This is an in-depth review of Granite Gear’s Leopard AC 58 backpack for winter use. Here’s a quick summary of my conclusions. Read on if you want the details.
The Leopard AC 58 is billed by Granite Gear as an alpine-ready backpack, suitable for winter use. While the Leopard can carry 30-40 pound loads easily and has external attachments for carrying technical gear, it’s best for use in the colder months when a full winter load is unnecessary. While the Leopard AC 58 is a step up from the Granite Gear Blaze AC 60 with the addition of a floating lid and shovel pocket, the resulting backpack has too many straps and is difficult to pack and repack when frequent layer breaks or gear changes are required.
An Alpine Ready Backpack
Granite Gear’s Leopard AC 58 backpack is an “alpine-ready” backpack, which means that it’s a cross between a three-season backpack and a winter pack, including a few extra features like a top lid pocket, a shovel pocket, crampon holder, and hip belt gear loops. I’ve been testing it for the past two months in New Hampshire’s White Mountains where the winter conditions are so severe that we regularly carry the same gear for day hikes that we do on overnight trips, including shelters, stoves, multiple layers, and a myriad of traction devices (snowshoes, crampons, and microspikes).
In this review, I evaluate the Leopard Ac 58’s suitability as a winter backpack for use in mountainous terrain. Like all backpacks, the Leopard AC 58 has a number of strengths and weaknesses, so it’s important that think carefully about the winter gear you need to carry and whether you need the same degree of alpine readiness that I do.
If you’re familiar with Granite Gear backpacks, the Leopard AC 58 is built using the Granite Gear Air Current suspension system. This is a framesheet based system that lets you custom-fit the packs torso length by raising or lowering where the shoulder straps attach. The framesheet runs all the way down to the bottom of the lumbar region of the hip belt, providing excellent load transfer to the hips, making it possible to carry 30-40+ pounds comfortably. The Leopard AC 58 really shines on carry comfort with heavy loads, with very little slippage in the hip belt, excellent lateral control, load lifters, and hip belt stabilizers. Click here for a more detailed explanation of the Air Current suspension system, which is also used on Granite Gear’s Blaze AC 60 backpack.
In addition to adjustable torso length, it is possible to replace the shoulder pads with thinner or thicker ones (3 sizes) depending your preferences and/or chest size. There are also four different men’s and women’s hip belt sizes available, which slide in and out of through the lumbar area if you want to replace them.
In my experience, it’s best to buy the different sized shoulder straps and hip belts directly from Granite Gear because online retailers either don’t carry them or inadvertently mix up the hip belts from different, incompatible Granite Gear packs, making ordering a very frustrating and drawn out process.
The Leopard AC 58 has three closed storage pockets and two open side mesh pockets. The closed storage is distributed between a main compartment with a roll top closure, a top lid pocket, and a front pocket made out of a softshell-like fabric that closes with a zipper. To Granite Gear’s credit, the company measures the volume of their backpacks by adding up the closed storage capacity on their packs, but not including the volume of open mesh pockets or the added volume in their packs’ extension collars. In other words, at 58 liters of capacity, you can probably fit more gear than you might expect into the Leopard 58.
The Leopard AC 58 has a cavernous main compartment with the standard Granite Gear roll top system, even though the pack has a top lid floating pocket. Being a winter pack there is no hydration pocket inside although there is a toggle that you could hang a hydration reservoir from and a central hydration port behind your neck to run a hydration hose through.
For winter use, I’ve found the roll top closure on the Leopard AC 58 to be unnecessarily complicated to use because it requires so many extra straps to lash it down. There are two straps at each end of the roll top that connect it to the back of the frame about 1/3 down from the top and then another two compression straps that run over the roll top closure to provide more vertical compression.
Top Pocket and Floating Lid
I’m a huge fan of top pockets on winter packs that serve double duty as floating lids because they can be used to lash a lot of extra equipment to the top of a pack, like rope, sleeping pads, or tents. The Leopard has a top pocket/floating lid which is attached to the pack over the roll top using another five straps. although you only need to undo two of them to access the roll top.
