Field Tested: Osprey Mutant 38

Osprey packs always get two things right: an incredibly comfortable suspension system and the simplest, easiest-to-use, tool attachment system I’ve used (and by this point I think I’ve used them all).

A complete revamp of Osprey’s climbing/alpine packs for Fall 2018 sees the climbing-oriented Mutant morph into three sizes of pack, each with somewhat different features, while the venerable mountaineering/skimo Variant packs leave the lineup altogether. For a complete overview of the different Mutant sizes, check out my preview from Outdoor Retailer here, as this review will focus on the middle, 38-litre, version.

The 38 is a perfect single-day climbing pack: big enough to fit all your gear, a day’s sustenance and warm layers, but also small enough to comfortably climb with. This is one of the most comfortable packs I’ve used, the soft shoulder straps never digging in while the lightly curved and padded back panel shrugs off heavy loads. Deceptively simple in construction — the usual plastic frame sheet with a couple aluminum stays and a straight-forward hip belt — the Osprey’s suspension nevertheless feels as comfortable as any proper, long-distance loading-hauling backpack I’ve used.

Of course, such comfort often carries with it a severe weight penalty but the Mutant 38 is surprisingly lightweight given its robust feature set. This is not a Fast & Light specialist, nor is it a high-tech materials showcase, so the 1252 weight is perfectly reasonable (in a Med/Large size). Stripped down, the 38 weighs in at 820 grams (the frame sheet is 154 grams, the aluminum stays 40 grams each, the main lid 152 grams, the helmet mesh 46 grams). Yes, I have lighter packs that are equally comfortable (but cost twice as much) and, yes, I have (much) lighter packs that are more dedicated to the ultralight ethos (but don’t carry nearly as well) but I also have heavier packs that don’t match the Osprey’s carrying comfort. For an all-arounder, the Mutant 38 is hard to beat.

Where the pack is, in my opinion anyway, completely unbeatable is with the tool attachment system. Osprey call their version ToolLocks and the system consists of a bungeed aluminum tab for the head, and adjustable bungee tie-offs for the shaft. Every time I use this pack I marvel at how simple and effective these are, regardless of which tools I’m using: simply slide the pick under the reinforced fabric keeper loop, flip the large, easy-to-handle tab through the tool’s clip-in hole, and wrap and tighten the bungee around the shaft. Quick and simple, easy to do with gloves, and I’ve never had it freeze up or slip — it makes me wish Osprey sold these after-market so I could convert my other packs to the ToolLocks.

Another feature that’s very well implemented, though not unique to Osprey, is the FlapJacket system. This is basically a small, additional, tuck-away lid that provides protection for the pack’s drawcord opening when using it without the main lid. When not in use, the Flap Jacket sits in a tiny dedicated compartment, unobtrusive and out of the way. Combined with the rope strap across the top of the pack, the Flap Jacket practically nullifies the need for the main lid. This is most apparent when climbing and I’ll often leave the main lid at the base of the route, stuffed with sweat-soaked approach layers, and climb with the Mutant 38 in stripped-down mode. I don’t know how much weight the Flap Jacket adds to a pack but I can’t imagine it’s more than a couple dozen grams: I’d love to see a similar dual-lid system on every alpine pack.

Among the packs other features are A-frame ski-carry straps, and dual compression straps on each side; the lower strap is fixed, while the upper strap has a quick-release buckle. All the buckles on the pack are glove-friendly, with large, slightly protruding, easy-to-release tabs. Inside, there’s a hydration bladder sleeve and hang loop, questionable for cold winter climbing days but great for warmer-weather summer mountaineering. There are also attachment loops for three-point hauling, with an extra-large, stiffened, main haul/carry loop that makes the pack very easy to hang at belays.

The extra-large haul loop makes the pack easy to pick up or clip in at the anchor.

As mentioned, the main lid is removable and houses two zippered compartments. The main pocket is large enough to fit a lunch, sunglasses, an extra pair of gloves or two, and also has a key clip to make sure you don’t need to go back and look for your keys in knee-deep snow. The secondary pocket is much smaller and houses the helmet-carry mesh.

The helmet carry system is attached to a pair of tabs inside this secondary pocket, and the other two clips affix to the lid’s top-sewn daisy chain. Unfortunately, the pocket cannot be closed when the helmet mesh is deployed, rendering it useless, but fortunately the helmet mesh can be removed and attached to other parts of the pack (main lid straps or side compression straps or the tool tabs). This is my favourite way to use it, giving me both a secure way to carry my helmet while also making use of the smaller, secondary, pocket in the top lid for those items I really don’t want to lose: cell phone, wallet, keys.

