See categorized menus of all of my gear reviews at The Big Outside.

—Michael Lanza

 

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