Reviews You Can Rely On

The North Face Phantom 38 Review

Hard to beat for a sleek, lightweight, and relatively affordable alpine pack
the north face phantom 38 ultralight backpack review
Credit: The North Face
Price:  $170 List
Manufacturer:   The North Face
By Jane Jackson ⋅ Senior Review Editor  ⋅  Aug 12, 2019
  • Weight-to-Volume Ratio - 35% 4.0
  • Comfort to Carry - 25% 9.0
  • Features - 20% 8.0
  • Adaptability - 10% 8.0
  • Durability - 10% 9.0

Our Verdict

The North Face Phantom 38 is lightweight, versatile, and durable, making it the ultimate alpine pack. With a surprisingly large carrying capacity for its claimed volume of only 38 liters, the Phantom carried all the gear we needed for most missions. We used the Phantom day in and day out over the course of a two-month trip to Europe, and it was simple and extremely comfortable in a wide range of situations. Though it lacks the standard features of most ultralight packs on the market, the Phantom has everything you need for light and fast trips into the mountains. A few outside carry options and a removable lid make it versatile but not bulky.
Minimalist suspension provides a comfortable carry
Lid is easy to remove
Low weight-to-volume ratio
Relatively small capacity
These features and more make the Phantom 38 our Top Pick for Alpine Climbing and Mountaineering. The Strive 50 is another favorite for lightweight climbing missions but is larger and less streamlined than the sleek Phantom 38.

Our Analysis and Test Results

With high scores in our weight-to-volume comparisons, comfort, and adaptability metrics, The North Face Phantom 38 proves itself as a versatile mountain pack.

Performance Comparison

the north face phantom 38 ultralight backpack review - we carried the phantom all over southern france. though its design...
We carried the Phantom all over Southern France. Though its design is simple, the pack is comfortable and can carry heavy loads.
Credit: Eric Bissell

Weight-to-Volume Ratio

The North Face Phantom 38 has one of the lowest scores in this metric due to its relatively low volume and its relatively heavy weight. Though listed as a 38-liter pack, the Phantom has a measured volume of 42 liters. The eight-liter lid can be removed, making the pack's stripped volume 34 liters.

OGL Measured Volume Bottom Line:
Total Volume = 42 L
Main Bag = 34 L
Pockets = na L
Lid = 8 L

This pack weighs 35.8 ounces total, and 28.6 ounces stripped. This is comparable to the Hyperlite Southwest, but the Hyperlite has a much larger capacity. The Phantom's performance in this metric leaves a lot to be desired; however, the pack remains a favorite pick for the mountains, where features, comfort, and durability are equally as important.

the north face phantom 38 ultralight backpack review - the phantom combines comfort and volume with a fairly low overall...
The Phantom combines comfort and volume with a fairly low overall weight and a sleek profile, making it great for adventures in the mountains.
Credit: Eric Bissell

Weight Bottom Line:
Total weight with all modular components = 2 lb 3.7oz
Pack stripped of components = 1 lb 12.5oz
Lid = 7.2oz

Load Carrying Comfort

For what looks like a simple pack, the Phantom 38 provides an impressive level of comfort, despite its slimmed-down appearance and basic feature set. The shoulder straps are fairly thin, both width-wise and padding-wise, but they provide enough support to endure heavy loads. The waist belt is the key to the Phantom's high scores in this metric; the belt is also fairly minimal, but it is shaped in a way that contours to the hips and provides support without any additional bulk.

Other packs, like the Mountainsmith Scream, provide padding and support in the waist belt but also add bulk and extra weight. The Phantom's hip belt is comfortable but sleek. In comparison to The North Face Hydra 38, the Phantom is much sleeker and more comfortable in terms of both the hip belt and the frame.


For those looking for a simple pack for overnight missions into the mountains, the Phantom 38 has everything needed for a lightweight trip. Though it is small and lightweight, the pack manages heavy loads with ease, making it a good option for these kinds of outings.

