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Review: Osprey Exos/Eja backpack || Super comfy, needs hipbelt pockets

Testing grounds: Rocky Mountain National Park, with its reliable gale-force winds when atop the Continental Divide

For two weeks in June and July I wore the new Osprey Exos backpack while guiding overnight trips in Rocky Mountain National Park. To accommodate a guide-sized kit and a full-size bear canister (which I prefer to pack horizontally), I used the largest of the three-pack series:

  • Exos 38 ($180, 2 lbs 8 oz), for streamlined kits and overnights;
  • Exos 48 ($200, 2 lbs 9 oz), the Goldilocks of the family; and,
  • Exos 58 ($220, 2 lbs 10 oz), for beginners and bulkier loads.

The Exos line was entirely updated for 2018, the first time in four seasons. In addition, Osprey released new women-specific equivalents of the Exos: the Eja 38, Eja 48, and Eja 58. Because the Exos and Eja are identically featured, most of my comments about the Exos will apply equally to the Eja. The Eja differs only in fit, with a targeted body type that has narrower shoulders, shorter torso lengths, and more curve.

State of the market

The Exos/Eja fits squarely in today’s sweetspot for backpacks. At about $200 and 2.5 pounds, this class of packs will withstand years of use (or two thru-hikes), remain comfortable with loads up to 30 or 40 pounds, and offer limited but practical features like exterior pockets, a top lid, and utility attachments for an ice axe, foam sleeping pad, or snowshoes.

In addition to the Exos/Eja, this space is also occupied by the:

If you are about to purchase a 3-season backpack that is more expensive or that weighs more than these packs, I think you need an exceptional reason, e.g. it’s for a 6-month thru-hike, Utah slot canyons, or big game hunting.

Review: Osprey Exos/Eja

The Exos/Eja is awesomely comfortable, priced well, widely available, and backed with an excellent guarantee. Its suspension is unique, excelling at lower weights but floundering when pushed to its recommended max. And it lacks hipbelt pockets (and a shoulder strap pocket, like the previous generation had), which is really annoying but which can be rectified with aftermarket accessories.

Key specs

  • 2 lbs 8 oz to 2 lbs 10 oz (1134 grams to 1190 grams)
  • $180 to $220 USD
  • Recommended weight range: 15 to 30 pounds, or 20 to 40 pounds
  • Pliable Lightwire alloy peripheral frame
  • 100d nylon for main body, 210d nylon for bottom, stretch mesh + 100d for rear and side pockets
  • Two side pockets, one rear pocket, one top lid pocket
  • Trampoline-style Airspeed mesh back panel

The highlight: Comfort

The Exos is supremely comfortable. In fact, it’s probably the most comfortable backpack that I’ve ever used. It achieves this by:

  • Distributing weight evenly and widely across the hip belt, shoulder straps, and trampoline-style back panel to eliminate completely any hot spots or pressure points; and,
  • Using soft, cushioned, stretchy, spongy, and breathable materials for all body/pack contact zones.

I was aware of Osprey’s reputation for comfort and fit, and now understand why they excel in stores. It felt like the Exos simply molded to my body. During side-by-side comparisons in the field against the Flex Capacitor, ULA Ohm, HMG Southwest, and Hancor Marl, the Exos stood apart for its wearability.

Every body/pack contact zone is soft, cushioned, breathable, and stretchy, making for a supremely comfortable fit.

The hipbelt is permanently attached, and is patterned perfectly for model-shaped backpackers.

The Airspeed back panel is highly breathable and conforms to your back.

Pros and cons: Load carrying

The harness and frame is identical on the Exos/Eja 38, 48, and 58. Osprey puts the load carrying comfort range of the 38-volume edition at 15 to 30 pounds, which seems appropriate to me, and at 20 to 40 pounds for the 48- and 58-liter models, which seems generous.

I pushed the Exos 58 to the upper end of its recommended range, leaving the trailhead twice with nearly 40 pounds.

