User Review: Osprey Argon 85
Price Paid: Sample loaned by Osprey for testing and review; sample pack returned
Described by Osprey as "a favorite of weekend warriors to elite mountaineers," I tested a 2010 Argon 85 expedition pack. The 2010 model is the third generation version of this pack.
The Argon 85 (loaned by Osprey for the duration of the test) comes in three frame sizes: medium, large, and extra large, with the two larger frames having slightly bigger capacities. I tested a medium frame, which has a 5,100-cubic inch capacity. Hip belts are available in small, medium, large, and extra large.
I weighed my Argon 85 pack at 6.1 pounds (2.78 kg), matching Osprey's published weight.
The Argon 85 is the middle size in the Argon pack series. The other Argon packs are the 70 and the 110 (the numbers indicating the nominal capacity in liters of a medium frame). The Xenon 70 and 85 are the comparable women's versions.
My testing included multi-day backcountry ski and snowshoe trips, shorter "dry-weather” trips, and a number of day hikes, all with large loads. A sled with a large load was hauled during one ski tour.
As with the three Osprey packs Barbara (my wife and frequent backcountry companion) and I own, the Argon proved well made with an excellent fit and was very comfortable under load. The Argon's fit is due to its well-designed adjustability and, most important, the thermoformable hip belt, which allows you to custom heat mold the BioForm CM hip belt.
(As always, I strongly recommend working with a trained professional pack fitter for any pack, especially a complex expedition pack like the Argon. I consider a trained, experienced pack fitter essential for a pack intended for long distance and heavy hauling, particularly for month-long expeditions in remote areas.)
There are a few quibbles, even with this pack. For an expedition pack, the two side pockets are not adequate for a 1-liter water bottle with an insulating cozy or for supporting pickets or snow wands.
Additionally, the provision for an internal hydration system, well-thought out for warm weather use, is not really adequate for extended treks in sub-freezing weather.
A lesser quibble, due to a slight misjudgment on my part, is that the 85 proved too small for the intended part of my testing in Antarctica. I should have selected the Argon 110, which has a 6,700-cubic inch capacity for the medium frame.
- zipper pulls usable with insulated expedition gloves
- side zip access for main and secondary compartments, in addition to top access
- removable AquaSource ReCurve hydration pouch
- removable top pocket/lumbar pack with dual compartments
- thermoformable waist belt
- compression via internal strap, Z-threaded side straps, and StraightJacket back compression
- emergency whistle built into the sternum strap
- Leave No Trace principles printed at top of the main compartment in English and French (no excuses!)
- ice tool and ski loops with elastic tie-downs
- excellent fit (particularly when using an experienced pack fitter)
- plenty of adjustments for varying size loads and conditions
- large capacity for three-season trips
- multiple attachment options
- side pockets not useful for a water bottle inside a cozy, pickets, or wands
- load lifter straps a bit tricky when pack is heavily loaded
- emergency whistle use requires sternum strap to be unbuckled for access
- thermoformable BioForm CM waist belt is fairly rigid, requiring extra space in a car or on an airline, and requiring some care when putting pack on
- custom heat molding of the BioForm CM waist belt should be done by a trained pack fitter
Best For: Hauling big loads long distances
The Argon series is intended for large loads carried for long distances, usually in mountainous terrain. Since the pack series comes in three capacity sizes, it is important to measure the size of pack needed for your use by gathering your gear for any expeditions and trips and stuffing it into the pack at the dealer.
I had the aid of Osprey staff in selecting the proper size frame and waist belt, and a friend who is a trained and experienced pack fitter to handle the thermofitting process. Despite years of experience, I misjudged the capacity I needed. I should have sized up to the Argon 110 (6,700 cu in). This would have matched my old standby pack for such expeditions, a Dana Designs Terraplane of nearly the same capacity that I have used from Alaska to Antarctica.
I discovered the Argon 85's capacity shortfall during the tenth month of testing when I gathered together all of my gear for an upcoming Antarctica trip and attempted to fit it into the pack. The lesson here is to gather your gear together and actually try putting it into the packs you are considering.
