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Petzl Alto Review
Cons: Does not pack large or bulky loads of gear well, no center lifting handle, Velcro and zipper could wear out prematurely.
Stacked with innovative features, a quality piece of dense closed-cell foam and a sleek design, this flashy orange pad has a lot to offer. This pad works great for entry to expert level bouldering. It folds up well for transport and storage and opens and lays flat quickly and easily. It also has many useful handles. In pack mode it holds a fair amount of gear but not as much as some of the other pads. It does pack the gear in very securely as long as the zipper does not wear out prematurely like a lot of zippers have been known to do. The zipper does work very well right out of the box. The way the zipper cover flaps over the other side and protects the suspension system from getting dirty or wet we found pretty useful for day-to-day use, but it could be very useful at certain crags in the wet seasons. The other thing that is worrisome to us is whether or not the Velcro on the shoulder and waist straps will wear out before the rest of the pad since Velcro is not replaceable like buckle closures.
The foam pad layers consist of 1" dual density high quality closed-cell foam and a 3" piece of softer open-cell foam. It offers a nice blend for short to medium length falls but not for mega high falls. It folds up better than any other taco-style pad we've ever tested and folds nearly as flat as a hinged style pad. When opened, the pad lays flat faster than most, if not all, taco-style pads. The handles on the corners are well placed and very handy, but there is no handle between the top of the shoulder straps to aid in taking the pad off and on when in pack mode.
Some of the features are obviously handy, but, are some of them just distracting "bells and whistles" and not actually as helpful as they look? How did the pad stand up to our rigorous outdoor testing regimen as well as the test of time? Read on.
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Our Analysis and Hands-on Test Results
The triple-layered 4" foam that this pad is constructed of has a soft 3" layer of open-cell PU foam on top and a dual density, firm and dense, 1" piece of high-quality closed-cell PE foam on the bottom. The 1" piece is a 0.5" piece of dense and firm foam bonded together with another slightly less dense and firm piece of similar 0.5 closed-cell foam. This layering scheme is upside down from the way most pads have it. Having the softer foam on top works great for cushioning hard and jarring, short to medium height falls and for lounging on, but for high falls it is best to have the more firm and dense foam on top for better impact dispersal. Since this pad can be flipped over and used upside down more easily than most with the flap to cover the suspension straps there really is no top or bottom. So, the foam might seem to be layered backwards from the way most pads are set up but this is because the pad is meant to be used on either side. The flap is not just for covering the suspension but also for making it easier to use your pad on both the soft side or on the harder side. This pad is still not as good at padding high falls as the similarly sized but much thicker 5" Mad Rock Mad Pad.
With its zip-up flap closure system holding gear in safe and secure, it is hard to beat this pad for packing small to medium size loads. The only minor problem was that the Velcro suspension straps were hard to accurately adjust.
This pad stands out for being rich with features. From the incredibly functional zipper flap system to the useful grab handles and Velcro suspension system with adjustable bandolier, the Petzl has you covered for just about every useful feature out there.
The feature we like the most is the incredibly functional zipper flap closure system that doubles as the suspension system coverage flap when in pad mode. This is the only pad we've tested with this innovative and very functional new flap. The zipper flap flips over and zips up the opposite side of the pad to cover the suspension to keep from tripping on it and to keep it from getting wet and/or dirty. The zipper flap works fairly quickly and easily once you get the hang of it. The zipper is the highest quality YKK but even the best zippers can fail with repeated rugged use. If/when the zipper fails, there would be no way to close the pad securely so it would no longer fold up. Will the zipper wear out before the rest of the pad wears out first? Only time will tell, our long-term tests are still going on.
This pad, as with all Petzl products, is made to the highest standards and with the highest quality materials. The Alto was just released and we began testing it in Spring 2015. More long-term testing is needed to confirm if it is any more durable then the other pads that have been around for years and are seasoned veterans in the war on gravity. So far this pad has already held its own on many adventures exploring, finding and sending new boulder problems all over the Northern California backwoods. Our testers had the pleasure of falling all over the pad off hard lowballs on Castle Rock sandstone, first ascent highballs on virgin Trinity Limestone, and circuit training in jagged volcanic boulder fields at Sugarloaf Ridge. The pad is still going strong after months of rigorous testing. It barely looks used after a lot of abuse from several different testers so it's receiving high scores in durability.
This pad is best for beginner to expert level boulderers who don't carry the largest of loads but do want to carry a small to medium size load securely and at the same time use its many handy features. The solid foam in the taco-style design is good if you frequent boulders that have a lot of sharp, jagged, rocky landings since a hinge-style pad would be more apt to bottom out.
At a whopping $300 this is one of the most expensive medium size pads we tested. The features and quality are worth it if you like them and can afford it, but the pad with the third highest price tag in our review, the still rather expensive $250 Black Diamond Drop Zone is a better choice for value, based on our side-by-side tests. The Drop Zone has an adjustable two buckle flap closure that hauls small to large loads of gear well and also has the handy center handle between the shoulder straps to aid in lifting a heavy load. For those reasons and the $50 lower price tag, we feel the Drop Zone is the better value.
Were some of the features on the Alto just "bells and whistles" and not as useful as they look? Some were, but others were not. The small handles on the sides of the pad did not work as well as we had hoped and it was missing the one handle our testers wanted; the center lift handle. The center lift handle helps with lifting a heavy pack onto your back so it is not a big deal if you don't carry heavy loads. The pad also had a hard time fitting very large bulky loads inside of it because the zipper flap was not adjustable. So, if you want to carry very heavy and/or very bulky loads then this is not the best pad for you. Try the Mad Rock R3 that has a new reinforced suspension system for 2015, a center lift handle and a very adjustable two buckle flap closure for carrying heavier loads.
After all is said and done, parts of the Alto did let us down as far as what it looked like it could do and what it did actually help us do. The zipper flap was the one pleasant surprise being more helpful and easy-to-use than we thought it would be. It worked great for both its jobs of holding gear in and for covering the suspension system in pad mode. The zippers and Velcro could possibly wear out prematurely but if you are not being hard on it in a rough backcountry setting too often then it should endure just fine. We see both good and bad sides to the Velcro straps and the zipper - the bad side being that it could wear out and fail, the good side is that it is fast and easy to use and the flap allows the pad to hold gear inside more securely than any other pad. All in all it works well. The decision is up to you, the consumer, to decide if you're not that hard on your gear then it could be a chance worth taking to get the quality craftsmanship, cool design, and useful features.
A lot of these things could also be personal preference and style. If you like the solid taco-folding design, don't mind the few extra pounds for the extra handy features and want a well made product, and you can afford it, then this could be just the right pad for you.
Check out this short video of the zipper flap closure system on the Petzl Alto:
— Chris Summit
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