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Reviews > Packs > Internal and External Framed Backpacks > Columbia Mobex Backpack > Test Report by Rick Dreher
Columbia Mobex Winter XL Backpack
I enjoy going high and light and frequently take shorter "fast- packing" trips. My longest trips are a week or so. I've lightened my pack load because I enjoy hiking more when toting less, I can go farther and over tougher terrain, and I have cranky ankles. I use trekking poles and generally hike solo or tandem. I've backpacked all over the U.S. West and now primarily hike California's Sierra Nevada. My favorite trips are alpine and include off-trail travel and sleeping in high places. When winter arrives, I head back for snowshoe outings in the white stuff.
PRODUCT INFORMATION & SPECIFICATIONS
Manufacturer: Columbia Sportswear
Outside, the Winter XL (one of several Mobex models) has four two zippered pockets: two waist belt pockets, one top pocket and one bottom pocket. The external rod frame crisscrosses the back and anchors four tool/pole loops at exposed crossing points. The pack has no external bottle pockets, straps or strap anchors.
The Winter XL comes with a Hydrapak brand 3 L water reservoir with hose and valve.
Materials and Construction: The Mobex Winter XL is nicely made. The waterproof fabric is surprisingly thin--a weight reduction. The nylon mesh used in several interior pockets is likewise fairly lightweight and soft. The slender plastic frame rods are quite flexible and Columbia claims the pack can be crushed flat and they'll spring back into shape. We'll see. The back panel, shoulder straps and waist belt are all padded. Padding is covered with smooth fabric, not wicking mesh, and I can't tell whether the foam and fabric are breathable but hot weather use should reveal the answer. Buckles, toggles and related hardware all appear to be of good quality and are small for weight control. Exterior zippers (three in all) are not of the waterproof variety and the main zip is quite heavy-duty. All have easy-pull cord tabs.
Fabric edges, stitching and seams all look clean and even, with no loose threads, missed stitching or frayed edges. All exposed seams are bias-taped.
As noted, main compartment access is via perimeter zipper. The front panel swings wide from the bottom edge and because of the frame, retains its shape at all times. Most of the storage space resides in this front section, held in place by the stretchy mesh panel. Gear is accessed by unhooking the panel at two top anchor points. Three mesh ditty pockets are sewn into the back panel for stowing small items and a larger removable zippered pocket is anchored in front of the mesh divider.
Sewn to the back panel are the water bladder pocket and a short, wide, open-top storage pocket. Top center is the drinking hose exit port.
External Pockets: The hip belt pockets are large enough to hold snacks, sunscreen and small gear. The top pocket will hold similar items but the bottom pocket is a puzzle: while it covers the entire bottom panel it is absolutely flat and tight--basically a second fabric layer--so I'm not sure for what it's intended. Beef jerky?
Frame & Suspension: The Mobex frame is its truly unique feature, the likes of which I've never seen. Comprising a set of intersecting flexible plastic rods, the frame stretches the back panel into a domed lid resembling a tiny self-supporting tent. When zipped shut the frame's stiffness transfers to the back panel to support the entire pack. Columbia places toggled bungee cord tool loops at four points where frame rods cross, capitalizing on these strong points to take the load rather than sewing them to pack fabric. The loops are easily removed. Because of the full hip belt, the Mobex is designed to place much of the load on the hips rather than the shoulders. The sternum strap is vertically adjustable and fitted with a whistle buckle. Each shoulder strap has a d-ring and there are no load control straps.
Reservoir: The supplied water bladder (### brand) opens at the top, which should make it simple to clean and dry between uses. It closes with a sliding plastic clip, not a zip closure as with some of the competition. A drinking valve pops open and closed, so it's not technically a "bite" valve. The hose is fairly stiff clear plastic.
Winter Features: The Mobex Winter models use more of the waterproof pack fabric, have no external mesh or bottle pockets, and include a drinking hose enclosure to keep it from freezing. The hose routes inside the right-hand shoulder strap, accessed by a zipper. The enclosure is insulated and has reflective material and a pouch for holding a chemical hand-warmer pack.
Volume & Weight
Columbia hasn't posted volume and weight specs but presuming it's the same as the regular Mobex XL, the Winter XL should be 33 liters (2,013 ci). It weighs 37.7 ounces (1,066 g), which compares to 32 ounces (906 g) specified for the regular XL. The reservoir represents 4.4 oz (125 g) of this total. The Winter XL comes in one size only and is unisex (some Mobex models offer men's and women's sizing).
