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Rolltop Backpacks – Pros and Cons

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.

The ULA Circuit is organized like most lightweigh and ultralight backpacks with a rear mesh pocket and open side water bottle pockets.
The ULA Circuit is organized like most lightweight and ultralight backpacks with a rear mesh pocket and open side water bottle pockets.

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:

What’s your experience been with rolltop packs and their advantages or disadvantages?

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  1. Are you the kind of person who likes to shove everything into your top lid pocket, where its easy to get at? Millet used to make a climbing pack with a two tier top pocket for all such people. The trouble is, everything gets a bit top heavy, and a half empty pack with a stuffed top lid looks daft.
    Lately, I’ve been using a Granite Gear VC, and on my first multi-day trip I had it without a top lid. It was a new discipline for me, but I did it to save weight. All the small things usually destined for the top pocket had to find a new home. A small stuff sac that could be secured inside at the top of the pack for all the small bits, and hats and gloves etc went into the external stretch pockets. It worked well, I had changed the habit of a lifetime, and reduced the weight of my pack.
    On my next (less weight sensitive) trip, I added the Granite Gear detachable top lid. Before I did this, I cut off the concealed strapping that allows for its use as a fanny pack. I held off cutting the top straps designed for attaching more stuff onto the lid until I had had a chance to assess their utility in the field.
    Conclusions: 1] easy access to all your small stuff while walking isn’t essential. 2] when you have finished walking, its a bonus to have a detachable lid (with all your important stuff in it), that can be taken into the tent and placed to hand. 3] In future I will go ‘topless’ on all trips where weight saving is important. 4] the straps on the top lid will be coming off.

  2. One advantage you didn’t mention is that a roll top permits something approaching a truly waterproof pack. When sea kayaking in Prince William Sound and other Alaska areas, I often like to do day hikes from our campsites. I have a Sealline roll top day pack that I use extensively for that purpose. It is also handy for other adventures (for example rafting or coastal travel by skiff) which combine water travel, sometimes very wet weather, and hiking. Admittedly this is a somewhat specialized use, but it is nice to have a pack which will keep essential items dry, no mater what.

    • “Approaching waterproof”. Sealine packs are designed to be waterproof, but most other roll tops leak at the seams or through their hydration port. It’s a false promise.

      • That is why I said “approaching waterproof”. As you say, Sealine uses the same design for this pack as they do for their dry bags. I have used it in some really wet situations, and no leaks yet. I don’t think I have ever actually submerged it however. The other day pack I have that might be truly waterproof is a small one from a mom and pop outfit called “Sagebrush Dry” based in SE Alaska. It closes with a dry suit zipper. That pack has also worked well in severe wet conditions. Unfortunately the Sagebrush Dry owners have had some health issues, and I’m not sure they will be filling any more orders.

  3. I have a top lid for my Unaweep and hip belt pouches from Z-packs. I have plenty of external storage and Seek Outside’s modularity makes the pack infinitely adaptable. Its not water proof, but that was never a consideration. The Cuben Fiber packbag is water resistant enough for me. I have a roll top bag with a top lid. Strange, huh?

  4. Slightly improved water resistance is a poor tradeoff for the ease of drawstring closure, imo. I don’t even use a lid. I just don’t like the mechanics of operating a rolltop.

    • I agree, for typical backpacking and hiking, a completely waterproof pack isn’t a big deal. However, for some activities on and around water and in very wet climates, it becomes more of an issue. As I noted up thread, this is a somewhat specialized situation.

    • +1 w/Spelt Give me simple, like a version 1 ULA Ohm

  5. Katabatic Helios. My recommendation. Did the PCT with it last summer. Every feature came in handy, and I didn’t want any other features. It compacts very well for when your load is smaller and/or you are smelling the barn coming into town, picking up the pace. No tears in the mesh. Through my neglect, a rodent made one small hole in a hip belt pocket (same material), but it did not expand, so I didn’t bother sewing it. The mesh is pretty tough. The suspension is just supportive enough for the longer water carries. I only had one all-day rain, but my stuff stayed dry despite the lack of interior liner. Same deal on a recent shakedown hike in the Smokies where I received a day of rain. Ding: you have to wash the belt occasionally, or it will start to slip. Once every couple town stops is plenty. Say, 250 miles. Bonus: The branding is not as obnoxious as the HARD hmg packs. (SO HARD!)

    Like the other recommended roll-top packs, all the disadvantages listed above are moot.

