The Best Rock Climbing Packs for Multi-pitch and Cragging
What is the best climbing backpack? For this review we selected five of today's most popular climbing backpacks, and brought them up a range of multi-pitch routes. From the glacier polished granite of El Capitan to the coarse volcanic phonolite of Devil's Tower, we heaved these packs up strenuous overhangs and ominous chimneys to see which is the best. We explored their performance across six different metrics: weight, durability, packed size, climbing utility, versatility, and comfort. In addition, we considered specific features important to climbers, like redundant haul loops and emergency whistles. In the end we settled on a clear overall winner and other suggestions for big, committing objectives or shoppers on a budget.
Read the full review below >
Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
Best Overall Rock Climbing Daypack
Patagonia Linked Pack 16L
Best for Budget-Minded
REI Flash 18
Analysis and Test Results
What Is a Rock Climbing Daypack?
One of the joys of rock climbing is getting high off the ground. The exhilarating exposure and incredible views give you a chance to see the world from a whole different perspective, both figuratively and literally. One of the challenges, though, is trying to remain comfortable and safe while spending the day a few hundred feet off the ground. A rock climbing backpack helps overcome this problem by giving you a way to carry the food, water, and gear necessary to keep you happy and alive. Although any old backpack is capable of holding these supplies, we set out to discover what is the best bag for multi-pitch rock climbing. These packs are tougher than a hiking day bag, larger than a hydration pack, and smaller and more ergonomic than a mountaineering backpack. They also have some features specific to rock climbing, like reinforced haul loops and rope straps.
All the climbing backpacks we tested ranged from 16 to 20 liters. We feel this is the ideal range for a climbing pack: any smaller and you might as well clip the contents to your harness, larger and they're too unwieldy to climb with. Our testers find this size range useful for anything from a leisurely single pitch photo shoot to a grade VI speed ascent. You can expect to fit 2L of water, a pair of micro puffies, some snacks, and a camera in any one of these packs. Some come with additional external attachment points, like daisy chains or compression straps for securing big cams or a rappel line.
Criteria for Evaluation
Most rock climbers should already know how important weight can be. On a difficult redpoint burn a pound or two can be the difference between flailing and success. The same is true in the alpine realm where extra weight can sap your strength before you even get to the route. As far as rock climbing daypacks go though, weight may not be quite as critical. For one, the difference between the lightest and heaviest packs we tested is only 8 ounces. Although this difference is significant enough to be noticeable on a particularly strenuous pitch, the majority of the climbers we know wear packs for long moderate routes where weight is less important. And when things do get truly desperate, you're usually better off hauling a pack instead of wearing it. (Many daypacks can handle some hauling but for sustained hard routes a vinyl-coated mini haul bag is usually better, like the Fish Atom Smasher or Black Diamond Stubby).
The packs we tested are all made of nylon and ranged from 12.0 (REI Flash) to 20.3 ounces (Petal Bug). It is possible to produce a 16L pack even lighter, but not without significant sacrifices in durability or function. Although there are limited ways to trim the weight from the Mountain Hardwear Hueco 20 and Petzl Bug, the Patagonia Linked, REI Flash 18, and Black Diamond Bullet can all be slimmed by 1.9 oz or more if you remove hip belts, sternum straps, and supplemental padding. Weight itself represents 10% of our overall scores and we think that's what it should be. Not critical but worth some consideration.
Small climbing daypacks are expected to be lightweight and comfortable while still withstanding some of this abuse. Overall we were impressed with how well they held up. Durability is primarily determined by two factors: materials and construction. Materials we consider to be the fabrics, zippers, and buckles used to make them. Construction is the design of the pack itself, ie. the shape and layout of features, location of the seams, types of closures used, redundancy of haul loops, etc.
The bags we tested ranged from the flimsy 140-denier on the body of the REI Flash to 1260d on the base of the BD Bullet, which brings us to the second factor: construction. Higher denier fabrics weigh more. In order to shave ounces, designers only use heavier fabrics on the parts of gear most subject to abuse. For climbing packs this usually means the base (bottom). The Patagonia, Black Diamond, and Petzl packs all feature higher denier bases. Mountain Hardwear instead chose to reinforce the base with a second layer of the same 400d fabric used on body of the Hueco 20L. Although these measures are good for preventing the bottom of your pack from falling out, we believe the more likely places to wear on a climbing backpack are the front and sides. These problem areas are what usually scrapes against the rock during actual climbing and hauling. The Hueco has vinyl-coated fabric for its front and the Patagonia Linked uses 630d nylon for its entire body (higher than any of the other packs). There is little to no reinforcement to the front or sides of other packs.
