UKH

Ortlieb Atrack Pack Review

© Toby Archer

Though perhaps better known for heavy duty bike panniers, Ortlieb, German specialists of all things waterproof, have been making their Atrack rucksacks for over four years. The Atrak line has grown into a family of slightly different models, but at heart they're all fully waterproof packs that open duffle bag style, with a TIZIP 100% waterproof zip - the type used on dry suits for divers and immersion suits for helicopter search and rescue teams or lifeboat crews.

Backpacking on Kinder with the Atrak  © Toby Archer
Backpacking on Kinder with the Atrak
© Toby Archer

So, that zip...

Instead of being found on the outside of the pack, the full-length duffle bag-style zip runs down the between the shoulder straps and the padding that holds the hip belt to the pack. Recently I happened to be going out climbing with my cousin who works in private equity and, as a result, has a fascinating insight into a hugely diverse range of products and services produced by companies that his firm has invested in. He has a keen eye for products that look like clever ideas, or indeed don't.

Unusually, the duffel-style zip runs right down the middle of the back  © Toby Archer
Unusually, the duffel-style zip runs right down the middle of the back
© Toby Archer

It's very robust, and fully waterproof - as you'd expect from Ortlieb  © Toby Archer
It's very robust, and fully waterproof - as you'd expect from Ortlieb
© Toby Archer

As he noticed me chucking gear into the Atrack and zipping it up, with a raised sceptical eyebrow, Paul said "can it be comfortable with the zip THERE?" It is indeed the obvious question - the TIZIP zip, whilst a thing of engineering beauty, is shall we say, chunky. You would think that no matter how well you pack the Atrack, there would be the chance of the zip rubbing against your spine. But after months of using the pack regularly, whether backpacking with camping kit or schlepping a heavy load of climbing gear up to the crag, I can say Ortlieb's design is a success - you simply don't know the zip is there once the Atrack is on your back.

The duffle bag - style opening makes finding things inside a doddle, but I do think it takes more care packing to use all the volume of the Atrack than it does with a normal top-loading rucksack using the standard "drop-in and squash-down" packing method. With the only closure here being the zip, it is harder to over-stuff because you always have to be able to pull the two sides of the pack together and do up the zip. So there are pros and cons.

It's good as a spacious, easy-access crag pack  © Toby Archer
It's good as a spacious, easy-access crag pack
© Toby Archer

Sizes

The 45L Atrack that I've been using since the spring is the biggest member of the family. Ortlieb do make a women's specific Atrack model, the Atrack ST, but that is only available in 25 and 35 litre sizes. So the 45 is only available in the men's fit (calling it unisex might be pushing it although I've not asked any women what they think of the fit).

Weight and fabric

The pack is made from from Ortlieb calls PVC-free nylon. If you've seen an Ortlieb bike pannier before then you'll be familiar with this thick and completely waterproof material. As a result, the Atrack is no lightweight; Ortlieb's website says 1560g for the 45 litre size although on my scales the review packs weighs slightly more, at 1623g. However in the scheme of things perhaps that's not wildly more than many similarly sized and well-featured mountain or backpacking packs, the difference being that they tend not to be waterproof like the Atrack.

We throw packs in streams, so you don't have to  © Toby Archer
We throw packs in streams, so you don't have to
© Toby Archer

It's tough, but...

The body of the pack is held together by high frequency welding, minimising the need for stitching which would of course make holes in the fabrics, making it harder to guarantee waterproofness. Ortlieb have a good reputation for making high-quality and long-lasting products using this technique - it is 'German engineering' after all.

But our experience showed that even the strongest reputation and being made by Germans is not a 100% guarantee. After using the pack to carry climbing around Goddard's Quarry back in the spring, my climbing partner Joe and I hit on the idea of floating the Atrack down the stream that flows down Middleton Dale to test the waterproofing. Joe is a philosopher of science, and clearly trained in the best traditions of British empiricism, throwing waterproof bags in streams included! This was great fun and shows that while you can take the four year old boys out of the stream, you can't take the love of streams out of the forty-something year old men.

But when I got home and took the now soggy gear out of the bag, it also showed something was going wrong with the Atrack. Further investigation discovered that two layers of the fabric had delaminated, and the outer layer had holes cut in it for the compression straps to pass through. The delamination meant water could go through those holes into the main body of the pack. This clearly isn't meant to happen and all Ortlieb products come with a five year warranty against such eventualities, but I was lucky that I found the fault after a day's sport climbing, not a number of days into a trek in temperate rainforest.

