Columbia Takes a Smart Approach to Shouldering a Pack

Vixen 22 and Treadlite 22

I continue to be impressed with Columbia Sportswear’s new gear offerings. I know I have said this before, but Columbia is no longer, in my opinion, that second-tier outdoor company that takes aim only at the consumers that shop large, box-type retailers. I may take a lot heat for that, but I am a true believer in Columbia and its re-entry into the marketplace that produces light, smartly-designed and specific gear.

So when I found out I was going to get to test Columbia’s yet to be released (both will be available spring 2012) Vixen 22 backpack (women’s) and the Treadlite 22 backpack (men’s version), I was stoked. I wasn’t familiar with their backpack offerings and came to the test with no biases or preconceived notions.

When the package arrived, I tore into it like Christmas morning. I picked up the light (2lbs. 4 oz. each) packs, walked over to the couch, and sat down. My partner, Scott, and I spent the next two hours examining the day packs, reading the tech sheet, and exploring the finer details each had to offer. Simple discoveries, like the security whistle on the chest strap, brought shared praise.

Intuitive Construction

The most obvious construction kudos goes to what Columbia calls the backdraft aerating suspension. The design uses a criss-cross beam system to lift the pack from your middle back, maintaining a cool circulation of air as things heat up. This guarantees delivery from a wet, sweaty spine during activity.

Columbia included their Omni-shield for exterior repellency and put stretch paneled pockets in key places, like one on each side that expands perfectly to accommodate your water bottle and one on the exterior to fit anything you might want handy during an excursion–something as big as your down puffy to as tiny as a tube of sunscreen and a mid-morning snack. Other details on the exterior included parallel side straps that provided two configurations to synch the pack tight, stash gear, or expand the interior.

The interior of the both backpacks, supported by a steel frame, was pretty spacious and lined with a reflective material. A top, zippered pocket, accessible from the outside, provided organization and extra storage for keys, a GPS, your map, and even goggles. An interior pocket provided a spot for the hydration bladder with a sizeable hose hole, making trailside water stops and refills less clumsy.

After examining the interior and exterior of the packs, it was time to try them on. The backpack straps, or as Columbia calls them, the load-lifter straps, are built with Columbia’s Techlite Velocity L.O.A.D. material. Techlite features textiles that are soft, pliable and airy. Designed for comfort, breathability, and odor control, the triple-layered load-lifter straps feature a next-to-skin yielding sheet, a slightly rigid mesh material in the middle, and a cushioned support structure as the outer layer. (What’s also cool about Techlite: the manufacturing process has reduced the associated waste. Columbia deserves extra points for its eco-conscious ways.) The load-lifter straps had two adjustment points to ensure the load is, well, lifted and distributed appropriately between your shoulders and hips.

A stretchy sternum strap gave automatic tensioning and a built-in rescue whistle completed the upper strap system. For the lower part of the pack, Columbia didn’t cheap out on the waist strap and this made me smile. Even though it’s a day pack, both the Vixen and the Treadlite had a load-bearing waist belt with ample lumbar padding in the rear.

Two small pouches on the either side of the waist gave trouble-free access to things you need most, like lip balm and your point-and-shoot. Columbia even added sizeable zipper pulls for when you’re wearing gloves or your hands are so cold their dexterity could be likened to two blocks of ice.

Fit and Application

I have always had a hard time finding backpacks that fit me. Slightly short in the waist, it’s hard to stumble upon a pack that both sits on my hips and contours to my shoulders. The Vixen 22 did. I fitted the pack empty, then added ten essentials and three liters of water and took it out for a spin. A few minor adjustments later and I was off for a short, steep hike.

Because I prefer to have one do-it-all pack over owning several sports-specific day packs, I decided to test the Vixen (and have my partner test the Treadlite) on three outdoor sojourns: rock climbing in Joshua Tree National Park, backcountry skiing in Southern California’s high alpine wilderness, and snowshoeing up a 9,300 foot peak.

First, rock climbing in J-Tree. While most climbing is near the road, we wanted to get away from the busy park corridors and opted to find trad climbing routes off Geology Road. After hiking half-mile to the base of a climb, we emptied the packs. But for the rope, everything else was carried inside including our trad gear – a big bro, a set of nuts, three cams, a few warm layers, water, and lunch for two. Despite the weight of the gear, the packs both carried well. In fact, it didn’t even feel like I was carrying anything. The pack handled the awkward sizes of climbing gear without tearing the packs or making it clumsy to shove them in or take them out. Plus, I felt like the pack’s construction materials protected the gear.

My second test was a backcountry ski into a local area that offers steep, forested terrain and open chutes. The approach is long and luckily we were able to skin from the car. (A bit of a relief because I am not so sure lashing my skis to the Vixen would have been ideal, but I would have attempted to do so if needed.) While the pack’s width was slightly smaller than my shovel, I was able to stow the handle inside and the shovel’s head in the exterior pouch. The side straps easily criss-crossed to secure the shovel tightly. I carried three liters of water, my share of lunch, a down sweater, extra gloves, goggles and warm hat. All of this fit in the pack, and again the Vixen performed like I wasn’t even wearing it. Here we loved the Vixen and the Treadlite’s low profile. Makes it safer when skiing glades.

My final test was a simple and straight-forward snowshoe up a familiar route. Conditions were cold and the pack held everything we needed including a camera and two extra long lenses. Again both packs delivered superior performance that exceeded our expectations.

More Pros than Cons

These backpacks rocked. And, considering the number of thoughtful designs that went into these technical packs, for the price (MSRP $129), they’re a steal.

They carried well, provided enough space for everything we needed on full-day adventures, protected interior contents, and showed no sign of wear and tear from the elements–J-Tree’s sharp rocks and a wet winter environment. I also liked the colors–bright and visible.

There were a few things about these packs that were a bit disappointing but not an overall deterrent. The pocket for the hydration: the size and placement of the pocket (against the back suspension) made getting the bladder (whether it’s 1.5 liters or three) into place awkward and time-consuming. However, once in, the hydration bladder was secure with no other noticeable difficulties. Another con, the outside stretch pocket is a great idea unless you have stuffed too much into the interior of the pack. A full pack renders the stretch pocket useless for anything wider than a map. Not a big issue and one that can be mitigated by taking less stuff along. Finally, while the straps and their adjustability were a welcome feature, the strap lengths were a bit long and, if not tucked away, could get in the way if travelling over more technical terrain.

Overall, we loved Columbia’s pack offerings. The Vixen 22 and the Treadlite 22 were both superior and worked well in all situations. In fact, putting them to the test inspired me to make use of the trails more often and never hesitate to carry a heavy load.

About the author


Cathleen Calkins

Cathleen Calkins is a California-based writer and award-winning photographer. After 15 years in the corporate arena, she opts for the quiet of her office and works with national consumer and trade magazines, newspapers, online publications and custom print and web advertorial communications. Her specialties include adventure, sustainability, travel, health, fitness, lifestyle, tourism, and branding.

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  • Thanks for the great review! I have the amazing good fortune to be on a Columbia employee’s “friends and family” list at the employee store. I love their gear and I agree with you–It just keeps getting better.

    I’m working in Israel this winter and definitely missing the snow. I’m no longer regretting not buying a new pack before I left. Mama’s getting a new Vixen 22 when she returns in June.