The Osprey Variant 52 a great winter backpack for overnights and ice climbing and one of the best winter backpacks you can buy off-the-shelf from a mainstream gear manufacturer. It’s lightweight, roomy, exceptionally comfortable and easily reconfigured for many usage scenarios. I think Osprey has hit a home run with this one and that it will become a winter favorite.
Here’s a quick rundown of the Osprey Variant 52 feature list:
- Floating dual pocket, allowing you to sandwich more gear on top of the main compartment such as ropes, tent poles, or a sleeping pad.
- Large extension collar with a drawstring closure and a drawstring compression loop.
- Three-point haul system for pulling your gear up a cliff.
- Dual ice axe holder which protects your picks and forces you to carry your ice axes in a safe position.
- External shovel pocket with zipper and six additional attachment points, including y-clip bungee cords.
- Two tiers of side compression straps.
- Side elastic pockets large enough to carry 1 liter water bottles.
- Adjustable sternum strap, load lifters, and lateral hip control straps.
- Detachable/replaceable hip belt enabling you to get a great fit independent of your torso size
- Tool holsters for hanging ice climbing gear.
- Side ski loops.
- Removable plastic and aluminum framesheet.
- Hydration compatible with an internal reservoir pocket.
- Large zipper pulls so you can unzip pockets while wearing gloves.
Comfort and Fit
I really like the way that the Variant 52 fits me. The hip to waist weight transfer is one of the best I’ve ever experienced on any backpack. Part of this is due to the shape of the pack which tapers from wide to narrow as you move from top to bottom, and provides you with better balance and lateral control.
Fit-wise, the Variant 52’s hip belt is replaceable, unlike a lot of other Osprey Packs, which means you can actually get a decent fit if you are a little plumper or skinnier than average. The hip belt system uses wide canvas straps and chunky buckles that are easy to use wearing gloves and are more robust in colder temperatures with heavier loads. It is not excessively padded or wide, which is how I like my hip belts, but it is easy to tighten to get a great fit.
The back of the Variant 52 is a piece of foam stiffened with an internal plastic and aluminum framesheet. I prefer this instead of a ventilated suspension in winter because it provides me with more insulation. When filled, the floating lid may touch the back of your head, but can be easily adjusted to provide extra clearance without having to cut a hole in the top of the framesheet.
Weight-wise, the 3120 cubic inch (medium-size) Variant 52 weighs 3 lbs, 9.4 oz on my scale making it quite light for a winter backpack. But it still seems to carry a lot more gear than you’d expect. I’m not sure how Osprey measures the capacity, but it seems that the Variant 52 can hold as much as my other 4,000+ cubic inch packs. For example, I was able to easily stow a -25 F sleeping bag and my all of my winter gear in the Variant 52 without much of a struggle. That’s big!
In addition to a replaceable hip belt, the Variant 52 comes with a floating lid and a generous extension collar allowing you increase the volume of the main compartment or sandwich a climbing rope, sleeping pad, or a tent between the lid and the rest of the pack. The extension collar closes at the top with a drawstring closure as well as a drawstring compression cord a bit farther down the back, above the shovel pocket.
Additionally, the Variant 52’s internal framesheet and aluminum stay are removable saving you an additional 8.8 oz in gear weight. Though not recommended by Osprey Customer Support, replacing the stay with a foam sleeping pad such as a Therm-a-rest Z-lite does provide the pack with adequate stiffness while carrying a full winter load. In this configuration, the sleeping pad is positioned in back of the framesheet pocket and serves multiple-functions, saving you weight.
The Shovel Pocket on this pack provides little utility, and in my opinion, should be replaced by a separate crampon pocket. Crampon pockets are appearing more frequently on winter backpacks targeted for ice climbers such as the Gregory Alpinisto, although they’ve been standard on more expensive climbing packs from smaller (more expensive) manufacturers like Cilogear, Cold Cold World, and Wild Things for ages.
