Gear I Hold Dear: My Flash 52 Backpack

Neither ultralight nor ultraluxe, the REI Co-op Flash taught our tester to find bliss in moderation.

I don’t get warm fuzzies when I reach for my Flash 52, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love it. This pack has steadied me as I shimmied across cliffs, and carried my filthy-wet gaiters when I couldn’t bear to touch them myself. It’s helped me reach distant campsites that seemed beyond my range.

It doesn’t caress me or make me feel like a goddess—but it never abuses me. And honestly, I’ve come to think that being unoffensive is a backpack’s best quality.

I used to expect a lot more. For years, my quest for total comfort had me pinballing between radically different styles of packs. When I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2003, I coveted the impossibly light, cottage-built packs that I saw on other hikers. But as incredibly light as they were, those stripped-down sacks lacked metal supports, cushioned hipbelts and virtually every other load-supporting feature favored by conventional pack designers. I bought one, thinking that the weight I’d save would erase the soreness in my legs and feet. Instead, that flimsy pack only created new pains in other places, like the muscles in my neck and shoulders. Even the fabric sawed into my skin until calluses formed.

rei co-op flash 55

REI Co-op Flash 55 – Women’s (left); the removable features on display in the REI Co-op Flash 55 – Men’s (right)

After the AT, I vowed I’d never go spartan again—so I bought the cushiest pack I could find. It was like a sofa with shoulder straps: Thick foam padding softened everything but the innards, where an impressive network of rigid supports promised to levitate every load shy of an anvil. I figured that with all its features, I’d never even register the pack’s 6-pound tare weight, but with it, I hiked so slowly that 4 miles became a full day’s journey.

Then came the REI Co-op Flash 52, which is more like a beach lounger than a sofa. It has an aluminum stay that reinforces the perimeter of the backpanel and funnels the weight down to the hips. The hipbelt is especially stiff, with a rigid framesheet inside that’s softened by a thin layer of mesh-covered foam. You won’t find super-plush padding anywhere on this pack. But then again, my women’s size medium weighs a smidge less than 3 pounds.

AT ultralighters might sneer at that figure, but the Flash turned out to be my Goldilocks: Neither too heavy nor too insubstantial, it lets me carry stuff in relative comfort. Sure, my body feels tired after 12-mile days, when I’m all too glad to drop the Flash and free my spine and shoulders. But with this pack, there’s no torture—no chafed skin, no neck-tugging, no bruised hips.

In fact, the first few miles always feel great. The shape of the hipbelt feels custom-made for me. Its two pockets keep my snacks and sunscreen within easy reach. The shoulder straps let my arms swing easily.

rei co-op flash 55

Backpacking with the latest iteration of Flash gear

Eventually, my back does get sweaty, and the pack can feel blocky, as if I’d strapped a stretcher to my torso. But these are totally tolerable discomforts. And in fact, REI Co-op designers actually addressed that planky quality in the latest iteration of the Flash, which hit shelves in spring 2019. This updated model now holds 55 liters, and it swapped out aluminum rods for flexible spring steel that moves with you for a more natural feel.

The newest Flash packs also have removable pockets on the shoulder straps and a “rain shield” lid that keeps electronics dry. Plus, they’re made of a rectangular-grid ripstop fabric that’s lighter than the ripstop in my 52-liter version, but just as strong—and more sustainable (it has bluesign®-approved fabrics now). And despite gaining those additional features, the Flash 55 still weighs less than 3 pounds.

Nevertheless, I don’t yearn to trade my trusty Flash 52 for the new and improved version. I’m happy with my pack’s adequateness. It helped me conquer the seemingly endless climbs that I encountered on my first trip to the Alps, and it hauled ridiculous quantities of water into Canyonlands National Park. Sometimes, it even lets me feel like a Flash (which is really saying something).

Mostly, though, I love that the Flash doesn’t force me to think about my body and its discontents during the whole time that I’m hiking. It frees me up to actually appreciate the places I’ve walked to. And really, what’s better than that?

For more odes about our favorite stuff, check our Gear I Hold Dear series.

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