When I received the pack, the only thing I needed to do was to take the pack and waist belt to my pack fitter friend to thermoform the waist belt. This consists of placing the belt in a specially designed oven, attaching it to the pack once warmed to the correct temperature, loading the pack with 30 to 40 pounds, adjusting the pack, then wearing the pack for a half hour while the waist belt forms to your body.
It is possible for an experienced person to do this at home with his own oven, but Osprey highly recommends going to an authorized dealer equipped with the specially designed oven.
The height of the shoulder straps can be adjusted by altering their placement on a large Velcro pad, but mine were exactly right for me without adjustment.
Figure 1. Note the thermoformed waist belt.
Ski Tour: After a few short hikes with loads, I headed off on a backcountry ski tour of several nights, accompanying the Scout Troop of which I used to be Scoutmaster. In addition to 55 pounds in the pack, I attached a sled in which I carried an extra load.
Towing a sled is a severe test of comfort for any expedition-bound climber. When your pack is heavily loaded with gear, plus your sled is full of food, fuel, and group gear, many so-called expedition packs are very uncomfortable.
Not so with the Argon. It proved very comfortable, even when hauling gear up inclines as steep as you ever want to haul a sled up.
(I'll note that I have found that the best way to haul a sled is to attach the sled’s waist belt around your pack, rather than your waist, which is encumbered with the pack's waist belt and possibly a climbing harness. Attached this way, you reduce the waist clutter and pull with the pack's more comfortable padded waist and shoulder harnesses.)
After returning the extra gear to its owners, the next day I headed farther into the backcountry, leaving the youth to their present troop leaders.
Snowshoe Tour: Subsequently, I used the pack for a shorter snowshoe tour (a lighter-weight trek of only a couple nights out, but with all the gear in the Argon, no sled assistance, and a 40-pound load more appropriate to a weekend snowshoe campout).
Hikes: I also used the pack on a number of training hikes on my usual hills with loads. On the training hikes I carried gallon water jugs (up to 60 pounds for 10 miles and 2,300 feet cumulative altitude gain), while for the climbing instructor courses I teach, I hauled gear (ropes, hardware) to the training area (approximately 65 pounds carried over two miles and 1,500 feet of elevation gain).
Figure 2. The Argon has plenty of straps, pockets, and attachment points.
As is common with most big hauler expedition packs, there is a steep learning curve to figure out the purpose of all the pockets, straps, and attachment points. Ultimately, I had to abandon my usual "techy" viewpoint that "I don't need no stinking manual" and had to read the very helpful instruction sheet. Perhaps 8 to 16 ounces could have been saved by reducing the number of straps, though the Argon is lighter than most expedition packs of its size.
Frame: Starting with the comfort features, the frame consists of a plastic frame sheet, ribbed padding inside a mesh bag (for ventilation), and aluminum ReCurve rods. The usual shoulder, waist, sternum, and loadlifter straps are there. As experienced backpackers know, you want most of the load to be on your hip bones, rather than on the shoulders.
Hip Belt: The Argon's thermoformed waist harness did an excellent job of keeping the load on my hips without slipping down, once I had followed the usual procedure of loosening the shoulder and loadlifter straps, lifting the pack onto my shoulders, fastening the waist belt and adjusting it to my hips, tightening the shoulder straps and sternum strap, then tightening the load lifter straps.
The pack did not bounce or slide down and the waist belt remained at the top of my hipbones where it should be.
One caution about the Argon's thermoformed waist belt — once formed, the belt is moderately rigid. This means that it does not fold flat for tossing in the trunk of the car with other packs or for stuffing into a duffel for airline travel. For travel, it would be necessary to remove the belt and wrap it around the pack before placing it in a duffel.
Load Lifters: I found that with a heavy load it is necessary to make sure there is sufficient length of the load lifter straps to grasp for making the adjustment once the pack is on. I loosened the straps all the way a few times, leaving too little to grasp.
Putting it on: Another caution is when picking the pack up and putting it on. When the pack is heavily loaded, most people lift the pack off the ground and set it on a slightly bent knee for a moment while slipping an arm into the shoulder strap. If a male backpacker is not careful, the thermomolded waist strap may come up between his legs in a somewhat uncomfortable way.
