Durston Kakwa 40 Backpack Review

Spend some time on the long trails of North America, and one will inevitably start to recognize a name passed on the hushed whispers of the reverent. Durston. The cottage brand has achieved an almost mythical status over the years for its notoriously awesome (and elusive) line of ultralight shelters and backpacks. They are rare to spot in the wilderness and even harder to buy, but the internet is replete with gushing reviews that spark FOMO in the souls of even the most equipped backpackers. Until this summer, I was one of them.

I’d never truly had the need nor patience to justify seeking a Durston shelter or backpack, but with the side pockets of my trusty AT backpack in duct-taped tatters and an opportunity to test the brand-new Durston Kakwa 40, I jumped at the opportunity to saddle up with a backpack that appeared to offer it all. With lofty expectations, I prepared to be disappointed. Instead, I learned a lot about backpacks and came to appreciate how little details can elevate a good piece to a great one.

Durston Kakwa 40 At-a-Glance

durston kakwa

Introducing the clean lines and many pockets of the Kakwa 40. Photo: aeigenbrot

MSRP: $250
Weight: 27.8 ounces (size M)
Volume: 40 liters internal, 15 liters external
Max. recommended load: 45 pounds
Pockets: 1 main compartment, 1 front mesh, 2 hip-belt pockets, 2 side pockets, 1 external zipper pocket, 2 shoulder pouches
Frame: Hollow aluminum inverted U
Material: Ultra 200

Durston Kakwa 40 Intended Use

The Kakwa 40 seems confident of its place in a delightfully crowded backpack market. When combined with a lightweight and pared-down kit, this thing is ready to go the distance on an epic thru-hike (or two) or to be schlepped over peaks and through canyons. Depending on what else needs to fit inside, the modest volume can securely haul a spartan week’s worth of food or enough for a luxurious weekend blowout.

How you pack is up to you. What isn’t is designer Dan Durston’s focus on function and durability, the hallmarks of the Kakwa 40. The materials, frame, stitching, straps, pockets, you name it, were chosen to ride the line between weight and usefulness. What we get is a pack that weighs less than two pounds with an astonishingly high weight carrying capacity, not to mention carefully considered features and beaucoup pockets that help maximize time with pack on the back and feet on the dirt.

Circumstances of Review

My Kakwa saw a lot of sun, sweat, dust, grit, and heavy water hauls on the 135-mile L2H.

The Kakwa 40 came into my life after hiking 2900 miles through the Appalachians with a frameless backpack this spring. Compared with my thru-hike, my miles have reduced significantly, but I’ve still spent a fair bit of time with this pack in the hot and humid East, getting reacquainted with the world of internal frames. I’ve hiked with it at points along the AT from Maine to Virginia, including through some truly drenching weather in Shenandoah.

On the flip side, a successful attempt at the 135-mile Lowest To Highest route (L2H) from Death Valley to Mount Whitney with my brother provided the perfect opportunity to test this pack. It seemed perfectly suited to the trip: a low base weight roast over desert mountains where water loads varied from nonexistent to spine-crushing. All said, I’ve carried this pack on short day hikes with almost no weight and on all-day sweat-fests with up to 40 pounds of mostly water.

Durston Kakwa 40 Features

durston kakwa

Included in the weight of the pack are all kinds of pockets that one might need, like two stretchy shoulder pockets.

EPL 200 Ultra fabric: Colloquially known as Ultra 200, this 200-denier woven laminate is the next great thing in ultralight fabrics since Dyneema Composite Fabric (DCF/DCH) swept the long trails of America in a wave of drab green, white, and black.

Ultra utilizes the same Dyneema unicorn hairs that make DCF super strong for the weight. But unlike DCF, it weaves them with polyester rather than sandwiching them between layers of mylar. The result is a more puncture- and abrasion-resistant fabric that is still extremely lightweight. A film laminated on the inside surface provides durable waterproofness, though that doesn’t necessarily mean that the Kakwa is waterproof. More on that later.

