Top Lid Backpacks vs Roll-Top Packs: Which is Better and for What?

Most overnight and multi-day backpacks have either a top lid pocket or a roll-top closure. Both are perfectly fine for backpacking and which you choose has a lot to do with your personal preferences, packing style, and the type and quantity of gear you need to carry.

However, an increasing number of backpacks are available that come with optional top lids and roll-top closures giving you the best of both worlds, and more flexibility in the types of trips and loads you can carry. Some backpack designers have also broken out of the top lid/roll top paradigm completely. We’ll examine the strengths and weaknesses of each type below, so you can decide what’s best for you.

Top Lids

A top lid is a flap of fabric, often augmented with a zippered pocket that is designed to cover the hole at the top of a backpack’s main compartment, called a pack-bag. Some top lids have a pocket on the top and the bottom to provide even more gear storage and organization. These pockets are very handy for storing frequently accessed items like maps, navigation aids, gloves, hats, toiletry, and snacks and protect them from dust and moisture. They’re particularly useful in colder weather when frequent hat and glove changes are necessary or for traveling for easy access to travel documents and personal accessories.

Simple top lid pocket with shorter webbing straps on an Osprey Levity Backpack
A simple top lid pocket with shorter webbing straps on an Osprey Levity Backpack

There are two basic types of top lids:

  1. Top lids attached to a pack with short webbing straps or that are sewn-on a backpack on one side above the shoulder straps.
  2. Floating top lids attached to a pack with four long webbing straps and can be used to pack extra gear that won’t fit inside a pack.

Top lids sewn attached to a pack with short webbing straps or sewn-on, are typically found on lower volume day packs and backpacks under 50L-60L in volume. They act like a hinged hatch and prevent dust or moisture from falling through the top of the pack-bag, which is usually cinched closed with a drawstring.

A floating lid top pocket lets you carry extra gear on top of the main pack-bag
A floating lid top pocket lets you carry extra gear on top of the main pack-bag

Floating top lids are often found on higher volume packs from around 50L up to 110L. In addition to pockets, they can be used to carry bulky gear op top of the main pack-bag that can’t fit inside a backpack like bear canisters, rope coils, large tent bodies, and sleeping bags. To use them, you loosen the webbing straps, put your gear under the lid, and then tighten the webbing straps so they hold the gear in place. Packs with floating lids are useful for winter hiking and mountaineering or wilderness backpacking when you have to carry more gear, insulation, or food without frequent resupplies.

Roll Tops

Roll-top backpacks close by rolling the excess fabric at the top of the pack bag down upon itself. Another way of thinking about them is as “lid-less” backpacks that don’t have a drawstring on top. As a result, they don’t provide the extra closed storage or carrying capacity of top lids, although they do provide an extra level of top-down compression which can be useful for shrinking excess pack volume.

Roll-top backpacks are "lidless", without the extra closed pocket storage provided by a top lid.
Roll-top backpacks are “lidless”, without the extra closed pocket storage provided by a top lid.

Roll tops were made popular by ultralight backpack makers because they’re lighter weight and much easier to manufacture than top lids. The people who use them also tend to carry a lot less gear and supplies, particularly on long-distance hiking trails where there are frequent resupply stops. Roll tops usually have less external straps which can simplify their use. Finally, roll tops let you “shrink” the unused capacity in the main pack-bag a bit more effectively than a backpack with a top lid, which has a more “defined” shape and is harder to collapse when all of its capacity isn’t needed.

Most roll tops can be buckled together in top or along the sides of a pack with webbing straps
Most roll tops can be buckled together on top or along the sides of a pack with webbing straps

The sides of a roll-top pack often have buckles that attach to webbing straps anchors on the side of a pack or clip together on top of the pack. Most also come with a top strap or a Y-trap so you can attach a foam pad or drape a rope over the top of the pack bag and hold it in place. These straps let you strap awkwardly shaped gear to the top of the pack like bear canisters, foam pads, or rope coils but lack the extra pockets provided by a top lid.

Most roll-top backpacks offset the lack of a top lid pocket by having lots of open external pockets, such as the ubiquitous mesh front pocket and side water bottle pockets found on most roll top packs. These extra pockets are good for storing items that are impervious to rain or dust, like water bottles, cooking pots, tent poles, packaged snacks, and so forth. Any items that can’t get wet or dirty, have to go inside the main pack-bag.

Packs with Top Lids and Roll Tops

If you can’t decide if you prefer a backpack with a top lid or a roll-top, you can buy a backpack that comes with a roll-top and an optional top lid when you need it.

The Granite Gear Crown 2 Backpacks are roll tops that come with an optional top lid
The Granite Gear Crown 2 Backpacks are roll tops that come with an optional top lid

For instance, the following backpacks are roll tops but come with optional floating lids w/pockets that can be used when you need them to haul extra gear.

For example, I frequently use the Granite Gear Crown 2 38 without a top lid as a backpack for UL Tenkara fishing trips during summer and autumn and only add the top lid for winter hiking when I want more accessible storage hats, gloves, and snacks.

Packs with Roll Tops and ‘Speed Lids’

There are also backpacks that come with top lids pockets than can be removed and replaced with a speed lid, which is simple flap that used to cover the pack-bags draw-string and prevent rain and dust from entering. For example, the Osprey Exos and Osprey Atmos both come with a flap of fabric (called a Flap Jacket) that is used to cover the pack-bag’s drawstring closure if you remove their top lid. This is intended primarily for weight reduction and is a good way to discard extra “floppy” storage when it’s not needed.

After-Market Top Lids

If you already own a roll-top backpack but want to add a top lid, several companies sell accessory floating lids that you can attach to your backpack. Zpacks sells a Multi-pack that can be used as a top pocket or floating lid. It works best with Zpack’s backpacks, but you can probably make it work with others with a few cordlocks and some ingenuity. Mountain Laurel Designs also sells an Ultralight Pack Lid that works similarly.

Non-Traditional Lids

Some backpack manufacturers make packs that have non-traditional lids and pack bag closures. For example, Gossamer Gear uses an Over-the-Top flap on the Mariposa Backpack that covers the top of the pack-bag but is sewn onto the pack-bag in front and has a zippered map pocket inside it for storage.

The Gossamer Gear Mariposa lid is very similar to Osprey’s Flap Jacket speed lid although it has a sewn-in map pocket
The Gossamer Gear Mariposa lid is very similar to Osprey’s Flap Jacket speed lid although it has a sewn-in map pocket

The Sierra Designs Flex Capacitor also has a non-traditional flip-up hatch that seals the top of the pack bag but does not have a top lid pocket. Both of these packs are simpler than a roll-top closure but lack the ability to carry much extra gear like a more traditional top lid.

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