Patagonia Descensionist Pack 40L
Volume: 40 Liters
Stated Weight: 947 grams
Blister’s Measured Weight: 972 grams
- Asymmetrical spindrift collar opens wide for easy packing; drawcord simultaneously cinches collar and closes lid for a secure seal
- Side zipper for easy access to main compartment
- High-density foam back panel gives pack structure and helps to support heavy loads, but can be removed for lightweight pursuits
- Padded hipbelt with stretch-woven stash pocket
- Snowboard carry straps and diagonal ski carry loop included
- Daisy chains on front provide lashing options; compression straps on sides help manage different-sized loads; zippered pocket on lid offers easy access to small items
Size Tested: L/XL
Reviewer: 6’”, ~180 lbs
Test Locations: Grand Targhee, Teton Pass, & Grand Teton National Park, WY
Days Used: ~20
Last year, Sam Shaheen reviewed Patagonia’s Ascensionist 35L pack, and, although it’s primarily designed for mountaineering and climbing, Sam found that it also performed well as a backcountry ski pack, too.
For the 17/18 season, Patagonia has released a very similar ski-specific pack, aptly named the Descensionist. I spent a good amount of time skiing in the Descensionist 40L last winter, and I can now offer comparisons to its uphill-focused sibling, the Ascensionist, as well as to other similarly-sized packs on the market.
The Descensionist 40L is available in two sizes: Small/Medium, and Large/Extra-Large. I went with the larger version since I’m a Large in most packs.
True to its minimalist heritage, the Descensionist doesn’t have any sort of torso length adjustment, so it’s more important than usual to try this pack on before you buy. I found the torso length to work fine for my body, and the hip belt, sternum, and shoulder straps have a huge range of adjustability. There is a lot of webbing at each adjustment point, so if you’re on the slimmer side of things (like I am), you’re probably going to want to trim the straps once you figure out your fit, or else you’ll have a lot of webbing flapping around.
While stated pack volumes aren’t as contentious as, say, stated ski weights, we’ve found that there’s a significant variance in what one manufacturer’s 40 L pack will carry vs another’s. The Descensionist only comes in one size, 40 L, and it’s generously sized. It feels like it has more volume than the Mammut Spindrift Guide, even though the Spindrift Guide has a stated 42 L capacity. Some of that may be due to the lack of any sort of rigid frame and the very simple pocket layout — its large main compartment makes it easy to fill the pack evenly without any awkward gaps or empty spaces.
The Descencionist’s unique “asymmetrical spindrift collar” also makes it easy to cinch down over loads that would otherwise be spilling from the pack.
While it is a minimalist pack, the Descensionist has several useful features. There are options to carry skis diagonally or in A-frame orientation, and there is a set of removable vertical snowboard carry straps that can also be used to secure oddly shaped loads to the outside of the pack. The A-Frame straps are fairly narrow, and there’s no reinforcement to the pack body under them to protect from edges, but the straps are thick, and I haven’t had any issues with their durability.
The feature I’ve most appreciated is the series of daisy chains up each side of the front of the pack. These, in conjunction with the snowboard straps or Voile straps, make it easy to attach a variety of things to the outside of the pack — anything from a set of technical ice tools, to your crampons, to a rope — all without adding much weight. I’m a big fan of this daisy chain system and wish all packs featured something similar.
Like Sam Shaheen, I am also a big fan of the spindrift collar closure system. It’s fast, easy, and secure, and I can operate it with one hand, even in thick gloves. I also wish more packs had closures like this.
There is a large avy tool pocket on the back of the pack that holds my shovel, probe, and crampons easily. While it has no interior pockets or dividers, the Descensionist has little bungies in the avy pocket that do a good job of keeping everything in place.
The main pocket takes up most of the volume of the pack, and it’s accessible from the top, and with a zipper that runs almost the whole length of the side. This makes it easy to get gear from the bottom of the pack without having to empty it onto the skin track. There is no internal hydration sleeve, but there is a port to run out a hose.