As it is, the shovel pocket is not big or tough enough to store step-in crampons without puncturing the pack, and it interferes with the ability to attach snowshoes using the side compression straps.
You can see this in the two photos above. In the top photo, the top compression strap can be seen running through the shovel pocket along the side of the pack. The bottom picture shows that this strap is not long enough to secure a snowshoe to the side of the pack. While you can workaround this by cutting off the strap securing it to the pack and replacing it with a longer strap, it would have been nicer if the pack had been designed for carrying this type of gear in the first place.
The side pockets on the main compartment of the pack are designed to hold mountaineering wands, but not water bottles, which I find kind of strange. While it is possible to get two 1 liter bottles into the side pockets when the pack is full using brute force, making them a bit larger and higher would make them a lot easier to use and result in little weight penalty.
While I am critical of the shovel pocket and it’s failings, on balance I still like this pack a lot because of its volume and comfort. Truthfully, I’ve even considered replacing my winter pack with it. If you are looking for an overnight winter hiking pack that is comfortable and affordable, I’d recommend that you give the Osprey Variant 52 serious consideration. If you try wearing one, you’ll be sold.
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Thanks for the very helpful review. What about the Variant 52 makes you want to replace your Cold Cold World Chaos Pack? What about it is better than the Chaos pack? Also, how close are they in volume? In addition, had you considered using a lighter Golite Pinnacle (with the addition of a stay for extra support if needed)?
The Variant's hip belt provides somewhat better load transfer than the Chaos. That's really the chief difference. Volume-wise the Chaos is a little larger in the main compartment, but it can carry way more because it has a much better floating lid and extension collar. I've never considered using a Pinnacle for winter backpacking. It doesn't have the volume or external attachments (including a floating lid) required for winter backpacking, and the fabric would be shredded very quickly by all of the sharp pointy things I need to carry. Good questions.
I hear you on trading load transfer for volume. What would you say is the total volume difference between the two packs?
Regarding the Pinnacle, it would be worth asking Chris Townsend of https://www.christownsendoutdoors.com/ and Doug Johnson, a staff writer at BPL, how they manage with theirs, as they've used the Pinnacle as their winter packs for backcountry ski tours and winter backpacking and for alpine climbing (at least I know Doug has used his for alpine ascents).
The variant 52 is 3120 cubic inches and the choas is 4000, but I don't find those numbers particularly meaningful because I carry a lot of winter gear outside of my pack and under the floating lid in winter.
Regarding the Pinnacle, I used to own one and I have a pretty good understanding of it's strengths and weaknesses. I've even corresponded with Chris about it in the past.
For me, in winter, I need a pack with a floating lid, a long extension collar, lots of daisy chains, long side compression straps, a crampon pocket, and preferably a pad pocket. The Pinnacle doesn't have any of these. Case closed.
I caught the printed volume numbers – I meant functional volumes. Philip we're actually on the same page as far as winter packs are concerned – I am trying to understand how Chris and Doug use the Pinnacle for winter comfortably without shredding it. They must have some way of protecting the pack from the sharp teeth of snowshoes and crampons. Possibly also some way of strapping on extra gear. Maybe they sew on Hypalon patches. I'd love to know.
I wouldn't be surprised if they are using a sled. I think I read something about this on one of Chris' recent posts.
With a pulk it makes sense, but then with a pulk you could use just a duffel bag and you'd be fine (and many do just that). I'll ask Chris what he uses for crampons and snowshoes with the Pinnacle.
