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Review: Osprey Raptor 18 hydration pack

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I’ll be the first to admit having a bag problem. Over the course of a season of mountain biking, I’ll cycle through an embarrassing number of bags in search of the perfect combination of fit, capacity, and features. Though I do have a handful of standbys that I rely heavily on, when word of Osprey’s first mountain bike specific range of packs began popping up last fall, I had to have a look. The Raptor range (6, 10, 14 and 18) has a whole bunch of shared features that makes the bags stand out from the large number of ‘me too’ hydration packs on the market. Excited by the Raptors’ potential and positive early reviews, I managed to get my hands on a Raptor 18 for review. Click ‘more‘ to find out how it went…

My Silt Gray (a much nicer color than the name would imply) Raptor arrived early this spring and has been in more or less constant use since. One gets the sense when talking to anyone from Osprey that they want to make the best packs in the world- and there is a lot of ‘different’ and ‘innovative’ packed into the Raptor series.

The pack is built around an Osprey-specific Nalgene “HydraForm” reservoir. A narrow pack for its 18L capacity (in the M/L size- the S/M size will hold 16L), 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 recent models, but it is the freest non-CamelBak bladder I’ve used and the dedicated compartment really does make inserting the bladder into a loaded pack easy. Further easing bladder insertion and minimizing sloshing is a semi-rigid panel in the bladder itself and a rigid plastic handle, making the HydraForm easily the most engineered bladder I’ve come across. Of course, the handle makes filling the bladder easier and a silvery anti-microbial material helps to keep funk under control.

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), which is perfect for a wallet, phone, or GPS. 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 can be difficult to see the bottom of the bag, it’s not too hard to rummage around and find whatever’s worked its way into the depths.

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 and probably my favorite thing about the Raptor 18. 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. I like this feature so much because it means less stopping to look for a camera, GPS, tool, or snack. With the compression straps released, the open-topped pocket also does a decent job at holding a cross-country helmet (visor pointed down, gloves and glasses inside) 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 I’ve found to be perfect for maps, gloves, or litter. If I’ve been good at making it to yoga I can just about reach the outermost pocket without removing the pack. The outermost pocket does have a blinky tab and several of the pack’s graphics are reflective.

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 or heavy jacket- 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. In contrast to the minimalist but similarly-sized CamelBak Octane 18x reviewed last month, this adds up to a substantial bag- within an ounce of 2lb when empty. Despite a summer of heavy use, the Raptor 18 isn’t showing any signs of wear beyond being a bit dirty. Osprey have clearly built this pack to last.

While the ridged AirScape back panel is cooler than other frame-free (conventional) 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. When new, it often felt as though the back panel would pick a single vertebra on which to sit and could be uncomfortable after a couple of hours. Over time, though, either the foam or I have broken in and become more comfortable. A pre-curved back panel or one with a channel down its center might go a ways toward making the bag more comfortable right away. The combination of effective compression and structure also keeps the Osprey impressively stable- again, the bag is very stable for its narrow footprint.

I’ve only had trouble with the screw-top on the Osprey/Nalgene bladder leaking a few times out of the dozens its been used, but screw-top bladders do seem more leak-prone and subject to operator error than some of the roll-top bladders now available. 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. After about 6 months’ use, mine has also started to drip- something that will only get more annoying as time goes on and temperatures drop. I have to wonder if the Hydraulics system places demands on the bite valve that it can’t quite handle over time.

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. For the time being, I’ve taken to tying the sternum strap around the shoulder strap (a magnet-delete kit is available aftermarket from Osprey, and I probably could punch the little guy out if I really wanted to).

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 or flexible 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.

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 of the question). 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.

To my surprise, the Raptor’s shoulder straps are some of the most comfortable I’ve worn while remaining reasonably breathable. The zigzag-cut foam seems to provide a bit of suspension, most noticeable when pulling the loaded pack on. They’re fine for 3-4 hour rides with moderate loads, but can be overwhelmed when the bag is stuffed full. Given the pack’s size (and apparent all-day intentions), omitting a rain cover is more or less inexcusable- I’ve been carrying a handful of Ziploc baggies for my valuables, but they’re nowhere near as easy to deploy in a downpour. On a 9-hour ride this summer (of which 5 hours were in the rain), it wasn’t long before I was wishing that I’d brought a pack better able to manage the precipitation, a big lunch, and seemingly countless extra layers that big rides at altitude require.

When all is said and done, the Raptor 18 is not just a great first mountain bike pack, but a great pack altogether. My long list of small complaints do little to take away from the overall package, which is one of the best I’ve used. Rather than considering the Raptor 18 a ‘big day out’ pack, I would suggest that riders consider it an everyday pack that can be expanded to carry a lot of stuff in a pinch. The company’s Manta series (one of which we will be reviewing next spring), with its proper suspension system, large-volume compartment, and rain cover  looks like a better tool for really big days. Organization fanatics will find a place for everything and never have to wonder where their CO2 cartridges ended up. The dripping bite valve is a bummer, but I’ll probably just make lemonade and order the magnet delete kit from Osprey. At $120, the Raptor 18 isn’t cheap, but the price isn’t out of line with bags of similarly high quality.



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