Not what you'd expect to happen so soon, but it was quickly repaired...  © Toby Archer
Not what you'd expect to happen so soon, but it was quickly repaired...
© Toby Archer

Lyon Equipment, who distribute Ortlieb in the UK and can also deal with warranty returns locally, swiftly fixed the delamination and had the pack back to me within about a week. The fix is basically unnoticeable; I don't actually know but imagine it has been re-welded and the pack is fully waterproof again. If I had paid full retail price for the Atrack and had such a serious issue with it within a matter of weeks, I would be very disappointed. A little bit of scepticism remains with me still: if the delamination can happen like that, will it happen again? But it hasn't so far, and I've also read a number of other reviews of the Atrack packs and nobody else seems to have had the same issue.

Also on the positive side of the ledger is that Lyon Equipment honoured the Ortlieb warranty very swiftly and seemingly effectively, by fixing the original pack. As we all fret about our own environmental impact, this seems infinitely better than the all too common practice  of the faulty piece of equipment going into landfill and a second item (normally produced on the other side of the world) being shipped to the customer as a replacement.

We feel it's important to explain when these things happen. No manufacturer is perfect, equipment can fail, but in this case I'm inclined to give Ortlieb a pass. The speed, effectiveness and minimal wastefulness in which Ortlieb/Lyon corrected the problem could even be seen as a plus for the Atrack, as a potential customer can be reassured that in the unlikely event they found a similar fault, there is an effective system at the ready to remedy. Of course it would be better if there were never any problems at all, but in the real world there sometimes are, so it's nice to know they can be resolved this well.

More than just a bit weatherproof...

The Atrack's 'USP' is its waterproofness. This isn't a 'keeps even prolonged rain out' quite-serious-waterproofness. This is a 'put your valuables in it and sink it to the bottom of a lake for safe keeping' deadly-serious-waterproofness. Waterproofness is what Ortlieb does, as attested to by the dominance of their panniers among serious cycle tourists. It is - as Ortlieb says on its own site - "the legendary 'Made in Germany' waterproof quality", and they are willing to stand by it with that five year warranty and, as we have seen above, honour that warranty and resolve problems if they do arise.

Features

Inside the bag are four zipped pockets that hang either side of the central zip. These are great for storing your wallet or other valuables, and I've found having four of them great when backpacking to store those other little bits and bobs like a lighter, penknife, headtorch etc.

There are also two internal compression straps that I don't think I've used yet, but they might be more useful if you are not filling the pack. Outside is pretty simple: there are the standard four compression straps. These are all removable if you wish, and the upper ones have fastex buckles on them - allowing the easy storage of skis if you wanted to use the pack for ski touring. There is a sort of ladder system made with different laminated layers of the pack body, which means you can attach the compression straps at slightly different angles if you wished but which also makes it very easy to add elastic if you wanted to hold a roll mat on the outside of the pack, or if you wanted to improvise ice tool holders (which the pack doesn't have).

On each side of the pack there is a stretch mesh pocket which I've found I can use for holding a water bottle that I can access while walking. The hip belt also has a zipped mesh pocket on each side that can hold some snacks or other small-ish items you might want on the go. Attached to both ends of the zip (at the base and top of the pack) is a webbing strap that runs down the front of the pack. Once you have done up the zip you tighten this strap and it shapes the pack, pulling the zip ends away from your bum and shoulders - in effect, working as a vertical compression strap, alongside the more standard horizontal ones.

Simple, easy-to-adjust back system  © Toby Archer
Simple, easy-to-adjust back system
© Toby Archer

It's a robust and comfy load carrier  © Toby Archer
It's a robust and comfy load carrier
© Toby Archer

Back system

The back system itself is worth describing in some detail. As described above, it is bifurcated by the zip that is the entry into the pack. Ortlieb have constructed a clever system, no doubt in part informed by their experience making bike panniers with various strong plastic attachment clips bolted onto the pannier body, but still maintaining the fully waterproof nature of the pack.

On the Atrack, there are twin metal rods either side of the zip held on by plastic fittings at the top and base. The shoulder straps that actually extend down forming pads for your back, move up and down these "rails" allowing a customisable back length. At the bottom is the waist belt/lumber pads, also split in two by the zip of course. Both the shoulder/back pads and the waist/lumber pads stand true of the main body of the pack and this is how your body just doesn't touch the zip or indeed any other part of the main body of the pack. It also works rather like the suspended "air gap" back systems in fighting the unpleasant soggy-back syndrome for those of us unfortunate enough to perspire profusely while marching uphill!