The main pack fabrics are 210D High Tenacity nylon, whereas the bottom is more heavy-duty 420D Nylon Packcloth. Though due to my ankle injuries I haven’t been able to get out as much as I’d like, after nine months in the pack collection the Mutant doesn’t show any wear whatsoever, despite being on regular rotation. But even if it did start to wear through, Osprey has what is quite likely the best warranty in the business: the All Mighty Guarantee “Osprey will repair any damage or defect for any reason free of charge – whether it was purchased in 1974 or yesterday. If we are unable to perform a functional repair on your pack, we will happily replace it.” Now, that aside, I’ve never worn through an Osprey pack to the point where it needed extensive repair or replacement, and I’ve had some kind of Osprey pack since my very first Aether 70 back in the very early 2000’s.

Other than the somewhat awkward helmet carry situation (either store the mesh and lose a pocket, or have a pocket but figure out some way to attach the mesh to the pack), and the superfluous ski carry loops (for me, anyway), the Osprey has two more drawbacks: the hip belt is non-removable and the pack fabric is really damn dark.

Osprey have designed the hip belt to loop backwards and clip around the pack. This is not ideal as it exposes the soft, padded, inside of the belt to abrasion against rock, reducing its longevity. The outer fabric is tough, but the inside is definitely not durable enough to take repeated hauls up granite walls or full-contact body scums up some mixed alpine corner. I’d really much rather see the entire hip belt in a removable design, or at least have a fixed webbing belt but removable padding ‘pods.’ The hip belt also has an ice clipper slot and racking loop on either side: this is not something I have ever used, or seen any of my climbing partners utilize.

And then we come to the dark fabric. I hate it. I love the bright orange back panel, inside of the hip belt and underneath the shoulder straps. The interior back panel / hydration sleeve is also bright orange, while the rest of the pack is an, admittedly, pretty but rather dark shade of blue. Oh how I wish the two were reversed.

I don’t like the dark fabric for three reasons: 1) it is dark inside the pack so rummaging around for stuff in the bottom pretty much requires a headlamp except on a very bright day; 2) it’s hard to differentiate the various straps and attachments when everything is the same, dark, colour; and 3) the dark pack looks like a rock or a wet log from a distance, not ideal in low-visibility conditions, such as following your partner through a snowstorm, or searching for the pack at the base of a route following fresh precip.

The previous Mutant used to come in a bright green colour, and the defunct Variant series were a rich red. I get not wanting to make the new Mutant in either of those colours to differentiate the new model, but Osprey have gorgeous duffel bags in bright blue and vibrant green/yellow — I wish the Mutant had come in one of those shades, instead.

Priced at $200 Canadian / $170 USD the Mutant is an excellent value, all-around pack that is just as comfortable hauling a full load to the base of a route as it is stripped-down taking the lead. I wish it came in a brighter colour, and that I could take the hip belt off, but those things don’t bother me enough to outweigh the superb carrying comfort and awesome tool attachments. Very highly recommended.

Huge thanks to Osprey for getting me a pack back in January for extended testing and review!

4 thoughts on “Field Tested: Osprey Mutant 38

  1. Toby says:

    I’ve been using a pre production sample since January too and agree about the colour. Finding the right straps in a raging blizzard when topping out of a climb and needing to get the hell out of there ASAP was a bit of a nightmare when everything is black. You don’t notice in the summer, but in the worst (i.e. best!) winter conditions we’ve had in England and Wales in quite a few years it was very noticeable! (I think the English hills were getting bored of hearing non-Brits talk about how the Scottish Highlands can have the toughest conditions in the world for climbing in, and last winter thought: “let’s show them, we can be terrifying too! “😀 )

    • Raf says:

      Sounds like a good winter’s climbing, then.

      Yeah, I mean even if the buckles or straps were a different colour that’d be very helpful. Just had a though occur to me: tents have colour-coded buckles and straps to more easily set them up, why can’t we have colour-coded buckles on packs? Red for main front one, green for compression, yellow for rope, blue for whatever else. It’d be a nightmare for the colour-palette people but I’d love that design!

      • Toby says:

        Stand out colours on the buckles would great! Although I’m red and green colour blind so they’re really hopeless for me for distinguishing things. 🙂

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