The Exos was not uncomfortable with these loads. Rather, it struggled to keep the load stable, even after attempts to better compress it (using the side compression straps) and to reorganize the weight distribution (with more weight towards the bottom).

I believe there are two causes for this load instability:

1. Harness system materials. The soft, cushioned, and stretchy meshes and foams used throughout the harness system are damn comfortable, but they lack rigidity and stiffness. The Exos rides like a Buick, but truer load-haulers will have sports car-like suspension systems.

2. Flexible alloy frame. The 4-mm Lightwire alloy peripheral frame supports the Airspeed mesh back panel and helps to transfer some weight from the shoulders to the hips. Lightwire is shockingly flexible — the frame can be twisted and bent with gentle pressure, and will spring back to its original shape when that pressure is relieved.

When hiking down the trail, the flexibility in the Lightwire gives the sensation of a “floating” pack — in comparison to packs with more rigid frames, the Exos is a less jarring ride. However, heavier loads overwhelm the frame. It’s akin to carrying a restless toddler or a 35-pound bobblehead — Lightwire cannot control the load’s independent momentum that is generated while hiking or scrambling.

The Lightwire alloy frame is remarkably pliable. It absorbs shock better than stiff packs, but it’s overwhelmed by heavier loads, akin to carrying a restless toddler or a 40-lb bobblehead.

Omission: Hipbelt and shoulder strap pockets

As soon as possible, Osprey needs to add back hipbelt pockets (at a minimum) and shoulder strap pockets (ideally) to the Exos/Eja. I’m mystified why these wonderfully convenient features were not included, especially since the previous generation Exos had them. (They were small, but better than nothing.) Frankly, for me this would be a deal-breaking omission when comparing the Exos/Eja to other lightweight packs.

Hipbelt pockets are ideal for small oft-needed items like a camera or phone, sunscreen, lip balm, headnet, Aquamira, and some calories. Without hipbelt pockets, these items must be carried in clothing pockets, in side pockets (in which they can be hard to find and which I’d rather use for water bottles), or in the top lid (which can be accessed only by taking off the pack). Shoulder strap pockets are well suited for a 20-oz water bottle, reading glasses, or bear spray.

I suspect that the decision to remove the hipbelt and shoulder strap pockets was driven by weight and/or cost considerations, or the believe that the excellent side pockets were enough. But it was the wrong one: if I wanted to use the Exos long-term, I’d plan to spend $40 on accessory pockets from Gossamer Gear, MLD, or ZPacks. Unfortunately, these pockets won’t work as well as native pockets because they are not designed specifically for the Exos/Eja.

The previous generation Exos had hipbelt pockets and shoulder strap pockets. The new generation does not. Also note: to prevent your water bottle from sticking out annoyingly as in the photo, insert it cap-first, and then rotate the bottom of the bottle into the pocket.

Side pockets

The side pockets on the Exos/Ea are excellent. They are tall enough to support tent poles or an 80-oz PlatyBottle, but they can be easily accessed while on-the-move by using the secondary side opening.

Most side pockets with only a conventional top opening fail to achieve this happy-medium. Either they are too tall, making them secure but difficult to access, or they are too short, making them easy to access but insecure and limited in usability.

Note: If using a 1-liter smartwater bottle, I suggest inserting it cap-first through the side-entry, and then rotating the bottle so that it falls into the pocket. If inserted bottom-first, it annoying pokes diagonally out of the pocket, and the cap cannot clear the side-entry opening.

The side pockets are excellent: tall enough to hold everything secure (in this case, poles for a 3-person tent, and a 1L smartwater bottle), but accessible via the side entry.

Top lid

Most lightweight packs have a roll-top closure, which is lighter and simpler (and therefore less expensive and easier to sew). The Exos retains a more conventional top lid, which it outfits with a generous pocket in which I stored small odds-and-ends like toiletries, my headlamp, sunglasses case, and water purification.