the shovel and wand pockets are actually perfect for their intended use …
shovel because the variant is also a ski mountaineering pack in which case you carry an avy shovel … you cant do that on a predator in its crampon pocket … its much more important to have your avy shovel to be immediately accessible than yr crampons, which most mountaineers i know just wrap in a fleece and stuff at the top of the packs … ive never needed a crampon pocket and perfer not to have one, its just extra weight and the crampons on the back of yr pack is worse for balance than at the top of the pack
the reason for the smaller wand pockets is that they are made for wands or stakes … large pockets are easier to catch when climbing, especially when chimneying … they also collect spindrift
i dont know many people personally who climb mid or higher fifth class or ice climb and put water bottles in the side pockets .. not only do you risk the bottles falling out when climbing … you can easily crush them in a chimney, and they take away from the slim profile of a climbing/mountaineering pack … also unless the bottles are in cozys, theyll freeze if its cold enough … again most mountaineers i know just wrap the bottle in a fleece or other insulation in the top of the pack
Shovel pockets are not actually for shovels. They're called that because they're shaped like a shovel. Three season packs often have them too. They're designed to hold all of the "sheet" that you put on/take off during the day, so you don't have to pack/unpack whenever you want to layer.
Have you ever used a crampon pocket? Makes a huge difference in keeping stuff dry and keeping the points away from every thing else.
Good point about the avalanche probes though.
Why do you think that Osprey included a hydration reservoir on this pack? It seems like a bizarre thing to put on a pack that will be used in subzero weather, for ice climbing/ ski mountaineering? I think they want people to buy it for general purpose backpacking and they through it in as a bone.
ive used the variant 37 before and currently have the mutant 38 (same fit as variant but with better compression, no frame, no shovel pocket) … you can fit a BD deploy shovel in the shovel pocket … carrying snow shoes/skis, there arent many other places to put yr shovel in avi terrain … crampons you can put anywhere in a pack … crampons dont really dry off in freezing temps no matter where you put em … you just whack as much ice/snow as you can off, and overlap them then stuff them in a fleece or bag in yr pack … consider this … how often are you taking on and off crampons in a climb, if yr always taking them on/off yr wasting time … a shovel on the other hand needs to be available instantly, and is hard to store except on the back or maybe the side of a pack (where skis and shoes are) … some ice climbing packs do have crampon pockets … but ask yrself how youll carry a shovel, skis/shoes, and crampons, axe and a rope + rack
climbers do use hydration pockets … i use it myself in non or slightly below freezing temps, it allows you to drink on the move, remember that body heat will keep it usable if its just somewhat below freezing if you remember to blow back … for colder temps you can get insulated platys, although the tubes dont work that well, its quite a weight effective way to store 3-4L close to your COG … colin haley i believe uses this method with MSR baldders
the variant is definitely not a general backpacking pack … you dont need the durable fabrics, shovel pocket, fancy axe clips, 3 point haul system, removable hip belt, gear loops, etc … on a general pack … their exos, talons, aethers, etc .. are much more suitable
the variant is a dedicated mountaineering, ski mountaineering, climbing pack … my mutant is even more stripped and focused for climbing having more durable fabric and less features …
hope that helps
Appreciate the comment. More helpful info. I'll just ramble my reply. I'm not trying to argue, just sharing some more perspective.
The Mutant looks lovely. I've seen one up close but not used it. I also think the smaller volume Variants are probably excellent day and climbing packs. But again,I haven't tried them first hand, and I'm not a climber/ski mountaineer.
I do know someone who has one the smaller Variant, and he uses shock cords to attach snowshoes to the pack because the shovel pocket straps are too loose to hold them on. Bad design. Good workaround, but should be unnecessary.
Regarding durable fabrics – the variant material is no different in durability than any other Osprey pack. Way over-weight in my opinion, but that's what the public perceives they need.
You see, I don't think Osprey designs packs purely for function. They do it to sell packs through the retail channel and to consumers, which believe that certain things should be on a pack, regardless of whether it makes any sense or difference.
Osprey is a very market driven company, is all I'm saying. They have a few basic design patterns and elements and they repeat them over and over on new packs. Review a half dozen of their packs and you'll see what I mean.
Sadly, they are more market driven than innovation driven. That's not bad, because buying one of their packs is "safe", but probably not optimal. We see this same market stratification is many other market segments.
