The Best Mountaineering Backpack Review
What's the best mountaineering backpack for alpine climbing? To find out, we purchased 9 of the best and most popular alpine packs and subjected them to rigorous testing to see how they compared side-by-side. Each pack is scored on five criteria: weight to volume ratio, durability, versatility, comfort, and features. From carrying loads to the base of big walls, to winter alpine climbing in Alaska, to ice cragging, these packs have seen a lot of terrain. Our awards and ratings highlight the best all-purpose mountaineering backpack, the most versatile pack with the best features, and the best value mountaineering backpack. Read on to find the right pack for your alpine mission.
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Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
Updated May 2017
For spring 2017, the Arc'teryx Alpha FL 45 is available in two new colors. The individual review is freshly updated to display the new shades.
Best Overall Mountaineering and Alpine Climbing Backpack
Arc'teryx Alpha FL 45
Best Bang for the Buck
Black Diamond Speed 40
Top Pick for Long Trips
CiloGear 45L WorkSack
Best Mountaineering Backpack for Specific Applications
Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Ice Pack | highly water resistant Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Ice Pack]] could be a good choice for you.
Analysis and Test Results
Mountaineering Backpacks: What's The Difference?
The packs reviewed here are "alpine" packs in that their intended use is technical mountain climbing (and mountaineering). They should be a bit smaller and a lot more streamlined than backpacking packs and they are generally larger than a small climbing day pack intended for use on multi-pitch rock only. They ought to carry heavy loads with some comfort but must also transform into a day pack to carry only the essentials and not get in the way of your movement when the going gets technical. If you can't live without lots of pockets, access points, straps, and a big beefy suspension check out our Best Backpacking Backpack Review.
Which alpine or mountaineering backpack is right for you? Answering this question requires some reflection on the specific type of alpine climbing you most often partake in, and the type of alpine climbs you plan to attempt in the future.
Your needs from a mountaineering backpack will greatly depend on the style of alpine climbing you do, and the mountains you generally climb in. Those who primarily climb rock in the High Sierra of California (for example) may require a high degree of fabric durability and may care less about the quality and ease of use of their ice tool attachment. Those who are primarily climbing in glaciated mountains like the Cascades may care a bit more about axe/tool attachments and a waterproof design. Those largely climbing water ice or alpine ice climbs may choose to opt for a lighter fabric at the expense of abrasion resistance.
Do you carry a large load over non-technical terrain into a basecamp and then complete one or more technical day climbs? When pursuing this strategy, climbers with very long approaches to routes that are near their technical limit might opt for a "big pack, little pack" strategy. This entails carrying everything to camp in a backpacking pack and then using a small climbing day pack for the send. "Big pack, little pack" means that you are always using the ideal pack for whatever your activity is. While this works well for picking off routes from a basecamp, it's a poor strategy if you have to carry a lot of stuff on the route, as you might in the winter or if you're going to bivy. The other big downside is the additional weight. Backpacking packs are heavier than their alpine counterparts, and when you add in a small climbing day pack, your total weight could be 3 - 5 pounds more than if you carried one versatile pack. Carrying 3 - 5 fewer pounds of backpack could leave you with room for more cams, ice screws, chocolate, or just the pleasure of a lighter load!
We encourage you to read our Alpine Climbing Pack Buying Advice article for a more detailed discussion on choosing an alpine pack.
A note on our mountaineering backpack selection: This review is primarily geared toward people looking to climb in the mountain ranges of the Lower 48 in the U.S. and areas in Canada like the Bugaboos or Canadian Rockies (and similar locations throughout the world). Though all of these packs will work just fine in bigger mountain ranges (like the Alaska Range), the proper application of the pack will change as the size of the terrain increases. Critically consider the type and length of route(s) you intend to tackle when choosing the appropriate pack. Generally speaking, an alpine climbing trip to a place like the Alaska Range or Himalaya will involve more than one pack - you may need a larger pack for moving camps and a smaller pack for climbing. Or simply different sized packs for different routes, depending on length. Also keep in mind that even "small" routes in the great ranges of the world might be much bigger than what you may normally climb closer to home, and consequently you may need a larger pack than you normally climb with. In giving our awards in this review, we tried to focus on what would be best for a climber spending the majority of his or her time in the more "local" ranges of the U.S. Lower 48 and similar locales.
Criteria for Evaluation
Each mountaineering backpack is numerically scored on the following criteria. Additionally, within each individual product review is a discussion of why the pack scored as it did in each.
The overall weight of a mountaineering backpack is of great importance. A lighter pack is more comfortable on the approach and easier to climb with. A heavier pack makes everything you do more difficult and probably less fun. A pack that feels only a little heavier at the trailhead parking lot can make a big difference when the miles, elevation, and days add up. You will whittle down the gear you throw into the pack on an alpine climb, but this effort should begin with the "big 3": sleeping bag, shelter, and backpack. The weight of an alpine pack has two components. The total or "max" weight, and the "stripped" weight (the weight of the pack without any removable components like a lid (aka brain), hip belt, or framesheet).