Its feature set is designed with alpine climbing in mind. The pack has ice axe loops that are easy to use and adjust, reinforced ski loops, and a removable lid. The side straps, also used for an A-frame ski set up, are highly adjustable and allow for the pack to compress down if interior space is not in use.

the north face phantom 38 ultralight backpack review - shown here is the removable 8l lid that easily unclips from the main...
Shown here is the removable 8L lid that easily unclips from the main body of the pack. We loved this simple feature.
Credit: Jane Jackson

The major downside to the pack is the roll-top closure. Without the lid, the roll-top closure is meant to seal the inside of the pack from the elements. We found the buckle and strap are placed in such a way that it wasn't able to compress the top enough to create a tight seal. This is a small issue, but in comparison to other packs, like the ULA CDT, it was a bit of a disappointment.

the north face phantom 38 ultralight backpack review - shown here is the roll-top/drawstring closure that secures the...
Shown here is the roll-top/drawstring closure that secures the Phantom. The red strap that reaches over the top of the pack was a bit long, making it impractical at times.
Credit: Jane Jackson


The major features that make the Phantom 38 a highly adaptable pack are its large removable lid and its removable hip belt. Both of these features, when integrated into the pack, are designed well enough to be useful. But, they are also designed to be easy to remove, and the pack still performs well without them.

This is important because in some cases, removable features can complicate a pack and detract from the overall effectiveness of the design. In the case of the Phantom, though, the pack works great with and without the lid and the hip belt. The North Face Hydra 38, for comparison, is not at all designed to be modified and thus receives a lower score in this rating metric.

the north face phantom 38 ultralight backpack review - from a full pack, shown above, to a slimmed down day pack, the...
From a full pack, shown above, to a slimmed down day pack, the Phantom is incredibly adaptable.
Credit: Eric Bissell


Made from 210-denier high-tenacity nylon and 840-denier IronLite nylon, the Phantom 38 is a seriously durable pack. We carried climbing gear and camping equipment in this pack for three straight months and saw no signs of wear. The Phantom held up to the wear and tear that comes with scrambling in the mountains and approaching climbs.

We were pleasantly surprised with this pack's ability to combine durability with a fairly lightweight design and a comfortable frame. Compared to both the L.I.M. Strive and The North Face Hydra, the Phantom is a more comfortable and durable pack.

the north face phantom 38 ultralight backpack review - the materials used in the construction of this pack are made to...
The materials used in the construction of this pack are made to last. We dragged the Phantom over rocks and off-trail through trees without tearing or damaging the pack at all during three months of testing.
Credit: Eric Bissell

Best Application

As our Top Pick winner for Alpine Climbing and Mountaineering, the Phantom 38 is, you guessed it, ideal in the mountains! This durable, comfortable pack fits close to the body, making it maneuverable and easy to wear in climbing and scrambling terrain. The waist belt is supportive and comfortable, which are features that are key for heavy loads required for alpine missions. Though its volume is relatively small, the Phantom can easily carry overnight gear, a rope, and personal climbing gear. The removable lid allows for even more flexibility. If you are looking for a versatile, sleek pack that can accompany you on mountain missions this summer, the Phantom is our go-to.


Sold online for $170, the Phantom 38 is a reasonably priced option compared to the other highly specific, technical packs in this review. Though it is not made of the lightest, most high-tech materials or made for eight-week thru-hikes, the Phantom is simple, sleek, and perfect for the mountains. Many of its competitors in this review would become shredded after a few days scrambling in the alpine and cannot carry skis or ice axes, whereas the Phantom is designed for these types of outings.

the north face phantom 38 ultralight backpack review - the phantom is one of the more affordable packs in this review.
The Phantom is one of the more affordable packs in this review.
Credit: Eric Bissell


The North Face Phantom 38 is the pack we take on trips above treeline. Its simple design has the right combination of features to keep us organized, and the waist belt and shoulder straps are ergonomic and padded enough to withstand carrying heavy loads for long periods of time. With its removable lid and adjustable side straps, the Phantom can be used for overnight missions, or as a day pack if need be. The hip belt and sleek profile made us feel comfortable scrambling with this pack on, which is key for quick trips into the alpine. The durable nylon holds up to three months of continual use, without as much as a significant scratch. We are incredibly impressed with the performance of this award winner and its reasonable price tag is the icing on the cake - and yet another reason to make the Phantom an award winner.

Jane Jackson
You Might Also Like

Ad-free. Influence-free. Powered by Testing.

GearLab is founded on the principle of honest, objective, reviews. Our experts test thousands of products each year using thoughtful test plans that bring out key performance differences between competing products. And, to assure complete independence, we buy all the products we test ourselves. No cherry-picked units sent by manufacturers. No sponsored content. No ads. Just real, honest, side-by-side testing and comparison.

Learn More