Pros and Cons Of Roll Top Backpacks

Rolltop backpacks have had a meteoric rise in popularity over the past couple years. They close like a dry bag, but they have the capacity of a traditional pack. People seem to fall into two camps when it comes to rolltop packs. They either love or hate them. You should Rolltop packs have lots of advantages, but they have just as many problems. So why should you consider a rolltop pack?

What are the pros and cons of rolltop backpacks? Rolltop packs close like a dry bag with a lightweight simplistic design that’s way more versatile and durable than traditional packs. The top compresses down, which makes a full-sized pack feel like a daypack. Simplistic designs are great for compression purposes, but you have less compartments/pockets for gear organization and fewer attachment points.

You should definitely consider a rolltop pack if you can get over the organization issue. Organizing with dry bags and stuff sacks is always an option if you need additional organization. Rolltops are lighter than traditional packs making them perfect for ultralight/lightweight backpackers. In the rest of this post I will go over all the advantages and disadvantages of rolltop packs and teach you a few tricks to make a rolltop more like a traditional pack.

What Is A Rolltop Pack?

Rolltop packs close by rolling down the excess fabric at the top of the pack. There’s no drawstring or zipper at the top of the bag. This gives you an extra level of top down compression which allows you to shrink down excess pack volume. Nowadays most rolltops also have removable top lids that can act as additional easy access storage.

Most people that use rolltops take a minimalistic approach to backpacking. Less external straps simplify the pack and the compression roll “shrinks” unused space more effectively than a conventional top lid with more defined shape. Lack of straps limits your carrying position of bear canisters and foam, but you should be able to strap them underneath the removable top lid.

Roll tops were made popular by ultralight backpack manufacturers. The designs are so simple that they can cut out a ton of weight without reducing the overall pack size. Almost every ultralight pack on the market uses a rolltop design (some have drawstrings).

So you can have a massive pack that weighs less than a traditional daypack. Folding down the top and compressing it down makes it feel similar on your back. There’s no awkward shifting and weight imbalances that you usually get in a half filled pack.

What are the Pros and Cons of Roll Top Packs?

Rolltop packs use a streamlined approach that eliminates all the unnecessary pockets. This allows the pack to roll up and compress down into a fraction of its previous size. Gear manufacturers can cut down a lot of weight by eliminating all the external pockets. It’s basically like a giant dry bag that straps to your back like a traditional pack.

Compressing down your pack really helps with comfort. It doesn’t matter how full your pack is when you compress it down. The added fabric might add a few pounds to the pack, but it won’t feel awkward when it’s half full. So you can use the same pack on day trips, weekenders, and longer backpacking trips.

Obviously, there are definitely downsides with such a simplistic design. Removing pockets/straps is great for compression purposes, but it’s horrible for organization. You have one giant pocket so you have to dig through all your gear to get down to anything at the bottom.

This can be cured by organizing gear into dry bags and placing important things on top, but it takes a while to get used to the change. I will explain a few tips to overcome these organization issues at the bottom of this post so make sure you scroll down to the bottom for a few quick tips.

A Few Of The Best Rolltop Packs

There really aren’t all that many options when it comes to rolltop packs. Granite Gear and REI are the only companies that I know of that make roll-tops. I’m sure there are others out there, but I can’t think of any.

Personally, I prefer the Granite Gear Crown 2 60 Liter (mens version) which comes in a short, regular, and long size. They also sell a womens version of the 60 Liter Crown 2 that has a shorter suspension system, but I’ve only seen it at REI. It’s a few ounces heavier than the 55 Liter REI Coop Flash, but it has a more comfortable suspension system.

Here’s a list of my favorite rolltops in no particular order.

  1. Granite Gear Crown 2 60 Liter (Men’s)
  2. Granite Gear Crown 2 6o Liter (Women’s)
  3. Granite Gear Virga 2 52 Liter (Unisex)
  4. Granite Gear Virga 26 (Unisex)
  5. REI Flash 55 (Men)
  6. REI Flash 55 (Women)
  7. Granite Gear Scurry Ultralight 24 Liter Day Pack

Advantages of Roll Top Packs

Using a streamlined rolltop has loads of advantages. If you’re trying to shed pack weight and get into the ultralight/lightweight lifestyle a rolltop pack is the only way to go. There’s just no way to get a conventional backpack down to the same weight as a rolltop. Some manufacturers have gotten close, but they just can’t compete with ultralight packs like the Granite Gear Crown 2.

So what makes roll top packs special? I’ll go over a few of the advantages of roll top bags first and then get into a couple pitfalls.

1) Compression Top (Adjustable Volume)

The adjustable compression top is by far the best feature of rolltop packs. You don’t have all that loose airspace up at the top of your pack. It doesn’t matter how much you put in the pack. A 60 Liter pack can be folded down to the size of a typical daypack.

Not having all that bulk up at the top of your pack really helps with comfort/stability. You have a sturdy/stable load on your back and there’s no shifting contents and loose fabric to catch onto everything. If you want to add some extra space up top; you can always put on the removable top cover.

2) Large Top Openings Make It Easy To Pack

You don’t realize how nice it is to have a single oversized opening until you have it. It’s so much easier to load bulky gear when you aren’t fiddling with zippers/compartments. There’s a slight learning curve when it comes to gear storage, but I’ll give you a few tips below.

With one large compartment you won’t have to dig through all those side pockets to find anything. It’s all stored in the same spot. This can be a good or bad thing depending on how you look at it. With proper organization it’s really easy to find gear. If everything’s thrown in at random, you’ll be dealing with a mess.

