The quest for the perfect alpine backpack is like chasing the Holy Grail, that is to say, good freaking luck. It’s just about impossible to argue for any one pack as a clear winter as pretty much every reliable option on the market has its own set of pro, it’s own negative drawbacks and that’s before you even consider the specifics of the climb!
In early 2016 I signed up as a volunteer on Mount St. Helens and quickly realized that between the dozen climbs I had just committed to plus my other plans for the Spring and Summer, my existing packs were simply not ideal. On one hand I had just sent back my Mountain Hardwear Direttissima 50 pack for repairs (note, I have friends with that pack who had no issues so no hard feelings) and the idea of trying to cinch down my 70L to a day climb size seemed silly. Scouring through blogs, forums and across almost all of Portland’s outdoor stores (hint: there’s a lot), I debated size, looked for hydration support, considered crampon pocket styles and finally settled on Osprey’s Variant 37*.
At 37L (actually 40L since I have the large, the medium is 37L and the small 34L), this is the smallest climbing pack I’ve ever used but as one of my climbing partners often remarks, the larger your pack, the more you tend to drag along. In a year of hikes and climbs ranging from the Grand Canyon to Hood, I’ve found that the Variant is big enough for most 1-2 day adventures but compact enough to not become a bulky monstrosity on shorter days.
Beyond a couple days it’s probably not the solution I’d turn to as bolt on options are limited though I’ve had my eye on the 52L version as well for some bigger adventures.
The Perks of the Variant 37
What drew me to the Variant first and foremost was Osprey’s suspension system. While it’s not to the level of Osprey’s backpacking line, the combination of the gently curved back piece and the rigid support of the aluminum frame combine to make the pack all day wearable provided that you stay near the 35-40lbs load range (in the large I’m ok with 45ish.) Beyond the support, the curved design is just way more comfortable than other mountaineering packs I’ve used and when I happen to find a breeze, it allows in air to cool down nicely.
In addition to comfort, I really wanted a pack that could span traditional mountaineering and more general climbing features. While some alpine specific packs are pretty much one single pouch, the Variant has a large (but removable) lid for essentials with a secondary, bottom zipper for maps and such, a very large, front crampon pocket and two small side pockets. The crampon pouch is particular impressive as it’s reinforced with what feels like a plastic plate that sits below the ice axe slots and is certainly far more protective than the typical material of other packs I’ve used. Throw in quick release clips for ice axes / tools, a bucket for carrying rope under the lid, ski loops, a haul system and it’s a pretty comprehensive alpine pack.
Of course the idea of using a pack just for one type of terrain never really appealed to me and at 37L / under 4lbs (3.48 on the large, 3.37 on the medium, 3.22 on the small), the Variant is fairly well positioned for warmer weather hikes as well. To support this, Osprey breaks the mountaineering mold by offering a hydration pouch & outlet and while I rarely remember to actually use those, they are nice to have on blue-bird days. I can’t speak much for the ski system as I’ve never used it on this pack though looking at it, it seems to be pretty similar to other designs.
Finally on the list of things I like and in getting back to that comfort factor, the waist is well padded and the dual tension strap design makes it easy to properly distribute weight side to side. Having gear loops on the waist is also helpful for clipping items or stashing an axe when I’m too lazy to take my pack off and store them properly while the various adjustments for shoulders to chest all line up easily. There’s even an integrated whistle though it’s nothing to write home about.
What I Wish It Did Better
Of course it’s against the rule of backpack companies to give you everything you want, ok, just kidding! More appropriately, what one person wants in a pack is not always what someone else will want and with the Variant 37 there are a few things I just wish had been done differently, for my style.
First and foremost, the material of the pack resists water about as well as your typical synthetic shirt (i.e. its not cotton but don’t walk into a storm either.) Sure, I can line it with trashbags on soggy days (and would probably do so anyways even waterproof packs seem to let plenty in) but as it is intended to be an alpine pack, I’d really like to at least have the option to buy up to a water-resistant model.
Similarly, I’m disappointed that there are no real cross straps for securing a tent or pad onto the back of the pack for overnight climbs. A couple more attachment points or even just a couple changes to the directions the current compression and it would be a lot easier to load up bulkier items turning this into a true multi-day pack. I’ve also found it hard to stash boots securely with the length of the pack’s straps though that’s probably because I have oversized boots in the first place so no real knock there.
Finally, while I really like having clips for the ice axes (means I can release them without having to take the pack off less I get into a tricky spot), the way the spots are cut for them, I find that more aggressive axes with a curve (but not full on ice tools) tend to get caught up in it.
Clearly none of these are huge draw backs but it’s certainly enough that I still debate which pack to bring on a climb depending on the day / forecast / climb.
One Year of Real World Tests
As of the publication of this review, I’ve had my Variant 37 one day shy of a year and in that time I’ve summited about two dozen trip report worthy mountains with it and hiked in it many times more than that as well. More than the number of uses however, those hikes and climbs have been made up primarily with rocky, snowy, and otherwise abrasive terrain. Simply put, my pack has seen some solid wear over it’s current life.
Looking at the exterior, no one is going to think I’m climbing in a new pack anymore. A handful of rainy days and a couple bathtub washes have helped to get rid of some of the dirt but the vibrant red is starting to fade down and show some stains especially around the bottom, sides and back where the pack tends to come into ground or sweat contact.
That said, the remarkably well thought out crampon pouch has been a real win in keeping the pack from taking any major damage from crampons, axes or just being compressed when I flip it over as a seat and that’s across both snow and volcanic rock climbs. That’s true of just about the entire exterior which has yet to rip, tear, or fray off more than a couple threads (knock on wood for me now that I’ve said it out loud.)
The waist pads certainly show some wear and dirt stains but with the distributed load approach it seems to have survived any real deterioration thus far. Similarly, while the straps, cinches and tie-downs are not as tight as when it was new, all still work and are still all there.
In short the pack is just as functional now as it was a year ago and that’s not something I can say about all the packs I’ve tried or even all the gear that’s sat inside this one.
The bottom line
If you’re looking for an all around, alpine and climbing friendly pack, the Variant 37 is a great solution combining good load support and mountain features in a comfortable, super versatile design that holds up. That’s not to say it takes the best mountaineering approach at every point but for getting out for the day, this pack delivers.
- Category: Backpack
- Utility: Snow, alpine climbing & general hiking
- Pros: Holds loads well with ample features for all around use
- Cons: Lacks water resistance and could use more straps / attachments
- Style: Orange and Black colors, SM, MD and LG sizes
- Price: $180 MSRP
- Rating: 4 of 5
- Official Site | Buy It Now at Backcountry.com*
Alternative options: For something a little larger and with waterproofing, try Mountain Hardwear’s Direttissima 50 pack.
* Disclosure: I earn a commissions for any sales made through Buy It Now links on this post. As for the pack, I paid for that myself.