The top lid is removable, which reduces the weight of the Exos by 4.5 oz. When the top lid is removed, the Exos has a non-removable secondary flap to cover the main compartment. It seems like Osprey could remove some weight and cost from the Exos by eliminating this redundancy, but I appreciated the versatility.

The top lid can be removed, to eliminate some volume and weight. A secondary flap takes its place.

Rear pocket

The rear shove-it pocket is a good size, with enough volume for rain gear, a wet rain fly, or a mid-layer. But the pocket does not constitute a major share of the pack’s overall volume. The Exos 58 felt like a true 58-liter pack, not a 30-liter pack with an exceptionally large rear pocket or tall extension collar.

Bear canisters

My Bearvault BV500 bear canister fit horizontally (with a little bit of room to spare) in the Exos 58. YMMV with the Exos 38 and 48. I think a BV450 will fit horizontally; the BV500 seems like a stretch. Maybe other users can chime in with their experience.

Horizontal orientation of canisters is preferred to vertical, because canisters are difficult to pack around — it’s best if they fill entirely one “row” inside the pack, with other items stacked tightly under and atop the canister.

Compression system

The Exos/Eja has a unique compression system, consisting of very thin webbing that runs in a zig-zag pattern down both sides of the pack. It offers more adjustment options than the more customary webbing strap or two: each segment can be tightened independently, and it can be routed over or under the side pocket.

Functionally, however, I thought this system was only so-so.  First, I was reluctant to pull hard on such dainty webbing and O-rings, for just cause or not. Second, I never found that I needed all of that adjustment — a horizontal strap with a ladder lock or side-release buckle would do, thanks. Finally, I wished that the top end was detachable, so that items could quickly be strapped to the side of the pack, rather than needing to be threaded between the compression webbing and the pack.

The zig-zag side compression system is highly adjustable — each segment can be independently tightened, and it can be routed over and behind the side pocket. But I didn’t utilize it fully, and would have preferred a traditional horizontal strap with one detachable end.

Overall

I would highly recommend the Exos/Eja with caveats. If you don’t overload it and if you won’t miss hipbelt pockets (or are willing to attach aftermarket models), you’ll love the Exos/Eja for its comfort, while being satisfied with its weight, durability, price, and guarantee. You’ll also appreciate that it’s available at your local REI or (probably) outdoor retailer, allowing you to try it on and to size it properly before you buy it.

Questions about the Exos/Eja? Have an experience you’d like to share? Leave a comment.


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20 Responses to Review: Osprey Exos/Eja backpack || Super comfy, needs hipbelt pockets

  1. Chuck September 1, 2018 at 4:55 pm #

    Timely review! I’m debating between the Exos 58 and Flex Capacitor. My base weight is about 17lbs but we live in Phoenix and often have to lug extra water (3+ Liters is typical). Our BP trips are usually 2-3 nights. I tried on the Exos but can’t try on the FC locally. The fact that you helped design the FC had me leaning towards the FC until I saw this review. Would the Flex Capacitor be a better choice if the Exos struggles under heavier loads? What are some other advantages of the FC over the Exos?

    • Dave September 3, 2018 at 5:19 pm #

      Hi there – I live in Phoenix and have the Flex Capacitor, which I have used to haul 30+ lbs quite comfortably, due to hauling 4-6+ liters of water. I have one in both S/M and M/L – originally bought the M/L but realized after 1 trip that it was a bit too big, so I got the S/M. You are welcome to come try them both on if you would like.

      I am contemplating selling the M/L but am kind of on the fence about it.

  2. Alex T September 1, 2018 at 4:58 pm #

    From a conversation with an Osprey employee, the redesigned hip belt is short her than the original hip belt. Due to the Exos’ popularity on distance trails, thru hikers would lose enough weight where they could no longer cinch the hip belt tight enough, and Osprey had difficulties keeping up with hip belt modifications when the problem arose. Consequently they shortened the overall length of the hip belt, and claim it is now too short for functional hip belt pockets.