READING THE INSTRUCTIONS
The Mobex Winter XL comes has several hang tags detailing select pack materials and design features, including the Exo Flex frame. There are no specs and few user instructions, but the Columbia Web site provides additional information. I doubt I would have figured out the tiny hand-warmer pocket without their documentation.
TRYING IT OUT
The Mobex Winter XL is a big day pack (big enough that ultralighters ironically unconcerned with their backpack's weight could do overnights with it). It appears to offer plenty of capacity for cold weather day hikes with the usual bulky clothing, and easy access to that clothing. In addition, it should be possible to segregate wet items from the rest of the contents-a common problem in snow and rain. Two pounds (less than 1 kg) is reasonable for a full frame day pack in my experience, so the Winter XL's unique design doesn't incur a weight penalty.
The Columbia Mobex Winter XL is an innovative and unique pack--unique primarily because of the frame. It's as large a day pack as I can imagine carrying, so I'm interested in how it handles various combinations of stuff (especially heavy camera gear) I might throw in it. Testing a winter pack in mid-summer will place an emphasis on its ability to manage heat and sweat. Since there's little external storage, I'm likewise interested in ease of main compartment access. I'll also be watching the wear points represented by the frame rod sleeves for damage. Finally, I'll work on a use for the peculiar bottom pocket.
Please check back in two months for the field report.
Field Locations and Conditions
I took the Mobex Winter XL on three day hikes in the northern Sierra (Desolation Wilderness and Tahoe basin) and some local excursions closer to home, in the flatlands. Weather was always sunny with temperatures ranging from hot to merely warm: 95 F (35 C) to 70 F (21 C). Elevations ranged from sea level to 9,200 feet (2,800 m) and my longest day's mileage was about eight (13 km). Terrain has been flat and smooth to steep and rubble-strewn, including a bit of cross-country. I also tried adapting the Mobex to my work commute, as proposed in my application. More on that, below.
Loads and Loading:The Winter XL is a big day pack with a lot more space than I typically need in mild conditions. For me, ample space attracts stuff to fill it, "Hey, why not toss in an extra jacket or a bivy sack, just on case?" After some experimentation I generally follow a loading pattern. Most of the gear space is in the "clam shell" pack lid, behind the divider panel. I load this first, beginning with spare clothing in a stuffsack. Atop the clothing go food and camera gear. Attaching the panel then anchors this gear in place. The mesh pockets at the back of the lid hold small items, extra snacks and the like. Into the removable mesh pocket at the lid's bottom go cellphone, headlamp, knife and first aid kit.
The back panel holds the water reservoir (when carried) in its sleeve. The wide lower pocket can hold other items, such as toiletries. A folded flat map can go either into the unoccupied hydration sleeve or, if I'm carrying the reservoir, rolled and shoved into the low pocket. Once I get this far I zip the pack halfway closed, although sometimes the bottom of the two halves are overpacked and I have to shift items for it to close. Before completely closing it, I'll add a water bottle or two (if not using the reservoir) and a wind jacket or clothing I might want on rest stops.
The top outside pocket works great for my GPS and another small item or two, and the roomy waist belt pockets hold snacks, sunscreen, lip balm, compass and sundry items. These are the only two pockets accessible on the go.
A drinking hose is routed through a port behind the haul loop and into the right shoulder strap's enclosed hose pocket. The angled nozzle pokes out the pocket's bottom, below the zipper. Hiking poles strap quickly and securely on back using the toggle-and-elastic anchors, conveniently placed where frame rods cross.
While I've assembled test loads as heavy as 20 pounds (9 kg), my actual trail loads have been less, with a top of about 15 pounds (6.8 kg), other times less than that.
As to the pocket at the pack's very bottom, I offer the following.
Dark as winter clouds
I am confounded by you
I did find a wilderness permit stows there, for what that's worth.
The Mobex XL fits me quite well. The waist belt wraps comfortably and amply supports a good portion of the load (not all day packs allow load transfer to the hips). The buckle is attached to the left hip belt wing where it doesn't dig into the mid-gut or interfere with a belt buckle. The webbing waist strap is incredibly long and needs a major trimming, which I'll do next time the household sewing machine is out (to fold and sew the strap end).
The shoulder straps are likewise comfortable and the sternum strap has plenty of up and down travel adjustment. Properly adjusted, the pack is very comfortable because it both controls the load well and isolates my back from the contents. The back pad foam is quite dense, providing support and protection.
