The mountain bike community is usually at odds on almost any topic. Some people prefer carbon while others prefer aluminum. Some people prefer 29inch wheels, while others prefer 27.5inch (or now possibly a mullet or reverse mullet setup). Some people prefer their white Sprinter vans in the color of white, and... well I guess that's your only option.
One of the age-old questions is the hip pack vs. backpack debate. There are many advantages and disadvantages to each. The main difference being the ability of a backpack to carry much more gear and water, allowing greater distances to be covered. But that all comes at the expense of freedom, breathability, and maneuverability.
While Nikki has been testing the hip pack side of things, I have been testing seven backpacks designed specifically for mountain biking. These packs all carry an "average" load, ranging from ten to twenty liters of cargo capacity (except for the CamelBak vest), and all have the ability to carry more than a liter of water in a hydration reservoir.
Note that while most of these packs are marketed towards men, female shredders Taylor and Nikki helped out with testing (and modeling for the photos). They didn't find any usage limitations or fit issues with these brawny "manly man" packs, so don't let the male label scare away you ladies looking for a pack.
Read on for details and thoughts on some hydration pack options for those who prefer to use a proper pack instead of worrying about offending the fashion police with a "hip" pack.
Platypus Duthie AM
• Weight: 990g
• Colors: Carbon, Titanium Gray, Red Alloy
• Volumes: 10L or 15L
• MSRP: $139.95 - $149.95
The Duthie AM (or Siouxon AM for the ladies) is Platypus's all-mountain pack meant for all-day epics when you need to carry more than just water and a single gel.
The Duthie AM checks all the boxes for a modern riding pack, and there wasn't a single thing I missed while using the pack. One of the main features that stood out was the rigid frame and mesh back material design, which provides a good amount of ventilation and comfort. The pockets are laid out in a useful manner, and the hydration system is the cream of the crop with a wide fill mouth, a magnet for keeping the hose securely in place, and an easy to use bite valve. The stretchy material on the sides and back is perfect for stashing apparel and other random items for quick access without having to unzip any pockets or worry about deconstructing the Jenga of widgets that might exist in your large main pocket. As a bonus, a rain cover stows neatly away in the bottom should you ever need it. The Duthie AM somehow even feels like it has more capacity than its claimed 15L when compared to other packs. Maybe it contains a small black hole?
One negative is that that sometimes the magnetic clip for the hydration hose would come loose on chundery bits of trail. This may have been due to the fact that I ended up using this pack more often than the others I tested, but I didn't have that same problem with them.
+ Excellent venting.
+ Comfortable while riding.
+ Lots of useful pockets.
+ Stretchy mesh zones allow for unique organization.
- Magnet doesn't always keep hose in place.
Gregory Drift 14 H2O
• Weight: 880g
• Colors: Eclipse Black, Citron Orange
• Volume: 14L
• MSRP: $109.95
The Gregory Drift 14 H20 offers a good blend of features, weight, and price. It isn't the wildest in terms of pockets and organization, but it's sensibly laid out. There's no rain cover or helmet holder, which helps keep the bulk and mass of the pack small and svelte.
This pack offers one of the cleaner cockpits, with zippered tube routing along the shoulder, and a magnetic clip to hold the bite valve in place. The Shift RS adjustment lets you tune the pack to your specific torso length, a feature Taylor used it to shorten things up to match her torso while wearing it. The Matrix 3D foam in the shoulders and back is comfortable and conforms to your body, but isn't the most breathable I've experienced. I also missed having side hip pockets, which I often use for quick access to small snacks during a ride.
I found that the water bladder fill opening was a little small and harder to fill as compared to the wide fold openings that other companies offer. But the speed clip hydration hanger inside makes it easy to attach the bladder inside the pack; there's no having to fumble around with velcro straps and the like to get 'er done.
All in all, this is a solid choice that's on the cheaper yet lighter weight side of things compared to others in this review.
+ Shift RS waist belt allows you to dial in torso length.
+ Tube sleeve on shoulder strap keeps the tube from flapping.
- Small fill opening on hydration pouch.
- No hip pockets.
Deuter Race EXP AIR 14+3
• Weight: 1100g
• Colors: Cranberry Maroon, Black, Petrol Arctic, Navy Denim
• Volume: 14L (expands to 17L)
• MSRP: $135.00
The Race EXP AIR is a do-everything pack with lots of ventilation and an expandable volume section that allows the pack to change from either 14L or 17L by closing or opening a compression zipper. The rest of the pocket layout is pretty standard, but there are two little mesh zones on the sides for storing snacks or what have you. There aren't any hip pockets, which is a downside in my book. Both a hidden helmet holder and a rain cover are stowed away at the bottom of the pack for when you need them.