    Interesting point about the drawstring closure. I adapted to put everything I need during the day in the exterior pockets. One stuff sack for the portion of the day’s food which did not fit in the hip belt pockets. Another stuff sack for all the miscellaneous items you want at stops. The weight of the two is much less than a traditional lid. I added a shoulder strap cord to the second one, and it was my purse for town. Plenty of room left over in the front pocket for wet items and extra layers. I had no issue with anything falling out. And note that drawstring closure is not just a compromise of water resistance. It also provides no compression. The Helios does include the option of clipping the two ends of the roll top together which is a bit quicker, if you don’t need the compression. Think of dumping your groceries in there before you head to the hostile to organize them. The leftover top compression straps can be clipped to the extra clips at the bottom side compression strap. (On each side, there is one clip inside the pocket, and one outside the pocket.)

  6. Mmm. Is that what I had in the Boy Scouts in 1960, a Roll Top Backpack? In fact I still have it with Canteen, Cook kits, Silverware, Fishing Knife, Pocketknife, Sheath knife and my Trusty Boy Scout Hatchet. I still have the Canvas Tent but it is rotting apart as I write…. The only problems I recall in having a Roll Top Sack was what to do with the Sleeping Bag. They didn’t have tie on straps or Hook and Loop or any of those other gadgets and straps and buckles etc. etc. It does have to Brass D Shaped attachemets at the near bottom of the Pack…. So we used clothes line to tie the big Coleman Bag on by looping it through the Shoulder Straps and sometimes putting it under the Pack Flap hoping the Flap Tie Down String would hold it in place.. .Very durable Canvas and waterproof if you Waxed it or Shellaced it. I like the New Designs and Materials but I’ll continue on with my Osprey. I like the Built in Rain Cover which sure came in handy last week and the Pockets on the Hip Belt, I just love that feature…

  7. Some of this article equated roll-top with minimalist design (e.g. no rear or side pockets), which isn’t necessarily the case. I’m not a big fan of roll top closures common on most of the ultralight packs these days. Most do not use waterproof fabric, so what’s the point of all that rolling and clipping every time I want to get in the pack? But I don’t like lids either, common on most mainstream packs – just always seemed like a useless pocket on top. My favorite is zipper front-loader, with lidless drawstring closure a close second.

  8. I have been enjoying my ULA Ohm 2.0 for a couple of years now. Lightweight with three good-sized mesh pockets and two small pockets on the hip belt. Really, really comfortable. It’s everything I want in a pack.

    • You have 3 mesh pockets? I only have 1. I was cheated!

      Kidding aside, I second the Ohm 2.0. Light, simple, and bulletproof. Packs with all those newfangled zippers and pockets and straps just confuse me. I just make sure I put anything I’m likely to need quickly in (1) a belt pocket (2) in the big mesh pocket or one of the side pockets and (3) at the top of the pack.

      I have yet to encounter a situation where that wasn’t perfectly acceptable. If I struggled at any point to get something, I chalk it up to failing to plan ahead.

  9. Another vote for drawstring closures :)

    I keep my “rest stop” layer, rain jacket, water bottle, water drops, and snacks bag (quart sized zip lock) in the top of the pack. Pull 1 cord lock open – and everything i need throughout the day is instantly available – and i dont have to remember where i put things (hip belt pocket, side pocket, back pocket, etc.

    All my other stuff is inside a trash compactor bag (pack liner). If its raining, i put my rest stop layer inside it too. The opening of the pack liner is ALSO accessible when i open the drawstring closure of the pack. Even with all the other stuff i put in the top of the pack in there :)

    I can’t reach the side pockets very easily to replace water bottles on most packs. So i tie a piece of 1/8″ line around the neck of the water bottle so that it makes a big loop, and hang the bottle around my neck with 1 arm through the loop. This “canteen” sits tucked into the space between my hip amd my pack. Out of the way, not bouncy, and easily accessible :)

  10. John, do you have a picture of that? I have the same problem.

  11. My rolltop backpack, the earlier 2005 version of the now-defunct Six Moon Designs Comet, does just fine. I really like being able to compress the pack to fit varying size loads. With the large outside pockets, I don’t worry about wet stuff inside (tent goes into one of the outside side pockets). Of course I also have the option to use a pack liner and pack wet items inside the pack and outside the liner. What I do occasionally cuss at is the velcro closure. I hate velcro! It gets full of lint, pine needles, dog hair, my hair, errant sleeping bag feathers, etc. and grabs onto whatever I’m putting in/taking out of the pack. However, I haven’t yet gotten mad enough at the velcro to convert to a drawstring closure, which I could easily do. I never have filled the expansion collar, even for a 10-day trip, so there is plenty enough extra fabric there to make a fold-over hem for the drawstring.

