What are the Pros and Cons of Rolltop Backpacks?

What are the Pros and Cons of Rolltop Backpacks?

Rolltop backpacks have increased in popularity in the past few years as demand for lightweight backpacks has grown. Rolltop backpacks have certain advantages and disadvantages that are worth considering if you’re shopping for a new backpack or switching from a more traditional style model with a brain (also called a top lid).

Rolltop Backpacks: Pros

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 is the zippers that 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.

Rolltop Backpacks: Cons

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) and lots of attachment straps like the Osprey Packs Exos 58 or an Osprey Atmos AG 65  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 unpack your backpack each time. While it is true that a front mesh pocket and side water bottle pocket can help with organization, there’s a lot of clothing and gear you want to pack away in closed compartments and not store out in the open, especially in wet or winter weather.

2. Fewer external attachment points

Many rolltop packs have fewer side compression straps and attachment points for lashing gear to the outside of a backpack. For example, some rolltop manufacturers remove a side compression strap so it doesn’t interfere with lashing down the sides of the rolltop closure. This can present problems if you want to secure bulky or long items to the side of your pack, like a foam sleeping pad or a fishing rod, but there aren’t enough side compression straps to anchor it with.

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.

Rolltops with Optional Top Lids

If you still can’t decide between a rolltop backpack and one with a top lid, there are several very good backpacks that you can buy that come with both. These packs let you remove the top lid when it’s not needed and close the top of the packbag with a rolltop closure. This is a great option if you hike in winter when you want a top lid to store spare gloves and hats so they’re easily accessible, but don’t want to carry the extra weight during the warmer portions of the year.

Rolltop backpacks with optional/removable top lids include:

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15 comments

  1. CON #4 is a little suspicious considering that immediately below it there is a photo of a rolltop pack using bottles rather than bladder.

    • I’m sure they exist, but I’ve never seen a backpacking pack with no water bottle pockets on the outside. In fact, 5 of the “10 best lightweight backpacks”, and all 10 of the “10 most durable lightweight backpacks” on this very site are roll-tops and they all have water bottle pockets on both sides.

      • Really? I own several. You generally don’t find side pockets on mountaineering or ski packs.

      • The only roll top packs I have without a water storage pocket on the side are called day packs, mountaineering or ski packs. I agree that the great majority of roll top backpacks have water bottle pockets, and I don’t know one single backpacker that uses a reservoir past 2006 when water wasn’t sold in bottles as abundantly as now. Yes boys and girls, water did not always come in water bottles. The list is long on backpacks that are roll top with water bottle pockets on each side. Its about the only thing they borrowed from 90’s backpacks like Osprey Kelty and Gregory (Still sold on Campmor).

    • Not sure what I was thinking when I wrote that. Got rid of it. Mysterious.

  2. I wonder if the ULA is a roll top though. Six in my group use the ULA and to me it seems a standard pack. I use a Gossamer gear which may be considered a rolltop. I attach bottles to the front like a ULA because I can’t bend my arms to get to the high side pockets. I can also carry a 3L bladder, but normally use it to carry whisky.

  3. Con-Detatchable top lids can often be used separately as fanny packs when you leave for pack and camp behind for the day.

  4. My favorite aspect of a pack brain is the ability to stash coats, rope, pads, tents, cannisters, etc under the lid which makes them very versatile for different trips and a variety of users who may not always have the latest and greatest compact lightweight gear.

  5. Really like my roll top pack. I MYOG’d one with X-Pac VX07 and VX21. Like your one pro item says, it’s a 50L pack that I can reduce to 35-40 just by continuing to roll down and not any other adjustments needed. It has everything I need. Never used the top lid on my Exos so not missing anything there. Have a Y strap over the top be able to secure something to the pack so it all works out.

    When I get a pack with more organization, I am going to get something that has a suitcase or side zipper like the Kuiu hunting packs. If I am going to get something for accessibility, going to go all the way.

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