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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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11 comments

  1. 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?

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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?

  6. I made the move from a Gregory Z55 to a ULA Ohm 2.0 this year and while it took a couple of trips to sort out exactly how I wanted to arrange the gear that was in my Gregory lid, it wasn’t a huge issue. Since I use a trash compactor bag inside for waterproofing, any wet gear goes on top of that after the bag has been rolled down and I’ve yet to have any significant dampness get to my dry gear. I also hang my pack on my hammock tree strap with a garbage bag over top for an added layer of protection and that has worked well for me. One thing to remember is to roll the bag top in the proper direction to prevent it from catching water and funneling it inside. For me, that means rolling it to the rear of the pack as I’m wearing it and water will shed down the outside or rear of my pack when it’s not under the garbage bag.

  7. Hey Philip,
    Something many people do not look at.
    You can get a brain from Zpacks that will add onto ANY pack.
    And Zpacks also sells add on pockets as well.
    I have an older ARC, with two side pockets that will each hold a couple of one liter bottles, and a large mesh pocket for wet gear use.
    Had a ULA Circuit, and also did not find it lackkng. The only reason I got rid of it is because the Zpack fits me that much better due to a shoulder issue.
    As for very minimalist, most i have encountered would use an add on mesh pocket on shoulder strap for water bottles.

  8. Informative article. Definitely gonnna help me in shopping my next bag. Thanks for sharing

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