The Ortlieb Vario was our standout performer in the hybrid category, adding yet another familiar brand to the winner's circle. The Vario was awarded Top Pick for Backpack Panniers because of it performed exceedingly well both on the bike as well as your back. It's got the same bomber waterproofing found on Ortlieb's other touring models plus the ability to whip out a set of backpack straps that tuck away when not in use, making it the perfect option for someone who switches from cyclist to pedestrian on a regular basis. Though it requires a few extra steps of installation, we were very pleased with how solid the mounting hardware was, even on rough trails with heavy loads. It's got plenty of storage for day missions and has a roll-top closure with a velcro strap that allows you to access the bag from the saddle. Furthermore, among the backpack-style panniers, the Vario was easily the most comfortable to wear.
Ortlieb Vario Review
Cons: Initial installation time and extra hardware
Compare to Similar Products
Our Analysis and Test Results
If you want a dual-function bike bag without compromising on quality or weatherproofing, this is the pannier for you. The Vario does everything a touring pannier can with the very handy adaptation to be worn on your back.
Similar to most panniers, the Vario features a three-point attachment schema. However, it requires that you first attach a lightweight wire and plastic harness to your rack.
Once secure, this harness will be accepted by the corresponding tracks and grooves that are on the backside of the pannier. After sliding the bag into place, the channels lock and won't be released until you pull up on the handle for removal. The extra hardware is a bit of a pain in the beginning, but it allows for quick and effortless mounting/removal.
The pictographic instructions for installation seemed less helpful than informative in the beginning, but in hindsight we recommend you give them a gander. Our first whack at installing the harness left the pannier riding a little high on the rack. Quick enough to re-adjust, though we would suggest first attaching the harness to the bag and then seeing where you'd like to line it up on your rack. The kit comes with various sizes of clips, rubber shims, and a hex key to tighten the included hardware.
At first, it was only a minor hassle to install the necessary mounting components of the Vario. After troubleshooting through installation, we found it very intuitive and easy to use. It can be quickly removed with only one hand, though fixing it to the rack usually requires two to make sure the tracks align properly. It is such a solid design that the pannier remains securely attached with heavy loads and has very minimal rattle on the trail. We only docked a point from this metric to account for the preliminary installation time—which you should only have to do once.
With 1403 cubic inches of storage, the Vario rounds out the middle of the pack concerning total raw capacity. However, we were impressed by its ability to accommodate all the gear we needed for a day mission—whether it be urban wild or woodland wild.
Additionally, the Vario has a wealth of extra pockets and sleeves as well as an included sling to carry a helmet. Compared to a pair of touring panniers like the Ortlieb Backroller Classic, the Vario will of course not have the same storage. But the size and functionality of this bag are perfectly ample for commuters and daytrippers alike.
Similar to the Back Roller Classic and Thule Adventure Touring Pannier, the Vario has got a deep main pocket that is secured with a roll-top closure. While this particular roll-top isn't quite as secure as other models, we found this design very conducive to the backpack hybrid; easy to open and close to remove items on-the-go. The various pockets and laptop sleeve are convenient for folks who plan to commute with this pannier. And the front pocket perfectly stores the padded carrying system when you aren't using the backpack straps during your ride. It is clear that there was a great amount of consideration that went into the design of this bag, and the quality shows.
The Vario didn't score as high as our high-capacity touring panniers when it came to storage. But that is simply due to a lack of total cubic inches. However, if you were to hypothetically sport a pair of Varios, you would be geared up with more total storage than is found with the pair of Back Roller Classics. Bottom line: the Vario has plenty of room to handle everything you would need out of a commuting pannier and/or daypack. It certainly strikes a balance between the two.
Not surprisingly, the Vario was 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 which can withstand serious abuse and abrasion as well as 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 very easy 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 known for making superbly weatherproof bike bags, and the Vario is no exception to that track record. With an IP rating of 64, the material of this pannier is virtually impervious to water spray from all directions.
Coupled with a roll-top design with rubber baffles to help keep moisture out of the inside. 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 protection from internal moisture. However, not all closures are created equally. The Vario allows you to roll down the additional fabric but doesn't offer the same buckles for closure as seen on the Back Roller Classic. Instead, the rolled material is secured with a burly velcro strap. This is enough to keep things dry in a rainstorm, but it didn't keep water out during our dunk test.
In all reality, we believe that the Vario has an adequate amount of weatherproofing for the type of riding it is best used for. The fabric is totally resilient to road spray, and the closure is just secure enough to keep out rain. What more can you ask for in a commuting pannier? We would categorize the Vario as weatherproof, but not entirely waterproof (i.e., can maintain dryness after complete submersion).
Ease of Use
Perhaps the only drawback to user-friendliness with the Vario is the necessity of mounting additional hardware to your rack. However, this quick one-time installation enables you to attach and remove your pannier with quickness and ease.
Many, if not all, of the features are useful and well-thought-out, like the helmet sling and integrated pocket to carry the backpack straps when not in use. Once you get to know this pannier, you will appreciate the attention to detail.
It is clear that this pannier is built with cyclists in mind. It's got nearly everything you'd look for in a single pannier plus the ability to transition into a backpack. In addition to being highly functional and easy to use, the Vario was also the most comfortable option in our backpack pannier lineup. Beyond a padded backing, the backpack harness features adjustable shoulder straps, load straps, and a removable waist strap to help you obtain the perfect fit.
This pannier is the best option among our backpack-style panniers. It is a great choice for students, commuters, or urban warriors who spend a significant amount of time off the saddle as well. Though it's tricky to learn at first, the Vario is capable of seamlessly transitioning into a backpack that holds enough for a generous day trip. It's maybe not the best for long-distance touring, but we can see the Vario fitting well into many other scenarios.
$140 for a single pannier may seem a little steep. However, we feel that this pannier has so much utility that you really get what you pay for and then some. If you are 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. Besides, the quality of Ortlieb design and manufacturing will leave you satisfied for many miles down the road.
There is no such thing as a do-it-all backpack or a do-it-all bike pannier. But we're staunch believers that the two can be beautifully fused into a hybrid backpack-pannier (backpannier?) that allows you to diversify your modes of transportation during a commute or daytime adventure. The concept isn't novel, but Ortlieb has hit the mark with this particular design. After only a small learning curve of installation and proper transition, this pannier becomes an extremely easy-to-use bag that is weatherproof, durable, and securely attached to your bike (or comfortably worn on your back). If you only need a pannier for touring purposes, you could maybe find something better. But for all other purposes, the Vario is capable of taking on the challenge with great style and steadfastness.
— Rob Woodworth