26 May 2010

bikefix Initial Review: Osprey Raptor 18 hydration pack

Much as we are for mousetraps and mountain tires, the guys here at bikefix are always on the lookout for a better pack. We each cycle through our unjustifiably large collections of luggage, in search of the perfect balance of fit and function. When Osprey's new Raptor line of cycling-oriented packs began popping up last fall, I, a confessed bag fetishist, had a look. While the Raptor line is the company's first pack series targeted specifically at mountain biking and adventure racing, they have been building outdoor packs for over 35 years. They have squarely taken aim at some of the more established brands on the market and produced what is probably the best conventional pack that I have used.

Early Raptor reviews in the cycling media were extremely positive and the packs, found at my local REI, looked to be well thought out with some very cool features. This spring, Osprey offered to send us one of their packs to ride and review. With dreams of summer epics dancing in my head, I asked to have a look at the largest pack in their four pack Raptor series- the Raptor 18. Built around an Osprey/Nalgene reservoir, the packs all share a fair amount of internal structure, a ridged foam back panel, and die cut foam shoulder straps. All four packs also feature one or more easily-accessible stretch pockets and a slick (though not always functional) helmet holder. All of the bags are available in the same three colors of ripstop fabric- an evergreen, a lime-y gold and the quite handsome gray shown here.

A relatively narrow pack for its 18L capacity (in the M/L size), the Raptor 18 is organized in four basic layers. At the rider's back is a bladder pocket lined with the ridged AirScape foam on one side and well padded (against the cargo compartment) on the other. The idea is that the bag's structure will actually serve to squeeze the bladder to increase water flow and minimize sloshing. In practice, the bladder didn't flow noticeably better than CamelBak's latest models, but the dedicated compartment does make inserting the bladder into a loaded pack very easy. Further easing bladder insertion and minimizing sloshing is a rigid panel in the bladder itself and a rigid plastic handle, making for the most engineered bladder I've come across.

Working out from the bladder are a large cargo pocket, with two internal pump (or saw) sleeves and an a mesh organizing pocket as well as an externally-accessible floating valuables pocket (seen at the top of the pack and perfect for a wallet, phone, and/or personal GPS locator). The main cargo pocket is large enough to hold tools, pumps, food and fairly bulky clothing and is effectively compressed by the pack's four compression straps. It's deep but access is decent- while it's difficult to see the bottom of the bag, it's not too hard to rummage around and find whatever's found its way down there.

Between the main cargo pocket and a 2/3 size floating pocket is an open-topped pocket with stretchy sides. I'm a big fan of pockets that can be accessed without removing the pack and was worried that the size of this pocket, which wraps from one side of the bag to the other would make things hard to find. In practice, it's fantastic. I can throw a camera and mini tool in one side, snacks in the other and less-often needed items like hats and knee warmers in the center and they all stay more or less where put- and nothing has yet gone missing. This is probably my favorite feature of the Raptor18 as it means stopping less often to look for a camera, GPS, tool, or snack. With the compression straps released, the open-topped pocket also does a good job at holding a cross-country helmet (visor down) for the drive to the trailhead.

The large floating pocket with its pair of internal mesh dividers does a good job of keeping track of smaller items, like a wallet, small tools, and phone and has an easily-located red key tether. The rainbow zipper across its top provides good access and visibility. Finally (there are a lot of compartments on the Raptor 18), there is a stretchy 3-sided pocket with a quick-disconnect on the outside of the bag that is great for maps, gloves, or litter and can just about be reached without removing the pack.

The stacked design and external compression straps make for a pack that has a surprisingly small footprint on the rider's back but doesn't move around much when either partially or fully loaded. While its proportions mean that the Raptor 18 never looks big, it does have the ability to swallow a huge amount of gear. As the capacity is divided between several compartments, extra bulky items- like a pack lunch in Tupperware- can be difficult to carry. The rigid panels around and in the Nalgene bladder add a fair amount of structure to the bag without making it seem overly heavy or inflexible. While the ridged AirScape back panel is cooler than other frame-free packs I've used, it can't compete with Deuter, VauDe, or even Ergon packs when it comes to keeping the wearer's back cool and dry.

The clever helmet holder, essentially a large, oblong button on a bungee, works well enough at holding helmets- but not so well at keeping track of gloves and glasses often placed inside them, so loses points against more conventional helmet thongs. It can also be a bit large for the smaller vents on some XC lids- but shaving the button down with a box cutter will be no problem if that's the case. The waistbelt pockets are very small and the waistbelt un-padded, which means that anything larger or more rigid than a Gu packet can become uncomfortable fairly quickly (a small iPod is out). Around my 30in waist, the overly complex belt adjustments seem to eat up some adjustability- anyone smaller will have a hard time getting them snug enough. The shoulder straps' use a similar system to keep the ends anchored to slides on the straps, though, keeping them from flapping around in the wind while allowing for easy adjustment, which is nice.

Given the pack's rigid structure, it seems as though a roll-top or slide-top bladder would have been a better choice- I've only had trouble with the screw-top on the Osprey/Nalgene bladder once, but those do seem more leak-prone and subject to operator error. The bite valve delivers plenty of water and its angle can be adjusted easily- it does seem odd that the 'lock' position is straight out though- rotating it to sit in line with the drinking tube would expose it to less crud during handling. The bite valve has a strong magnet in its pivot, which mates to another in the floating end of the sternum strap. Because the sternum strap's free end is so heavy, it tends to flop around a lot when not connected. It would be nice to move the magnet to one of the shoulder straps, which would also allow its use on warm days when the sternum strap is too hot.

A quick word on hose routing: the Raptor is very clearly biased toward right-side routing. The bladder's hose is more than long enough to be run from the right side of the pack (where it exit's its zippered pocket) under the load lifter straps and down the left strap. It's not a big deal, but the left shoulder strap's hose routing isn't quite as nice as the right's- why make them different? Plenty of riders prefer to take their left hands of the bar to drink (covering the rear brake and controlling the bike with their dominant hand) and it seems odd to marginalize them.

It seems as though pre-curving the back panel or adding a groove down its center could make it a bit more comfortable- I find that it tends to pick one or two of my bony vertebrae to irritate on each ride. Also, given the pack's size (and all-day intentions), omitting a rain cover is inexcusable for a company that splits its operation between the Rockies and Vietnam- I've been carrying a handful of Ziploc baggies for my valuables- but they're nowhere near as easy to deploy in a downpour.

All in all, the Raptor is a remarkably good first effort and is so far the best conventional pack that I've used. Other, non-conventional, bags do a better job of keeping the back cool or carrying heavy loads on the hips rather than the shoulders, but those have their own drawbacks and aren't for everyone. In a market full of me-too bags that offer very little to set themselves apart, Osprey have come up with a different (but not too different) pack that easily can go toe to toe- and best- with anything I've used. The lack of a single large compartment makes it ill-suited to commuting duty (the slightly larger Manta series, which also has a mesh suspension system and rain cover, does), but for medium and big mountain bike rides, the Raptor is a great pack. The level of engineering that have gone into both the bag and bladder as well as the apparent quality of both make the $120 retail price seem downright reasonable. The smaller Raptors (6 and 10) are looking fantastic and it's there that a suspension system really won't be missed- I'll probably pick up the 10 in a weak moment or if I see it on sale. I'll be using the Raptor 18 throughout the summer and report back after some more mis/adventures.



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