When I found out I was going to be living in a relatively boring town surrounded by lots of other NOT boring places in southern Spain for nine months, I decided it would be a good idea to buy a backpack so I could get the hell out of my town on the weekends and explore.
I had a small daypack that I had used during other short-term travel (A North Face pack similar to the Recon), but I wanted the possibility of doing some more intense travel and that baby just wasn’t going to cut it. So I logged onto REI and started shopping.
I am a picky shopper, especially when it comes to spending loads of hard-earned money on something as boring as a backpack, so I did my research. I wanted something that could get me through a month-long trip or a two-day trip. I wanted something that would fit into the overhead compartment of a Ryanair plane, I wanted something with lots of convenient little pockets, and most of all I wanted something that would be comfortable. I have a weak, finicky back, and backpacks usually are not something I look forward to putting on, so being light and ergonomic and having some form of a supportive frame were all requirements this bag would have to meet. And I wanted all of this for less than $200.
My research led me to a fancy new superlight pack by Osprey; the Exos. The Exos is like a feather. It also has a lot of cool features like easily accessible trekking pole loops, a sleeve for up to three liters of hydration, and a bunch of other stuff that I will probably never use. Half of the cool gizmos and gadgets on this thing actually almost scared me away at first. I was planning on daytripping through Andalucía, not trekking through the snowy Himalayas. I didn’t need poles or hydration systems, I needed a place to put my laptop, a couple shirts and my camera in a way that wouldn’t give me a backache. And I found it!
After a one-on-one session with an unfortunate REI employee who was subjected to intense questioning and a try-on session that involved maybe dozens of backpacks filled with dozens and DOZENS of beanbag weights, I was hooked on the Exos. It was super light, and the suspension system kept the pack off my back without keeping it too far off my back so I never felt like I was falling backwards. The straps didn’t cut into me anywhere, the frame hugged my body, and the capacity of the 46 liter model was plenty big to last me for just about any length European backpacking trip without tempting me to pack too much (though there is a larger model Exos out there if you need that extra capacity). The 46 liter pack was $179, and it was quite possibly the best $179 I have ever spent. My boyfriend settled for the slightly more heavy-duty, slightly bigger, slightly less-pricey Atmos (the green pack in the pictures) which I will touch on as well.
I backpacked through Spain for a month in September 2009, then lived out of the backpack every Mon-Thurs from October until March of the same year. In December I took a winter trip to Poland and the Czech Republic with the thing, and most recently in June I spent 10 days backpacking in Albania and two in Italy. Throughout the year I took a bunch of side trips to places all around Spain, by plane, train, and bus. The backpack has been thoroughly tested, and I am happy to say that it is amazing.
First of all it is light. This is great. If you are going away for a day or two, you don’t even feel like you have anything on your back, and the bag compacts down enough that I would even consider using it as a daypack if I didn’t have another bag available, which I don’t. If you are going away longer, the lightness can be essential in situations like hiking down a cliff in the dark to camp on an Albanian beach or when you are being ordered by an Italian airport security officer to repack your bag to get it under the ridiculously strict 10 kilo Ryanair hand-luggage restriction. On the downside, the pack is only so light because everything on it is a little smaller, a little thinner, or a little more hollow than a normal pack. At first I was worried about tossing it around or checking it on a flight where it might get banged up, but after a few months I realized that it was tough enough to take some bumping about. The only thing that really bothers me about the lightness is the waist belt. The belt itself is very thin compared to the Atmos or other similar packs, which means it can cut into you a bit if the bag is particularly heavy. The clips also sometimes pop out or get loose due to the fact that they just don’t have the bulk of a normal bag. This bothered me a bit but it was worth it because the rest of the pack was so great, though I could imagine it being a little more bothersome if you are doing more serious trekking.
Otherwise, the pockets and straps and everything are wonderful. You can fit so much stuff into that 46 liter pouch that you could easily travel for months. Even when carrying a sleeping bag, a tent, my DSLR, and clothes for two weeks in there, we were still able to get the bags through Ryanair as carry-ons without a problem. The soft stretchy pouch in the front is great for shoes, wet clothes, or anything you might want at hand, provided that there are no sharp edges involved. I have a few little cuts in the stretchy front pouch material from things as soft as a book, so be careful before putting anything with corners or points in there. The front pouch below the stretchy pocket has zipper access running down the left side of the pack and is great and huge, though not always 100% easy to get your hand into when the main compartment is filled, partly because it is so large and smaller items can get lost in the folds of the pocket. I rarely left loose items in there, instead grouping them into zipper bags to make them easier to pull out. Having a shallower zipper pocket in the front area might have been nice, and the Atmos does separate that front section into two smaller pockets which sometimes made me a little jealous. The water bottle holders on the sides are roomy and easy to access while wearing the pack, and there is enough netting and straps that you can easily keep lots of things in there besides a water bottle without worrying about anything falling out. The compression straps on the side, though thin, are excellent at compacting everything down to a manageable size. The mesh pockets on the waistbelt are big enough to hold things like small change, chapstick, a digital camera, passport, etc, which was always convenient while walking longer distances or at the airport. The cell phone holder on the shoulder strap came in handy often, and the removable pouch on the top of the bag was in constant use and smooshes down nicely when empty, though I often found myself wishing it was waterproof to provide some coverage for the rest of the pack.
The shoulder straps in general could be a little thicker and more padded, but honestly if you are going to be carrying so much weight that the straps are causing you pain, an ultra-light bag probably isn’t a good choice for you.
And lastly, the colors are a super cool grey and burnt orange which I swear had nothing to do with me picking it….
So the jist of this all is that the Exos is an excellent pack for backpacking, if by “backpacking” you mean through Europe or something similar. I assume that it will be just as good out in the woods or wilderness or whatever, but I can certainly give it an A+ for the budget traveler set, if you can recommend a $179 pack and still be using the word “budget.” It easily transitioned from walking the streets of Milan into camping in Albania and it looked good doing it!
And if the Exos is just too light or delicate or whatever for you, the Atmos offers basically everything that the Exos does, but is a little heavier (emphasis on little), a little more sturdy, and a little cheaper–an excellent alternative. For my boyfriend, the Atmos just felt better on his back, and he decided that ultimately comfort was worth an extra pound or so of weight, and it was a great choice for him. Either way, both packs have proved to be well worth the investment. I highly recommend doing a fitting at REI or a similar store where you can try on the different sizes, talk to a salesperson, and even add lots of weights to make sure nothing pokes you in the wrong places, which is definitely something you want to look into before purchasing the pack, loading it up with 30lbs of (absolutely necessary) supplies and hitting the road.