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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