The first pack I can remember owning was a green JanSport. When I was about 21 I replaced it with a blue 115 liter Lowe Alpine. I used the Lowe for a while, eventually replacing it with a Dana Designs Astralplane (also in the 115 liter range, and weighing a now unfathomable 7.5lbs), and then with a Black Diamond Infinity 60, and then with a Boreas Buttermilks 55. In retrospect the BD and the Boreas weren’t bad packs but the swiveling hip belt on the BD squeaked and the Boreas hip belt nearly tore off one time when I carelessly stepped on it while hoisting the load onto my back. Oops.
Around 2013 I started to feel like I needed a packrafting-specific pack as I had started to spend more time on the water, but I think much of this feeling stemmed from binge-watching YouTube videos of Forest McCarthy tromping around the Southwest with his HMG. He just looked so cool! My buddy picked up a Porter 4400 early in 2014 and I got mine in September of that year. I ditched all my other packs thinking I found the one pack to rule them all. Since then at least four other friends have purchased the exact same pack. On many trips we have looked like a team of some sort; not unlike the Ghostbusters or one of Jean Luc Picard’s away teams. Nearly four years later I think I have enough experience using it to write an informed review.
My Personal Use
I have used the Porter 4400 for packrafting on the Dirty Devil, Escalante, Green, San Juan, San Rafael and many other rivers. My trips have included heavy bushwhacking and occasionally butt-scraping and pack-lowering. My pack is now pink as a result of these desert adventures.
I have also used this pack for a full season as a Wilderness Ranger in the High Uintas Wilderness. As a ranger I carried eight days of food, a four foot crosscut saw, a SPOT, a satellite phone, a 24” saw, a full-sized shovel, and some little pruning shears (along with all the other typical backpacking gear). The Porter’s straps in all their versatility enveloped this gear with ease.
Travel has become my favorite use for this pack as I have taken it on planes, buses and trains domestically and abroad. When in urban situations I feel like the hip and stylish people of the city approve of the white color and the clean aesthetics, but I could be projecting.
Despite its shortcomings (and there are a few) I have, for one reason or another, overlooked them for over three years. It is decent for packrafting, outstanding for travel and less suited for long-distance backpacking where comfort is paramount.
My friends’ packs average around 44oz with the addition of the stuff pocket on the outside. I think this is heavier than advertised, probably because there are little pieces of the desert clinging to it. This is a little lighter than a ULA Catalyst (48oz) and a little lighter than a Seek Outside Divide (52.2oz), both of which make good all-around packs. I think this weight is just fine considering that I have fit inside it eight days of food when working as a Wilderness Ranger. Five days of food and packrafting gear also fits just fine. I think you could probably fit seven days of food as well as packrafting gear if you put a few things on the outside.
My hunch is that this weight to volume ratio is the main reason people buy this pack. It fits almost as much stuff in (and on) it as my old Dana did but at almost five pounds lighter. The pack’s strap system allows the user to strap stuff to the outside allowing the pack itself to be smaller than otherwise necessary to encapsulate things like helmets and PFDs. This saves a lot of weight.
The first 50 miles destroyed my hips. The hip belt is not soft, and the texture of the fabric rubbed my skin totally raw. But apparently 50 miles is all it took to break it in, and after that it felt just fine.
As you may have noticed, this pack doesn't come with load-lifters. HMG argues that the design of the pack negates the use of load-lifters. What this means is that, when wearing the correct size, the shoulder straps are supposed to attach to the pack near the top of one’s shoulders rather than wrap around the shoulders as they would on a pack with load-lifters. This does allow the straps to keep the load from pulling you back too much, and it does allow the weight to transfer to the hips for the most part. However, the space between straps gets narrower as it approaches the pack body and it ends up pinching my neck. The gap between the straps may need to be wider where it attaches, or in other words, my neck needs more room between them. Alternately it needs to have load-lifters. Let me specify that if this pack did have load-lifters then I would be able to wear a medium torso and in that case there would be shoulder wrap. This would be preferable, and would come at a very small weight penalty. However, the addition of loadlifters would probably lengthen the overall torso length beyond my beloved 22” for carry-on compartments. Still, I think it would be worth it.
One result of this design is that most of us end up leaning forward a little bit so that the pack doesn’t pull us backwards. Packs with effective load lifters allow us to walk more upright. This may matter for some more than others. Another result of this design is that, after almost four years of use I have decided I don’t want my neck/shoulder area to hurt anymore and I have replaced this pack with something more comfortable. But I haven’t sold this pack yet because it still has one use that it isn’t necessarily designed for: travel.