Taken in this light, I don't think the Osprey 52 "works" in this volume, as well as some of it's smaller versions, which discourage its use for overnight trips. I think the 52 is offered to have a high end model that can attract overnight winter campers, who are not climbers. It's there to fill out this model's range of volumes, at the high end.
The irony,is that the Variant 52 fits better then most of Osprey's 3 season packs! Which is probably why the guy at REI tried to sell me one for 3 season use.
Hydration pockets. I don't use them. They bulge the back panel of most packs and I rarely hike in winter temperatures that are above freezing. Moreover, it's difficult to use anything other than a Camelbak in an Osprey pack, and I find them very difficult to refill in streams in 3 season temps, not to mention when the stream are frozen solid. :-)
Finally, how to attach a shovel. I have a Voile Telepro. I attach the shaft using a ice axe loop and I can get it off the pack in about 5 seconds. I can also attach it to the aide of the pack using my 2 tiered compression straps. But then again, in New England we don't have many avalanches that aren't in well known spots. I mainly use a shovel for digging kitchens and as a emergency shelter builder.
Thanks for the review. I'm seriously considering the Variant or the CCW Chaos. 2-3 day mountaineering trips across glaciers and/or alpine climbing. If you were to buy a new pack now, would you still go with the CCW or go with the Osprey as you allude to in your review. A few others I'm looking at are the Mammut Guide/Guide Pro and the CiloGear Worksack. Thanks!
I made the mistake of hiking with two guys this winter – one had a Cilogear Worksack and the other a Wild things Andinista. I didn't get to wear them, but they sure looked good from behind. Mind you, I still love my CCW Chaos, so I think you're going to have a hard choice. But, the thing I liked about the Andinista is that you could compress the volume with side straps to make it into a smaller volume climbing or day pack. I find that appealing because the Chaos is much happier with a full load, but tends to collapse on itself when it's half full. Good luck. That is my only complaint with it. Otherwise, it shines as a pack.
Picked up a Cilogear 30L Worksack a couple of months ago and am very pleased with it, but I've only taken it on one day hike so far. I was looking for a pack for SAR use, that was indestructable and tight enough for bushwhacking, without all the extraneous straps and pockets. Their removable straps are quite different than most, but seem to be very configurable and easy to adjust. I added bottle holders to the shoulder straps like the ULA packs use and will probably add a MLD hipbelt pocket or two.
The hipbelt is what sold me on my Aether 60. I switched it out for a smaller size and had it molded.
What’s all this nonsense about snowshoes?
The compression straps of my Osprey Variant can perfectly secure my MSR Lighting ascent, perhaps you have a special edition of this snowshoes, (“The long feet edition”)… and/or a special edition of this backpack (the “little men edition”)
I forgot to say that my variant is the 37.
Very accurate assessment of the pack which has become my “go to” pack for…summer? I might not qualify for the ultra-light category of long distance hikers but I’m conscientious of what I carry. I’d be in the camp that believes the only thing that matters is how the pack feels on your back once loaded and that the materials, workmanship, looks and design do matter. Love the floating lid but if it’s a strenuous hike I will remove it to tip the scales at 3 pounds. On your suggestion I might play a bit further and try a trip without the frame sheet and call me crazy if I can’t get it to dip below 2 pounds. I’d like to say I’m a die-hard Osprey fan but like yourself the Exos just ain’t going to cut it with its’ sewn on hip belt and lack of adjustability for torso length on most others but appreciate the durability of what they have produced for years. Plenty of attachment points for everything from poles to camp shoes and I’ve yet to have a buckle fail. The shovel pocket is where I carry my usual 2 small water bottles and with drainage ports I can throw in wet gear as necessary.
I am considering this bag for my year round pack in the PCT/PNW. When the lid, frame piece and hip belts are removed, how much does the bag weigh? Thank you for your time.