28-day Field Test: Osprey Stratos 36 L backpack

The pack rides well and holds a decent amount without the overburdened, hunched-over Boy Scout look that 50+ L packs can lend their users.

I mentioned in my last blog that I wasn’t thrilled with the way my backpack performed on the Camino. The pack I used is an Osprey Stratos 36 L, though I think because I bought the larger size to fit my height, it really has a capacity of 38 L. Speaking of this, I’m not particularly thin, but toward the end of the Camino, when I’d dropped some weight, the tighteners on my hip belt nearly touched, leaving me little leeway if I lost any more weight. Basically, if you’re tall and thin, check the fitting on this pack very carefully – you may not be able to tighten the hip belt so it carries the weight of the pack as it should.

Osprey lists this pack as a day hiker/overnighter. In my opinion, 36 L is overkill for a day bag, unless you’re climbing with ropes and can make use of the ice axe loop and clip on the back. That said, it carries a full load nicely, and I suppose if you had back problems and wanted something with a little more support, this might work as a day hiking pack. The suspension is great, and they’ve designed the bag to carry the load away from your back, allowing for a lot more ventilation and more comfortable carriage.

Though she’s not as hard on her gear, Anne-Claire’s pack of the same model took a full summer of abuse in 2011 at the hands of baggage throwers on three continents and bush taxi middlemen throughout North and West Africa.

I bought this bag because Anne-Claire got the same model before our trip last year, and it held up well to the traveling we did. Being limited to 36 liters is actually a plus for a long trip because you’re less likely to pack stuff you don’t need. The pack by itself is exceptionally light and has some well thought out features, like access to the main compartment through a zippered door, as well as the main draw string entry at the top, and two roomy pockets on the hip belt for easy access to things like a pocket knife or a camera. There’s also another one on the right shoulder strap big enough for a small cellphone. Like pretty much any backpack for sale these days, there’s a hydration sleeve in the main compartment and rigging for a drinking hose.

After less than a week of hiking and only a couple of (carry-on) flights, the strap that attaches the top compartment to the main part of the pack just pulled free.

Osprey’s also created a convenient trekking pole holder with a bungee at the bottom of one side of the bag and then another on the left shoulder strap. I used this attachment frequently on the Camino, as it was nice to have my hands free when we were going through towns, and to just hold my arms in a different position for a change of pace.

This system doesn’t work well once you take your pack off, however. The attached trekking poles then become a sort of sliding weapon, and more than once I nearly took out elderly Spanish women as I was taking my pack off with the trekking poles stowed in place. For long term storage of the poles, I collapsed them to their smallest size and affixed them to the back of the pack with the ice axe holder.

Shoddy quality control. My guess is a simple inspection at the factory (and one by me at the store before I bought) would have revealed a prematurely fraying piece of webbing. Every other Osprey owner I’ve talked to really likes his/her pack.

Unfortunately, about 24 days into our hike, the fabric in the trekking pole attachment on the shoulder strap broke through, rendering the system useless and irreparable without some heavy-duty sewing equipment.

The biggest issue with the pack cropped up much earlier than that. Around day 5 or 6, I went to tighten the strap that attaches the top pouch to the main part of the pack. Without warning, the webbing pulled loose from its stitching. A simple fix involved tying the fraying end to one of the compression straps that goes around the water bottle holder. I did this once, and it held for the rest of the trip, causing no further problems.

The real issue I have with this pack is a lack of confidence in its construction. Yes, the broken webbing was easy to fix, but I’ve been concerned ever since that something else might break. To Osprey’s credit, they responded quickly when I sent them photos of the problem. They said they’d replace the pack when I returned and that I could make field repairs, presumably authorizing me to do something that would ordinarily void the warranty.

I haven’t gone through this process, as I plan to just return it to REI and get a different pack all together. I’m not suggesting Osprey’s not a quality brand. On the contrary, I think their lifetime guarantee sets a standard for the industry, and if I wasn’t as hard on packs, I’d be inclined to try a different model.