I stared down the couloir for the first time after stumbling to the top at 14,005 feet. It filled me with fear. It was steep and exposed. The runout ended in a big cliff. The whipping wind had formed wind slabs surrounding the drop-in. Taking an avalanche ride here would certainly be your last.
As I was packing the night before, I made the last-minute decision to trade my smaller backcountry ski pack for my more voluminous North Face Phantom 38 so that I could bring along a 30m rope — just in case.
It turned out to be the right choice. Our team of five huddled at the top of the line as I pulled the ski belay kit out of the Phantom. After poking around and lowering in, we felt good. I stuffed the rope back in, shouldered the pack, and we dropped in one at a time.
Without the rope, we wouldn’t have felt confident enough to drop in. Without a well-carrying alpine pack like the Phantom 38, I would have had to ditch the rope before the 16-hour mission even started. Over and over, this pack has allowed me to bring along those few extra pieces of gear that have turned out critical to success. One day it was the rope, another it was a pair of hardshell pants, on another it was crampons.
I tested the snot out of the Phantom 38 during spring in Colorado. It’s my favorite time of year to test gear that I suspect will perform year-round. It meant I could test the pack on long ski tours, late-season ice climbing, backpacking, and hiking.
In short: The simplicity of the Phantom 38 translates to big-time versatility for all-season use. It’s a tube with a small lid and a few well-placed straps; a basic recipe well executed. The Phantom can handle backcountry skiing, year-round climbing of any variety, light backpacking, and hiking. While it might not be my top pick for any one of those activities, it’s one of the few that can excel at all of them for one-pack quiver enthusiasts.
The North Face Phantom 38 Backpack
- Volume 38 L
- Sizes S/M, L/XL
- Avg. weight S/M – 2 lbs., 2 oz. (950 g) / L/XL – 2 lbs., 4 oz. (1,025 g)
- Dimensions 13'' x 9'' x 22.5'' (33 cm x 22.9 cm x 57.2 cm)
- Body materials 210D recycled nylon with Spectra ripstop and non-PFC durable water-repellent (non-PFC DWR) finish
- Boot materials 210D TPU-coated nylon ripstop with non-PFC DWR finish
- Very versatile pack for multiseason use
- Carries almost any tool or gear you need in the mountains
- Simple and durable design
- No side zip access to the main compartment
- Translucent white body material can get very dirty over time
The North Face Phantom 38 Backpack Review
I don’t think I’ve ever had a piece of gear that garnered such curiosity. Most folks that I run around outside with had never seen or heard of the Phantom 38. And I’m not really surprised. Compared to most of The North Face’s backpacks, the Phantom 38 is relatively niche in its alpine climbing pack categorization.
You aren’t going to find it on the Best Backpacking Backpacks of 2023 or the Best Ski Backpacks of 2023. It’s kind of a sleeper in that way.
My Favorite Features
First and foremost, it’s a climbing pack and the feature set reflects that. I found it to be an excellent companion for climbing. The ice tool carry system is outstanding on the Phantom 38 — truly one of the best I’ve tried. The pack absolutely swallows the picks of your ice tools or piolet so they don’t snag your favorite puffy. Sturdy hooks keep them secured, and the straps are long enough to accommodate any tool.
They were even long enough to accommodate makeshift diagonal ski carry for skinny skis. Simple cords attached to eyelets higher up secure the shafts and handles of tools. They loosened a little bit over time, but I found them to be effective and easily replaceable.
The rope attachment system is slick. It affords several different configurations adaptable to how much gear you’ve stuffed in the pack via different eyelets for the closure hook. It can hook the top flap normally or reach all the way over the lid to the haul loop to secure there if you’d prefer to have the rope draped over the lid.
Some Missing Features
The Phantom 38 omits a few typical features in favor of simplicity that other climbing packs have, including an external crampon pouch and helmet carry. I didn’t miss the crampon pouch. And I added Mammut’s excellent external Helmet Holder when the load was too big to fit my helmet in the main compartment.
Radio integration was so-so. There are points to attach my Rocky Talkie on the shoulder straps, but they tend to be a bit high or low. A dedicated radio attachment loop would go a long way with a negligible weight penalty.
The North Face Phantom 38 Backpack: Capacity
I like tube-style packs like the North Face Phantom 38. The internal capacity isn’t squandered on unnecessary features and dividers. Yes, it requires deliberate packing and organizing. But 38 advertised liters is what you realistically get.