Originally I was a bit sceptical about the comfort of such a back system, which in many ways is only minimally attached to the backpack. But now having used the pack on overnight backpacking trips as well as for lugging lots of climbing gear to cliffs, I reckon it's as comfy as any other decent mid-sized backpacking rucksack. I'm not sure how much weight I've put in it when taking camping gear - but with sleeping bag, mat, tent, water bottle, little stove, cook pot, food, torch, paperback to read, guidebook, climbing shoes, chalk bag, waterproofs, change of undies etc it has probably been in the 10kg range, and I've carried that very comfortably. On crag days I've probably carried more weight than that with a fat 60m sport rope, different pairs of climbing shoes, a rack of gear, thermos flasks (it's uncivilised not to have some tea and coffee on a chilly day!) duvet, etc but in those cases it has been significantly less distances that I have carried it for. But, overall, it carries very well.

OK, maybe it's overkill for a crag pack: but it makes a very nice one!  © Toby Archer
OK, maybe it's overkill for a crag pack: but it makes a very nice one!
© Toby Archer

So who is it for?

It's not like we normally lack for rain in the UK, but the Atrack hasn't been tested particularly hard over this year's record breakingly hot summer. Because of the zip allowing duffle style access into the bag, I've found the Atrack to make a superb crag pack for taking lots of kit to the cliff and keeping what's not on my harness under control at the base of the route. I'm sure the full length opening would work well for other uses in a similar way.

But it does feel as if this sort of use rather under-utilises the waterproofness that's really the Atrak's hallmark. I would imagine that it might be the perfect pack for those whose adventures take them onto, or even into, the water - be that packrafting, paddling in an open canoe, or a sit-on kayak (I suspect it would be too big when full to fit through the hatches of true sea kayaks and the majority of touring kayaks). I could imagine photographers and videographers might appreciate the full-on waterproofness of the Atrack to protect expensive and delicate equipment. And if you're backpacking in a wet environment, be that New Zealand, Borneo, or Knoydart, then having a fully waterproof and impermeable pack will an obvious advantage over the usual waterlogged rucksack and drybags scenario.

The Atrack 45 is not cheap. Similar sized small-ish backpacking sacks from the likes of Exped, Lowe alpine and Gregory are available for less, but then you would not be able to use them to float across a lake as successfully! I would say whether the Atrack is good value or not will depend mainly on how valuable the waterproofness is to individual users. If you're just going to use it as a clever and very nice 45 litre crag pack, then over 200 quid is, I feel, too much. But if, for example, you use the pack successfully on many water-bourne trips (I dream of paddling over some remote lochs to access even more remote Munros!) then the Atrak pack might be perfect, and good value at the price.


For more information ortlieb.com


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21 Sep

Interesting. I have an old Jack Wolfskin 'Spider' 60l pack that has a nearly full-length zip as well as a normal top opening and it's a fantastic crag pack due to the zip. If the zip holds up on this then it should last far longer than your average cordura pack and consequently make the price tag worthwhile.

21 Sep

Thanks Dan. These are indeed on my radar, for when my current "day" waterproof canoe bag wears out. so its good to get such a detailed review. Actually that should be "if my current one wears out" as my simple Alpkit Gourdon has lasted nearly 8 years of being chucked around the dirty wet bottom of my canoe, but isn't nearly as strongly made as Ortlieb stuff..

I've also found Lyon's response to faults or just repairs to be excellent.

21 Sep

I've gone a bit backwards and forwards on this - I'm a big user of crags packs and think they are great. But I reckon a chunk of the not insignificant price for the Atrack is its waterproofness. If you used it just as a crag pack I reckon you could potentially end up damaging the material enough to stop it being waterproof. It doesn't seem fragile (beyond the fault they fixed on the review pack) but if you are paying 200 quid for a pack that it waterproof mainly using it to drag along the base of cliffs seems a bit silly.

I'm still regularly using the Arcteryx Miura from this review https://www.ukclimbing.com/gear/rucksacks/medium/crag_packs_for_trad_climbers-3906 it is still going great, no holes no problems more than a decade later. I don't think Arcteryx is doing anything comparable now, but there are plenty of crag packy things from various brands that look like they might last equally well and still are nearly half the price of the Atrack.

It is a very clever design but I still feel if you aren't relying on it to keep your stuff dry even in total immersion situations, it is a rather expensive rucksack!

21 Sep

My Alpkit Gourdon is 11 years old and still works fine! I've also used it for throwing in kayak quite a lot in the past too - https://lightfromthenorth.blogspot.com/2012/06/alpkit-in-operation-kayak-touring-in.html but actually I used it again for that just last month when I was back in Finland on holiday. They are great, particularly as - when I bought mine - they were 20 quid. :)

22 Sep

Funnily enough...they've just released a new 'crag' pack (2 sizes):

https://arcteryx.com/gb/en/shop/konseal-40-backpack

https://www.arcteryx.com/gb/en/shop/konseal-55-backpack

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