After going through hell to get my hands on a Burton [ak] Dispatcher 35, I tested it on a splitboard trip in Denali National Park. I was immediately impressed by the materials, design, weight and overall utility. Ever since, it’s been my go-to touring pack. I’ve taken to using it beyond the backcountry, too, and it’s my favorite backpack for resort riding, casual travel, surf trips and daily life. Here's the scoop.
Desperate for a Dispatcher
A little backstory for you: The night before I left for Alaska last spring, I was in a pack-induced panic. Not that I didn’t know what to pack — I just didn’t have the right pack. Which is saying something. I have a lot of packs.
Normally, I splitboard in California or Utah, and a 32-liter touring backpack is sufficient for most day trips in the backcountry. But I was embarking on a weeklong splitboard mountaineering expedition in Denali National Park. We’d be touring out of a basecamp, so I didn’t need a huge pack, but glacial terrain — crevasses, bergschrunds, etc. — necessitates additional safety gear. My go-to 32-liter pack wouldn’t cut it. Buried in my gear closet, though, was an old 40 -liter that I tapped for bigger adventures in the mountains. It should’ve gotten the job done just fine.
But the week before my trip, as I started to organize gear, I realized the old 40-liter had a busted board-carry system. I had another 40-liter, but it was an airbag pack and I was looking at stable avalanche conditions. I didn’t need the airbag and didn’t want the weight.
Luckily, I test snowboard gear for a living. I reached out to Burton, the gist being, 'Hey, I’m a dummy, this is last-minute, I desperately need a pack, anything in the [ak] line that I can test?'
For those unfamiliar with Burton’s [ak] line, it’s the Vermont brand’s ultra-high-end, technical, lightweight, futuristic, fly-as-shit gear. The [ak] literally stands for Alaska. The vast majority of their pros are rocking [ak] — especially in the backcountry. I’ve tested a handful of [ak] products over the years, most notably the Freebird 3L Bibs, which are still my go-to for splitboarding and resort riding.
A day later, an unreleased sample of a Burton [ak] Dispatcher 35 was shipping UPS from Vermont to Utah. Thank you, Burton.
Tracking said it would arrive two days before my trip. But it didn’t. For some reason, the box rerouted. UPS said it would arrive the afternoon before I left. Stressful, but fine. Just in case, I went to REI to buy a backup, and called local backcountry shops to see if they might have what I was looking for, but it was spring, following a COVID-fueled spike in backcountry interest. I might as well have been hunting for toilet paper and hand sanitizer at the outset of the pandemic.
It was fine, I told myself, the box will come tomorrow. But it didn’t.
I checked tracking again at around 4 PM, 16 hours before my flight. This time UPS said the delivery had been attempted, was unable to be completed and had been flagged for security reasons. What the fuck? This is when full panic set in.
I called a touring partner to see if he had anything I could borrow, even contacted an industry connection who said I could drive an hour south and pick up one of their prototypes. Luckily, I have a partner who keeps a cool head when mine turns to mush. She called UPS, multiple times, until she skirted the overseas customer service reps and found the semi-empathetic ear of a local dispatcher.
A dispatcher. The irony wasn’t funny at the time.
“Drive to this address,” she said, giving me the location of a UPS distribution center 20 minutes away, speaking slowly but emphatically, as if speaking to an ape. “Now, it’s about to close. They might have your backpack.”
Adrenaline raging, I took off, swerving through traffic in my CR-V like a d-list Jason Statham in a Transporter knock-off. I got to the distribution center 30 minutes before close. It was empty, save for a tired woman working the desk, who wasn’t empathetic, nor a dispatcher. She told me there was no box for me. And she was off soon, on Friday night, she wasn’t going on a goose chase.
“Please,” I said. “I have the tracking number. I’m going on the trip of a lifetime, to Alaska, tomorrow morning, to go snowboarding. I can’t go without this box.”
It wasn’t entirely true. I could’ve made it work. But at that point, I was so invested, it felt make-or-break. My sob story worked. “My son, he’s a snowboarder. Let me see what I can do,” she said, and disappeared into the back.
Five minutes later, she came out, on the phone. “Ok, I’ll send him over.” She hung up. “The driver is on his way to another distribution center. It’s fifteen minutes away.” She glanced at the clock. “And it closes in 20 minutes.”
I shouted thanks over my shoulder, hopeful for the first time all day. I gunned it out of the lot and made it in 14 minutes flat.
Breathless, I sprinted into a similar distribution room. A similarly tired woman stood behind the desk. Except this one was even less happy to see me. She was off in minutes.
“Do you have a package for Drew?” I asked.