U frame:  The frame of the Kakwa is made from a single aluminum tube bent into a shape that kind of resembles an inverted U. It is actually much more complicated than that, but what’s important is that the horizontal crossbar provides another dimension of stiffness that is often lacking on ultralight backpacks. What does that mean? The Kakwa carries heavy loads more comfortably and resists barreling.

QuickPocket: A vertical zippered pocket integrated into the left side pocket offers secure storage for items that might be too large for the hip belt pockets. Think paper maps, gloves, beanie, snacks, or a large cell phone. The pocket is accessible while wearing the pack for someone with reasonable shoulder mobility.

Y top strap: A doubly adjustable, Y-shaped webbing strap uses a single clip to secure bulky items to the top of the Kakwa 40. This is helpful for hauling a bear canister. It can also be used to attach all kinds of fun, bulky items such as a tent, foam sleeping pad, or my personal favorite, a huge bag of potato chips.

Shoulder strap pockets: Each shoulder strap rocks a stretchy, cinch-top pocket. Yet another option for keeping essentials and snacks within reach.

Roll-top closure: Nothing special here. This is a classic, drybag-like closure method that keeps out water and dirt. It also allows the pack’s extension collar to expand or disappear depending on load volume. This keeps things tidy despite fluctuating food levels and/or gear choices.

Load lifters: Adjustable straps connect the top of each shoulder strap with the pack’s frame. Often absent in ultralight packs, these little wonders help transfer weight off of the shoulders when the load gets heavy and can help dial in how snuggly the pack contacts one’s back.

Asymmetrical side pockets: The tall left pocket securely holds long items, while the angled opening of the right pocket makes access just an easy reach away. Each can handle two Smartwater bottles without issue, and elastic holds everything snug.

Dual-strap hip belt: A strap on the top and bottom of the hip belt helps the padding contour and cup around your hips, which is more comfortable and better at transferring heavy loads than a single-strap design. Don’t worry, it still uses a single buckle.

How’d it do?

durston kakwa

No matter how poorly I packed the Kakwa, it always looked pretty good. Here, the mesh front pocket makes up for my lack of organizational skill by swallowing all the leftover tidbits.

I’ve become a huge fan of the Kakwa 40. As you’ll read, the features of this pack are fun to talk about, but the true beauty of the Kakwa is less tangible. It just works. It holds a lot of stuff, has smart places to put all the stuff,  and carries all that stuff comfortably. The pack was easy to adjust and hauled more weight than a bag this light has any business carrying without the typical accompanying discomfort. With my frameless bag, a heavy load (~25lbs) eventually resulted in a shooting pain from my neck to the base of my shoulder blade. Not so with the Kakwa. It held up to 40 pounds for hours with just one sore shoulder to show for it.

And it might be a small thing, but the Kakwa just looks good. The frame maintained the shape of the pack no matter how poorly I loaded it, giving it clean lines and corners worthy of a gift-wrapping savant. ‘Looking good’ just edges out ‘safety’ as the number one priority while backpacking. The Kakwa handled that for me without thought.

Highlight: Easy Comfort

The Kakwa boasts a bunch of cool individual features that make good talking points for gear nerds. However, my favorite aspect of this pack is how easy it is to use comfortably. This is a result of several shrewd design choices, from the multi-axial U frame to the load lifters and dual-strap hip belt. Although I’ve refined my packing system over the years, I’m unabashedly lazy when it comes to correcting mistakes. I’d rather hike 30 miles with a point jabbing my spine than unload and repack that jar of peanut butter in a better spot. Fortunately, the Kakwa smoothed out the results of my carelessness. It never gave me reason to complain, even when it was loaded awkwardly with nine liters of water.

The frame did an excellent job of maintaining the pack’s structure, holding the back panel taught and flat. Not once did I need to punch down an overstuffed, barreling curve. And with a dump truck’s worth of weight, the load lifters and clever hip belt straps made it easy to put the load where it needed to go. Though I rarely carry as much weight as I did with the Kakwa, even my favorite other packs often aren’t as comfortable.

Weight Capacity

With nine liters of water on the back and a gallon in the hand, we’re gearing up for the heaviest carry of the L2H.

