Osprey Variant 37 Rucksack Review....

11th May 2016


3 rucksacks

What does a general purpose climbing, mountaineering and winter activities rucksack need?  A comfortable carrying system, durable construction, any extra features needed for carrying relevant equipment and a low profile shape.  What they don’t need, in my opinion, is extra ‘bells and whistles’ that get in the way.

So, at it’s simplest this could be a simple tube with a padded back and shoulder straps and I heard that Ueli Steck, the maestro of minimalism, usually takes a pair of scissors to new rucksacks to strip off what he sees as unnecessary bells and whistles.  Of course, Ueli can pick and choose and, having seen his gear room, I guess he has a different sack for each mountain activity - the rest of us probably need more of a ‘jack of all trades’ option.

So what, beyond that tube with a harness, do we actually need? If you are a winter mountaineer and/or winter climber then you will probably need attachment points for ice axes.  Similarly, having gear loops on the waist belt may be of use for some.  Side compression straps to alter the size and perhaps a system to alter the capacity could be of use.  Lid pockets, hydration system compatibility may be of interest and all fastened with a protective closure system.  

Oh yes, and if you are carrying gear for winter or a load of climbing kit for summer adventures then you’ll unavoidably be packing a fair amount of weight and so the need for a comfortable and supportive harness and back system becomes far more important.

After all this, the question of size rears its head.  For climbing use where users are carrying hardware and other equipment then I find around 35 to 45 litres is ideal.  Sometimes you can get away with a bit less and at other times you may need to expand the capacity - it all depends on conditions, time of year and objective.

So, with all this in mind I set out to thoroughly test out three leading mountaineering rucksacks from tried and trusted brands.  To get as broad a range of opinion as possible I also planned to give the rucksacks to course participants of varying shapes and sizes to see what they thought.  It’s been a while in the making, but here are my conclusions on 3 market leading mountaineering rucksacks.  To do these properly turned into quite a blog epic and so we have split it into 3 and will add these to the blog over the next three days and save the final summary until the last entry.  First up is the Osprey Variant 37….....

Osprey Variant 37 Rucksack Review

Osprey Variant front


The Osprey Variant is a fully featured mountain pack.  Osprey’s description of it is ‘a true winter pack for exploration into deep snow, frozen waterfalls and ice-fractured mountains.  Designed to support the weight and rigours of carrying your winter gear.’

The Variant has all the bells and whistles you could possible need and yet it still manages to be compact and with smooth lines.  The pack is constructed from a durable fabric (I struggled to find specific information on this fabric from the Osprey website) and there is a compression moulded back panel with removable HDPE framesheet and T6061 aluminium stays.  The contoured shoulder straps are well padded and the sculpted removable hip belt has gear loops built in.

 The lid pocket arrangement on the Variant is very interesting.  There is a standard adjustable lid with 2 pockets which can be easily removed.  Then, underneath this there is a separate top cover  (which Osprey call a FlapJacket) that can be used as a lightweight alternative lid. 

The other feature that is rather different to the norm is ‘crampon shield compression pocket’ which is, in simple terms, a large flap that sits across the front of the rucksack and is tightened using the side compression straps.  As it’s name suggests, this can be used to store crampons, shovels, ski touring skins or, infact, just about anything else.  The shield panel also incorporates slots that ice axes can be slotted into.

Beyond that, there is a ski carry system, under lid rope carrying system, chest strap with whistle, hydration system compatibility, wand pockets and a 3 point hauling set up.

Osprey Variant back

In Use

The Variant has seen some serious use this winter and into spring.  This seems, through no particular plan or design, to have ended up being my main guiding pack over the snowy season.  This may be in part because I have had it for less time than the other packs in the test and also undoubtedly because I really enjoyed using it.  These activities have included climbing, mountaineering and trekking activities in Scotland and the Lake District.  Alongside this, a broad number of clients and some friends also used it extensively.  In total it has had use by 18 clients and a total of 129 days of use.

My initial thoughts about the Variant were that it was rather over the top on features - particularly the large front panel which seemed rather bulky and the extra lid seemed like unnecessary clutter,  but this is a rucksack you need to use for a while to fully appreciate the genius of it.  

Firstly, let’s get through the fit details.  This is a very comfortable pack that will carry fairly heavy loads easily.  The back panel is firm and supportive and the sculpted sholuder straps are superb.  To carry heavy loads comfortably a sack needs a well formed and padded waistbelt and the one on the Variant is fantastic.  The other people that used the Variant also commented on the comfortable carry even when loaded up with winter kit and climbing equipment.  Osprey have always prioritised fit and on the Variant they have really hit the comfort nail on the head.  

Beyond that, the Variant is a good size for a day in the mountains carrying hardware and ropes.  I’m not saying it wouldn’t shine when used for hiking, but it is designed primarily as a climbing and mountaineering pack and that is its real calling.  If you have a bit too much kit the front panel will take care of your crampons and there is the extendible lid that will give a chunk of extra space, but for an average days winter climbing (or now summer climbing) this extra capacity really hasn’t been needed.  

Infact, most of the time recently I’ve been leaving the removable lid behind and using the pack with the smaller ‘FlapJacket’ lid.  This is a simple flap of fabric (with a small mesh pocket in the back) that covers the main opening well and keeps the weather out.  It was one of the features that I initially thought was rather over the top but I now realise is a bit of design genius.

Cairngorms Osprey

The front panel of the Variant is another useful addition.  Like many UK climbers I tend to store my crampons in the main compartment of my sack and so I wondered how much I’d use this, but again I have grown to love it  The panel is of very durable construction and expands to allow crampons to sit well secured and also well protected.  Beyond that, the panel can be used to secure anything else you need easily accessible such as spare gloves, a shovel or a map.  It’s very versatile.

On the front the panel also plays its part in ice axe storage.  There are clever slots within the panel that the ice axe picks can be pushed into.  Once in place a simple quick lock buckle completes the attachment.  It takes a bit of getting used to and, depending on the axe style, it can initially be hard to locate them, but you soon get used to it and then it works really well.

Other features are all there, all well considered and all perform really well.  The ski attachment system works effortlessly, the compression straps compress the main rucksack body as expected and the detachable lid is a snug fitting and well shaped cover with handy pockets.  I’m not a hydration system user but if you are it’s all there and feedback from the testers who used it was that it worked well.  

I was a little concerned about how durable the Variant would be but actually it has stood up to tough winter days and long mountaineering routes with aplomb.  The construction quality is excellent, the materials have proved to be very hard wearing and, because potential wear points are protected, it has had no problems standing up to use and abuse in winter and summer conditions.

Of course, these comments aren’t just my view.  All users fell in love with this rucksack and the only observations of slight concern were that the various features took some time to get used to and one user observed that when axes are stashed using the panel retainer, the adze of the hammers can stick out rather a long way with the potential to catch on things.  Other than that everyone gave it a full five stars.

Full details on the Variant can be found on Osprey's excellent website here which also has a series of excellent short videos clearly showing the key features described.

Posted by Paul 

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