    • I don’t know the detail of you pack but perhaps you could reduce it a bit and take off the velcro in the process. My granite gear VC has no velcro in its closure system, it doesn’t need it..

  12. My Zpacks Arc Blast is a rolltop with mesh back pocket, and side pockets that hold water bladder, umbrella, etc. Just used it for a 40 day trip. There were a number of days with hard rain, and everything inside stayed dry. No pack cover or poncho used. I wore rain jacket and pants, and didn’t stay dry, but pack, yes.

  13. I have a roll top pack with external pockets so I guess I’m not seeing why I would have to use a hydration pack, nor am I seeing why my wet and dry gear would be stored together. As a distance backpacker I use stuff sacks for everything and my gear is always separated… so I don’t understand that negative point either. I don’t understand the attachment to a lidded pack anymore. As a guide I mostly see my clients fill the lid with so much junk that their pack becomes top heavy. Having used both lidded and roll top packs I’ll say that I’ve discovered I have no use for a lid and it just seems to get in the way when I’m loading up in the mornings. Now that I’m a convert I don’t think I’ll go back.

  14. All great vendor recommendation, best of lightweight and quality combination, leading the field in their cutting edge design. I like the rolltops but only up to 35L to 40L max, their get too hard to keep organized past that. I’d also recommend a lot of milsurp and canvas roll tops packs for a more vintage look, they’re more durable, but heavier.

  15. I have a Southwest 3400 and love it. Light weight and just all around great. You do need to learn how to pack it so you can find things quickly. It does limit how much you can carry, but that is a good thing. Waterproof and no zippers to tear or snag. Very comfortable equal to my Osprey pack but 2 pounds lighter.
    By the way I am 69 years old.

  16. I just bought a rolltop pack – Granite Gear Blaze 60, and still fiddling with packing. I’m used to a traditional system that has the sleeping bag compartment in the bottom (also used to house winter outerwear), main compartment, & lid. So far I really like the idea of one big bag, but I’m still scratching my head to find the best place for my Scarp1. On my ‘retired’ pack( a Dueter), I stuck it in a side pocket; and because I hike primarily to photograph, balanced the pack with a small tripod on the other side. I will probably try this setup with the Blaze, and really hope it works out that way. I’d like to use the big center mesh pocket for my raingear &/or winter outerwear where I can grab it without opening the bag. I’ve also tried packing the tent in that big middle pocket (seems to ride better that way) with the raingear tucked under the roll top straps. Anyway, It’ll be fun to fool with until I figure out the system. Part of the gear obsession eh?? Any suggestion on how to attach snow shoes on a pack of this type?

  17. I just took the older version of the SMD 65L out for 10 days on the AT between Roan Mtn and Damascus, VA. I chose this over a Gregory pack with drawstring, top lid, internal divider with external sleeping bag access, lots of zippers, and several external pockets, because of the weight savings.

    The SMD 65L is basically a sack with a roll top and has been criticized for its three, somewhat small, exterior pockets but I found a way to make do. I used a bladder system to drink from instead of bottles, even though I carried one for mixing and for meal time, and used more “ditty” bags inside for organization than if I was using my Gregory.

    I enjoyed the lighter weight and found a way around the reduced utility. The new version of this pack has refined some of the criticisms but in doing so, it has gained weight.

    Overall, I’d have to say there is a definite place for roll-tops, where weight is priority, but there are still times that fill the need for a traditional-type backpack…

    • Totally agree. Having a brain (top lid) becomes more critical when you do a lot of peripheral layer changes (hats, gloves) in winter or need to refer to navigation gear a lot. Both things occur in winter.

  18. Great post Philip. Some makers have Velcro in the rim of the roll top and others don’t. What’s the difference and does it matter?

  19. I use a Granite Gear Vapor Trail. I love it. I line it with a contractors bag, stuff everything in, roll up the contractors bag and then roll up the top of the pack. I can compress it from the top and the sides. It’s a great pack. The zip open style of pack can be more convenient for finding specific stuff, but they’re usually harder to close, the zipper can fail- I love roll tops for the simplicity.

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