    On the small and extra small Eja, this seems reasonable. The granite gear hip belt pocket, which is only 5″ wide will fit on a size small hip belt but when weighted with snacks has a tendency to fall off, as my girlfriend discovered this summer. The belts on the medium and large sizes seem ample enough to fit one to me. Even just an elastic stuff pocket would be acceptable.

  3. Danilo psico September 1, 2018 at 5:35 pm #

    Is there a big difference to the discontinued model? Because I’d never buy a pack without hip belt pocket, and the exos is the only good pack available in Brazil. So I am thinking about getting the old model.

    • Andrew Skurka September 1, 2018 at 10:30 pm #

      I’m uncertain of all the differences between the old and new generations.

  4. Jen September 1, 2018 at 6:10 pm #

    Hi! I couldn’t agree more with your assessment. The Eja came home with me & then into the mountains, where we became great friends.

    But FYI, from a woman’s perspective, the absence of waist belt pockets was the number one reason I chose this pack. EVERY single pack has them these days and the insides of my elbows and/or forearms would rub on them to the point of chafing – with or without trekking pole use. I was so relieved to discover that not only did the Eja have a nice smooth, pocket free belt, but that everything else about it is awesome & comfortable.

    I solved waist storage with a Peak Design pouch, which nicely kept my sunglasses, phone, and one bar.
    https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B01M7XO9I0/ref=oh_aui_detailpage_o00_s01?ie=UTF8&psc=1
    Thank you!

    • Ben September 17, 2018 at 1:01 pm #

      What size pouch did you use?

  5. Goatak September 1, 2018 at 7:07 pm #

    Why would this pack not be a good choice for Utah slot canyons? I check your website regularly to see what new things you have learned. Thank you!

    • Andrew Skurka September 1, 2018 at 10:28 pm #

      Slot canons are really tough on packs due to abrasion. The Exos fabrics are a bit thin for that.

  6. Doug September 1, 2018 at 8:48 pm #

    My GF and I recently got the Exos58/Eja58 for our upcoming trip to Ansel Adams Wilderness. We did some day hikes with them in preparation and then got some Zpacks hipbelt pockets which make a big difference. That makes it more functional than our previous Atmos/Aura packs we had previous. Osprey’s hipbelt pockets are so small they’re almost useless so not having them and being able to add some good sized ones is actually kind-of a good thing.

    BTW, the BV500 does not fit horizontally.

    • Andrew Skurka September 1, 2018 at 10:27 pm #

      The BV500 does not fit horizontally, on what pack? It fits horizontally in my Exos 58 (size large).

      • Chris Souhrada September 2, 2018 at 7:41 am #

        Agreed. The BV500 does fit horizontally in the 58, but at the cost of occasional squeaking as the lid rubs the inside of the pack material. Of course it must depend on level of compression, position, weight, etc. I had a Fly Creek UL 2 in the bottom and the BV500 horizontal on top of that.

  7. Jeffrey Wong September 2, 2018 at 12:55 am #

    Great review. In 2015, I got my Exos 58 after using a ULA Circuit. I loved the way the ULA Circuit handled its load up to about 35 lb. and how its hip belt Pockets easily handled my smartphone, but its foam mesh back didn’t permit any evaporation off the back of my shirt, so it would often be dripping wet. The Exos with its small but useful hip and shoulder strap pockets, never let my shirt soak with perspiration–if not dry, it would be only slightly damp at worst.
    I’ll chime in: Hey, Osprey, listen up, I love you, but bring back the hip and shoulder strap pockets!

  8. Jeff Bartlett September 2, 2018 at 12:58 am #

    I love my osprey atmos and could use with a lighter version in the future.

    I do wish that Osprey was smarter with their women’s backpacks. I know dozens of women who cannot use them because the hip belts are not small enoigh/narrow enough. Thru hiker’s are a slim build and could use a pack for a small body. It’s silly to me that a women’s small/medium has similar sized hip belt diameter to my men’s LRG.

