Ortlieb Vario Review
Cons: Extra hardware requires installation, conversions can be tedious
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Our Analysis and Test Results
If you want a dual-function bike pack without compromising on quality, durability, or weatherproofing, then this is the product for you. The Vario does everything a touring pannier can do with the addition of a fully adjustable backpack harness that can be completely removed and stowed away during travel. The high-quality materials and innovative hardware are typical of all Ortlieb products and earn the Vario solid scores across the board. One area the pack fell short was the inconsistent functionality of the mounting system and ease of transition from pannier to backpack, both of which required a minor learning curve but became easier with practice and usage.
The Ortlieb Vario is available with either Ortlieb's more traditional QL2.1 hook and latch style mounting system or their more unique QL3.1 click-in mounting system. In this review, we tested the QL2.1 system, though we have tested this pack with the QL3.1 system in the past.
The advantage to the traditional QL2.1 system compared to the more unique QL3.1 mounting system is that the QL3.1 system requires the installation of additional hardware prior to use. Both systems require some assembly of hardware or hook spacers, but the hardware with the QL2.1 mounting system is definitely easier to set up and customize than the QL3.1.
Once attached, the corresponding straps and grooves on the backside of the pannier should slide into place. The pieces audibly click to lock in and won't be released until you pull up on the quick release handle for removal. While the rack claims to be compatible with 6 to 12-millimeter, we had difficulty with consistent ease of attachment to our 10-millimeter rack. Placement was often accompanied by fidgeting and forced-strapping to make sure the hooks were attached to the rack while removing the bag was the easiest part of the journey. The QL2.1 also has a voile-style strap that weaves through tapered seams intended to secure the bag to the lower rack. The bottom hook for this lower strap, unfortunately, was too small to hook around our 10-millimeter rack, though it appeared to be compatible with 6-millimeter or 8-millimeter racks.
With over 1400 cubic inches (23 liters) of total volume, the Vario lands in the middle of our lineup when it comes to raw storage capacity. With its large main storage compartment, three exterior pockets, and helmet carrying sling, it has plenty of space to accommodate all the gear we needed for daylong missions. While it doesn't have the same overall volume as more traditional touring panniers that come in a pair, the size and functionality of this bag are perfectly ample for commuters and daytrippers alike.
The Vario has a deep main pocket that is secured with a roll-top closure and a velcro strap. While this particular roll-top isn't quite as secure as other models with a cinch strap and buckle, we found this design very conducive to the hybrid backpack style, making it easy to open and close to remove items on the go. The laptop sleeve and mesh pockets are convenient for folks who plan to commute with this pannier, though commuters may look for more zippered pockets for smaller necessity items. The exterior water bottle-style pockets are admirable storage options but unfortunately have no closure to secure items from falling out. The central exterior pocket accommodates the backpack straps while in transit but can be used as an additional pocket when in back mode.
The Vario doesn't score quite as highly as our high-capacity touring panniers when it comes to storage, but that's because many touring panniers come in a pair. If you were to hypothetically sport a pair of Varios, your total storage would be on par with the highest volumes in our lineup. The bottom line is that the Vario has plenty of room to handle everything you would need out of a commuting pannier or a daypack, striking a nice balance between the two.
Not surprisingly, the Vario is built tough with the same engineering standards we've come to expect from the German Ortlieb brand family. The poly-coated nylon pannier has an IP64 rating that can withstand serious abuse and abrasion and keep your gear protected from dust and water.
Our testing proved that the design and materials of the Vario are robust. Backpacks, similar to panniers, are subject to repeated bouts of daily abuse. It would make sense that a hybrid backpack/pannier would be designed with longevity in mind. Not only is the nylon fabric resistant to tears and abrasions, but it is relatively lightweight and effortless to clean. We're a little concerned that the extra parts for mounting the pannier to your rack could get stressed over time. However, we've witnessed no degradation or failures during our testing phase.
Ortlieb is well known for making superbly weatherproof bike bags, and the Vario is no exception. With a roll-top design with rubber baffles and an IP rating of 64, the PU nylon is impervious to water spray from all directions. While it isn't completely watertight, we'd be confident to carry our electronics in this pannier during a ride in the rain.
Roll-top closures offer the greatest weatherproofing protection, but not all roll-tops are created equal. The Vario allows you to tightly roll the additional fabric at the top and is secured with a burly velcro strap. This is enough to keep things dry in a rainstorm but doesn't provide the same secure seal as other models with cinch straps and buckles, especially when velcro can weaken in wet conditions. We believe that the Vario has an adequate amount of weatherproofing for the type of riding it is best used for. The fabric is resilient to road spray, and the closure is secure enough to keep out the rain.
Ease of Use & Versatility
This pack has nearly everything you'd look for in a single pannier combined with the ability to transition into a backpack. The backpack harness is one of the most comfortable and supportive that we've reviewed, with adjustable padded shoulder straps, an adjustable sternum strap, a removable waist belt, and adjustable load straps. While the backpack system is quite impressive, it can be a little bit tedious to attach, detach, and stow each time you transition from hiking to biking. Other hybrid-style panniers have quicker and more straightforward transitions from backpack to bike pannier.
Another minor drawback to user-friendliness with the Vario is the additional installation steps to mount the bag to your rack. However, once you get the additional hardware properly mounted and adjusted, you'll be ready to and remove the pannier with quickness and ease.
The list price for this model is a little high compared to other products in our lineup but is in line with other hybrid backpack-style panniers. If you're looking to fill the gap between using your backpack and committing to a new set of panniers, you will likely find tremendous value in a bag that can do both. While you can certainly find other high-quality panniers for a lower price, those looking for a backpack-style model with the quality of Ortlieb design and manufacturing will be satisfied for many miles down the road.
Ortlieb hits the mark with this beautifully fused hybrid backpack and bike pannier that allows you to diversify your modes of transportation during a commute or daytime adventure. For those focused on style and durability, the Vario is a winner. After a bit of a learning curve with the additional mounting hardware and the slightly complicated transition from backpack to pannier, this model begins to stand out with its durable, waterproof construction and surprisingly comfortable and adjustable backpack design. Whether on your back or on your rack, the Vario is a convenient blend of utility and rugged style, earning our Top Pick Award for Best Backpack.
— Liz Chamberlain & Nick Bruckbauer
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