One of the defining features of the Kakwa is the 45-pound load rating. That is an astounding payload for a pack that weighs less than two pounds. As expected for a pack with just a 40-liter volume, it was difficult to even approach this weight limit while fitting everything inside the Kakwa, but horrendous water carries on the L2H helped me get close.

With nine liters of water on my back and a gallon jug in my hand, I crunched across the desert with close to 40 pounds on my back for several miles. That was the worst of it, but I frequently left each water source with six-plus liters of the good stuff. My feet ached, but the Kakwa never gave me any issues. It was easy to adjust as the load fluctuated to accommodate the consumption of food and water.

Durability

Over roughly 200 rugged miles, the Kakwa has proved durable within the scope of ultralight backpack construction. The practical longevity of the relatively new Ultra 200 material hasn’t been extensively tested like DCF. However, if the claims of boosted abrasion and puncture resistance are to be believed, then it should have no issues withstanding the abuse of multiple long thru-hikes. We’ve seen that with DCF, and Ultra is supposed to be better, right?

See the two points of wear where the frame ends terminate. They have stayed pretty much the same since mile 50. Also, notice the shaped side pockets, which won’t squeeze things out.

My Kakwa, aside from being dirty and sweat-stained, shows only one point of fatigue where the frame ends terminate at the lumbar region. At those two points, the Ultra 200 has frayed even though the internal nylon fabric frame sleeves are in perfect nick. This was surprising to find after hiking just 50 miles, but the phenomenon hasn’t progressed in the past 150.*

Besides the material, a few more unsexy construction elements promise to keep the Kakwa packing for a long time. Webbing attachment points are reinforced, the mesh front pocket is durably unstretchy, and all elastic is fully enclosed to protect it from infiltrating detritus.

Furthermore, getting deep into the product description, the Kakwa’s double-stitched and bound seam construction is supposed to be the best. The seam-type nomenclature is over my head, honestly, but as someone who’s blown out seams on other backpacks, I appreciate this extra nod to durability.

Finally, the shoulder straps are attached to the back panel using a single-piece yoke rather than individual attachment points. This increases the seam length and, thus, seam strength. This is especially important considering the 45-pound load rating. There’s more to that number than just a better frame. The Kakwa is ready to haul from inside to out.

*This issue has been resolved. In Mr. Durston’s own words, “we have seen this on a small % of packs in our first run (depending on the fit and body type). I have made some updates for our next batch to resolve this including tougher Ultra 400 fabric in these spots, and redesigning how the frame ends so that now it ends a bit higher behind the hipbelt padding. That padding disperses the pressure to avoid pressure points on the tips. I am quite confident it is a 100% fix. If someone has this issue on the first run pack, we’re happy to warranty it.”

Pockets

The QuickPocket works for things like a phone, provided the side pocket isn’t stuffed full. Photo: aeigenbrot

Despite being a minimalist backpack at its core, the Kakwa comes with tons of pockets to hold just about everything one might need throughout the day.

Hipbelt and Shoulder Straps

The two hip-belt pockets are notable for their ample storage and one-handed operation. Meanwhile, the two stretchy cinch pockets on the shoulder straps are a good place to put all kinds of useful things. While I missed the water and dust protection of my typical shoulder pockets, these two easily kept my phone, small camera, headlamp, chapstick, and a bar secure and within easy reach. They can also hold small bottles or soft bottles if shoulder water is your thing.

Side Pockets and Front Mesh Pocket

The shaped side pockets are more secure and easier to use than traditional water bottle pockets that consist of a single panel sewn down on three sides. They offer secure access to taller items such as water bottles, tent poles, or an umbrella. The front mesh pocket is a little smaller and less stretchy than I’m used to, but that just made me more disciplined with packing and faster to eat my bag of chips. It is still enough to stuff bulky essentials like a rain jacket, water filter, and poop kit.

QuickPocket

Now to the unique QuickPocket (pictured above). This is an interesting feature to which I failed to adapt. Between the hip belt and shoulder pockets, I found that I had plenty of space for my pocketable items and so was at a loss for what to keep in this pocket. My sunscreen, phone, toothbrush, and headlamp all temporarily called the QuickPocket home before being relocated to a more convenient location.