  9. Juha Ranta September 2, 2018 at 4:02 am #

    It’s true that one pro of this backpack is its availability. I live in Finland and usually to get more specific lightweight hiking gear you need to order it overseas from Europe or sometimes from US with all the high taxes involved. I’ve been using a Granite Gear backpack as my lightweight hiking and travel option, however it broke just when I was about to travel overseas.

    I found this exact same Exos 58 backpack in a Helsinki retail store, except it was the earlier model with waist pockets. It was also good to be able to try it on, since the strap system cannot be adjusted vertically to fit your torso length. There are different sizes of this backpack for different torso lengths. Usually I opt for M in gear I can’t try on, but in this case the S size fit my waist, etc, almost perfectly. They didn’t have the M option available.

    I used the backpack travelling and hiking in Crete, Italy, Dolomites… At times it was quite warm and the back mesh ventilation worked really well in those situations. All in all, at least for my use, which is not through-hiking or anything extreme, this was a great choice. I haven’t regretted and thought I should have ordered another backpack with mail.

    Yes, my version does have the waist pockets. As another poster mentioned, they’re really small though. You can’t fit an iPhone or similar device in those pockets.

    • Juha Ranta September 2, 2018 at 4:22 am #

      Just to make make my above comment clear, the version I have is not exactly like the model you have in those pictures. The back mesh in those pictures entirely different to what I have, I have rigid mesh with small holes and I can’t bend the back like in those pictures. So, I’m not sure which version of Exos I have, but the frame system seems quite different.

      • Andrew Skurka September 2, 2018 at 7:00 am #

        You have the last generation, the 2014-17 model.

  10. CJ September 2, 2018 at 8:58 am #

    The lack of hip belt pockets was a no-go for me…I use mine ALL the time. I have a long torso for my height (19″) and am pretty skinny (5’5″ and 110#). I don’t get the hip belt argument mentioned above, quoted from an Osprey employee. First off I think Thru-hikers make up a small percentage of those that use Osprey packs, and second with my long torso I have to wear a Medium pack and I can still manage to get the belt tight enough to not fall off and be supportive

    I had a ZPacks Arc Haul that broke just before a big trip. I had to make a long drive to an REI where there was limited selection of packs. I have a 2017 Exos 48 that is amazingly comfortable (packed away) and found that the newer version didn’t carry the weight as well and put more pressure on my pelvis in a painful way as I walked around the store. For the weight specs I think that 30# or above is pushing these packs to discomfort and that a slightly heavier Aura or Atmos is a better way to go.

    While I appreciated the versatility of the lid or flap jacket I never use the lid. Without the flap jacket I’d have an open hole at the top for stuff to fall into. I don’t think it’s a design flaw or problem at all…I like to be able to dump the lid and still have a top cover.

  11. BaristaLady September 3, 2018 at 11:50 am #

    Thank you! It is indeed mystifying why they omitted hip pockets and shoulder strap pockets. I’m glad you mentioned this.

  12. Justin September 22, 2018 at 3:17 pm #

    Since I had a horrible experience with an REI Flash 60 that ended a hike for me early, I have been trying a bunch of these packs with a max load that includes a fully loaded Bearikade Weekender and 5 liters of water (maybe about a 31 pound load total). I think the Bearikade is slightly larger than the BV500 and I had trouble fitting it horizontally in most of these packs at least in a way that I thought wouldn’t damage them. It works vertically with the rest of my gear however.

    For me at least, the Crown VC 60 was the least comfortable with this load. I actually found the MyTrails Backpack Light to be more comfortable despite less of a frame. And, I agree that the Exos was less than ideal. Although, I did love the trekking pole side storage which allows putting them away and taking them out without removing the pack. I plan to create a DIY version of this on whatever pack I get.

    Anyway, my favorite so far has been the Osprey Levity which is kind of a lightened up Exos. It is not rated for a 30 pound load but I still find it more comfortable than the Exos.

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