It only takes a couple of lifts to learn to rotate the pack slightly to clear the stiff waist belt. Then again, you could use the macho method of a straight-on lift and flip over your head (a challenge when you have 50 to 60 pounds of climbing gear in the pack).
Ventilation: The ribbed padding in its mesh bag did a good job of providing ventilation on the 80°F days that I did training hikes with up to a 50-pound load (10 miles, 2,400 feet cumulative gain), though not as well as my external frame packs. The Argon's ventilation is close to, if not the best, of any internal frame expedition pack I have used.
Figure 3. The Argon loaded with about 50 pounds for snowshoe overnight (-40°F sleeping bag, Therm-a-Rest pad, Black Diamond gloves, Outdoor Research expedition mittens, and balaclava in sleeping bag compartment; plus 8000 meter jacket, down pants, XGK, GSI cook kit, GTX parka, fleece jacket, two full water bottles, and a few other items). There is plenty of ventilation between pack and back.
Shoulder Straps: The positioning of the shoulder straps, held to the pack by a large section of Velcro, is adjustable over a very wide range of heights. The same is true of the waist belt. If you are an experienced backpacker, the initial positioning of the shoulder and waist straps will be easy and rarely changed. Your professional packfitter will help do this initial task properly for you.
Tightening of the waist belt and shoulder straps is also quite easy with the pack on.
Emergency Whistle: The sternum strap's buckle has Osprey's usual emergency whistle. Although this feature is on our other Osprey packs as well, I have yet to figure out how to use the whistle while wearing the pack with all straps fastened. It is necessary to unbuckle the sternum strap and slide the buckle all the way to the end of the strap to get it to your mouth to blow.
Plus, to keep the whistle handy, you would have to wear the pack at all times. I believe it is far better to have a dedicated whistle, such as a Fox 40, that you wear on a lanyard around your neck all the time.
Pockets: As is usual for expedition packs, the Argon has a plethora of pockets. They are, however, arranged somewhat differently from some other expedition packs.
The pockets include:
- the main compartment,
- a secondary compartment outside of the main compartment,
- two pockets in the top lid (one on top of the other),
- a sleeping bag compartment on the bottom,
- an elasticized pocket with two openings on the lower left side (as you look at the back of the pack), and
- a zippered pocket on the lower right side.
In addition, inside there is a removable AquaSource pouch for a hydration bladder (not included), and a StraightJacket consisting of flaps and straps on the outside of the pack. Finally, add two ice tool loops and a ski loop on either side with retainer elastics for each.
AquaSource Pouch: The AquaSource hydration bladder pouch can be removed from the pack and used alone by unclipping two clips at its top. The two straps used for attaching a foam pad or tent to the bottom pack outside the sleeping bag compartment can be removed from the pack and attached to the AquaSource to carry as a lightweight hydration pack, as well as holding a water supply inside the pack. When inside the pack, the hose can be fed out through either the left or right sides of the main compartment top.
During the ski and snowshoe treks in my testing, temperatures were above the 20-25°F range with no wind chill. Thus, carrying a hydration bladder inside the pack in the AquaSource pouch presented no problem with keeping the water liquid with the help of a simple neoprene hose cover.
However, based on many years of winter backcountry experience and experience in polar regions and at high altitude, having the bladder inside the pack with the hose in the open will be inadequate to prevent freezing of the water at temperatures and wind chills below that range, even with blowing a small amount of air into the hose to clear the bite valve and hose.
The AquaSource pouch is light enough that you can use the standard practice of wearing your hydration bladder in the AquaSource pouch under your parka and running the hose down your sleeve or otherwise keeping the system under your parka except when drinking. I have used this approach very successfully with a basic hydration pouch and standard bladder on many multi-day ski tours and high altitude climbs in sub-zero (°F) temperatures.
Top Lid/Lumbar Pack: The Argon's top lid can be removed for use as a lumbar pack, and has its own belt attached. I used the lid as a lumbar pack for several of my training hikes, carrying a hydration bladder in the AquaSource pouch.
