Rolltop backpacks have increased in popularity in the past few years and many new models are available for day hikers as well as overnight backpackers. But rolltop packs have certain advantages and disadvantages that are worth considering if you’re shopping for a new a backpack or switching from a more traditional alpine style model with a top lid pocket.
Advantages of Rolltop Backpacks
Rolltop packs are streamlined backpacks that close like a dry bag on top, but which are seldom completely waterproof, especially if they have a built-in hydration port. Their main advantages are simplicity and ease of use, since they tend to have fewer webbing straps cluttering the outside of the pack and are easier to open and close than a more traditional backpack with a top lid pocket.
1. Top Compression
Rolltop packs make it easy to eliminate unneeded backpack volume by rolling up excess fabric when you close the backpack. This helps compress your load by making it less bulky and more compact.
2. Large Top Openings
Rolltop backpacks have large top openings that make it easier to see what you have in your backpack, make it easier to reach in and pull it out, and make it easier to pack your gear away.
3. Wider Range of Use
Can’t decide on buying a high volume or lower volume backpack? A rolltop pack lets you buy a higher volume pack and use it for long or short trips, since it’s so easy to adjust the volume to suits your needs.
4. Fewer Straps
Most rolltop style packs have far fewer straps than packs with top lids since there’s no need to secure an extra top pocket over the main compartment. If you’re sick of backpacks with a dozen or more external straps, a rolltop can provide a refreshingly minimalist experience.
5. Fewer Zippers to Break
The weakest part of any backpack are the pockets zippers which jam up with grit when they get dirty. Most rolltop packs eliminate all zippers and are therefore much less prone to zipper failures.
6. Less Expensive to Manufacture
Rolltop packs are less expensive for manufacturers to make because they have fewer parts, produce less fabric waste, and have fewer assembly steps.
Disadvantages of Rolltop Backpacks
While rolltop packs can be quite advantageous for minimalist style trips, it’d be a mistake to assume that they’re perfect for all circumstances. There are times when having a backpack with a “brain” (top lid) or straps like the Osprey Packs Exos 58, Gregory Z40, or Granite Gear Leopard AC 58 (shown above) can be quite advantageous. When choosing what kind of backpack to buy, it’s best to consider what your preferences are and the types of functions you want your backpack to provide for the trips you intend to take.
1. Fewer pockets or compartments for gear organization
The problem with many rolltop packs is that they only have one main compartment for storing gear and everything gets mixed up inside it. This can be inconvenient if you go on multi-activity overnight trips that combine backpacking with photography, climbing, or fishing. Having multiple pockets that can be accessed independently from one another really helps to keep activity-specific gear better organized and quickly accessible when you need it. It’s also useful for winter trips, when you want to be able to rapidly change gloves and hats, without having to stop and open up your backpack each time.
2. Fewer external attachment points
Many minimal rolltop packs have fewer attachment points and straps for attaching gear to the outside of a backpack. Packs with multiple closed compartments tend to have more seams that can be used to anchor gear loops and webbing straps, an important consideration if you want to attach skis, crampons, bulky foam pads, or a bear canister to the outside of your backpack.
3. Wet gear gets packed with dry gear
Minimalist rolltop packs often don’t have a good way to segregate wet or damp gear and clothing from dry stuff, which can be a real disadvantage on multi-day trips where being able to change into dry gear at night or in an emergency is critical. The last thing I want to do on a trip is stuff a soaking wet tent at the bottom of my backpack and pile all my dry clothing and electronics on top, even if they are separated by a plastic pack liner.
4. Must use a hydration reservoir and hose for water
Minimalist rolltop packs don’t have side water bottle pockets, so you need to store your water inside your pack using a hydration reservoir and hose. Hydration reservoirs have many disadvantages for backpacking trips: you can’t see how much water you have left, they’re difficult to refill without having to empty and repack your pack, and they can leak.
Rolltop Backpack Recommendations
If you want to enjoy the advantages or rolltop packs while mitigating their disadvantages, I recommend you check out rolltop packs with a large rear shovel style pocket, side mesh water bottle pockets, and hip belt pockets. Packs with these features combine the best features of rolltop packs with more traditional packs, including the ability to organize multi-function gear and segregate wet from dry items.
Here are a few rolltop backpacks that I use and recommend:
- Hyperlite Mountain Gear Southwest 2400 and Southwest 3400 Backpacks
- ULA Circuit Backpack
- Seek Outside Divide Backpack
- Exped Lightning 60 Backpack
What’s your experience been with rolltop packs and their advantages or disadvantages?
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