Osprey has been in the pack business since 1974 and is headquartered in Colorado. The Osprey Variant 28 is the smallest pack in a line designed for “ultimate climbing and scrambling”. Osprey wanted me to try the Variant 28 for ski – mountaineering. I sometimes think of ski-mountaineers as people who climb mountains by easy ways so they can ski off relatively mellow (by climbing standards) aspects.

It is, however, a difficult outdoor activity for which to design equipment since a ski-mountaineer confronts a wide variety of conditions and has to use different modes of locomotion to get up and down mountains. Translation one – this means that a pack must potentially be able to carry a lot of gear. Translation two – this also means that a pack must be able to carry a load in a secure fashion. Ski-mountaineering is best not accomplished with bits of equipment dangling all over the place. Not only will you look like a Christmas tree; it simply isn’t safe.

Osprey Variant 28 Pack Review - Lee Lau

Osprey Variant 28 Overview

The Variant is a light pack. The color (a brilliant pyro red) is also dead sexy . I personally want to be as visible as possible if I’m skiing trees or out on a summit or icefield (and not just for pictures). Looks aside, I won’t use a heavy day pack. The Variant 28 weighs 790g or 2lbs 6 oz. It has 1700 cubic inches or 28 liters of carrying capacity. My previous day pack, a Marmot LaMeije was a nice pack but it weighed 3lbs 8 oz. I can carry a pound and two ounces of extra food (for example) when using the Variant with more comfort and without sacrificing useful features – this is very important to me..

I touched briefly on comfort. Osprey’s suspension system is magnificent. There is no other word to describe its sheer comfort. The packstraps, hipbelt and back are adequately padded but not overly so. It is easy to carry a load using the Variant and more importantly, it is easy to secure the load so it doesn’t swing wildly while you are engaging in either ascent or descent. The load is also somehow magically suspended off your back even when the Variant is fully loaded so at least a bit of air circulates between your back and the pack.

The Osprey Variant has useful features without being gimmicky. I admit to preferring the black hole type of packs where one can drop all manner of equipment into a basic sack. I don’t need a separate shovel pocket, or pocket for cosmetics, hip pockets for food or other useless accoutrements. The Variant is this type of pack. As with a standard top-loader black-hole design, the main compartment has a spin drift collar secured by a cord loop. The top compartment can be taken off but is light enough and has enough functional utility that I usually left it on. The only zippers on the Variant are on the top compartment, which was roomy enough for a miscellany of smaller items or things you might want to access quickly.

Osprey Variant 28 Pack Review - Lee Lau

Here’s a quick run-down of features I thought were useful for ski mountaineering:

  • Harness loops. I don’t sling gear there often as I prefer to use a climbing harness but it was useful to secure a probe on a carabiner if I was probing for glaciers on an uptrack. Also useful to hang small things like gloves that you didn’t want to drop in the snow.
  • I really liked the ice-axe loop (see the website for details). You can grab your axe without taking off your pack as you can release a catch and slide the axe off from the bottom of your pack. Nice in a dicey steep situation when encountering hard snow or ice.
  • I also really appreciated the ice-axe holster and the fabric feature which allows you to conceal the pick or adze of your axe. If you are skiing and tumble down a slope its nice to know that your axe won’t skewer you if you do end up getting entangled in some bizarre fashion
  • Straps that are easy to operate with gloves are mandatory for winter-use packs. The Variant passed this test with flying colors.
  • The strap at the top of the spindrift collar of the main compartment was useful not only to cinch down the pack but also to attach stuff that you know you will use in short order and don’t necessarily want to bury in a pack- eg skins, jacket, climbing rope.
  • I missed having a dedicated crampon patch but got over it when I realized that the Variant’s outer fabric was tough enough that my favorite slam-dancing accessories didn’t puncture the pack.
  • A-frame carry was very secure. The side carry straps don’t slip. I did however, miss the ease of rigging a quick side-carry but that would involve extra straps and more gimmicks and probably more weight.
  • It’s a nice touch to have a foam pad in the back of the pack. You can slide that out and sit on it or alternatively just sit on the pack itself.

Osprey Variant 28 Pack Review - Lee Lau

Typical Pack Contents

I carry a bit less then most so the 28l pack contents were plenty for me. Even in the depths of (my admittedly mild) winter, I will carry:

  • 1 liter Nalgene water bottle
  • Gore-tex shell
  • Skins
  • Hat
  • Goggles
  • Sunglasses (I’m an optimist)
  • Small spare gloves
  • Down jacket
  • First aid kit
  • Probe/Shovel/Snow Saw
  • Food
  • Small tool kit

For longer trips or if mountaineering gear is needed I might also carry:

  • Rope – 30m x 8mm
  • Light harness (Camp XLH “Acm G-string”)
  • Small rack and some screws
  • Crampons
  • Axe or ice tools (the picket in this shot is for show – I rarely use it)
  • Siltarp

Osprey Variant 28 Pack Review - Lee Lau

All of this fits quite nicely in the Variant. The only ungainly thing flapping around on the outside are my crampons, pictured here wrapped fetchingly in an old thick cotton garment. I had enough space to put the crampons under the top compartment but thought it would be nice to show how the Variant handled loads in such adept fashion.

The Good

  • Stunning good looks and dashing color
  • Light, light, light
  • I like top-loading black-holes and this is a prototypical version of that type of pack
  • Feels like falling into a down bed whenever you carry a load with this pack – it is that comfortable.
  • Loads are easy to secure
  • Can carry a lot of stuff given the relatively small size (see pack contents below)
  • Lots of climbing features that by happy accident, make the Variant ideal for skiing when equipped with sharp pointy objects

The Bad

  • Will not appeal to those who like futzing around with many compartments and gimmicky features
  • Dedicated crampon patch would be nice
  • Would be nice to have a diagonal carry for skis

The Bottom Line: Osprey Variant 28 Pack

When my wife first persuaded me to try this pack I complained. As with all things, I quickly found out that she was right and the Variant became my favorite pack. My concerns and suggestions for improvements are minor and frankly pedantic. I find it hard to conceive of how one could improve on the Variant 28. It is a pack for those who crave function, want fashion yet do not want the added weight that comes with fluff.

Buy Now: Find Osprey Ski Packs at REI

About Author

Guest blogger Lee Lau is an avid skier and outdoorsman embarking on many adventures with his loving, and sometimes concerned wife, Sharon. He has over 15 years of experience skiing, ski-touring and dabbles in mountaineering. In the “off-season” he is occasionally found working in his day job as an intellectual property lawyer when he is not mountain biking. As a resident of Vancouver, British Columbia, Lee’s playground extends mainly to Western Canada, including South West B.C. and the Selkirks.


  1. Great review, Lee! Looks like a great pack. I’ve been very impressed with the Osprey Kode pack I’ve got for testing–definitely the most comfortable BC ski pack I’ve used.

    You can sure stuff a whole ton of stuff into your pack!

  2. Thanks for the review. Briefly tried the pack in shop and think it’s comfortable.

    One question though. Having only a foam pad in the back, do you feel it can be a problem retaining a comfortable back panel? Do you get objects in the pack poking your back? I guess it depends on one’s packing efforts, but still, what’s your view on this?

  3. Knut,

    Like you said, packing will take care of that. Some packs have a hard plastic piece in the back. The Variant doesn’t. It won’t be that hard to add a plastic piece but I don’t think that’s necessary if you just pack with some thought.

  4. Pingback: Daypack Contents

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