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Hands-on Gear Review
Black Diamond Drop Zone Review
Cons: Foam that wears out fast and is thin.
The Drop Zone is the best pad for most people. Through the years it keeps getting updates and made better. It has a redesigned multi-density foam layer set up for longer lasting impact protection. The new foam lay-up is 1" of dense closed-cell PE foam on top and 2.5" of softer high-compression PU foam on the bottom. This new blend is a bit more stiff and has slightly better impact cushioning than the last version and is simply more durable so it will last longer. The rest of the pad is well put together with the exception of the way the pad has an awkward twist or bend to it when in pack-mode. This is only really an annoyance if you carry a heavy load on rough terrain otherwise it was not really a big deal to most of our testers. Also, like most taco-style pads, it does not lay flat when first opened after being folded in pad mode for awhile. The edges stay curled up and bent inward until it relaxes or gets stepped on a bit. This seems more pronounced with the slightly stiffer new foam but is also nothing more than an annoyance. On the flip-side, the benefit of a taco-style pad is that it has no hinge that can bottom out on jagged rocky landings making it worth the minor annoyances in most cases. If you never boulder at areas with jagged rocky landing zones then bottoming out and curled up edges could be enough of an annoyance to consider one of our hinged style pads like the Best Buy award winning Metolius Session. The hinged pads are more compact for storage, fold open and close easier and lay perfectly flat.
One of our testers' favorite new features on the Drop Zone and also on a lot of other pads on the market today is the handle between the top of the shoulder straps. This "center lift handle" helps to lift the pad onto your back in pack-mode and also just to carry it around from boulder to boulder. This handle comes on all Black Diamond pads. The other feature we found very useful was the elastic mesh flap closure system. The two strap flap cinches up the load securely and has tough, easy-to-use metal hook buckles. The last but not least cool feature is the rubberized "Batman Suit" coating on the outside of the pad that helps the pad stick to angled surfaces and is also highly water repellant. This pad is a great pad to do it all. It is lightweight but larger than average size and has plenty of useful features. The taco-style design works great for most landing zones and the functional rubberized coating is like no other. With all that combined, this pad takes our Editors' Choice award.
RELATED REVIEW: The Best Bouldering Crash Pad Review
Our Analysis and Hands-on Test Results
The new improved multi-density foam with a 1" top layer of dense closed-cell PE foam and a bottom layer of 2.5" of softer high-compression PU foam is just slightly stiffer than the old foam lay-up and did a bit better in our tests at cushioning hard impacts from high falls and in the long term it will last longer. It wasn't too dense though and it felt about the same for low but hard and jarring on-your-back type falls.
This pad is one of the best we've tested for packing gear. The elastic mesh flap closure system has two straps to secure the load and smooth operating metal hook buckles. The taco-style pads often fit more gear into the drum-shaped interior and this slightly larger than average-sized taco pad securely holds a big heavy load. The only downside is that the taco-style fold in the padding makes an awkward bend / twist in the pad where your back lays against it in pad-mode.
This pad is feature rich! The rubberized "Batman Suit" outer coating sticks to angled landing zones and repels water.
We actually taped ours shut on the identical straps on the Black Diamond Drop Zone for some bouldering areas where we never saw ourselves untying the straps. We just used the pad in a more normal configuration most of the time so, in the rare occasion, we needed to untie the straps we would just have to easily un-tape them.
As with all Black Diamond products they have been designed by a company that has been around for a long time making quality, cutting edge outdoor gear and that comes through in the craftsmanship and quality of materials in this pad as well. With the redesigned, more resilient, long lasting foam improvements, the pad should outlast its previous version that was very durable. Only question with this and most pads is: will the shoulder straps break off prematurely from carrying too heavy of loads? The last version did eventually have the straps break but the padding had worn out and softened up before hand so it was not a big deal. This pad is very durable and should stand the test of time but the new padding lay-up is still being tested so long-term durability is still in question.
The Drop Zone is best suited as your go-to pad that can do-it-all from beginner to expert levels. It also makes a key part of any pad collection. Weighing in at 9 lb., the standard weight of the average sized pad on the market today, the larger than average sized and feature-rich Drop Zone is a lean mean padding machine. It has a standard 48" length but a wider than average 41" width which is 5" above the average. The Drop Zone also comes loaded with features. It compensates for the added weight of all the features and size by taking an inch off the thickness of the foam padding. At 3.5" thick it is only a 1/2 inch less thick than the average 4" of similar pads like the Impact or Session. Only in the extremely high fall test on sharp jagged rocks did our testers feel a slight lump through the 3.5" foam compared to less of a lump felt through the 4" or thicker pads. It was so insignificant that it is barely worth noting and did not make our testers distrust or dislike this pad for padding falls on rough terrain.
The taco-style design is good for most landings you throw it at except for uneven lumpy landings. For uneven landing zones nothing can compare to our Top Pick award winner, the Mad Rock R3 with a multi-baffled design and shredded foam that conforms to uneven surfaces. Black Diamond Mondo have larger surface areas and those usually are a lot heavier and a lot more expensive.
At $250 this is one of the most expensive medium/average sized pads in our overall review but we feel it is worth it for the useful features and slightly larger size. The only other taco-style pad, the Mad Rock R3, is comparable in many ways and lower priced. The R3 works well for packing gear and padding uneven landing zones but is twice as heavy at 18 lb. We tested no other taco-style pads that are this size that come fully loaded with a flap-closure, rubberized coating, metal hook buckles and center lift handle. If you like the taco-style design and don't want the heavy R3 then this is the only option in our tests.
From hiking around, finding new zones far off the beaten track at Castle Rock CA to covering sharp wild landings along the Sonoma Coast and in rugged Mendocino County this pad has done it and will do it all. Perfect for solo bouldering excursions or for use as a vital part of any landing zone pad assortment. The solid foam taco design, storage flap for securing a load, along with the center handle for lifting a heavy load all combine to make the Drop Zone one of our favorite go anywhere, do-it-all pads. For a much thicker and much less expensive alternative, check out the 5" thick foam and basic hinged-style of one of our Best Award winning pads, the popular Mad Rock Mad Pad.
— Chris Summit, Chris McNamara
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