Inside the pack, you’ve got a single large pouch mounted behind the back panel. It works great for a hydration bladder. Without a dedicated avalanche tools pocket, I also stored my probe and shovel handle in there as well for backcountry tours.
The generosity of the main closure strap, as well as the side compression straps, expand the external carrying capacity of the pack somewhat. It’s easy to stash a rolled-up jacket or sleeping pad on the outside.
I took this backpack along on all kinds of adventures beginning in the winter. I loaded it up with every heavy piece of gear I could fit to see how it would carry the weight. Very well, it turns out. It rides on the hips nicely and standard load straps help move the weight around. The chest strap rides a little bit high, however. It didn’t stay put heightwise particularly well, either.
This pack is streamlined. It doesn’t have every feature, strap, or pocket to fit every single need or activity that you might take it along for. In the interest of simplicity, the designers clearly cut the feature set down to its truest essence. That’s how they attained a competitively light 1,025g overall weight for a pack this size.
Simplicity and Durability
Lots of time testing gear in the mountains has led me to believe one thing for certain: simpler is better. Simplicity defies entropy.
In that sense, the durability of the Phantom 38 has been impressive so far. I haven’t been kind or gentle with it. It’s gone through its fair share of dragging, bushwhacking, and scraping along rocks with little to show for it despite how thin the material is.
The North Face Phantom 38 Backpack: Where It Falls Short
The one additional feature that I think would vastly improve the Phantom 38, however, would be a side zipper or some kind of back panel access.
With the Phantom 38, there’s no way to reach that piece of gear stashed all the way at the bottom without pulling it all out. On one huge day of ski touring, I found myself freezing at 13,000 feet in extreme winds; I decided I needed my hardshell pants stashed at the very bottom.
I had to dig a hole in the snow, pull everything out of my pack, stash it in the hole so it didn’t blow off the mountain, grab my pants, and then stuff everything back in. The lack of side access definitely wore on me over time particularly when the pack was stuffed full.
The pack is also a little bit tall in how it stores those 38 L. When it’s fully stuffed and my helmet is inside the pack, it feels like I’m wearing a backpacking pack with a brain. You bonk the back of your head when you’re trying to look up. Packs like the Black Diamond Cirque 45 are a little more rotund in how they disperse those liters.
That said, this is an alpine climbing pack through and through. Having the narrower profile allows it to squeeze through cracks and other confinements with less trouble.
There’s no magic here. The bright white looks cool, but I think everyone knows that bright white doesn’t do so hot after rolling around in the dirt. Even still, the Phantom resists getting dirty way longer than I expected. It’s still relatively fresh after 3 months of intensive use.
Is it translucent like TNF claims? That might be a stretch. Sure, I can see blobs of color from the outside, but I’m not sure that adds much value. The reinforced bottom panel is the most translucent part, but good luck trying to reach whatever you can see down there without side access.
It looks bright white to me, and that’s not a bad thing.
The North Face Phantom 38 Backpack: Who’s It For?
It would be easier to come up with a list of who this pack isn’t for; it’s just so versatile. Anybody who loves long days in the mountains, weekend overnights, backcountry skiing, and climbing will get along with it.
If this was going to be my dedicated ice climbing, volcano mountaineering, or lightweight backpacking pack, I’d probably bump up to the 50L version. But for 1- to 2-day activities, the Phantom 38 can cover a lot of different needs. Think of it as the overlapping slice of the Venn diagram of outdoor pursuits.
If I was able to have a quiver of backpacks, this one wouldn’t be my first choice for backcountry skiing. Don’t get me wrong; it skis great and it carries all the gear you need, but it doesn’t have the features that would make it stand out as a ski pack. Specifically, it lacks a diagonal ski carry and a separate avalanche tools pocket. However, I’ve been enjoying the extra capacity for big spring ski missions that require packing a rope and crampons.
If you needed one pack to do it all, from short backpacking to winter hut trips to ski touring, the Phantom 38 would be a worthy companion. Plus, the aesthetic is hard to beat.
I’m surprised that I don’t see the Phantom 38 all over the place other than on the backs of TNF athletes. It’s simple, versatile, and it looks cool. Plus, it comes in a 50L version.
Side access would be awesome, but overall this pack has the features you need and nothing you don’t. Year-round climbers, hut trippers, hikers, 14er climbers, lightweight backpackers, and backcountry skiers will find what they need between the 38L and 50L Phantom.