Still, the use of the top lid means that you need to undo six compression straps in order to open the main compartment, which is completely unnecessary and redundant. People who hike in winter are putting on and taking off clothing all day long, and pulling food, water, and gear out of their packs. Having to undo and redo six straps each time you need to take something out of the main compartment or put it away is time-consuming.
A much better design would have been to use a draw string to open and close the main compartment instead of a roll top closure, since you really only need the cinch down the top pocket/floating lid for vertical compression.
The Front pocket on the Leopard is a nice luxury. It is a zippered pocket on the front of the pack that is large enough to store extra hats and gloves and winter snacks. The exterior is a softshell like fabric with a good DWR coating that repels water. I’ve been out in heavy mist and freezing rain with it and the gear inside has not gotten wet. Unfortunately, I think it’s placement compromises the usefulness of the shovel pocket.
The Leopard has a front shovel pocket which can be used to secure an avalanche shovel to the front of the pack. It has limited utility however because the depth of the pocket is surprisingly narrow, making it difficult to stuff much into it except fairly thin items like a shovel blade or a pair of crampons oriented on the side.
The shovel pocket is held closed by six straps: four side straps that tie into the side compression system of the pack’s main compartment and two top straps that attach to the top lid. There are more issues with this design. First, if you need to unstrap the shovel pocket webbing to get stuff out of the pocket all of the gear lashed under the side compression straps on side of your pack falls out and has to be re-secured.
Second, the straps that connect the top of the shovel pocket to the top lid don’t run flush with the back of the pack, so that items secured under the floating lid have a tendency to slide down the top of the main compartment and down the front of the pack. The only way to prevent this from happening is to secure the items under the compression straps that run over the rolltop, which is redundant with the floating lid’s function (two pictures down).
A much better shovel pocket design would have been to been to secure the sides of the shovel pocket to the back of the pack with the same stretch softshell fabric used in the side pockets, so that the pocket can expand and contract without being tied into the side compression straps. I’d also recommend running the shovel pocket higher up the front of the pack and securing the top with a center strap running over the top of the main compartment, terminating in the middle of the frame, where it could also be used to secure rope under the top lid. This is standard design pattern for shovel pockets on alpine style packs. This would also shorten the distance between the top of the shovel pocket and the top lid so that items carried under it don’t fall down the front of the pack.
In addition to closed storage, the side pockets are large enough to store 1 liter water bottles wrapped in insulation so they don’t freeze. The bottom tier of compression straps can run through the pockets through side cuts or over the pocket, a classic design found on most Granite Gear packs that makes it possible to keep compression on the main compartment even if the mesh pocket is full. You don’t get that with compression straps that run outside pockets. The side pockets can also be used to hold snow wands. In terms of durability the side pockets are made using the same softshell fabric used on the front pocket and are more durable than a coarser mesh fabric.
External Attachment Points
Winter backpacks have to have a lot of external, uncovered attachment points to carry technical gear such as snowshoes, crampons, microspikes, rope, ice axe(s), and avalanche shovels. I usually carry all of the traction aids listed here on day hikes and almost all of these items on overnight winter backpacking trips. You wouldn’t want to store any of this technical gear inside the backpack because it’s likely snow-covered and will saturate the personal insulation you need to keep dry.
The external attachment points on the Leopard AC 58 are very standard for a winter backpack:
- Dual ice axe loops with shaft holders
- Shovel pocket
- Floating lid
- Three tiers of side compression straps
- Side water bottle or snow want pockets
- Horizontal webbing on the front of the shovel pocket
- Webbing loops on top and underneath the top pocket/floating lid
- Optional add-on gear loops for racking climbing gear or attaching insulated water bottles
- Optional add-in crampon holder that protects the backpack from being punctured
Here are some pictures of them in use:
If you need to carry snowshoes on the Leopard AC 58, you must strap them to the side of the backpack under the compression straps. It’s impossible to stick the bottoms in the shovel pocket because there aren’t any attachment points above the front pocket to lash down the tops of the snowshoes and prevent them from plopping out backwards.