“No,” she said, skeptically, “And we're about to close.”
On cue, a driver opened a door behind her. “Package for Drew.”
“Fuck yes!” I exclaimed, potentially the most exuberant anyone’s ever been in a UPS distribution room in the history of UPS. “Thank you!” I grabbed the package, danced out to the car, and ripped it open. The Burton [ak] Dispatcher 35. I held it up like a trophy, damn near in tears, then went home and stress-packed until 2 AM.
Testing [ak] in AK
You may be wondering why the hell I included this long-ass story about getting my hands on the Dispatcher 35. Well, the next morning, on my way to the airport after four hours of sleep, I thought to myself, “There’s no way this pack can live up to the bullshit I went through to get it.” But I was so wrong. I spent a week on the glacier, using the Dispatcher every day, and it’s damn near the perfect pack.
First off, the materials are primo. Burton crafted the Dispatcher from 210D nylon Cordura ripstop with PU coating and 500D nylon Cordura with PU backing. Lightweight, rugged and waterproof, the pack balances the needs of a backcountry traveler who wants to shave grams, without puncturing their gear with ice axes or crampon spikes.
Design Is Minimalistic Yet Utilitarian
The best touring backpacks are simple and well-designed, with enough access points and smart pockets that you can stay organized on the skintrack. Burton knocked that out of the (national) park with the Dispatcher 35.
The Dispatcher 35 sports an easy-access avalanche safety pocket with separate compartments for shovel and probe and a fleece-lined top pocket that fits goggles and glacier glasses. The spacious main compartment can be opened from both a top zip and a rear-opening back panel, ensuring immediate access to any nook or cranny. There are also two separate side pockets that are reinforced with durable black nylon: in Alaska, I put my crampons in one, and my BCA Link radio in the other.
For snacks and smaller essentials, there are two zippered mesh pockets, one in the avalanche compartment, and another on the back panel, which also sports a pouch for a hydration sleeve. It took me a second to find it, but there’s a hidden hole over the right shoulder that allows you to snake a hose down your shoulder strap. In mid-winter conditions, I lean towards wide-mouth Nalgenes and insulated water bottles, but in springy AK, I used a 3-liter CamelBak every day.
Last but not least, the hip belt pockets are cavernous. Some touring packs have hip belt pockets that hardly fit a granola bar. Not the Dispatcher. I fit a compass, scraper, and Clif Bar in one, and my phone and energy chews in the other.
Pack Is Spartan, But Comfort Is Cush
A dichotomy of the Dispatcher: it’s lightweight yet quite comfortable, even when fully loaded. The hip padding is feather-light yet thick and covers a generous area, allowing you to cinch the pack and sit most of the weight on your hips. The back panel is semi-rigid, with a textured foam that helps wick moisture. The shoulder straps are thin, but they get the job done. If I had one qualm with the pack, it’s that the hem of the shoulder straps can dig into the clavicle, but with some adjustments, and shifting weight to the hip belt, I have no problems shouldering this pack on longer tours.
Post Honeymoon Phase, and We’re Still Going Strong
When I returned from Alaska, and resumed touring in my backyard range, I tried to go back to my old faithful 32-liter pack. But something didn’t feel right. I’d fallen head over heels for the Dispatcher. The extra liters didn’t bother me one bit on shorter tours, and on longer ones, I liked not having to cram and jam shit into my pack. This winter, unless conditions merit an airbag or I’m testing another pack for work, I’m pretty much exclusively touring with the Dispatcher.
Over the summer and fall, I figured the pack might get a break — but it didn’t. I lived out of it for 12 days in Mexico when my partner and I scored hack fares and could only bring carry-ons. I used it on hikes in the Sierras. I slipped my laptop into the hydration sleeve and went to work on coffee shop patios. In fact, as I write this, I’m on a three-week work and shred trip that started in Park City, Utah, detoured to Jackson Hole, Wyoming for Natural Selection and ends in Telluride, Colorado. This is the only pack I brought and it’s been crushing every leg of my trip.
The truth is, when your job is to test gear, you accumulate a shitload of it. Your gear closet begins to overflow, and it’s easy to get picky about things like packs. Should I take the 30-liter, or the 32-liter? Maybe the 40? The airbag? What to bring? Panic!
Don’t get me wrong, it’s wonderful to have the right gear for every occasion — it’s part of why I do what I do, and why you’re reading what I write. But finding a pack like this? One that I know I can count on, from expeditions on Alaskan glaciers to backyard tours and spur-of-the-moment surf trips south of the border? It’s rare. Safe to say, I’m obsessed.