In the end, it became a private suite for my wallet, which, you know what, is a pretty great use for it. The largest limitation was that this extra storage shares volume with the side pocket. With a big bottle and tent poles already taking up most of that space, there wasn’t much left for the odd item. Flat things like maps can sidestep this double-booking, but you can’t cram the side pocket and QuickPocket simultaneously. I can see it being handy in the right circumstance (i.e., not hauling a butt-load of water). For the negligible weight penalty, the added potential utility is probably worth it. I might just not be evolved enough yet to see why.

Bear Canister

Even big bear canisters will fit in the Kakwa vertically, but they will gobble up a good chunk of the useable space in the 40-liter main pocket. Another option is to strap the can horizontally to the top of the pack using the Y top strap.

D’oh! Not Waterproof

Confirmed with a wet quilt after a second test in the rain, the Kakwa isn’t fully waterproof and never claims to be.

My fault. I assumed that waterproof fabric implied a waterproof backpack. My mistake became apparent when I unloaded my pack after hiking for hours through a drenching torrent in Shenandoah National Park. Everything was damp, and my quilt, which I packed at the bottom, was soaked. Hand warmers saved the day, and I learned an important lesson: always use a pack liner. The Ultra 200 itself might be waterproof, but the seams are not. Reasonable precipitation won’t be a problem for the Kakwa. However, it is safe to assume that water always finds a way.

READ NEXT – The Best Backpacks for Thru-Hiking

Durston Kakwa 40 Pros

durston kakwa

Here, the Kakwa is loaded with nine liters of water, yet still feels pretty good. That’s remarkable for a pack this light. Photo: aeigenbrot

Lightweight: The Kakwa weighs less than two pounds. At 27.8 ounces, it’s not really close. With this many pockets, load lifters, and a frame this good, that’s outrageously lightweight.

Comfort: Comfort is subjective, and everyone’s body will interface differently with the Kakwa. That said, this completely average dude thought the pack was very comfortable, especially considering the massive loads that I sometimes hauled. No barreling, good hip belt, good shoulder straps.

Load capacity: I can’t say that the Kakwa is truly capable of carrying 45 pounds as claimed. However, it undoubtedly comes closer to that number than any other sub-three-pound pack I’ve used. That is awesome for ultralighters who might need to lug a massive resupply (Think Sierra, San Juans, or 100-Mile Wilderness).

Ultra 200: This fabric is probably the future of ultralight backpack construction. With measurable benefits over DCF, it promises high strength and durability at a low weight.

Durability: While I only have a couple hundred, not thousands, of miles on my Kakwa, I’ve drunk enough of the Durston Kool-Aid to believe that it will survive long years of abuse. The materials are top-notch, and it feels well-built, more so than other ultralight backpacks that I’ve owned.

Clean lines: This pack looks good no matter how poorly I cram it with stuff. Totally jabroni-proof.

No barreling: Not only does the U frame enable monster hauls, but it also keeps an overstuffed Kakwa from forming a cylinder that pushes into the spinal column. Happy back, happy hiker.

Price: Compared with the competition, the Kakwa is available for a shockingly fair price. I don’t get it.

Durston Kakwa 40 Cons

The Kakwa 40 is hard to find, which means that it’s rare to see in awesome places like this one. Not pictured: Kakwa 40

One color: Gray is inoffensive but pretty boring. Does the world need more technohippies roaming the woods with custom multicolor backpacks? No, but purple is an awesome color.

Availability: The Kakwa is great, but only if you can get it, and it frequently sells out. (Case in point, the pack is sold out through January or February of 2023 as of this writing). With this level of quality for that price, it’s easy to see why. 

Final Thoughts

Living the dream with the Kakwa 40.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, I love my Kakwa 40 and could not be happier to have it for the remaining 2,000 miles of the Eastern Continental Trail this winter. It’s just a few ounces heavier than my 40-liter frameless backpack and manages big loads with a comfort previously reserved for my 65-liter Osprey. My other lightweight packs (Gossamer Gear G4-20, Granite Gear Crown2 60, Arc’teryx Aerios 45, Hyperlite Southwest 2400) just can’t compete in this regard.

