18 January 2010

bikefix Initial Review: CamelBak Octane 18x pack

At Interbike back in September, we spent some time with the CamelBak folks looking over their 2010 line. Though I've never found a better bladder, for no good reason in particular I hadn't had a good look at the Camelak range in quite some time. Rather than resting on their reputation, it was clear that the company is responding aggressively to the competitive hydration pack market it helped to create. While they had a number of neat things going on, like an in-line fuel gauge and jerseys with built-in bladder sleeves (aimed more at the road market), their Octane 18x jumped out at me for its light weight and apparent versatility. Designed as a multisport pack, the Octane 18x is a bag that's designed to ride as well nearly empty as it does fully loaded. A system of internal bungees help to take up some slack and a large zippered corset allows the 16L pack to expand to a pretty darn big 20L in order to swallow a big day's worth of provisions, insulation and rainwear.

Since receiving an Octane 18x last November, I've been using it nonstop. The bag's expandability has made it suitable for everything from 90 minute single speed blasts to all-day epics in rain and snow. I even use it for off-road commuting when time permits. The Octane 18x is built of a lightweight and translucent ripstop fabric. As much as I love the orange color, I was worried that it would become filthy almost immediately. It's only after two months and a number of muddy rides that I'm even considering giving it a wash- and that's only because I like the color ("dark cheddar"), not because it looks particularly bad. The bag's large main compartment is readily accessed via a 3-sided zip, which exposes about 60% of the interior. There are also a pair of zipped mesh hip belt (or tummy belt) pockets and a small wallet/phone pocket on the bag's backside. When the corset is opened, a good-sized expandable mesh pocket is also accessible. The excellent bladder (a 2L CamelBak OMEGA HydroTanium reservoir is included) gets its own zippered pocket against the rider's back with a hanging loop, which keeps the bladder from working its way to the bottom of the bag as it empties. The bladder pocket has three hose exits- the standard top/center outlet (for over-the-shoulder routing) and two where the shoulder straps meet the pack (for bottom-up routing)- a nice touch. The bag has almost no structure of its own, making it surprisingly light (16oz) after a few years riding with bags from Deuter and Ergon, which are made fairly heavy by their suspension systems. In a nod to breathability, the Octane 18x's back is made out of open foam panels and the shoulder straps are just as much air as they are foam and fabric.

Like most frameless packs, the Octane 18x likes to be worn high and tight. If allowed to sit low on the back, the bag really doesn't have enough structure to remain stable. As a result, all of the bag's weight really rides on the wearer's shoulders. The belt serves to add a bit of stability and to provide a convenient location in which to stash commonly-used tools, snacks, keys or even a camera. With the pockets empty (or very lightly loaded), it is possible to ride comfortably with the belt unbuckled for a bit of ventilation. With anything of substance in them, though, the belt really needs to be fastened (even loosely) to keep them from bouncing around distractingly. Seeing as it hasn't topped 55 degrees since the Octane 18x arrived, I haven't had any overheating problems from keeping the belt fastened. While the zipper pulls are nice and long, I find it difficult to access the belt pockets' contents while riding- even though they are usually deeper, those of us who like to pull out a snack or camera while riding might get along better with open-topped pockets on the sides of the bag's body.

The rear mesh pocket is a great size and will easily swallow a map, a couple of bananas, a windbreaker or pair of heavy winter gloves. When the main compartment is well and truly stuffed, however, it doesn't offer much in the way of overflow space. Not that freeriders are the bag's intended market, but the mesh pocket is a bit too small to accommodate knee & shin guards. The main compartment doesn't really offer anything in the way of organization- a compromise no doubt made in the name of light weight and versatility. This bothers me far less than I expected when first loading the bag. My tools and spares were already in a small bag and tubes and pumps are usually pretty easy to find, thanks to the large zipper. Still, when I flatted while riding to work, everything I needed for the repair (tire levers, pump, and tube) was in the bottom of the bag, which meant sitting my lunch and change of clothing on the trail until the job was done. For me, it's not a deal-breaker- but neat freaks should take note.

The 16oz Octane 18x makes extensive use of lightweight material- a theme that extends to its hardware. The cable pulls are all made of nice, long pieces of quiet cord. The compression bungees can be easily adjusted or quickly released and allow the bag to self-adjust to its load. While riders who encounter lots of brush and thorns might want to look at something a bit more substantial, the bag's materials are holding up well- my only issue with the lightweight build comes from the buckles and straps. When under-loaded, the ladder locks on the shoulder straps don't seem to grab the webbing well enough to keep their setting- I find myself adjusting those every hour or so. Oddly, it's less of an issue with a full load. The sternum strap and belt buckles are all sculpted and sexy, but I haven't gotten the hang of fastening them without looking first (not a big deal) and have had the sternum strap buckle fouled by sand (nothing that I couldn't pick out with a small Allen key, but something I'd never experienced before). In an odd detail, the reflective (good) blinky tab runs vertically, making it unsuitable for attaching a blinky to (not so good).

Those who ride in moderate climates may not notice the Octane 18x's lack of back ventilation. Make no mistake- it's excellent for a bag without any sort of suspension system. It's just that, after moving to the desert and several years riding with better-ventilated packs, I do notice the difference. It's already become less of an annoyance than I found it initially- I don't miss a breezy back as much as I feared I might. When switching back to suspended packs for a ride or two, I was reminded that the benefit (beyond light weight) is the way that the Octane 18x carries loads close to the back during technical riding.

Surprisingly for an expandable bag, the Octane 18x feels better the more it's carrying. The four bungees (two of which I did trim by about 6in) do a good job at keeping things stable when filled only with water, a couple of tools and a windbreaker. When the corset is released and the bag filled, though, it feels even better, with the contents adding a bit more structure to the bag itself. It really is on the small side for winter bike commuting (CamelBak do make a 24L version without the corset), but during the summer, it would be ideal. Similarly, on high-altitude epics, where riders need to pack for all sorts of possibilities, the Octane 18x will be fantastic- the bag handles heavy loads very well but doesn't get all floppy and loose as it empties. For commuters who regularly pack light (or leave the bladder at home) or mountain bikers who usually pack pretty heavily, the Octane 18x will do a great job.

So far, my main wish for the Octane 18x would be to move the belt pockets to the pack itself and leave them open for easier access (and allow belt-free riding on hot days). I'm reasonably flexible for a 30-something guy, though, and often don't like to get off the bike to snack or snap a photo. I could take or leave the lightweight buckles- they are pretty (and contribute to the bag's light weight), but I still can't close them without looking. If I forget to fasten one before setting off, I just can't close them without stopping the bike. The occasionally self-loosening ladder locks are also an annoyance, especially for anyone who doesn't reflexively adjust things while riding. In all seriousness, these are minor concerns. Looking at the Octane 18x's hang tag, I was pleasantly surprised to see that it's manufactured in the US. That fact, and the fact that it comes with $30 worth of the best bladder I've used, makes the $90 retail price pretty amazing. I'll get some big spring and summer epics in before reporting back with a final review.



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