Ok, so let’s get a few things straight before we start. Firstly, although, hand on heart, this is an impartial review, I have to mention that USWE gave me a pack to trial and review, I didn’t buy one. Secondly, I’ve always used Camelbak packs and never anything else to carry water and gear since the day I began mountain biking. That was back in the year 2000!
USWE call the Airborne the ‘badass’ pack for core mountain bikers. With a 9 litre capacity, it’s comparable with the Camelbak Mule (which is the pack I’ve been using for the last two years).
However, the Airborne uses USWE’s ‘NDM Technology’. NDM stands for ‘No Dancing Monkey’, and it’s their way of describing their revolutionary patented harness, which uses an elastic four-point harness to keep the pack in position on your body. USWE also claim that this harness setup enables unparalleled freedom of movement and no restriction on breathing - even when clamped really tight.
Without doubt, this is a well made pack. The build quality is excellent and the storage is well thought out. There’s ample room for tools, extra clothing and the 3 litre Hydropak bladder fits easily into the back of the pack, which also has another storage area. Inside the front pockets, there are elasticated straps to hold tools, keys etc.
Similar in construction to a Camelbak, and using similar materials, the first thing which you notice on putting on the Airborne is how different the fit is. Everything feels very comfortable, the weight of the pack feels well supported and there’s very little movement of the backpack once the single button harness is closed. You immediately feel like the pack sits closer to your body than with other backpacks. One downside is that the close fitting and supportive nature of the pack does seem to make my man-boobs more pronounced. Ah well…
The Airborne sits higher than any other backpack I’ve used, and I was concerned this would be a problem when riding - especially when jumping (not that I’m any kind of expert when it comes to getting my wheels off the ground), as weight could get thrown forwards. Having the pack sit so high could make you feel like you’re being pushed forwards on the bike.
Out On The Trail
My concerns were quickly put to rest with regard to pack position. Once secured on your back, there’s very little movement (No Dancing Monkey!), and the Airborne stays firmly in position. After climbing with no discomfort - maybe my diaphragm was benefitting from not being compressed by the tight straps of conventional packs - I hit the first downhill section of my local trail. To be honest, I was so engrossed in the trail I completely forgot to think about the pack, which I guess means that it wasn’t a problem, and the weight within it wasn’t being thrown forwards as I thought it would?
Next, I hit some jumps. This would be the real test, particularly with my jumping style...
I honestly couldn’t feel any movement at all. Whereas with my Camelbak I could sometimes feel the pack moving upwards on landing, the USWE Airborne felt really secure and kept its position on my body. The fact that the pack is so stable seems to cancel out the high position on your back.
For comparison, I did a ride with both packs. First, I did a section of up and down trail with the Camelbak Mule, then rode the same trail wearing the USWE Airborne. The difference was really apparent, with the Airborne feeling more comfortable and stable.
Also, the venting on the Airborne seemed to work much better than on the Mule. Maybe because the pack sits higher it’s easier for it to conform to the shape of your back when riding and enables the ridged back panel to do its job in venting the hot air?
The Last Word
It was great having the Hydropak with its easy-opening top, making it so much easier to fill and clean. I always used to struggle to get the Camelbak reservoir completely dry and that first taste of water on the next ride was never that pleasant.
There are some things I didn’t like about the Airborne pack and thought could be improved though. The open section for stashing a jacket doesn’t close up enough for my liking. The straps just don’t go tight enough to completely close the opening and although it’s never happened, it feels like you’re going to lose your jacket. Also, it’d be good to have a carabiner or something to clip your keys onto - although I could buy one for a couple of quid and attach it easily.
Both the USWE Airborne and the Camelbak Mule are great packs, perfectly suited to the kind of riding I do (2-3 hour rides on local trails and trail centres). Their ergonomic function is great, and the quality of construction and materials has come a long way since my first pack in 2000.
But at the end of the day, I just preferred the USWE Airborne. Unless you’re doing incredibly steep trails all day (in which case you’re riding downhill and probably won’t be wearing a pack!), I would choose the Airborne over the Mule. The fit is so comfortable that you hardly notice you’re wearing it, and the magnetic clip to hold the hose from the hydration pack actually stays in place. And having just one, large button to fasten, adjust and unfasten is a lot less faffing around.
Also, I've been riding with this pack for a couple of months now. In that time I've stacked it once, landing on the pack after I lost the front wheel on a berm. The pack showed zero signs of damage and is still in perfect condition.
I really enjoyed riding with the USWE Airborne pack. So much so that I’m loathe to give it back and am probably going to buy one.
The USWE Airborne pack is around 160 Euros direct from the company’s website.
Learn more about USWE and their range of packs here.