Gear Review: Kelty PK 50 Backpack

Kelty PK 50
Kelty PK 50

Kelty PK 50
$200, 50L/3,050 c.i., 3 lbs. 8 oz. (S/M)
Sizes: men’s S/M (fits torsos 14.5-18.5 ins.) and M/L (fits torsos 17.5-21 ins.), women’s S/M (fits torsos 14.5-18.5 ins.)

A cursory glance at the PK 50 tells you this may be the most unusual backpack you’ve ever seen, with its zipper-less design that’s laser-focused on how the user accesses its contents. It’s certainly one of the most unique packs I’ve ever tested and reviewed, so I felt intrigued enough to take it out on a three-day, 41-mile backpacking trip on the Timberline Trail around Oregon’s Mount Hood—to see whether hyper organization would persuade me to recommend a backpack.

Kelty PK 50
Kelty PK 50

Here’s how the PK 50 works: A 15-liter front pocket unclips from the main pack, revealing two inner compartments: a larger one that fits all of your clothing, and a smaller one that functions like a lid pocket on most backpacks, holding smaller items like sunglasses, headlamp, etc. That 15-liter pocket detaches via three buckles, allowing you to quickly toss clothing and other essentials inside your tent—which is appreciated in bad weather and convenient anytime—or leave it behind to convert the PK 50 to a 35-liter pack that’s six ounces lighter, or just a hair over three pounds.

Underneath that front pocket is a top-loading, main compartment for gear, with a spacious, mesh pocket large enough for a tent on its outside, and separate access to its bottom—so you can pull out a tent and sleeping bag first. There’s a bladder sleeve inside the main compartment. The design places heavier gear close to your body and lighter stuff (clothing) farther away, so that you don’t have to think about that when loading the pack.

Kelty PK 50 open, upright.
Kelty PK 50 open, upright.

All of the four primary compartments have a roll-top closure that secures with one or two buckles—no zippers to break. Finally, the exterior features two compression wings that secure with a pair of straps and buckles, functioning to stabilize the load and letting you attach a foam pad aligned vertically or secure an ice axe (there’s an axe loop). Each compression wing has a deep pocket spacious enough to fit a jacket and or tuck trekking poles inside (they protrude a few inches from the top). An integrated rain cover is built into a bottom pocket.

Kelty PK 50 open
Kelty PK 50 open.

The pack definitely earns and A for organization and having the versatility to convert to an ultralight, weekend pack or handle a five-day trip. And it carried comfortably with 25-plus pounds inside, hugging my upper back and shifting much of the weight to my hips. I believe would be fine with up to 30 pounds, because of the plastic framesheet with one aluminum center stay connected to the hipbelt, and the soft, padded hipbelt, back pads, and shoulder straps of perforated foam. A concave bend to the stay creates airflow across the middle of your back. The fixed suspension on the S/M fit my 18-inch torso well, but I suspect it would run a little big on someone at the lower end of the fit range that Kelty claims, of 14.5-18.5 ins.

Kelty PK 50 bottom.
Kelty PK 50 bottom.

My major complaint about the PK 50 is that, while its smart organization is convenient in many ways, I have to unclip two buckles and flip back the 15-liter front pocket to grab sunglasses or a headlamp; or unclip two buckles to get a jacket from one of the compression wing pockets. Besides the two stretch-mesh side pockets (good for a water bottle and gloves/hat) and the two stretch-mesh hipbelt pockets (good for snacks/map), there’s no quick access such as you get with an external front or lid pocket or a side zipper to the main compartment (none of which the PK 50 has). But backpackers who want their pack to offer deluxe organization, the PK 50 fits the bill.

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See my reviews of all backpacks I like, including the Osprey Exos 58, Black Diamond Element 60 and Elixir 60, and The North Face Banchee 65, and my gift guide to my 25 top picks in this year’s outdoor gear and apparel.

NOTE: I’ve been testing gear for Backpacker Magazine for 20 years. At The Big Outside, I review only what I consider the best outdoor gear and apparel. See all of my reviews by clicking on the Gear Reviews category at left or in the main menu.

—Michael Lanza



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