One look at the Helium Pro tells you what it’s made for: this is an alpine backpack, built for the mountains. If the technical details and high speed materials don’t tip you off, the printed logo (showing a pair of vikings on skis) will. The design is feature-rich, and suitable for winter hiking, climbing and ski-touring.
I’ve been using the Helium Pro 40 for a little over a year, throughout Scotland’s mountains, catching more than the one season of hiking and climbing. This began with a weekend’s winter skills training in pretty extreme conditions. Once the snows (and the need for technical winter kit) passed, the Helium Pro was repurposed as an overnight pack. It’s carried everything I needed for 2-3 day trips through the national parks here, up trails and across rivers.
The Helium Pro 40 comes in at 1225g. It isn’t a minimalist design like the Mountain Equipment Tupilak but is lighter than similar models such as the Montane Fast Alpine 40 or the Black Diamond Mission 45. It can shave off an additional 70g by removing the floating lid, for times when every grain of rice counts. The body of the pack is made from 210D and 420D Velocity Nylon, making it flexible but still feeling fairly rugged to the touch – I haven’t babied the Helium at all, but I’m not seeing any signs of wear. Crucially, the rougher material covers higher-wear areas of the bag’s exterior, reducing abrasion when squeezing through a chimney or being set down on the ground.
What mass the bag has is well spent in the frame. The shoulder straps merge together into a solid yoke that sits squarely at the top of the back, making up the top half of Bergans’ ‘quickadjust’ frame system. The yoke, held in place with velcro and a g-hook, slides on rails built into the bag’s rear. By altering the distance between the yoke and the Helium Pro’s lumbar pad, the wearer can achieve perfect fit that keeps the load stable and comfortably mounted against their hips, perfect for a long day on the hill.
The belt itself is thick and stiff – when I first started using the Helium Pro I experienced some discomfort as the foam would rub in movement. After the first couple of outings I took the bag off, adjusted everything again, and stopped pulling the belt so tight – I’m pleased to say the discomfort stopped and since then the bag has been a delight to wear. On the body the bag feels a little rigid, but only for the first few seconds of pulling it on. In movement I don’t find myself having to think about the bag at all which is exactly what I want, especially with a bag this size, for this kind of use.
The size of the Helium Pro is worth commenting on – I’ve been using the 40 litre version but Bergans also make the bag in 55 litres under the same pattern – this is big for a daypack in most situations, but for technical winter use it becomes necessary. If a summer dayhike load might fill a 20 litre bag, (holding food, a raincoat, and a few essentials), the Helium Pro 40 accounts for adding extra layers, crampons, ice axes, helmets, emergency avalanche gear, even skis or rope. All this extra kit has its own place in the bag, to keep it tidy, secure and accessible: Ice-axe loops on the front panel are neat and keep the tools’ picks tucked away safely. A quick zipped pocket behind those has loops for a probe and a collapsed snow shovel, should those be needed in a hurry.
Significantly, there are no side pockets for water bottles, and that’s is a good thing. In icy weather liquids on the outside will freeze up quickly, and any bottle that manages to slip will hit the ice and keep slipping, usually faster than anyone can catch it… I’ve seen it happen, more than once. Instead, each side of the bag has compression straps and a sturdy gear loop, which can be used to hold skis or other large kit. I actually liked to keep my ice axe there since I could draw it with a simple reach over my shoulder rather than needing to drop the pack on steep ground.
The bag’s collar is tall and flexible, with dual drawstrings for better weather protection. A top compression strap can also be clipped short to keep a hank of rope tidy, close to the shoulders. The bag can be opened through the top or a long side zipper, which can grant access to gear at the bottom of the pack more quickly; this was great when I wanted to pull my insulation layer out quickly, but the zip struggled around a stuffed bag, and didn’t come with anything asides from the standard metal pull, which made it hard to use in the worst weather, especially when my fingers were numb from cold – that’s frustrating when everything else about the bag (including the colour of this very zipper) seems to have kept these conditions in mind.
The bag’s interior isn’t a void either, featuring a convenient zipped pocket behind the front face. A hydration bladder sleeve is present but in the whole year of own this bag I only used it once, going back to bottles stored amongst my kit when my drinking tube froze up, leaving me without water for half the day. More zips are built into the lid, making a handy spot for goggles or a replacement buff; the lid’s interior pocket also has a key leash and some inner mesh; I threw my car keys in here every time since I could get to them without disturbing the rest of the pack.
The Helium Pro’s performance in these conditions is down to a narrow set of features that don’t lend themselves well to other uses. I found I could make the bag work for summer backpacking, but felt like I wasn’t getting the best experience out of it. The foam used for the belt and yoke is dense and nonabsorbent, which is ideal for dealing with snow, but less fun in hot weather. The bag’s profile tapers downwards, keeping the base fairly narrow. This makes it stable and steady in movement, but meant that it was hard to squeeze a sleeping bag into the base, where traditional wisdom would place it for multi-day trips. The shape, styling and size of the bag make it utterly unsuited for urban travel or any other scenario where a 40L bag might be needed.
That’s not surprising, nor is it really a solid criticism of the bag – Bergans set out to make a technical pack for winter mountain use, and that’s what they achieved. Their specialty in the field is well established (they’ve been in the game a long time), and shows in offerings like this: the harness and load carriage on the Helium Pro has been simply superb, after a brief breaking-in period. The bag’s features are uncompromising: those who favour simple versatility in their carry might look elsewhere, but for users willing to set their kit up the way the bag wants to be used, it’s very easy to get along.