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If you ever served in the military, there’s a very good chance you were subjected to the occasional, if not frequent, forced march.
For a brief time, I served as a Troop Executive Officer for a Basic Training Unit, which pumped out over 200 cavalry scouts every 17-week training cycle. This was back in the days when scouts and tankers were still trained at Fort Knox, Kentucky, and every basic training class was pitted against the three infamous hills the base was known for — Misery, Agony, and Heartbreak — nestled uncomfortably at the end of progressively longer “ruck marches” throughout each training cycle (I made it a point to go on every ruck march, just so the Drill Sergeants wouldn’t label me a “pansy officer”). This was also in the days before the Army moved away from the old school A.L.I.C.E. pack — that metal-framed behemoth you either loved or hated. Whatever your feelings of the A.L.I.C.E. pack, it was rare to walk away from a lengthy ruck march without crimson patches of raw flesh where excessive chafing and bouncing had relieved you of your precious skin.
After leaving the Army and the pseudo-luxury of government-issued gear, I was in need of a new hiking pack and, without the backing of taxpayer dollars, I was in charge of buying my own. In preparation for a hiking trip in Patagonia, I purchased a large (60-liter) Osprey hiking pack and, after being accustomed to the A.L.I.C.E. pack, was blown away by how comfortable and well-balanced the bag felt. When it recently came time to get a new hiking bag, staying with Osprey was a no-brainer. While I still have my 60-liter bag, I was in need of a smaller pack, more practical for day trips or hiking weekends, which is exactly why I chose the Osprey Stratos 34 Men’s Hiking Backpack.
The Osprey Stratos 34 is priced on the mid to high end among similar sized and styled backpacks and is available on Amazon for $158.95. This might be a bit more expensive than you’d expect for a mid-size bag, but for your money, you’re getting an extremely well-structured bag, a lifetime guarantee (more on that later), and almost 50 years of collective knowledge from a company that’s grown from a one-man purveyor of custom packs to a world-wide outfitter known for their quality gear. With that in mind, here’s why the Stratos 34 might just be your next backpack of choice.
The Osprey Stratos 34 arrived in a plastic shipping bag, with no added frills except the attached tags explaining various aspects of the backpack. No extra materials, no mess, just the way we like it.
The first thing I noticed about the Stratos 34 was the weight. For a 34-liter backpack, the bag is a touch on the heavy side, weighing in at just over three pounds, while many bags of similar size weigh in between 1.5 and 2.5 pounds. This may not seem like a lot, but every bit of extra weight can wear you down while out on the trail. The trade-off, though, makes it worth it, as much of the extra weight can be attributed to the bag’s sturdy build and structural integrity.
While many bags in the 30- to 40-liter volume range lack a frame or firm structure, the Stratos delivers on both. An alloy frame supports the back of the Stratos 34 on all sides, stretching the nylon backing tight as a drum. Normally, I would say an alloy frame would be uncomfortable, but with this bag, your back will never touch it. The Stratos 34 comes equipped with Osprey’s “Airspeed Suspension” system which incorporates a tension mesh back panel that keeps the actual bag and frame suspended a few inches off your back, allowing your back to breathe and effectively absorbing the “bag bounce” generated with each step.
The Stratos 34 is equipped with a plethora of pockets. Aside from the main compartment (which contains a hydration bladder sleeve), there is a separate compartment at the bottom meant specifically for a sleeping bag, a front panel pocket with a central zipper for quick access, two topside pouches (one canvas-lined and one mesh-lined), two zippered hip belt pockets, two side mesh pockets with elastic tops, and a bottom pocket containing a built-in rain cover. The bag’s measurements are 24.4 inches high, 11.8 inches wide, and 12.2 inches deep, so by most definitions, it’s not a large bag, but with all those pockets it sure can hold a lot of gear.