The "blowfish" volume zipper compartment isn't really a game-changer for me; I usually just left it expanded while riding—the last thing I'm thinking about while I am bombing down the trail is: "Gee, I really wish my pack was three liters smaller". Deuter could instead have made this pack lighter by just ditching this huge zipper that spans the entire pack. However, the combination of a rigid frame and good venting was a big plus, as it allowed for great comfort while riding on hot days, regardless of how stuffed my pack was.
But... I have another pet peeve: I didn't really care for the hydration system. For starters, there is no clip or magnet for holding the tube, so it flops around a bit when riding. Secondly, the twisting bite valve and cover combination are kind of a pain to use while riding—once I even managed to pull out the bite valve while trying to open it and spewed water all over myself.
That's not to say it's all bad. Overall, the pack carries a load well, and the Aircomfort system for ventilation on big or hot rides is awesome: it's super comfortable, breezy, and keeps the pack from sucking onto your back like a leach when riding.
+ Comfortable rigid frame.
+ Breezy back ventilation.
- No clip or magnets for holding tube.
- No hip pockets.
• Weight: 960g
• Colors: Wildfire red, Cedar green, Black
• Volumes: 10L or 14L (tested)
• MSRP: $150.00
The latest Raptor 14 pack straps up with a broad set of features and organization that makes this pack incredibly popular for good reason. Newer versions of this pack feature shoulder wings that curve the same way your shoulders do while riding, leading to a more locked-in feel with less bouncing around, a definite bonus when ping-ponging down a rock strewn bit of gnarliness.
Additional features include a scratch-free, heat-embossed zippered stash pocket, Osprey's excellent Hydraulic 2.5L water bladder, and zippered hydration routing that keeps the tube from flapping around even when blasting down the trail at a Mach number of 0.05. Osprey uses a different mouse trap for helmet retention, ditching the typical mesh panel that other companies use, and instead going to their LidLock, which threads through a vent hole in your helmet to secure it to your pack. It may not be compatible with all helmets (Smith lids and Bontrager's new Wave Cell lids come to mind) so be aware.
The performance of the Raptor 14 pack is darn near identical to the Duthie AM from Platypus. The volumes are roughly equal, there's a goodly amount of pockets and stretchy bits for organization, and both have hip pockets, which if you hadn't noticed by now are important to me. Instead of a rain cover, Osprey provides an integrated tool roll which keeps your tools organized and the weight low. The back ventilation isn't quite as breezy, but it's comfortable and you don't really notice it while riding. Additionally, the new shoulder wings do a great job of distributing the load on your shoulders without any pressure points and kept the pack from jostling around.
+ Osprey high quality and craftsmanship.
+ Ample pockets for the organized rider.
+ Integrated tool roll keeps weight low.
- Back isn't super breathable.
Hydro Flask Journey Hydration Pack
• Weight: 1690g
• Colors: Black, Graphite, Cobalt
• Volumes: 10L or 20L (tested)
• MSRP: $200.00
Hydro Flask's Journey Hydration Pack sticks with the trend of keeping your beverages frosty cold while on the go. First of all, the hydration bladder itself is lined with neoprene. Additionally, it's stored in a reflective pouch similar to your Ford Fiesta's windshield sunshade. The entire pack is made out of a waterproof material and separated from your back by a gaping chasm of ventilation to minimize heat transfer. This all led to my water staying frigidly cold even on some of my longer riding days in blazing summer heat.
The Journey pack doesn't have much in the way of organization for tools, gear, or food. You basically get two larger main compartments, a singular small pocket that is fleece-lined for your more delicate items, and a wee little accessory pocket on the rear. No mesh zones for gear organization or straps for stashing stuff while riding. You don't get any hip pockets either, meaning no snacking on the go; eating is a full stop endeavor.
While this pack is pretty roomy at 20L, it feels much bigger than the rest of the packs. I think this is due to the huge back vent which moves the pack even farther away from you. It's also heavier, weighing in at around 1700g as compared to roughly 1000g for the rest of the packs. Personally, because of the larger volume and weight, I found this pack was much better suited for day-hiking to your local waterfall with a backpack full of beer than for mountain bike use. For riding, I would probably opt for the 10L version of the Journey Pack, which seems like a more sensible size.
+ Chilly water while on the trail.
+ Water proof/resistant material and zippers.
+ Good venting on back.
- Bulky and heavy (at least in the 20L version).
- Not many organization pockets or straps.