This arrangement would work very well for someone bagging a peak or doing a short one- or two-hour hike out of base camp. The top lid is plenty large enough for a lunch and the usual Ten Essentials.
In general I do not like lumbar packs. However, the Argon's top lid with its wide belt proved quite stable with a minimum of the bouncing I have experienced far too often even with dedicated lumbar packs.
Figure 4. Side access to (1) main compartment, (2) shovel pocket, and (3) secondary compartment
As important as comfort is in a big hauler is accessibility to the pack's contents. Over the years I have had other toploader packs that carried well, but when sitting out a storm required unpacking almost the entire pack to get at needed items.
The Argon's two main compartments and sleeping bag compartment are quite easily accessible. The main compartment is accessed from the top via a drawstring collar as well as a side zipper that extends the full length of the main compartment, covered by the StraightJacket wing.
Inside the main compartment, there is the usual strap and buckle over the top of the load to cinch it down, with the collar extending six inches above it. The Leave No Trace Principles are printed on the inside of the pack collar in English and French.
The secondary main pocket is accessed by a zipper under the opposite side StraightJacket wing. The side zip access on the two main compartments makes it easy to get at that item at the bottom of the compartment, even when crowded into a tent with two more climbers beyond the stated tent capacity.
Outside the secondary pocket is an open-top pocket, closed with a buckle that can serve as a shovel pocket. The shovel pocket was large enough for my Black Diamond D9 shovel.
Figure 5. All zipper pulls are large enough for well-insulated gloves.
Zippers: All zippers have a glove-friendly pull on them, an absolute must for expedition packs in cold weather, and all too often missing.
Pockets: One of the Argon's two small side pockets is an enclosed zipper pocket which might serve for a spare pair of gloves and balaclava. The other is a woven stretch pocket with two entries, convenient for keeping your rain jacket handy. They are just large enough for a 1-liter Nalgene, though not with an insulated cozy on the Nalgene.
You can place the bottoms of only a couple of pickets or a half dozen snow wands in the small side pockets, though you could simply hold these by cinching the side tension straps down tightly. However, as I found during the setup for an avalanche pit demonstration in one of my courses, pulling one or two wands out loosens the hold on the bunch (unlike having a pocket to support the lower ends of wands or pickets).
Figure 6. The right-side lower pocket fits a 1 liter Nalgene without a cozy, but not with the cozy. It can be used to support wands or pickets.
Figure 7. The left-side lower pocket will take a 1-liter Nalgene without a cozy. It is less convenient for wands or pickets.
Sleeping bag compartment: The sleeping bag compartment proved to be the right size for my -40F degree sleeping bag and inflatable pad and pillow, plus a spare pair of gloves and balaclava. My closed cell foam pad rode in the straps outside the sleeping bag compartment (the same straps that are removed to act as shoulder straps for the AquaSource pouch for a day hike).
StraightJacket: While the StraightJacket wings are primarily for compression and holding the pack's contents (and hence center of gravity) close to your back, I used them on a snowshoe trek for holding a tent. The wings also have slots for additional accessory straps.
Compression Straps: Other provisions for compressing the pack and its contents close to your back are the Z-laced side compression straps and the compression strap internal to the main compartment. The placement of the main and secondary compartments means that careful consideration must be given to what items are placed in which compartment, since the secondary compartment (and shovel pocket) are farther from your back.
Ice Tools/Ski Loops: There are two ice tool loops with elastic tie-off straps and two ski carry loops. The upper part of the ski is held in place with the side compression straps. My wider tele skis rode well, though I only had to go a short distance on the dry before getting to skiable snow.
The Argon does very well for hauling big loads for long distances, with a few minor
quibbles. With the three capacity ranges, three frame sizes for each capacity range, and readily adjustable waist and shoulder strap positioning, plus thermoformed belt, the Argon should prove very comfortable for most men needing an expedition-sized pack.
I expect the women’s version, the Xenon 85, which is anatomically designed for women, would also serve well for most women. Just be sure you match the capacity of the pack to what you will actually be carrying.