The Stratos 34 has a variety of other unique features, such as the seamless hip belt for lumbar support, removable straps for attaching a sleeping pad, and plastic-reinforced loops for storing trekking poles. The clasp on the bag’s adjustable sternum strap is even molded with a built-in safety whistle, which I’m sure is quite handy when you’re trying to get the attention of several hungry bears at once.
As a quick note, the tags attached to the bag were very informative and worth looking over. One set of tags provides a breakdown of Osprey pack size ranges, the duration of the hikes their optimal for, the intended weight range, and a list of activities they are often used in. Another tag was printed with the bold words “ALL MIGHTY GUARANTEE,” which is what Osprey calls their warranty program. The back of this tag indicates that “Osprey will repair for any reason, free of charge, any damage or defect in our product – whether it was purchased in 1974 or yesterday.” It goes on to explain that if they are unable to repair a bag, they will replace it. This should give any hiker a warm-fuzzy.
How we tested the Osprey Stratos 34 hiking backpack
The first test of the Stratos 34 was for load capacity. I wanted to see how much gear could easily be stored in the backpack before taking it out. In the main compartment, I put my hydration pack (which I slid into the hydration bladder sleeve and weaved the hose out of the slit at the top of the bag). Next, I added a change of clothes, my camping hammock with accompanying mosquito netting and rainfly, and a flashlight. I tried to load my sleeping bag into the designated compartment, but this did not go so well. The sleeping bag ended up being too big for the designated compartment, even with the compression sack maxed out, and try as I might, I couldn’t get the bag in there, even after unloading the main compartment (the items from the main compartment push down on the sleeping bag compartment, eating up some of the space). Eventually, I had to make a switch and pack the sleeping bag into the main compartment, while putting the change of clothes and rainfly in the sleeping bag compartment. In the smaller top compartments, I added a can of bug spray, a compass, my knife, and several lengths of paracord. In the front quick-access compartment, I added my rain jacket and a change of socks. Finally, to the side hip pockets, I added my wallet, keys, cell phone, and a few granola bars. All items, besides the sleeping bag, easily stowed without straining the pack.
The next thing I did to test the bag was take it on a series of progressively longer hikes while putting the bag’s load capacity to the test. The product page on the Osprey website recommends a load capacity from 15 to 35 pounds for the Stratos 34, but I figured they were just erring on the safe side and decided to take it up a notch. By adding a 15-pound dumbbell to the center of the main compartment (and a few smaller dumbbells to other pockets), I was able to up my load weight to 45 pounds.
On the first hike out, which totaled four miles, I was surprised by the easy fit of the backpack. With just a few quick adjustments to the shoulder straps, hip belt, and harness straps, the bag felt tailored to my build and the extra weight seemed to disappear. By about the third mile, I was beginning to feel the weight in my shoulders, so I began alternating the weight distribution. By tightening the seamless hip belt and loosening the shoulder straps, I shifted most of the weight to my hips, giving my shoulders a much-needed break. The seamless hip belt distributes the weight very effectively, due to its broad surface area, and it’s thick cushion prevents excess friction. By alternating between hip-carry and shoulder-carry, the rest of the hike was a breeze.
After this initial hike, I did two more five-mile hikes and one six-mile hike, making sure to change the distribution of the weight within the bag each time. In each case, a simple adjustment of the straps was enough to comfortably accommodate the changing weight distribution, and not once did I experience any discomfort due to the Stratos 34. On the final six-mile hike, I even ran the last mile to put some strain on the alloy frame. The tension mesh back panel did its job wonderfully, taking out the shock of each footfall.
What we liked about the Osprey Stratos 34
The Airspeed Suspension system is truly an awesome thing. The mesh of the back panel allows for excellent ventilation while you’re hiking and allows air to flow directly off your back as well as between your back and the bag itself. On top of preventing overheating, the tension mesh back panel also serves as a shock absorption system of sorts, as the full weight of the bag is dispersed over the panel and most of the real impact is lost between the panel and the alloy frame anyway. The whole frame and panel are also adjustable, as you can move the central Velcro pad behind the back panel to adjust the height of the shoulder straps to better fit your build.
