Monday, September 3, 2012

Gear Review: Osprey Exos 46 Backpack

Image property of Osprey Packs Inc.
     I decided about a year ago to change the way I reviewed gear. Rather than give an incomplete review labeled as complete, give initial impressions. Then add to those with long-term results of actual use. The risk is that the gear would be obsolete by the time an in-depth honest review could be delivered. Or that the review would be obsolete because too many incomplete opinions would have muddied the waters. Oddly, what I've come to find out is that the great pieces of gear truly are timeless. They're stocked year after year. Maybe tweaked or redesigned, but they're still around. There are several of these in my inventory. Items that I still have use for even though my focus changes.
     The first of these is my first "lightweight" backpack. The Osprey Exos Series Packs have been around since at least 2009. That's when I purchased mine from REI. I was looking to reduce the weight of my "big 3" even back then. I had no idea of being an ultralighter, but my frame backpacks were 6+lbs. and 8+lbs. Something had to give. 
     My pack is a size large Exos 46 in Ember Orange. Which means plain grey with an orange design across the back, a few orange straps, foam, and on the floating lid. It needs to be said that pack color is very low on my priority chain. Grey and orange aren't ugly. They're just PLAIN when compared to the sexy black and green on my brother's Exos 58. As with most packs, the size large isn't just the torso length. It means an extra 3 liters capacity in the main storage compartment.  So make that a 49L pack. It weighs 2lbs, 7oz.

     About the frame; it's kind of an internal/external hybrid really. It has a pencil-thin 6061-T6 Aluminum powder coated frame that follows the contours (edges) of the pack. There are two wire thin support bars running horizontally just above mid-lumbar. They use "3D tensioned mesh" in the back panel that adds stability along with keeping the pack inches off of your mid-back. That's why they call it "Airspeed".  It's cool and sturdy. The bottom corners of the pack are reinforced with a much more abrasion resistant material. I find it interesting that after ditching my external frame pack in 1993, I've now come nearly full circle.

Showing off my burns after dumping 2 cups of boiling water down my leg.

     The pack is a top loader without internal pockets. It has a floating lid with a large external and a small internal zippered compartments. In addition to the main compartment there is an external side-zip compartment and a stretchy front pocket large enough for a wet groundcloth and tarp. There are matching mesh pockets on the hipbelt and a small stretchy pocket on the left shoulder strap( I can't define the intended use so I put my Albuterol inhaler there). They use 70D x 100D Shadowcheck for the main portions of the pack and 160 x 210 Window Ripstop for the stretch pocket. The entire back panel is mesh and as well as the side pockets(think water bottle holders). The harness straps are all "mesh covered slotted-foam Bio-Stretch".
     The setup of the pack in the last paragraph is my main reason for liking it, but I can't ignore the bells and whistles. It has them all. It's water bladder enabled, could carry an ice axe, trekking poles on back(with bungee and a nifty little Osprey attachment thingy) or in the easy to use "Stow on the Go(tm)" holders. There's the adjustable 4 position chest strap, the load on the go side water bottle pockets. Heck, they even put a whistle on the chest strap buckle. There's the obligatory key clip in the floating pocket, too. It has adjustable loops on bottom to hold a tent or sleeping pad(or packraft!). Each side has 2 compression straps that run in a "V". They are well placed with the lower threaded ingeniously through the side pockets.

Will posing, as only Will can do.

     All the cords, straps, and the harness seemed at first to be under-sized. The adjustable straps holding the lid, the compression straps, and the sleeping pad attachment points are 7mm flat webbing with tiny Osprey proprietary buckles. The shoulder and the waist straps(below padded areas) are flat webbing roughly 15mm and 19mm respectively. That is very small for a pack this size. The waist buckle is decidedly small but buckles at the small point of a "V" on both sides. You tighten it ergonomically by pulling the straps forward rather than backward. This assists in providing a snug fit. I carried comfortably to 33.75 lbs. before the inside edges of the shoulder straps began to hurt a bit. Even that was after hours of hiking.
     As with most packs, there are things that puzzle me. On this one, the shape of the airspeed suspension actually bows back into the main compartment. This means that the area along your back isn't even close to flat. Osprey actually put a zipper along the top(inside main compartment) where I guess you could stuff something like a water bladder or a piece of clothing if you wanted to dampen the air flow. I still scratch my head. 
     The thing about owning and using the same pack for three years is that my needs have changed. Last winter I used this pack because it was cold and my gear required more space than my frameless pack. Or when I need to carry some of my son's gear. Otherwise, I thought I was done with this one. Until I bought a packraft, that is. That requires nearly 10 lbs. of extra gear, with a raft(packed) the size of an old 2-man tent, a paddle, and a PFD. Now I have use for this pack again. It's big enough for an ultralighter with a packraft and 6 days of food. With lots of room left, I might add.

The Exos 46 on left, Osprey Hornet 46 on right. Notice lack of attachment points on Hornet.

As a pack for packrafting:
     The main body of the pack had room for all of my gear including 6 days of food. I use the sleeping pad straps on bottom to hold the (packed) raft. Although the 7mm straps appear a little skimpy, there is little movement of the 6 lb. raft. The attachment points show no wear. The PFD goes inside the main compartment. The 4-piece paddle is broken down, with the paddle ends placed paddle side down in the stretchy stuff pocket. The ends stick out at angles, but don't interfere with usability. I use the water bottle pocket on one side for the 2 paddle tubes. Those slip behind the compression straps with very little movement. Regarding attachment to the boat; The pack length is nearly perfect. My pack-it system cords cross the middle of the main compartment. By storing a tarp or rain gear there the cords compress around a bulge, reducing slip back and forth.

Posing the Exos 46!

My conclusion:
     The Exos 46 is the perfect size for a traditional packer intent on transitioning to lightweight packing. The harness is surprisingly comfortable given the lack of padding and bulk. Although there are signs of wear on the bottom edge where the main body meets the frame, it is reinforced and will hold up indefinitely. This pack has seen over 500 miles of trail. I can't believe that as I type it. Lots of memories. It's been on the Appalachian Trail and the Continental Divide Trail. It's seen the Buffalo River, the Flathead River, and half of the Ozark Highlands Trail. Several packrafting trips in Montana and Alabama. And it's been MONEY. Never have my friends heard me complain about it. NEVER. I'm not sure I could say that about any other gear I own. The answer to the main question(the only question) is; YES, I advised my friends to look at this pack. Two of them now own one(Exos 58's in both cases). That being said, I will leave you with the pros and cons, as is my way.

Will with his sexy black Exos 58

     It's very lightweight for a pack to carry up to about 35 lbs. It's built for exactly the strength you need, not what looks bomber. The floating lid is removable. Water bottle holders can be "stuffed" while you wear the pack. "Stow on the go" works great if you need to ditch poles for scrambling. There's not excess material to gather water when it rains. vertically zippered pocket can hold rain gear for easy access. Stretch pocket easy to stuff a wet fly or other gear into. Large hip pockets with pull tabs. No excess strap weight, they're thin, but strong. This could be the perfect pack series for someone transitioning to lightweight backpacking.

     It could be lighter if they removed the zippered vertical pocket, and zipper dividing the airspeed frame from the back panel. A slightly beefier belt buckle would help slightly larger waisted hikers. The torso has no adjustments, so make sure you get the right sized pack. Grey is too plain, buy the black one. The stow attachments for trekking poles aren't removable without cutting(I always use my poles). Due to the airspeed suspension, the main compartment is odd shaped. Above 35 lbs. the shoulder and waist straps are too meager. With a full pack, the water holsters are a bit difficult to load.