The Osprey Variant 52 might have more features than any other pack in this review. While these features are generally well-executed, our testers find them to be too much for technical alpine applications.
Because the Variant 52 has well padded shoulder straps, our testers' shoulders don't get sore when they use the pack on long approaches without the hip belt.
The Osprey Variant 52 is in the lower middle class when it comes to weight-to-volume. Though it checks in with the heftier packs in "pure" weight, its larger capacity sets it up with the Black Diamond Speed in stripped weight-to-volume and the Patagonia Ascensionist 40 in max weight to volume. Our testers suspect it could score a lot higher if not for all the straps, flaps, and buckles, and particularly the shovel pocket.
Jess carrying the Variant 52 sans lid and framesheet on the approach to Mount Whitney. Our testers found Osprey's Flapjacket Closure, the flap that covers top of the pack when the lid is removed, to be just another obstacle between them and their snacks. Even those who don't mind it would rather save the weight and have the traditional drawstring closure.
Our opinion is that the Variant 52 is a classic example of a pack where the designers put on so many features that they had to use a lighter fabric to keep the overall weight from getting ridiculous, compromising durability. Osprey uses lightweight 210d nylon throughout the pack. Luckily, the pack design saves it from being shredded in two ways. First, there is a sacrificial second layer of 210d on the bottom of the pack. Second, the aforementioned massive shovel pocket protects the front from abrasion damage. This makes it more competitive in durability than other packs that are mostly 210d, like the Patagonia Ascensionist 40.
This pack has a lot of features that seem to make it more versatile. In practice, our testers found that all of these features add up to a lot of extra weight no matter what we are doing. The backcountry ski-specific features (the shovel pocket and A-frame ski carry loops) seem the most extraneous. If you're on an alpine rock climbing trip the shovel pocket might be a nice place to stuff your windbreaker but it's also unnecessary extra weight. Aside from the lid, hip belt, and framesheet, all these other extra features aren't removable. This pack has the features to get by doing just about anything, but be good at nothing.
The Variant 52 has all the features you could want except for simplicity. Aside from the color, it's almost the opposite pack from the Arc'teryx Alpha FL 45. It's got the ski features mentioned above as well as wand/picket pockets on each side. Ice axes can be strapped on the outside and crampons can go in the shovel pocket if they don't fit inside. It's got all the removable accouterments (lid, framesheet, hip belt) that a mountaineering pack should have. Our testers found the framesheet unusually hard to get back in the pack after taking it out. When we removed the lid in an effort to make the pack a bit simpler, we discovered a flap underneath that covers up the main pack opening. This flap (called the Flapjacket closure) generally just gets in the way when we are trying to get our stuff. There's no fixed or optional smaller hip belt for when the big padded one is removed.
Putting the framesheet back in after removing it is no easy task. For starters it's a very tight fit in its pocket. After our testers crammed it in there, they had to tuck the top corners of the framesheet into small fabric pockets at the top of the framesheet pocket. Some leverage is useful for this. Fortunately our testers are alpine climbers and had ice axes, nut tools, or sturdy spoons nearby.
It has a separate pocket inside the pack for a hydration bladder. A hose pass-through and a few loops to route the hose on the shoulder straps round out the hydration features.
There are a few smaller features that we like on this pack. The ice axe attachments work with most any brand or model and offer our tools more protection than any other pack in the test. The picks and head of the tools are totally covered. The cord lock on the main pack opening is the one-handed variety that we've come to prefer during our testing. The buckles are glove-friendly. The sternum strap buckle is also a whistle. The zipper pulls are glove friendly cord with no metal, gram shaving that we appreciated but that was ultimately futile.
The ice tool head pockets on the Variant made the head of the tool disappear, protecting the head of the tool from damage while stowed and making it nearly impossible to drop a tool.
This pack offers one of the more comfortable carries of any pack in our test. We suspect this is in large part due to all the padding on the pack. The hip belt is very well padded and the shoulder straps are a good compromise between comfortable padding and freedom of movement when climbing. The one spot our testers consistently have trouble with in the comfort department is packing the Variant when it's stripped down. When the framesheet is removed and the lower compression strap is cinched down, the back panel bows in, creating a weird fit for our lower back.
The Osprey Variant 52 stripped of framesheet, hip belt, and lid. Our testers find that without the framesheet the lower side compression straps compress the pack very unevenly, leading to some discomfort.
We think the best use for this pack is mountaineering trips that aren't too technical, like the standard routes up Cascade Volcanoes. This pack could also work well for a multi-night backpacking trip with a little bit of peakbagging included.
Though this is among the less expensive packs in our test, it still costs more than the Black Diamond Speed 50, our Best Buy Award-winning pack which is simpler and more useful.
Like the kid at a party trying too hard to fit in, the Variant 52 overdoes it. While it is one of our test leaders in comfort (no surprise from a company like Osprey) it falls short by trying too hard in every other category.
An alpine pack ought to carry heavy loads with some comfort but must also transform into a day pack to carry the essentials and not get in the way of your movement when the going gets technical. Here the author wears the Osprey Variant 52 while setting up a rappel in Alaska's Little Switzerland.