When it comes to gear, I like to find something I like and stick with it for as long as it will last. Good gear isn’t cheap, but it also lasts. That’s one of the reasons my gear stash is filled with durable pieces I’ve had for years.
One of the best examples is my collection of backpacks. None of them are newer than six years old.
Until now. An unfortunate incident with an airline turned my trusted expedition backpack into a tattered mess. So I needed to get a new pack that could match the performance I’ve come to rely on with the old and now ruined bag I’ve used for a decade.
I’ve heard a lot about the products made by Osprey, a manufacturer of high-end packs that gets high marks for comfort and versatility. So I gave my wallet a little exercise and plunked down the cash for Osprey’s Xenith 88.
The timing was good, as I had a backpacking trip planned a few weeks later in southwestern Colorado. This turned out to be a great way to give the Xenith a test run.
My old pack was very basic. It had an adjustable internal frame, ice axe loops, an expandable bag and not much else. I had to improvise in some things (no sleeve for a water bladder), but this was one tough, reliable piece of gear.
The Xenith is anything but bare bones. It has everything I mentioned above, and then some. A few features stuck out…
The hip belt system comes with Osprey’s heat-formed fit that you can get done in-store, or your body heat will allow the belt to fit your body over time. That same belt also comes with pockets that are ideal for things like snacks or other small items you can stow within reach without having to take the pack off and dig around inside. Big thumbs up there.
Little things abound: a whistle on the chest strap (a nice safety feature), a flexible outer pocket that’s great for things like rain gear and plenty of room on the frame to let air circulate between you and the pack – really nice for people like me who sweat a lot. The lid has two compartments instead of the single pocket most packs have. A small detail, but one that is useful if you need to separate different parts of your load at the top of the pack. And I really like the cinch tab on the drawstring at the top of the main compartment. Fewer parts (not spring-loaded like most cinch tabs) mean fewer things to break down.
I also liked how well the bottom compartment easily swallowed up my sleeping bag. The bag is a little bulky, and zipping it up in my other packs is a bit of a chore. Not so here.
But my favorite feature is the water bladder sleeve. Most packs have this inside the pack; Osprey built this outside the pack, but between the bag and the webbing on the frame. What this means: It’s still ideally placed (close to your back and in the middle of the pack, keeping that heavy load from pulling you backward), but it takes up zero space inside your bag. So the heaviest item in your pack is even closer to your back, but isn’t a factor when loading the inside of the main compartment. As a bonus: No chance of something inside your bag puncturing your water bladder. Freaking genius.
The pack is light, especially for its 88-liter capacity and overall size: Just 5 pounds, 9 ounces.
Getting to know a new piece of gear is a process. How it fits, adjusting straps and getting familiar with how its systems work takes a little time. No better way to do that than on the trail.
My load was somewhere between 35 and 40 pounds, with food, some clothes, a sleeping bag, a pad, climbing gear, a first-aid kit, a cook set, a water filter and other, smaller items.
The fit was good. The salesperson who helped me pick the pack sized me up correctly. No problems there. Even with a full load, I felt fairly well balanced during the initial seven-mile hike to camp.
Padding on the straps and the belt helped ease the load, though I did get a hot spot on my left hip on the way up, and on the opposite side going back down. Weird, yes. But I have a feeling that was at least partially due to how I loaded it. Call it half “new pack syndrome,” part user error.
One of the major problems you see with hauling packs is a difficulty in finding the right load-bearing balance between hips and shoulders. Too much on your hips and you get a lot of sway, or you get pulled back too much. Too much on the shoulders and you’ll get soreness and circulation cut-off issues, which leads to headaches. Obviously, this is an issue of proper loading and adjusting of straps. But little things – like comfort – affect how you adjust that pack to fit. It sure made it easier for me to find that right balance.
Once thing I would have liked to see: More vertical expandability. My old pack had that, making it able to increase its volume not just out, but up. The Xenith can certainly expand out, but not too far up. It’s not like it’s a great thing to have a tall pack riding on your back, but it’s nice to have that potential for extra room.
If I were to sum it up, the Xenith is a solid, versatile and surprisingly light multi-day/expedition-sized backpack. Many of its design elements are innovative. And it’s a comfortable pack. I see few drawbacks at all.
Osprey is not a discount brand, so expect to pay a little more. It retails for about $360.
In summary, if you’re looking for a new bag for your backpacking adventures, this one’s a winner.
Note: Osprey did not furnish me with this pack; it was paid for with my own funds.