The Kakwa is well-suited to handle a wide variety of use cases. It’ll carry that huge resupply yet won’t weigh you down needlessly on a quick weekend trip. While the 40-liter volume will potentially exclude hikers who are not hopelessly afflicted with ultralight madness, rumor has it that a 55-liter Kakwa is in the works. This will be the sweet spot for anyone transitioning to a lightweight setup.

Unfortunately, the always-wise adage, try-before-you-buy, isn’t an option here, and there is no guarantee that the Kakwa will fit any other body as well as it fits mine. However, if you’re hunting for a new backpack, the Kakwa deserves a spot near the top of your list.

Shop the Durston Kakwa 40

Similar Lightweight Backpacks

Hyperlite Mountain Gear 2400 Junction
MSRP: $349+
Weight: 30.4 ounces
Capacity: 40 liters
Max. Load: 40 pounds
Material: Dyneema Composite Hybrid

Zpacks Arc Haul Ultra 50L
MSRP: $399
Weight: 21.1 ounces
Capacity: 37 liters
Max. Load: 40 pounds
Material: Ultra 200 or 100

ULA-Equipment Ultra Circuit
MSRP: $380+
Weight: 34.7 ounces
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Max. Load: 35 pounds
Material: Ultra 200, 400

LiteAF Ultra 40L Curve
MSRP: $325+
Weight: 25-34 ounces
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Max. Load: 35 pounds
Material: Ultra 200

Disclaimer: The Durston Kakwa 40 was donated for the purpose of review.

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Comments 7

  • Dan Durston : Nov 2nd

    Thanks for the kind review. Glad you’re liking that pack.

    For those frame wear spots, we have seen this on a small % of packs in our first run (depending on the fit and body type). I have made some updates for our next batch to resolve this including tougher Ultra 400 fabric in these spots, and redesigning how the frame ends so that now it ends a bit higher behind the hipbelt padding. That padding disperses the pressure to avoid pressure points on the tips. I am quite confident it is a 100% fix. If someone has this issue on the first run pack, we’re happy to warranty it.

    Reply
    • Owen Eigenbrot : Nov 4th

      That’s great to know, Dan. Thanks for owning it, and nice work resolving the issue! I’ve updated the review to add your explanation to the relevant section.

      Reply
  • thetentman : Nov 3rd

    Nice review. They gave you the pack. Nice. They should give you a few Burritos as well. I love my very heavy Dana packs.

    Cheers!

    Reply
    • MIKEJAVO : Nov 6th

      Come on Tentman, it was a pretty great review. Thanks Owen, there was some pretty great information in there. Small companies need to give or donate gear to be fully field tested and reviewed. Not everyone who buys a product and loves it, writes a complete review. I fully appreciate the research and development that guys like Dan do, from experience, and then actually make a product for people to use. I own a Drop Durston 40, with hundreds of miles on it, in rough terrain, and it only seems to get better, comfort and durability wise. I’m also one of the lucky few people who was able to buy an X-Mid 2 Pro, (at a very crappy CND to US dollar exchange rate), and can’t say enough great things about it. It still blows my mind.

      That being said, I have a 30 year old 115 L Lowe Alpine pack and an equally old 7 lb three person tent, which I also love. But it’s people like Dan who innovate, that allow me to continue to enjoy hiking, and drop my base weight by 40 lbs, which included a full roll of duct tape in a waterproof Pelican case. Ah, those were the days, who knew. 🙂

      Anyway, bring on the Kakwa 55 with even more innovations.

      Reply
  • Pinball : Nov 6th

    Nice to see you contributing more voluntarily helpful words into the digital universe. Or is it just “universe” now, as digital is implied? Great thorough review, doing the techno hippies proud. As a recently converted unwavering user of the Bearikade Expedition, I look forward to ordering a 55L is the prophecy comes to fruition.

    Reply
  • auratkachakkar : Nov 7th

    Nice. They should give you a few Burritos as well. I love my very heavy Dana packs.

    Reply
  • d20 : Nov 15th

    I so want more packs that will fit a Bear canister horizontally.

    And more seam sealing on Dyneema and Ultra packs.

    Reply

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