Ortlieb Vario Review
Cons: Extra hardware requires installation, conversions can be tedious
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Our Analysis and Test Results
If you want a dual-function bike pack without compromising on quality, durability, or weatherproofing, then this is the product for you. The Vario does everything a touring pannier can do with the addition of a fully adjustable backpack harness that can be completely removed and stowed away during travel. The high-quality materials and hardware are typical of all Ortlieb products and earn the Vario solid scores across the board.
The Ortlieb Vario is available with either Ortlieb's more traditional QL2.1 hook and latch style mounting system or their more unique QL3.1 click-in mounting system. In this review, the model we tested came with the QL3.1 system.
One minor downside to the QL3.1 mounting system is that it requires the installation of additional hardware on your bike rack. Once this lightweight wire and plastic hardware system are attached, the corresponding tracks and grooves on the backside of the pannier easily slide into place. Once mounted, the pieces audibly click to lock in and won't be released until you pull up on the handle for removal. The extra hardware is a slight inconvenience to install, but it then allows for quick and effortless attachment and removal going forward.
The included pictographic installation instructions didn't seem so informative at first, but we recommend you give them a gander. With all the various clips, brackets, and rubber shims included in the hardware kit, the installation wasn't very intuitive at first, but we got the hang of it pretty quickly after playing around with a few of the pieces. To get the proper mounting position, we suggest first attaching the bag to the mounting hardware to line it up on your rack. Once you get the hardware mounted for the first time, it becomes a little easier to understand how the system works, and quick enough to re-adjust to get things just right.
Although the initial installation of the QL3.1 system on the Vario can be a bit tedious, once you have all the hardware properly mounted, attaching and removing the pack from the rack becomes a breeze! It can be quickly removed with only one hand, and affixing it to the rack is as simple as lining it up and sliding it into place. It is such a solid design that the pannier remains securely attached with heavy loads and has very minimal rattle on the trail. Once you get past the initial installation time - which you should only have to do once - this becomes once of the quickest and easiest mounting systems to use.
With over 1400 cubic inches of total volume, the Vario lands in the middle of our lineup when it comes to raw storage capacity. With its large main storage compartment, extra pockets and sleeves, and included helmet carrying sling, it has plenty of space to accommodate all the gear we needed for daylong missions. While it doesn't have the same overall volume as more traditional touring panniers that come in a pair, the size and functionality of this bag are perfectly ample for commuters and daytrippers alike.
The Vario has a deep main pocket that is secured with a roll-top closure and a velcro strap. While this particular roll-top isn't quite as secure as other models with a cinch strap and buckle, we found this design very conducive to the hybrid backpack style, making it easy to open and close to remove items on-the-go. The laptop sleeve and various pockets are convenient for folks who plan to commute with this pannier, and the front pocket perfectly stores the padded backpack straps when you aren't using them during your ride. It's clear that a great deal of thought went into creating this pack, and the quality shows!
The Vario doesn't score quite as highly as our high-capacity touring panniers when it comes to storage, but that's because many touring panniers come in a pair. If you were to hypothetically sport a pair of Varios, your total storage would be on par with the highest volumes in our lineup. The bottom line is that the Vario has plenty of room to handle everything you would need out of a commuting pannier or a daypack, striking a nice balance between the two.
Not surprisingly, the Vario is built tough with the same engineering standards we've come to expect from the German Ortlieb brand family. The material of the pannier has an IP64 rating that can withstand serious abuse and abrasion and keep your gear protected from dust and water. Though it doesn't have a coating like some other models, a close inspection of the fabric lends one to believe that it is of high quality.
Our testing proved that the design and materials of the Vario are robust. Backpacks, similar to panniers, are subject to repeated bouts of daily abuse. It would make sense that a hybrid backpack/pannier would be designed with longevity in mind. Not only is the nylon fabric resistant to tears and abrasions, but it is relatively lightweight and effortless to clean. We're a little concerned that the extra parts for mounting the pannier to your rack could get stressed over time. However, we've witnessed no degradation or failures during our testing phase.
Ortlieb is well known for making superbly weatherproof bike bags, and the Vario is no exception. With a roll-top design with rubber baffles and an IP rating of 64, the material of this pannier is virtually impervious to water spray from all directions. While it isn't completely watertight, we'd be confident to carry our electronics in this pannier during a ride in the rain.
Roll-top closures undoubtedly offer the greatest weatherproofing protection, but not all roll-top are created equally. The Vario allows you to tightly roll the additional fabric at the top and is secured with a burly velcro strap. This is enough to keep things dry in a rainstorm but doesn't provide the same secure seal as other models with cinch straps and buckles. We believe that the Vario has an adequate amount of weatherproofing for the type of riding it is best used for. The fabric is resilient to road spray, and the closure is secure enough to keep out the rain.
Ease of Use
This pack has nearly everything you'd look for in a single pannier combined with the ability to transition into a backpack. The backpack harness is one of the most comfortable and supportive that we've reviewed, with adjustable padded shoulder straps, an adjustable sternum strap, a removable waist belt, and adjustable load straps. While the backpack system is quite impressive, it can be a little bit tedious to attach, detach, and stow each time you transition from hiking to biking. Other hybrid style panniers have quicker and more straightforward transitions from backpack to bike pannier.
Another minor drawback to user-friendliness with the Vario is the necessity of installing additional mounting hardware to your rack. However, once you get the additional hardware properly mounted and adjusted, you'll be ready to and remove the pannier with quickness and ease.
The list price for this model is a little high compared to some other products in our line up but is in line with other hybrid backpack style panniers. If you're looking to fill the gap between using your backpack and committing to a new set of panniers, you will likely find tremendous value in a bag that can do both. While you can certainly find other high-quality panniers for a lower price, those looking for a backpack style model with the quality of Ortlieb design and manufacturing will be satisfied for many miles down the road.
Ortlieb hits the mark with this beautifully fused hybrid backpack and bike pannier that allows you to diversify your modes of transportation during a commute or daytime adventure. After a little bit of a learning curve with the additional mounting hardware and the slightly complicated transition from backpack to pannier, this model begins to stand out with its durable, waterproof construction and surprisingly comfortable and adjustable backpack design. Whether on your back or on your rack, the Vario is a convenient blend of utility and rugged style, earning our Top Pick Award for Best Backpack.
— Nick Bruckbauer