Hang on a second, guys. I’m going to throw on my robe and pointy hat. There we go. Now I’m walking across the hallway to my special wizarding room. Yes, I’m lighting some candles now. What am I doing? Oh, I’m just about to gaze into my crystal ball. It contains the secrets of the past, the future, and the present. You know, no big deal.
I got this crystal ball from eBay, though, so I usually take the things it tells me with a grain of salt. Truth be told, I’m actually not even sure it’s made of crystal. Hmm, now that I think about it, it is shaped exactly like an empty bottle of cheap booze. Let’s not get off track, though. There’s wizarding to be done.
Today I am looking into my crystal ball to learn the secrets behind Shimano’s new Unzen line of hydration backpacks, which were named for a mountain in Japan. Unzen is Japenese for “Steve.” Just kidding, I made that up. Who would name a mountain Steve?
When I look into my crystal ball, I see that Camelbak currently is a strong presence in the hydration backpack marketplace. In fact, they are so strong in that market that the word “camelbak” has transcended its brand name and has become a word that means “hydration backpack,” regardless of brand. I bet people will call even the Shimano Unzens “camelbaks” from time to time.
So why would Shimano, a company that is already famous for manufacturing 50% of the world’s bicycle components, decide to make hydration backpacks? Probably because they are a trusted name, and because they have the financial and manufacturing resources to do it right. My crystal ball says it might also be that they are feeling some pressure from American upstart SRAM in the component market and they feel they can take it out on Camelbak.
Also maybe, just maybe, they simply feel like making some hydration packs.
Whatever the reason, having Shimano in the hydration game spells good news for us consumers. If they want to gain market share they are going to have to innovate, which is, as it happens, exactly what they’ve done with the Unzen.
I have been asked to review the U6, the smallest of the line at 6L capacity. There are also 10L and 15L sizes. That’s 6L of storage capacity, not 6L of water, mind you. I believe that all three sizes, the U6, U10, and U15 use the same 2L water bladder, but I could be wrong. My crystal ball totally blanked on that one.
I own two other water bladders, a Camelbak and a Platypus, and both of those are 3L. I think 2L is a better size for mountain riding. It doesn’t slosh around on the back like a larger 3L bladder tends to, and I don’t need the extra capacity because I am too lazy and slow to do endurance rides anymore.
The coolest feature of the water bladder, though, is that the design allows it to be flipped inside out for cleaning. Anyone who has taken a big ol’ gross moldy swig of water knows how nice a feature that is. The same bladder top design also make the bag easy to fill up. Much easier, in my opinion, than the bladders with the screw-in porthole. I do like the word “porthole,” though, as in “Aw, blow it out your porthole.” That’s a good line to use if you should meet a trash-talking pirate.
The biggest area of innovation with these packs, though, is the shoulder harness system. Shimano calls theirs the Cross Harness. Rather than having two shoulder straps and a waist strap, Shimano has two angled straps that clip together in the center, forming an X over the rider’s chest not unlike the way an old west gunslinger might wear dual bandoliers of ammo. There are a number of benefits to this system over the traditional pack strap style.
First of all, there’s only one clip to buckle; you don’t have to buckle a waist belt and a chest belt. Second, the cross pattern keeps the straps out of the way of your arms when they’re in a forward position, which they will be if you like to steer your bike using the handlebars. Some of you might steer merely using balance, or perhaps just the raw power of your minds, but I use my arms and hands.
Third, less straps means less strap-ends flapping around in the wind. Shimano also included little pockets on their straps to hold loose ends secure as well.
Last, and most importantly to me, the shape of the cross harness means that the bag goes from very snug on the back to hanging quite loosely on the shoulder when unsnapped. This makes the pack very easy to put on and take off. I can’t count the number of times I have struggled to get my Camelbak on with the dang hose tangling around my arm like a needy squid.
Also, this design makes it super easy to swing the pack around on one shoulder — like a messenger bag — to access the pockets. This motion is further facilitated by Shimano’s zips, which are on the side of the pack, not the top. It is super easy to get stuff out of the pack. No more getting off your bike, propping it against a tree, then taking off your pack to root around in it for the Clif bar that is all the way at the bottom.
That’s the kind of innovation I’m talking about right there, Shimano. Nice work! Although, if you just want to have a Clif bar or Gu close at hand, the pack also has small velcro pockets on the lower arms of the shoulder straps for that. Features, baby. This pack’s got ‘em. Oh, did I mention the sizing system? No? Well, it’s sweet as monkey meat.
If we are to believe my crystal ball, Shimano is looking to capture some market share away from Camelbak with the Unzen line of hydration packs. If that’s true, it’s a tall order. Camelbak is a respected name in the space. To succeed, Shimano is going to have to come firing hard out of the gate with some big-time features, and they have certainly done that. They are no fools. I’m very impressed.
Now if you will excuse me, I am going to employ some heavy duty wizarding. I’m trying to summon a trash talking pirate minion to do my bidding and this dang crystal ball is no help. All it wants to talk about is bike gear.
Thanks to Shimano for providing the Unzen pack for review. Stay tuned for mtbgreg’s opposing review of the Unzen hydration pack.