Chiara Bullen reviews a lightweight and surprisingly spacious pack – the Columbia Essential Explorer 20L

I am one of those hillwalkers who constantly roots around in their bag with the air of someone seeking buried treasure. I’m usually frantically wondering if my inhaler is, in fact, lingering back in the car. Or, perhaps I’ll decide that yes, actually, I do want that protein bar. No matter how neatly I’ve packed, I will undo all that effort at some point during the walk. My bag becomes a haphazard, chaotic storm. I waste what would be wonderful minutes on the trail seeking items trapped in its depths.

Efficient design

At first, I wondered if a 20L bag would be able to handle my constant rummaging. I prefer a lot of space and many compartments, and the Columbia Essential Explorer is a simplified bag – the main compartment is separated into two halves. The front of the bag contains a single zipped pocket. But it turns out that this simplicity is where the efficiency of the bag shines. The front pocket is spacious enough for all the essentials you want on hand. For my walk around the Glen Striddle Horseshoe, this included sun cream, my phone, a folded map, compass, sunglasses, and hand gel. This front compartment is easily reached. When light rain unexpectedly hit for about an hour, my items stayed dry due to the water-resistant fabric. Still, I’d be wary of merely taking the bag without a cover if you know you’ll face a heavy downpour. 

Spacious and simple

Columbia claims that the roll-top closure, multi-point lash down system ‘keeps everything in place.’ I’m pleased to say that even with my constant rummaging, my contents stayed mostly organised. For a 20L bag, it feels surprisingly spacious. The sternum strap has an in-built rescue whistle that is incredibly handy, loud, and makes for one less thing to carry. Light and comfortable, this bag is compatible with 3L hydration packs and was my go-to bag for the summer. It will most likely continue to be during the autumn.