The seamless hip belt was also a huge plus and amazingly never resulted in any rubbing or chaffing. I remember back in the day of the A.L.I.C.E. pack, this was always one of the prime raw areas after a ruck march, as the hip belts would dig in and rub over the duration of the march. The seamless hip belt on the Stratos 34 is an offshoot of the same tension mesh of the back panel, with a soft foam padding underneath. The forward straps easily adjust from each side, making it simple to keep weight distributed evenly.
Finally, I really appreciated the integrated rain cover, with its designated pouch at the bottom of the pack. The rain cover is an easy thing to overlook when packing your bag, but if it’s built into the bag, you’re never without it. Plus, when the rain stops, you don’t want to put a wet rain cover back into one of your main pouches. With a separate pouch, you never have to worry about soaking your other gear.
What we don’t like about the Osprey Stratos 34
The side hip pockets weren’t the easiest things to access, as they were set fairly back on the hips. They may be easier to access for someone with small hips, but I did strain some to retrieve items from these pouches on each hike. The pockets were plenty large, but because I couldn’t cock my arm back far enough, I struggled to get things in and out while on the move.
My only other complaint about the Stratos 34 is the placement of the hydration pack sleeve, which is on the inside wall of the back panel of the bag. This means, in order to pack effectively, you would need to pack your hydration bladder first and then pack everything over top of it. This is not ideal for two reasons. First, if you are packing any type of weight or squeezing in a lot of gear, you run the risk of applying too much pressure and bursting the bladder. Second, if you suck down all your water and need a refill, you essentially have to unpack half your bag in order to refill. Honestly, after the first use, I skipped the hydration pack sleeve altogether and placed my hydration bladder over top of my gear at the top center of the bag. This kept the weight evenly distributed and gave me easy access for any refills.
The Osprey Stratos 34 is an excellent bag with a truly genius structure. The bag’s alloy frame and Airspeed Suspension make this one of the most comfortable backpacks I’ve ever put on. The Stratos 34 is easily adjustable to an individual’s size and build, and its storage capacity makes it more than adequate for extended hikes and weekend camping trips. Aside from a few pocket placement critiques, there’s very little negative to say about the Stratos 34, aside from the fact you might just forget you’re wearing it after a while.
When removed from the compression sack, I was almost able to stuff my sleeping bag into the designated compartment, but not quite. My sleeping bag is rated for fairly cold temperatures, and therefore thicker than a lot of bags. It’s likely that a thinner bag would fit the compartment with much more ease.
FAQs about the Osprey Stratos 34 hiking backpack
More questions? Here’s Task & Purpose’s additional brief.
Q: How much does the Osprey Stratos 34 hiking backpack cost?
A. The Osprey Stratos 34 hiking backpack can be purchased on Amazon for $158.95.
Q: What is the recommended load capacity for the Osprey Stratos 34?
A. The company website recommends a load range from 15 to 35 pounds.
Q: What colors are available for the Osprey Stratos 34?
A. The backpack can be purchased in three colors: black, eclipse blue, and gator green (pictured above).
Got questions? Comment below & talk with T&P’s editors
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Brett Allen is a humor writer and former U.S. Army Cavalry Officer who served from 2006 to 2010, largely with the 3rd Squadron, 71st Cavalry Regiment of the 10th Mountain Division. The events of his 2009 deployment to the Logar Province of Afghanistan became the inspiration for his recently published debut novel, Kilroy Was Here, which is a dark comedy highlighting the absurdities of war. Brett resides in Ada, Michigan with his wife and kids and is currently working on his next novel. He enjoys all things outdoors to include backwoods camping, backwoods cooking, hiking, and boating, but can more regularly be found mowing, weed whacking, or performing some other form of backbreaking yardwork.