The pocket on top of the spindrift collar sits where the “brain” would sit on most packs, on top of the load. This pocket is large, and fits my wallet, phone, and food with plenty of room to spare, so I’ve found myself stashing my water bottle up there too. It has an internal clasp for keys, and in a pinch it also fits a full-size DSLR easily.
Finally, there is also a small pocket on the right waist strap that fits a phone, or small snacks.
I’ve used the Descensionist 40L on a variety of tours and trips, and if I had to sum up my impressions in two words, I’d choose “Light” and “Huge.” However, there is an upside and a downside to both of those words.
Lighter packs certainly have their benefits — you’re wasting less energy carrying the pack itself, which means, theoretically, you can put more weight in it. However, for a pack this big, I think the Descensionist is going to be too light for a lot of people. There is room for a lot of gear in this pack, but it doesn’t have the suspension system or frame to spread that weight out in an effective manner. So, if you like light, minimalist padding, and your body fits well with this pack, you’re in luck. But if it’s even just a little bit off, there’s a good chance that you’re going to wish you weren’t carrying so much stuff pretty early into the tour. I had one all-day mission in the Descensionist where, even though I was just carrying my camera, food, water, an extra layer, and avy gear, I found my back and shoulders aching. And with this smaller load I had to cinch down the Descensionist’s compression straps as far as they would go, and consistently tighten them to keep the load from moving around.
The same applies for carrying skis. Again, if you’re the sort of person who regularly feels that pack suspension systems are too overbuilt and unnecessary, the Descensionist will be perfect. However, I felt like my skis were less stable, and they swung the pack around on my shoulders more than any other similarly sized pack I’ve used.
That all means that the Descensionist presents sort of a conundrum. It’s a big pack, with a lot of capacity, and a feature set that allows you to overstuff it and strap a lot of gear to the outside, but for me personally at least, it’s too minimalist to allow me to carry that gear comfortably.
While it’s not easy to make an ultralight pack, it’s even more challenging to make one that holds up to extensive use. But so far, I’ve been impressed by the Descensionist; I haven’t run into any durability issues with this pack. Sam did find that his Ascensionist developed some wear after using the A-Frame ski carry, and that seems like the potentially weakest point of the Descensionist as well. But so far, so good, and I’ll update this review if I run into any issues.
Who’s It For?
Usually I’d recommend a pack this size to guides who need to carry a lot of gear, or to skiers looking to do overnight trips. But I wouldn’t use this pack in that sort of situation; it simply doesn’t handle that sort of weight very well. It carries fine with a short tour’s load of gear, but that only uses about half its capacity, so you’re having to cinch down the pack to compress a lot of free space.
So, if you value a lightweight pack over an adjustable one that carries heavier loads comfortably, the Descensionist is definitely the pack for you.
Compared to the Ascensionist 35L
The Ascensionist and Descensionist packs obviously share some similarities in terms of fabrics and their “light & fast” design principles, but aside from the small volume difference, there a few key details that differentiate them:
(1) The Descensionist’s full length zipper makes it much more convenient to access gear in the bottom of the pack.
(2) The Descensionist doesn’t have a frame. As I mentioned, this allows you to stuff the pack more efficiently, but in my experience, it also makes it harder to carry larger loads.
(3) The Descensionist has an avy tool pocket. This is a big plus in my book. I’m not really interested in skiing in a pack where my avy gear is mixed in with my camera and lunch. I don’t feel as comfortable accessing it quickly, and it has a tendency to get my other gear wet.
(4) The Descensionist has better ski and snowboard carry options.
Those features combine to make the Descensionist a much better pack for skiers, especially for people (like Sam) who have been using the Ascensionist without the frame. Those features do, however, add $50 to the cost of the pack.
While the minimalist climbing DNA of Patagonia’s Ascensionist pack shines through in their new Descencionist pack, its feature set is much better suited to backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. If you don’t need the most substantial straps and suspension system, and you’re looking for a lightweight, large-capacity pack with a useful feature set, the Descensionist 40L could be a great choice.