Purchased January 2016, reviewed October 2017
Most people start with two basic backpacks: a day pack in the 15-30 liter range and an overnight pack in the 55-80 liter range. Packs in the 35-50 liter range always seem to require some extra explanation: you’re going on a day hike but also carrying gear for your kids, or you’re going on an overnight trip but you’re staying in a hut so you don’t need to carry your tent.
In the case of the Variant 37, Osprey explains that the pack is designed for “ski mountaineers and ice climbers,” who need to carry ropes, shovels, ice tools, and other safety gear on day trips. I bought the Variant after reluctantly accepting that my Osprey Talon 22 just didn’t have enough room for the bulky down clothes and extra thermoses I carry on winter trips. And, I’d recently been given an REI gift card. And… it just looked cool.
Materials and Design
Unlike most Osprey packs, which use heavy-duty fabric on the bottom and a lighter fabric on the body of the pack, the Variant is built entirely from mid-weight 210-denier nylon. Current color choices include a two-tone black and gray version with blue accents, and a blazingly high-vis red-and-orange colorway called “Diablo Red.” Winter climbing-specific features include A-frame ski loops, rope compression strap, heavy-duty crampon pocket, and dual ice axe holsters. The firm foam backpanel is designed to shed snow and ice.
For more general users, what really sets the Variant apart in the Osprey line is that it is designed to carry much more weight than similarly-sized packs. Osprey rates the Variant 37’s weight capacity at 35-40 pounds. By contrast, Osprey rates the Stratos 36 at 15-35 pounds, the lightweight Talon 33 at 20-30 pounds, and the ultralight Exos 38 at 15-31 pounds. In fact, the Variant’s weight capacity overlaps with Osprey’s much larger backpacking packs, including the Amos AG 50 (25-40 pounds) and the Volt 60 (30-50 pounds). To achieve this high weight limit, the Variant 37 employs a 6mm aluminum frame and 1.5mm thermoplastic framesheet. The detachable hip belt and integrated shoulder straps are heavily padded with thick foam.
When extra capacity isn’t needed, the top compartment (“brain”) can easily be detached and the top opening of the pack covered with a “flapjacket” that clips onto the pack’s vertical compression straps.
The Varaint is available in three frame sizes: a 34-liter small, 37-liter medium, and 40-liter large. Overall, the Variant 37’s fit follows from its intended use as a mountaineering pack. Its tall, thin shape allows excellent freedom of movement, and the foam back panel and foam helpbelt and shoulder straps all feel especially snug and secure.
Ski and snowboard-oriented winter packs (from Osprey and others) tend to have a somewhat concave back panel shape, which better matches the the athletic, slightly bent-over posture a skier or snowboarder will have while descending. The Variant 37, by contrast, has a more upright posture intended to work for equally well for, say, both a skier on a descent and an ice climber leaning back to swing an axe. While a ski and snowboard-oriented pack might be better for those specific groups, the Variant’s upright fit is probably more versatile.
I bought the Variant 37 specifically for full-day winter hiking and skiing trips. And here it excels: it is big enough to handle bulky gear, easy to operate with gloves, and the foam on the belt, straps, and back panel provides extra insulation. The Variant 37’s roomy size never gives me an excuse to leave important safety gear at home, whether that means extra batteries (heavy), an extra down coat (bulky) or even an emergency sleeping bag (both). During midsummer in Alaska the Variant 37 is usually too big for my needs, but I often remove the “brain” and use it a little underloaded on challenging summer peak-bags.
The Variant 37’s high load capacity is wonderful when I’m weighed down with multiple full thermoses of hot tea and heavy camera gear. And though it is probably overkill for light loads, the rigid back panel on the Variant 37 keeps it from deforming when it’s underloaded.
So is the Variant 37 a perfect year-round pack? Not quite. The heavy foam padding and close-fitting back panel aren’t designed to vent aggressively and will retain too much heat in humid or hut conditions. At 3.4 pounds for a medium the Variant is actually comparable in weight to some of Osprey’s lightweight summer packs, but ultralight backpackers may still prefer a lighter pack (Osprey’s Exos 38, for example, hits the scales at 2.14 pounds).
Osprey packs are so ubiquitous that they rarely attract much attention, but the “diablo red” colorway seems to be an exception. I’ve gotten unsolicited compliments on this pack from black-clad Portlanders and Gore-tex-clad outdoorswomen alike. The Tang-orange foam takes on a more muted tone with use, but the pack remains bright and cheery, especially in cold winter landscapes.
After two winters of regular use (plus plenty of shoulder-season and summer use, too), I haven’t noticed any significant signs of damage or wear on the pack. The buckles are still snappy and the foam padding has not deformed or packed out to any noticeable extent.
Osprey Variant 37: The Bottom Line
Though it is targeted toward a fairly specific demographic, the Variant 37 is a fantastic, versatile winter-and-shoulder-season backpack. It perfectly fills that niche between summer day packs and overnight packs, and if you’re anything like me you’ll find yourself reaching for it more than you might expect.