3) Ultralight Designs

Think about the simplicity of a rolltop pack. There’s no internal compartments, zippers, flaps, and only a handful of pockets. You end up with a ridiculously light pack once you remove all that stuff. Going with a much smaller zippered/drawstring top lid is the only way to get close to a roll tops weight.

For Instance: Granite Gear’s Crown 2 Pack weighs 2lbs 4.7oz. The closest conventional top pack I can find is the Osprey Exos 58 and that’s 2lbs 10oz. Most of them fall well over 3lbs and cheaper packs are closer to 5lbs. You have to spend a small fortune to get down into the 3lb range.

4) Extremely Versatile

You can carry the same roll top pack regardless of trip length. It doesn’t matter how much gear you load up. A half filled roll top feels exactly the same as a traditional daypack. You can use the same pack for daytrips, weekenders and 7+ day trips.

Extra fabric might make it slightly heavier than a 20 Liter daypack, but it’s less than a 1lb difference. It’s hard to beat the versatility of a rolltop without buying multiple conventional packs.

5) More Comfortable When It’s Not Fully Loaded

Have you ever tried taking a 60 liter pack on a short 2-3 day weekend trip? You end up with 2ft of wasted space flopping around at the top. That leads to shifting gear and an unstable load. With a rolltop all that extra space is compressed down to a tight stable load. No more shifting and loose fabric catching on everything.

6) Less Straps To Catch On Things

All those extra straps can be a good or bad thing depending on how you look at it. I don’t like strapping a bunch of gear to the outside of my pack so this isn’t that big of a deal for me. There’s space for a bear canister at the top of my pack under the detachable lid and straps to attach trekking poles.

Sometimes I hate not being able to bring my foam sleeping pad, but that’s just a slight annoyance. The weight reduction and added versatility makes up the difference. With that being said, a rolltop isn’t great in the winter since you won’t be able to double stack sleeping pads. You can rig up a few straps to the back of the pack, but that’s not a great solution.

7) Cheaper to Manufacture

Most roll top packs cost right around $200. You won’t come close to finding a traditional ultralight pack at that price range. The Osprey Exos 58 is close, but you’re still paying for all those pockets, zippers, etc. It’s hard to say how much you’re actually saving since I tend to use extra dry bags and stuff sacks to keep organized.

8) No Zipper To Break (maybe a few in pockets)

Think about where the vast majority of packs fail. You might get the occasional rip that needs repaired, but you end up with a bad zipper 99% of the time. The seems start to rip because of excess weight, zippers get stuck and they get jammed up with fabric. There’s really no way for a rolltop to fail. You might get the occasional rip, but that’s easy to fix.

Disadvantages of Rolltop Packs

1) Less Pockets/Sections For Organizing Gear

Lack of pockets/compartments is the biggest concern most people have with rolltop packs. All they have is one massive main storage compartment. This isn’t a big deal to most people, but it can be a serious pain when you need to regularly get into the pack. All those extra pockets come in handy when you have to do activity specific tasks. I always bring along my traditional pack when doing photography work, climbing or fishing.

There’s really no easy way to organize a rolltop pack without using a random assortment of dry bags and stuff sacks. They don’t have external pockets to store gear or quick access points. You have to dig down through a random assortment of gear to find anything.

2) Bad In The Winter

You don’t have pockets and quick access points to grab gloves, hats and extra jackets. The only thing you can do is stop and dig in the main compartment. I always carry cold weather gear in a dry bag at the top of my pack so it’s not that bad, but worth noting.

3) Few External Add On Points

How much do you carry on the outside of your pack? Rolltops usually remove the side compression straps and bungee cords to cut down weight. They don’t want the straps to interfere with the compression system. They almost always have a single strap on each side for trekking poles and a removable top to latch down a bear canister so you will have some external storage.

You also won’t be able to carry a foam sleeping pad on the bottom of your pack. It will have to go on the back of the pack using the horizontal straps. This isn’t a big deal to me, but having an extra 6 inches sticking out of your back can get awkward(you’ll get used to it fast).

4) Wet and Dry Gear Stored Together

All your wet and dry gear get stored together when you’re dealing with one giant compartment. Unless you want everything to get wet, you’ll have to start using dry bags and waterproof compression sacks for your sleeping bag.

5) Rarely Have Water Bottle Holders

Only a small handful of rolltop packs have water bottle holders on the sides. This one of the main reasons why I chose the Granite Gear Crown 2. I like to use water bottles in the winter since hydration pack tubes tend to freeze up.

Removing them cuts down a few oz of weight since rolltops are marketed towards the ultralight community. This is a minor inconvenience for most of us since the majority of backpackers use hydration bladders.

How to Organize a Rolltop Pack

There are two main trains of thought when it comes to organizing a roll top pack. You can organize everything into dry bags and stuff sacks so everythings easy to find or minimize weight by only separating your gear into two categories (wet and dry gear).

Personally, I fall into the organize all your gear into individual bags camp since I’m not even close to falling into the ultralight camp. I think it’s worth carrying an extra pound so that everything’s organized and easy to find. I usually carry 2 10L dry bags and a handful of smaller 3-5 Liter bags. All those added bags only add a little under 8oz to my total pack weight and I probably would have been carrying a few dry bags in a conventional pack anyway so it’s not that big of a difference.

The ultralight community normally separates their wet/dry gear to save weight and uses compactor bags which have a similar weight to a garbage bag. It’s hard to say which method is better since everybody has their own goals, but I would rather have quick access to my gear.