Review: CamelBak Octane 18x Lightweight Hydration Pack
Why a lightweight hydration pack? Sure,every little bit helps, but the fact that shaving an ounce or six off of a pack means relatively little when compared to the hundreds of ounces of water, tools, food, and clothing a good-sized pack needs to manage.Â Over the course of two, three, or even six hours, a lightweight pack can easily erase any good will earned from its weight savings if it is constantly flopping around or hitting the rider on the back of the helmet at inopportune moments.Â Weighing in right at 1lb, the Octane 18x certainly light- click ‘more’ to find out if CamelBak has figured out how to make it right.
At Interbike last fall, I spent some time with the folks from CamelBak reviewing their 2010 line.Â Though I have been using the company’s bladders- still some of the best made, and set to improve for 2011- for over 20 years, fierce competition in the hydration pack market that they all but created had distracted me from CamelBak bags for several years.Â Despite being one of the older players in the market, the company’s current offerings are unabashedly modern, with well though-out storage and very attractive, current colors.Â The one pack that really grabbed my attention was the Octane 18x, from CamelBak’s “multi-sport” range. As the name implies, the 18x has the capacity to carry 18 liters of cargo and water.Â At 16oz / 450g, the Octane 18x certainly qualifies as a lightweight bag, with lightweight straps, minimal organization, mesh shoulder straps, and minimalist hardware all minimizing the bottom line.Â Most interesting to me, though, was the corset-type expansion system.Â The sides of the pack can be brought together and joined using a heavy duty zipper, reducing the pack to what I’d guess is a 12-14L capacity.Â The bag also sports a series of shock cords that run largely inside the bag but peek out from time to time to provide a measure of additional load management and lash points for external storage.
In November, CamelBak sent out a “dark cheddar” 18x for us to review.Â Without the provided 2L / 70oz Omega HydroTanium reservoir installed, the Octane feels extremely light.Â The primary fabric is a translucent ripstop material that looks to have been stolen from a backpacking tent supplemented with more substantial gray panels and a very welcome Cordura-like base.Â Beyond a dedicated bladder sleeve and cavernous main compartment, organization is limited to a small wallet/phone pocket on the back side of the bag, a large, deep mesh pocket down the back of the bag, and a pair of mesh wing pockets on the waistbelt.Â Hose exits are provided at the top of the bag as well as on either side of the bladder close to where the bottom of the shoulder straps attach (for those who prefer their hoses to run up the straps).Â There are a number of very thin open foam panels on the back of the bag and under the wing pockets that imply (more than deliver) some measure of padding and ventilation.Â The soft shoulder straps are made as much of air as they are foam and mesh.Â Altogether, the Octane 18x appears very well thought out and built and is (in my opinion) quite a handsome bag.
The real beauty of an expandable bag is experienced during winter riding.Â Here in the high desert, it’s not uncommon for rides to start at 30 degrees and end when things are closer to 50 or 55.Â Though I feared that the lack of internal organization would be an issue, packing a mini tool in one of the wing pockets means that the ‘bad day’ gear (tubes, small roll of toilet paper, specialized tools, extra snacks) can live at the bag’s bottom.Â As the day warms, it’s easy to stuff heavy hats, gloves, shoe covers, and jackets into either the mesh outside pocket or main compartment.Â The shock cords actually do a very good job of expanding and contracting as contents are added and removed.
Like most packs that forgo some sort of suspension system, the Octane 18x really likes to be worn high and tight. If allowed to sit low on the back, the bag really doesn’t have enough structure to remain stable. As a result, the weight of all of the bag’s 18L of cargo really does ride on the wearer’s upper back and shoulders. The belt serves to add a bit of stability and to provide a convenient location in which to stash commonly-used tools, snacks, keys or even a small camera. With the pockets empty (or very lightly loaded), it is possible to ride comfortably with the belt unbuckled to let the belly breathe. With anything of substance in them, though, the belt really needs to be fastened (even loosely) to keep them from bouncing around distractingly.Â Being zippered, it can be hard to pull a snack from them or snap a quick photo while riding- those of us who don’t like to stop for that sort of thing might be better served by deeper, open-topped pockets on the bag’s body.
Though the lightweight material and construction might scare off some mountain bikers, the Octane has held up very well.Â The only indication that the bag has seen about 5 months’ hard use are a couple of grease stains and a bit of loose stitching on one of the wings.Â Those lightweight sternum strap and belt buckles are all sculpted and sexy- but I haven’t gotten the hang of fastening them without looking first (not a big deal) and have had the sternum strap buckle fouled by sand (nothing that I couldn’t pick out with a small Allen key, but something I’d never experienced before).Â The shoulder straps’ adjusters tend to gradually loosen when the bag is insufficiently loaded- another first for me.Â It’s not a big deal to adjust a bag from time to time- but when it’s a couple of times each ride, it gets annoying.Â Though the waist straps have elastic loops that manage excess belt material, the shoulder straps have no such provision- I’ve resorted at different times to rubber bands and binder clips to keep them from flapping distractingly.
When summer finally rolled around, the Octane’s lack of a suspension system and its inability to be worn with an unfastened waist belt frankly made for a hotter pack than I’d like.Â It’s fine up to the 70s, but when temperatures head North of 80, the Octane isn’t particularly comfortable.Â Also, when it gets warm, a pack this size is going to be chosen for big rides- and the provided 2L bladder is a bit small for anything over 3 hours in the heat (a 3L bladder will fit, though).Â As a result, the Octane went into hibernation for a few months and is just now coming back out of the closet.
To my surprise, the Octane 18x makes an excellent bike commuting bag.Â The huge capacity easily fits a change of clothes and good-sized lunch and can be expanded to bring home the cool-weather morning riding gear that isn’t needed at the end of the day.Â The bag is stable, brightly colored, and has a decent amount of reflective material to boot.Â In an odd detail, the reflective (good) blinky tab runs vertically, making it unsuitable for attaching a blinky to (not so good).Â Of course, the lack of internal organization means that a flat will lead to pulling those clean work clothes out of the bag and finding a clean place to set them- but most commuters run heavy enough tires and enough sealant that this is rarely an issue. Beware, though: the lack of a rain cover means that a wet morning commute can make for a very long day.
At less than half the weight of the similarly sized Osprey Raptor 18 (look for a review soon), the CamelBak Octane 18x is certainly attractive in that respect.Â The lack of a suspension system will be a deal breaker for those in warmer climates, but those who don’t mind a warm back will be happy to carry their load close to their back.Â As much as I thought that I would like them, given the option I would move the wing pockets to the body of the pack to allow for cooler belt-free riding- the Octane is more than stable enough without it.Â The hard-to-fasten buckles are a minor niggle that is only rarely noticeable- but the slippery shoulder strap adjusters and vertical blinky tab really should be fixed. In all seriousness, these are minor concerns that will annoy different riders at different levels. Looking at the Octane 18x’s hang tag, I was pleasantly surprised to see that it’s manufactured in the US. That fact, and the fact that it comes with $30 worth of the best bladder I’ve used (which, again, should be even better for 2011), makes the $90 retail price seem more than fair. Though it won’t be anyone’s first choice for desert riding, CamelBak’s Octane 18x has a lot to recommend it.