After being caught out too many times in surprise thunderstorms or without enough food, I’ve learned to carry a fair amount of gear when headed into the woods. Not a ton- just enough to be comfortable if the weather turns (or I take a wrong turn). When shopping for a new pack, I tend to look for a gear liter capacity in the low-mid teens, good organization, and some sort of breathable back panel. With all that and more, Deuter’s Compact EXP 12 caught my eye earlier this spring. After numerous 2-6 hour rides in everything from pouring rain to 100-degree heat, is it a keeper? Click more to find out!
At just North of 2lb, the Compact EXP 12 isn’t a particularly lightweight pack. That said, the impression it gives is one of solidity rather than obesity. The materials are all substantial and the bag is not only well organized but has a number of nice details as well. Deuter have used their Airstripes system for this pack, which consists a tube of dense, breathable padding on either side of the spine. Beneath each ‘stripe’ is a steel stay, which can be bent to fit the wearer’s back. The shoulder straps and waist belt (with attendant pockets) are made of an open rubber-coated mesh for breathability and grip.
With the (good but not excellent) included 3L bladder in its side-access pocket, the Compact EXP 12’s main pocket has room for tools, a couple of tubes, shock and tire pumps, a small rain jacket, winter gloves and hat, knee and arm warmers, a folding saw, a Spot device, a little blinky light, and a long-sleeved base layer. The outer pocket has organization for a wallet and phone, snacks, and is deep enough for a large folded map. Readily accessible side mesh pockets can hold snacks, a phone, or trail trash, and the mesh waist pockets can hold a fair amount as well. The external compression straps keep everything from jostling around and both a helmet holder and rain cover deploy from the bottom of the bag. Need more space? A zipped expansion panel adds about 3L of capacity and the compression straps can handle knee/shin guards.
Though this seems like a lot as I type it out, the fact is that the bag’s organization is such that it never seems like too much. With so much stuff translating into quite a lot of weight, my shoulders did not appreciate the unpadded shoulder straps for the first couple of rides. Quickly, though, either my body or the Deuter broke in, and they haven’t been uncomfortable since. Once bent to fit my back, the Airstripes back panel has proved comfortable, stable, and cooler than anything this side of bow-type suspension systems (like Deuter’s Aircomfort).
Like most hydration packs, the Compact EXP 12 doesn’t ride as low as hip-mounted alt-packs, which means that it can become unsettled over rough and technical terrain. It’s no better or worse than other traditional packs and the sternum strap does help. Living in New Mexico, the rain cover doesn’t get used much, but when it’s needed it sure is appreciated. The fluoro green cover is one of the better I’ve seen, attaching to dedicated loops on each shoulder strap and keeping most of the bag’s contents dry during even heavy rain.
Available in black/white and blue options, the Compact EXP 12 is an impressively thought-out and seemingly well-built pack. Despite my early concerns about the shoulder straps’ comfort, it the bag has been just fine on 6hr rides. With the amount of thought, the number of features, and the quality of materials that Deuter have put into the pack, the $100 asking price seems fair- especially as it’s the bag that I’ve been grabbing more than any other.