Ultimately, when considering both materials and construction characteristics within our overall durability score, we found the Bullet to be the burliest and the Flash to be the most fragile.
We analyzed it from two different perspectives: the total size of a pack and the likelihood of straps, flaps, and extra gizmos to snag on obstacles. The packs we tested ranged from 16 to 20 liters and came shaped as either a basic rounded rectangle or with a subtle top to bottom taper. Both are efficient shapes for storing volume and we didn't identify a particular geometric design more awkward or cumbersome to carry.
All the evaluation criteria—weight, durability, packed size, comfort, etc.—were selected because they can affect a pack's overall usefulness for rock climbing. However, within the metric 'climbing utility' we focused on qualities outside the scope of those other categories. In this vein, all of these packs share some of the same features. They're all hydration system compatible with sleeves or pockets along the back to tuck a bladder, a hole through the top to pass a hose through, and a tabs on the shoulder straps to secure a bite valve. Key clips positioned inside accessory pockets are also universal [Editors' Note: We know far too many climbers who've dropped their keys while climbing. Key clips are not fool proof. Find a hiding spot for your keys on your vehicle and tell your partner where they are so there's no chance of getting stranded.] Regardless of the closure method, the packs we tested are all designed to prevent gear from spilling out when opened on route. The REI Flash, Patagonia Linked, and MH Hueco are all dependable top-loaders. Although the Petzl Bug and BD Bullet are panel-loaders, the Bug's zippers don't extend down very low and the Bullet has triangular flaps to keep gear inside even when it's long zippers are fully opened.
The design choices on the BD Bullet, in particular, are strangely contradictory. It is the only climbing daypack with a nifty flap on the back panel where you can hide the shoulder straps (just like on a full-blown haul bag). This would be a great feature because with the shoulder straps tucked in you're left with a totally streamlined bag, ideal for hauling. However, the problem is that hiding the shoulder straps requires they be disconnected and then you're left with no way to backup the Bullet's single haul loop. The next manufacturer to adopt shoulder strap stowing on a climbing daypack should be sure to include two strong haul loops.
External Carrying Options
This category is tricky to judge because there are near infinite ways to use a small backpack. The most popular secondary application we envision for these packs is everday urban activities like going to class, shopping for groceries, or toting around a laptop. For this type of use all the bags we tested are more than capable. Each has a interior sleeve or pouch along the back panel big enough for a small laptop and there's no restrictions on filling the main compartments with books, groceries, or anything else. The subjective quality affecting this application though is style. We hesitate to tell anyone what to wear, but feel it's worth mentioning the testers and climbers we talked to preferred the BD Bullet and Patagonia Linked's sleek exteriors for social occasions. The REI Flash, MH Hueco, and Petzl Bug can all come off as a bit too technical for around town errands.
We also suspect a lot of rock climbers will want to stuff their small climbing daypack inside a larger backpack for carrying gear to the cliff or on a overnight excursion. Therefore, we factored in the packable bulk of these packs when they're empty. The Petzl Bug is the largest, followed by the MH Hueco, BD Bullet, and Patagonia Linked. The REI Flash is the smallest. The differences aren't huge, yet we think this could be a factor for climbing trips where you hike into a base camp with overnight loads and climb several multi-pitch routes nearby over successive days, like you might do in Wyoming's Wind River Range or Washington's North Cascades.
Beyond these two broad qualities, evaluating versatility become more pack specific. The Petzl Bug's inelegant external straps work great for carrying skis in an A-frame configuration. With some finagling the Linked could pull this off as well, but there isn't any obvious way to carry skis with the Hueco, Flash, or Bullet. The Hueco lost additional points because it lacks a hip belt and with 20 liter capacity and a rope strap, it is certainly possible to fill it with loads heavy enough that you'd wish it had one. The BD Bullet's sleek exterior does limit its uses, but it could be desired by high speed adventurers who prefer zero possibility of snagging (mountain bikers, resort skiers).
If you're into climbing multi-pitches, chances are good that you've realized the utility of a small climbing pack to carry your essentials for the day. Generally, a combination of small and lightweight, while still being comfortable and durable, is what we're seeking for our long vertical pursuits. That said, these bags can be handy in everyday urban life, too. We hope our months of hauling these bags up rock faces has produced a review that will prove helpful in your search for a new climbing daypack. As a further resource, be sure to consult our Buying Advice article for advice on how to find the the right bag that matches your back (and climbing lifestyle!).
— Jack Cramer
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