Many backpacks with shovel pockets let you reverse the top-tier of compression straps so that they connect over the front of the pack and secure items in the shovel pocket, and this would be a nice enhancement for future versions of the Leopard. I personally prefer to carrying my snowshoes along the side of the pack as shown because it puts their weight (4 pounds) onto my hips, but if you wanted to strap accordion style Z-lite foam pads to the sides of your pack, which is very common in winter backpacking, there would not be any other place to attach your snowshoes to the pack.
Attaching Water Bottles or Climbing Gear
Granite Gear sells an optional gear loop attachment ($18.95) that lets you attach water bottles, food bottles, climbing gear, or other items to the hip belt. Unlike the crampon holder (see below), the gear loop attachment is secured to the hip belt using velcro tabs, providing a very secure attachment system that is easy to put on, take off, and switch between different Granite Gear backpacks.
Granite Gear sells an optional crampon holster ($29.95) that attaches to the webbing on the shovel pocket using Voile straps. I don’t like this system because I think the attachment point is too low on the backpack, exposing the crampons to harm if your drop your pack on rock/the ground. The crampon holder also doesn’t contain the long \ straps that come with semi-automatic or strap-on crampons, which can become a real nuisance if they’re left to hang free.
Ice Axe Shaft Holder
The Leopard AC 58 has dual ice axe loops at the bottom of the pack and shaft holders located at the top of the shovel pocket. Unfortunately, the shaft holders are located way too low, so that a walking axe slants backwards from the front of the pack. This is a nuisance because it’s easy to catch the axe on obstructions which pull it off the pack. The only workaround is to secure the ice axe under a side compression strap to hold it in place, as shown below.
When Granite Gear sent me this pack to review, I really had high hopes for it because is a pound lighter than my winter backpack. But as a winter hiker, I need fast transition times when layering and delayering to prevent from getting cold and I need to be able to take technical gear off the outside of my pack without all of the other gear I’m carrying falling off. Unfortunately, that’s where the Leopard AC 58 is the weakest. Many of the compression straps on the shovel pocket, the side of the pack, and the top lid serve multiple or redundant purposes. making the pack a lot more complex to use than necessary. If you are backpacking in more temperate weather, where layer or traction/tool changes are less frequent, than the Leopard AC 58 might be more suitable for your winter needs.
- Great carry for heavy loads
- Top lid pocket is convenient for organizing gear
- Optional hip belt loops are good for racking winter gear
- Too many straps on the backpack
- Roll top closure takes too long to open and close.
- Top compression straps do not reverse and connect in front of the pack making it difficult to carry snowshoes in the shovel pocket
- Top ice axe holders are too low and a walking axe must be secured to a side compression strap
Torso Sizes: short | regular
Weight: 1.5kg | 3lbs 5oz (3 pounds as tested on the SectionHiker scale)
Capacity: 58 liters | 3540 cubic inches
Suspension: Air Current (A.C.) Internal Frame
Load Capacity: 35lbs | 16kg
210D Nylon Cordura
Stretch Mesh Fabric
- Air Current Suspension (Same as Blaze)
- 40 lb Load Rating
- Adjustable Torso Length
- 3 Sizes of Shoulder Straps (S,M,L) available
- 4 Sizes in Men’s Hip Belt Available
- 4 Sizes in Women’s Hip Belt Available
- Hip Belt Compatible With Tool Loops and Belt Pocket
- Flap is Compatible With The Crampon Holster
- Roll-Top Closure
- Removable Floating Lid
- 2 lbs, 12 oz With Lid Removed
- Mesh Pocket Inside Lid
- tool loops
- hydration port & internal sleeve
- Flap with Axe Cinches and 2 Zippered Pockets
- Stretch Woven Zippered Pocket on Front
- Stretch Woven Wand Pockets
- Dual Density Hip Belt and Shoulder Straps
- Cordura High Tenacity Nylon (100D and 210D)
Disclaimer: Philip Werner (SectionHiker.com) received a sample Leopard AC 58 backpack from Granite Gear for this review.
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