CamelBak Chase Bike Vest
• Weight: 510g
• Colors: Shadow Grey/Iceland Poppy, Racing Red/Pitch Blue, Black
• Volume: 2.5L
• MSRP: $100.00
CamelBak, the OG in the bike-specific hydration pack business offers up the Chase Bike Vest as a minimalist option for the light and fast approach to mountain biking. This gravity-defying pack/vest features an airy mesh frame that keeps things locked in place, but also provides a good bit of ventilation. A 1.5L bladder covers hydration duties. Lots of stretchy pockets on the front and back allow you to squirrel away your goodies.
When I first received the Chase Bike Vest, I thought there was no way I would end up using it. My thinking was that, at only 2.5L of capacity, why wouldn't I just use their Podium Flow belt or their Repack Belt? But my expectations were seriously overturned, and I found myself using this vest way more than I thought I would. The biggest advantage I found was that unlike a hip pack, it was absolutely, totally locked in while riding and had none of the bouncing and flopping around that your standard bum bag possesses. Additionally, the huge front pockets were black holes and I could pretty much store everything I needed in them, but still easily access them while moving.
The Chase Vest is an excellent choice for racing as you can carry the minimum amount of tools and clothing required on your back, and items you might need to access while on the move go on the front. For instance, I used it to race the three day Raging Tiger stage race this summer. It was a perfect choice for that venue as there was a mix of fire road climbing that required snacking on the go that was spiced up with some fast, root-infested descents where a locked-in pack was key. The easy front access kept me fueled up, but I was never distracted by a bouncy pack when I was racing.
Although this vest doesn't have a magnetic tube holder, I was actually ok with CamelBak's set up: the tube just goes straight down and is held in place with two clips. It tucks neatly out of the way along your side while riding, and never bothered me while riding or racing. On the ventilation front, the pack does sit directly on your back so it is not the most breathable. But I found the stretchy mesh material with huge holes actually worked pretty well and I didn't get too hot or sweaty, even in high output race situations.
This may not be the most fashionable piece of gear out there, but if you are ok with channeling your inner XC racer this vest is worth serious consideration.
+ Locked in feel while riding.
+ Huge front pockets for on-the-go items.
+ Lightweight and minimal.
- Minimal cargo capacity.
EVOC Stage 18L
• Weight: 980g (without bladder)
• Colors: Black, Moss Green - Olive, Loam - Carbon Grey, Neon Blue
• Volume: 18L
• MSRP: $150.00
EVOC's Stage 18L is a roomy, versatile pack that is an excellent choice for bigger days up in the high country. Features include a dedicated tool pocket with a dual zipper system, a clip for water tube storage (no magnet), and straps/stretchy pockets on the side for handling extra gear. An integrated helmet carry can handle a dinky little XC lid up to a full face DH hard hat. It also has a hidden rain cover stashed away at the bottom. EVOC's Brace Link shoulder strap mechanism adjusts to your exact shoulder size by pivoting the straps at their attachment point with the pack. Ventilation duties are handled by the Air Flow Contact back ventilation system which is designed to have alternating channels between foam supports to provide airflow to your back.
Although this pack doesn't have any hip pockets, the Airo Flex waist belt is one of the most comfortable with a stretchy soft material that readily conforms to one's hips, girthy or skinny as they may be. Furthermore, despite being 18L, it doesn't feel anywhere near as bulky or large as the 20L Journey pack from Hydro Flask.
While riding, this pack was comfortable and the Brace Link shoulder system did a great job of conforming to both me and Taylor's shoulders as advertised. The back breathability wasn't the greatest compared to the Hydro Flask and lead to a sweaty back when carrying heavy loads of gear. Although ventilation wasn't up to snuff, I found the large foam back area to be comfortable and it distributed the load evenly.
I would choose this pack over the Duthie AM if I needed a bit more room, such as for carrying camera gear or an extra post-ride beer or three.
+ Lots of organized space.
+ Despite size, feels stable and not too bulky.
- Not the best venting on back.
- No hip pockets.
You can't really go wrong with any of these packs. The main differentiators are volume, ventilation, and a few features such as rain covers, helmet carries, tool rolls, etc... To sum up each pack:
• Platypus Duthie AM
: Do everything pack with breathy ventilation.
• Gregory Drift 14 H2O
: Lightweight with good value.
• Deuter Race EXP AIR 14+3
: Cool airy ventilation, with some hydration issues.
• Osprey Raptor 14
: Full of features, but a small ding for ventilation.
• Hydro Flask Journey
: For those who can't handle warm beverages.
• CamelBak Chase Bike Vest
: The light and fast attack approach.
• EVOC Stage 18L
: Big mountain all day pack.