On the Go: As noted, the Mobex gives good support and fits me well. On the trail the load is well controlled, so the quirky external frame seems to be doing a good job. A huge relief is that the frame doesn't squeak while I'm hiking, because it still does when I intentionally flex it. I can't find anything to fault in either the pack's fit or its load control, it handles very nicely.
The downside of the Winter XL is it's not designed for heat. The back panel doesn't breathe or wick away sweat, and it's noticeably hot on hot days-my shirt and lower back get soaking wet in no time. In addition, the black fabric absorbs heat from sunlight and melts certain snacks and generally heats the gear and supplies. The crafty hose cozy is fussy to open and close whenever I want a drink, and water in the hose itself gets hot. As long as I've added enough ice, the water supply stays cold for a decent length of time, as it's insulated pretty well from my back by the pack's padding.
Access to Contents: As noted, I can only reach the drinking hose and two front pockets while hiking, everything else requires taking the pack off. Presuming dry, clear ground to lay it on, the pack opens wide for excellent access to the contents. Some digging is required to get at items at the bottom of the back panel, but the divider panel releases easily to get out of the way. Lacking a space to open the pack wide, it's a challenge to dig out items buried deep.
Water Reservoir and Drink Hose: The 3 L Hydrapak brand water reservoir is easy to fill, stow, clean and dry. The sliding clip lock gives good access and the bag can suspend from a hook-and-loop strap inside the pack. The large-diameter hose gives good flow and the 90-degree angled bite valve has a push/pull shutoff. The hose can be stiff (when cold) and has developed some creases where it has kinked. Nevertheless, flow still seems okay. Valve shutoff action is stiff and I sometimes have difficulty opening and closing it fully. It occasionally drips water if not closed completely. Water that accumulates in the hose can taste "plasticy" but the reservoir itself seems to impart no taste. I can also remove the valve from the hose and pump filtered water directly into the bag without removing it from the pack. Nice.
Commuting: I'd proposed using the Mobex for my commuter backpack, but the change to the Winter XL model presented me with a backpack much larger than what I use daily. My work stuff fills the XL perhaps halfway, and it seems very large for cycling. On public transportation its clever frame keeps it full size and too large to easily stow at my feet. It's just not a match for the task.
Wear and Tear: There has been no observable damage or wear to the Mobex.
The Columbia Mobex Winter XL is a big, comfortable day pack that holds a lot of gear and supplies. The peculiar exoskeleton frame does a good job controlling the load and helps maximize pack space, while seeming to be strong and light. Panel-loading gives good access, both for packing and accessing gear.
I think Columbia should reconsider their deletion of exterior side pockets on their winter models. I'd like them there to keep water, sports drink and other items of convenience within hand's reach.
My sincere thanks to Columbia Sportswear and BackpackGearTest.org for the chance to test the Mobex Winter XL.
Long-Term Test Locations & Conditions
I took the Mobex Winter XL on four day hikes in the Tahoe-region Sierra Nevada. Two trips were in clear weather, one was rainy and on the last hike I finally used the Mobex in snow. Temperature ranged from mild to cold (60 F the mid-20s F or 16 to -4 C). Elevations ranged from 6,000 to 8,500 feet (1,830-2,600 m) and my longest hike was 10 miles (16 km). Terrain was hilly and the trails varied from smooth and easy to rocky and rough. The snow was fresh and loose, except when following packed trails.
Loads and Loading: Packing winter clothing at last, I filled the pack more than before, capitalizing on the Mobex XL's capacity. The benefits of having much of the storage in the front section becomes more obvious with a full pack when placing the water reservoir in its pocket. This system is much easier than stuffing a full reservoir in behind a lot of other gear (a process I dislike in typical pack designs).
As in the field report, I continue to find the Mobex Winter XL is a big, comfortable day pack with good load control and lots of space while being reasonably lightweight. Comfort goes up as temperatures drop, as implied by the winter model's design differences from the regular Mobex models, and some of the winter-specific features become meaningful (such as the drinking hose routing).
This test's timing barely got me into winter so I'll continue to use it the rest of this season. I'm satisfied the Columbia Mobex Winter XL offers some unique capabilities for winter travel, such as ample capacity for bulky clothes and the drinking hose insulation. It's certainly comfortable and it controls my gear well. It's a seasonal specialty pack and as such, I'm unlikely to give it any further summertime use.
My sincere thanks to Columbia Sportswear and BackpackGearTest.org for the chance to test the Mobex Winter XL.This report was created with the BackpackGearTest.org Report Writer Version 1.5 Copyright 2010. All rights reserved.
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