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:

  • Granite Gear Crown VC 60 ($200, 2 lbs 2 oz);
  • Gregory Optic 48 and 58 ($190 and $210, 2 lbs 8 oz) and women-specific Octal;
  • REI Co-op Flash 45 ($150, 2 lbs 12 oz);
  • Sierra Designs Flex Capacitor 40-60 ($200, 2 lbs 9 oz), which I helped to develop; and,
  • ULA Circuit ($235, 2 lbs 9 oz).

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.


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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