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Ortlieb Vario Review

An innovative design with durable construction that works just as well on the rack or on your back
Ortlieb Vario
Photo: Backcountry
Top Pick Award
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Price:  $170 List | Check Price at Competitive Cyclist
Pros:  Innovative and comfortable, rugged, weatherproof
Cons:  Extra hardware requires installation, conversions can be tedious
Manufacturer:   Ortlieb
By Nick Bruckbauer ⋅ Senior Review Editor  ⋅  Feb 21, 2020
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71
OVERALL
SCORE


RANKED
#9 of 13
  • Mounting System - 25% 7
  • Storage - 20% 7
  • Durability - 20% 8
  • Weatherproofing - 20% 8
  • Ease of Use - 15% 5

Our Verdict

The Ortlieb Vario stands out with its waterproof construction, easily accessible storage compartment, and comfortable and innovative backpack design, earning our Top Pick Award for Best Backpack. It has the same high-quality, waterproof construction the Ortlieb is famous for, plus the ability to whip out a set of backpack straps that pack away when not in use. With plenty of storage for any type of daylong mission, the Vario is the perfect option for students, commuters, or urban warriors who spend a significant amount of time off the saddle, or anyone who switches from biker to hiker on a regular basis.

Compare to Similar Products

 
Ortlieb Vario
This Product
Ortlieb Vario
Awards Top Pick Award Editors' Choice Award Top Pick Award Best Buy Award  
Price $170 List$189.95 at Competitive Cyclist
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$180 List$75 List$94.99 at Amazon
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Pros Innovative and comfortable, rugged, weatherproofDurable and waterproof, huge storage capacity, easy and secure attachmentLarge storage volume, durable, stylish, easy to useDurable, inexpensive, easy to installHuge volume, very durable and weatherproof, easy to use
Cons Extra hardware requires installation, conversions can be tediousLimited pockets and organizationSomewhat expensive, limited organizational pocketsNot sold as a pair, lacks adjustable mounting hooksMounting system is not as secure as others
Bottom Line A high quality pannier with an innovative backpack design that is one of our favorite hybrid productsA high-quality, consistently top-ranked design that is often imitated by othersA versatile design with plenty of storage in a durable and waterproof packageA well-built and affordable touring pannier that is fully waterproof and user-friendlyAn impressively built model with huge volume and simple design, but the mounting system leaves more to be desired
Rating Categories Ortlieb Vario Ortlieb Back Roller Classic Arkel Signature H Urban Seattle Sports Titan Thule Shield
Mounting System (25%)
7
9
7
6
5
Storage (20%)
7
9
8
7
9
Durability (20%)
8
8
8
9
9
Weatherproofing (20%)
8
9
7
8
8
Ease Of Use (15%)
5
7
8
7
6
Specs Ortlieb Vario Ortlieb Back... Arkel Signature H... Seattle Sports Titan Thule Shield
Volume (cubic inches) 1403 cu in 2441 cu in (pair) 1460 cu in 1100 cu in 2928 cu in (pair)
Dimensions (in.) (H x W x D) 19.7" x 11" x 7.9" 16.5" x 12.6" x 6.7" 16" x 12" x 6.5" 13.5" x 11" x 6" 17" x 13" x 6"
Weight (pounds) 2.6 lbs 4.2 lbs (pair) 2.3 lbs 2.0 lbs 4.7 lbs (pair)
Material Nylon PS 490 and PD 620 nylon 1000 denier Cordura nylon Vinyl Thermal welded nylon (420D)
Pockets Two side pockets, waterproof front pocket, internal tablet sleeve and zippered mesh pocket Internal sleeve and zippered mesh pocket Internal laptop sleeve with zippered pocket, small external pocket External splashproof zippered pocket Internal sleeve with two smaller mesh sleeves
Best Use Urban/Commuting Touring Urban/Commuting Touring Touring

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.

Performance Comparison


The Vario has a rugged hybrid design perfect for biking to the...
The Vario has a rugged hybrid design perfect for biking to the trailhead.
Photo: Nick Bruckbauer

Mounting System


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 additional mounting hardware takes a little bit of tedious...
The additional mounting hardware takes a little bit of tedious installation time upfront, but once installed, makes attaching and removing the pack a breeze.
Photo: Nick Bruckbauer

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.

The unique mounting design of the QL3.1 system makes sliding the...
The unique mounting design of the QL3.1 system makes sliding the pack onto the rack easy with a satisfying click to lock things into place.
Photo: Nick Bruckbauer

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.

The QL3.1 mounting system makes attaching and removing the Vario a...
The QL3.1 mounting system makes attaching and removing the Vario a simple task once the extra hardware is mounted.
Photo: Nick Bruckbauer

Storage


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's 1400 cubic inches of storage volume is quite impressive...
The Vario's 1400 cubic inches of storage volume is quite impressive. Combining two packs to make a pair would put its volume on pair with most touring panniers.
Photo: Nick Bruckbauer

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.

The Vario strikes a nice balance between a daypack and a touring...
The Vario strikes a nice balance between a daypack and a touring pannier.
Photo: Nick Bruckbauer

Durability


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.

The unique removable backpack system and all of its associated...
The unique removable backpack system and all of its associated hardware is of high quality and is very durable.
Photo: Nick Bruckbauer

Weatherproofing


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.

The roll-top closure with a hefty velcro closure strap is not quite...
The roll-top closure with a hefty velcro closure strap is not quite as secure as models with multiple buckled closures, but balances security with easy accessibility.
Photo: Nick Bruckbauer

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.

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

Value


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.

The Vario is a high-quality hybrid between a backpack and a pannier...
The Vario is a high-quality hybrid between a backpack and a pannier that does a good job bridging the gap between the two types of products.
Photo: Nick Bruckbauer

Conclusion


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