Gear Diary - Montane Cobra 25 litre Rucksack

This is a review for the Cobra backpack, which I've had on test from Go Outdoors since spring 2013.  It's sized somewhere between a day sack and a summer overnighter, which makes it about right for Scottish winter/late shoulder season walking, or slightly too big for solo summertime/day-only use, or slightly on the small size for the Alps, where it was my day bag this summer.  Otherwise, I've used it on most of my day trips for the last 7 months, and it's proved durable and versatile, albeit with a couple of small niggles.

I'll spare you the technical low down, which you can glean from the links above, and just get to the more interesting (to me) features and how it fares in practice.  There's a hydration sleeve (only tested as a map/book sleeve, in which capacity it performs flawlessly), two side pockets made from very stretchy material that take a 1ltr nalgene or 2 ltr platy no problem, an volumous internal pocket (upwards facing zip) which sensibly includes a keyring clip, and an external top pocket (with a not-so-sensible downwards facing zip).  As already hinted at - there's alot of volume in the main body of the bag - it feels like a very roomy 25litres.  There's also a grab hoop on the front of the bag, which has proved very useful when moving the pack around when off the shoulders and on more technical rests and belays.  DWR so far seems good and the pack doesn't soak up too much water and dries fairly quickly.  I don't expect any pack to be waterproof but this certainly keeps the lions share off and means I can get away with my regular drybags inside for insulation layers and other kit I need to keep dry.

As you can see, there's one of the newer pole/axe storage systems on the pack, which despite my mix of curiosity and skepticism worked very well indeed and has proved very secure for both poles and axe.  One thing to note is that the shaft of either pole or axe is held in place by a strap on either side of the bag, which if you want to open up the main section of the pack fully, will need to be undone.  I found this to be a little irritating at first, but I have grown used to it, and the system overall is super stable and secure, keeping your sharps tightly fastened to even a partially loaded bag, which is certainly more important.

Side compression/tool straps.

There's also a hip belt, which is a comfortable but slightly complex affair featuring a snack/compass pocket on the right hip, and a rack loop on the left.  The complexity comes from the strap system, which double back on themselves and then clip in, a setup which I think Montane refer to as 'double tension'.  I'm not sure if there is any more tension than I experience on other bags, and there are both advantages and disadvantages: it keeps the straps tidy and out of the way when climbing and scrambling, but I find them tricky to adjust after adding or shedding a layer.  It's a clever system but I'd prefer something a little less fussy, or simply less spare length to start with.  There's also a sternum strap complete with thumb-pull which makes releasing the strap with mitts a doddle, but closing it much harder than it should be for a grown up!  These are all fairly minor issues, and not critical to the bag's overall performance.  One last thing - this bag has a zipper and not a lid, so you can't put a rope under it.  I have carried rope in the traditional slung-over-the-top manner, tucked into the side compression straps along with a quick draw attached to the top load handle and that does the job fine. You can see all the features explained in full detail on video here

Outer pocket, with zip facing down - designed to be accessed by climbing buddy

Useful, large inner pocket

Now to the big question - how does it carry?  In short, very well indeed... but best when fully loaded.  The shoulder straps and back-pad itself are ergonically invisible - when it's on, I mostly forget it's there, which (to my mind) is how it should be.  This bag was rammed to the gunnels on our climbs in the Swiss Alps this year - with axe, crampons, insulation, food (and for the walk in) a harness, glacier rescue gear and 60ms of rope - and it's performance on that trip won me over.  Even when worn with the harness, the hip belt remained in play, and those waist straps which I find a little fussy otherwise did prove their own, minimising clutter in this context.  Admittedly the bag in this Alpine role was a bit too full, but the 10kg+ load stayed close to the back and centered - the same when cycling.  On rock climbs or when moving through trees the narrow profile means no snagging, and the side pockets have become a real favourite, made of densely woven but very elastic fabric that have resisted any abrasion or tearing so far.  In fact, all the material on the bag feels really tough, and apart from a little bike oil it's still as good as new - not even any fraying, so far.

When I'm carrying less, I'm slightly less sure about this bag, and that I think is mainly down to the hip belt.  Gear loops on backpacks I've always wondered about (I'm no expert, but shouldn't that rack be on my harness?  What happens if I'm separated from my pack...?) and if there's less weight, I find the hip belt can rise up under my ribcage.  It's an easy thing to tuck the belt behind your back, which is what I've taken to doing with this bag and others like it when the load is lighter, and it carries fine like this - it's still perfectly comfortable.  This is always going to be the case with fixed back length on rucksacks - they can't make one size to fit all equally.  The issue goes away completely when the bag is more fully loaded, but I'm not exactly the tallest, so if you're considering a purchase, it might be worth trying one on for size.

Overall though, this bag has proven its worth, and despite a few small niggles, now has a firm place in my kit cupboard.  Small items have a habit of falling out of the front 'buddy' pocket if opened at an angle, access to the main compartment is a little restricted by those pole/axe/compression straps... but the  materials used are durable and fit for purpose, the axe carry system is 'bomber', and the internal pocket and grab handle are great - really practical touches.  It's a little on the fussy side for me personally - the hip belt strap system in particular I personally think is a touch over-designed - but under load that same system transfers weight very comfortably and is extremely stable on technical ground - so my reservations feel like splitting hairs now, after a good half year of faithful service from the bag.

The Cobra 25 is a generalist - part winter mountaineer, part climber, and part day tripper on foot or by bike, and whilst it might not do any of these perfectly it does all of them more than well enough for me to want to hold on to it.  I'm looking forward to taking it out more this winter, and trying it on a 3 season overnighter next year.  Montane provide a manufacturing statement here, which includes supply chain and animal rights information - I struggled to find information about their recycling processes but will happily amend if it's available.