The Porter Pack is a strap-centric rather than pocket-centric pack. That’s the main thing you need to know. If you like the HMG packs but want pockets, you may want to look at the Southwest. The straps are great for attaching paddles, helmets and PFDs to the outside of the pack, but after much use, I wish it had some pockets too. Sometimes you want to shove a rain jacket in a side pocket rather than putting it under a strap and cranking it down in hopes that it won’t fall out. The hip belt pockets were previously too small and I have always disliked them, but fortunately HMG has fixed this. During the writing of this review I have asked my friends what they like about the Porter 4400 and all have said in one way or another that they like the versatility of the straps.
The other great feature of the Porter 4400 everyone can agree on is its waterproofness. The pack is pretty much waterproof except for the seams on the bottom of the pack, so after a good dunk in a glacial river, only about 1/4 cup of water gets into the pack. Honestly that’s good enough for me. However, the tape that is used to seal the inside of the pack often peals off near the place where the shoulder straps attach to the pack. This probably happens as weight shifts back and forth all day long while you are walking. You can replace the tape, but I’m left wondering if there’s a better solution for sealing these packs.
The stock material is a 150D polyester laminated to Dyneema Composite Fabric. This hybrid material is pretty good. On the plus side it doesn’t absorb much water and its stiffness allows for the pack to maintain a cylindrical shape no matter what you stuff in there. It is aesthetically appealing not to have a super lumpy pack. On the other hand it is about the same durability as some other fabrics that may be less expensive such as the Dyneema grid used by ULA or the XPAC VX21 used by Seek Outside.
While the material on my pack has become fuzzy I still have not gotten any holes. One of my friends, however, has gotten holes in the bottom of his pack from dragging it repeatedly over slickrock. So, while I was going to put durability in the Pros column, he would have put durability in the Cons column. This leads me to believe that their stock material has average durability.
I bought this pack for packrafting but now I only use it for travel. My size large is exactly 22” tall when rolled down to the top of the shoulder straps. This allows it to fit in the carry-on compartments of most airlines. I have taken this pack to Iceland and Costa Rica and on a few domestic trips and it was great for both backpacking and day hiking while traveling. The straps allow it to compress down to the size of a daypack so you can walk around town without it looking too silly.
I will no longer be using this pack for packrafting because those heavy loads (42-47lbs) accentuate the pressure on my neck/shoulder area. I have found that a pack with a better suspension system such as the Seek Outside Divide 4500 is worth the small weight penalty. If HMG fixed this issue no one would be able to compete because the performance of the product would match their unrivaled marketing.
I am no longer a Wilderness Ranger, but if I was I would choose a pack with a superior suspension for this use as well. For general backpacking there are many options out there that are more comfortable, lighter, and cheaper. The ULA Circuit, SWD Long Haul 50, Hanchor Marl, and Katabatic Gear Onni 65 all sport loadlifters and come in below the weight of the Porter 4400.
So what is the best use for the Porter 4400? I think it is best for short trips where you have to carry a lot of bulky things and comfort is not a primary concern.
I recommend this pack for travel or short packrafting trips until they fix the shoulder strap issue. It is simply too uncomfortable for me. I have tried to mitigate the issue by rigging a load-lifter system that attaches to the Y-yoke strap, and this has definitely helped but I don’t feel like people should have to do something like this just to make a pack comfortable. Moreover, it has not totally solved the problem because the straps still don’t allow enough room for my neck.
I am aware that the reader might be wondering how I could go so long using a pack that I clearly don’t love. I don’t have a good answer to that. Maybe I’m attached to it because I’ve taken it so many places. Maybe I love the way it turned pink from the desert. Maybe I didn’t want to believe that my investment of $340 (in 2014) was misplaced. Maybe I didn’t know what other packs to try.
Let me also note that while other users agree that the shoulder straps aren't particularly comfortable, they don't seem to be as bothered by it as me.
Aesthetically appealing color and shape. I love the white and how it takes on the color of whatever environment you drag your pack through.
Doesn’t absorb (much) water.
Great for travel. Fits in carry-on.
Great weight to volume ratio.
Very versatile strap system.
Hip belt had 50 mile break-in period for me.
Shoulder straps attach too close together and hurt neck/shoulder area.
Seam tape peals off pretty quickly.
Expensive at $380. Especially considering most folks buy the $45 stuff pocket which makes it $425.