In our comparison table above, in addition to each pack's max and stripped weights, we list each pack's weight-to-volume ratio. But, it is worth noting that for volume we didn't take the manufacturer's word for it, we measured volume ourselves with the help of hundreds of ping-pong balls to get an apples-to-apples sense of what each pack could handle (we also measured weight ourselves, with a digital scale, you can read more about this in our How We Tested article).
Because these packs do not all have the same volume, a smaller pack of heavier materials could be lighter than a larger pack built from more lightweight materials. We use a weight-to-volume ratio for our scoring because it lets us compare the weights of packs of different sizes. We use weight-to-volume ratio numbers in grams (g) of weight per liter (L) of volume. Because stripping the features off cuts weight and capacity, each pack gets two numbers in this row of the comparison table: one for when the pack is stripped down and one for when it's not. The max number reflects the weight-to-volume of the main compartment, lid, and extension collar completely filled while all removable parts are on the pack. The stripped number implies that all removable parts are gone and just the main compartment of the pack is filled (not the extension collar).
The tricky part of shopping for a pack of a specific volume is that manufacturers measure volume differently, include different parts of the pack in their measurement, and use the volume in the name in different ways. Through our hands on testing we noticed that not all packs felt like they could carry the same amount of gear even if they had similar claimed volumes. Let's compare two packs from our test, the Black Diamond Speed 40 and the Gregory Alpinisto 50. Both packs have a main compartment with an extension collar and they each have a lid (aka brain). The main compartment of the Speed 40 is just under 40L, Black Diamond lists the volume as 40L and names the pack "40". The extension collar adds 18L and the lid another 7.5L for a total of 63. The main compartment of the Alpinisto also clocks in at 40L, Gregory's website says that the medium size has a volume of 48L and calls the pack a "50". The pack's volume doesn't get into the 50L range until you include the extension collar, which adds 12.5L. Toss the lid on there (another 5L) and you've got a total volume of 57.5L, slightly less than the BD pack. What can we learn from this? Find out what the actual volume is of the packs you're interested in.
In order to verify these volumes, we did our own volume measurements to better compare the packs in this review. We weighed each of the packs ourselves with and without modular features. Then we measured the volume of each pack both fully stuffed with hundreds of ping pong balls and also a separate test with just the main compartment filled. Curious about all this? Find out more details about our elaborate ping-pong ball test in our How We Test article.
For a more realistic test we also put together a sample kit for a weekend of summer alpine rock climbing with a snowy approach and descent. We then packed this gear into each of the packs and compared them. The CiloGear 45L WorkSack and Osprey Variant 52 swallowed everything -including the rope- with aplomb. We could have stowed the mountaineering axe in there too. All of the other packs carried the rope on the outside. Though crampons had to go on the outside of the Wild Things Guide Pack we were pleasantly surprised to cram everything else in there. At first it did not look like the Arc'teryx Alpha FL 45 was going to be able to hold our helmet, let alone crampons, but with thoughtful packing both went inside the pack.
Because weight is the first thing to consider when selecting gear for alpine climbing and mountaineering it's the first of our scoring criteria and receives the most weight in the score (see what we did there?). The packs with the best weight-to-volume ratio are the Alpha FL 45, with an impressive max volume of 52.5 liters with only a max weight of 24 ounces, and the Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Ice Pack. Even though this pack has a lower volume than claimed, its weight is so low that the weight-to-volume ratio remains notable.
Offwidths and mixed chimneys, bushwhacking, careless crampon use, stuffing it to the gills - alpine climbing can subject a pack to all sorts of wear and tear. When our testers are in the mountains they like to focus on the climbing and not spend time babying their equipment. The primary durability issue with a mountaineering backpack is the abrasion resistance of its fabric. Many companies make claims about the "strength" of the fabric their packs are made of. They're referring to tensile, or tear, strength. While all of the packs in this test took damage from abrasion, our testers did not find tear strength to be important in real world alpine scenarios.
Dyneema is a fabric that's getting a lot of hype in the backpack world right now. All Hyperlite Mountain Gear and CiloGear packs are offered in Dyneema or Dyneema/polyester hybrid fabric models. Bare non-woven Dyneema (NWD, also known as Cuben fiber) is extremely lightweight, has tremendous tensile strength, and is waterproof. NWD's weakness is abrasion. For this reason manufacturers using NWD often use it in a hybrid fabric, laminating it with a woven face fabric to improve abrasion resistance. The HMG Ice Pack is constructed out of a Cuben fiber/polyester hybrid fabric. Our tests found this to be less resistant to abrasion than the more traditional nylon fabrics in this review. The CiloGear packs are offered in NWD and W/NWD (non-woven Dyneema with a woven Dyneema face fabric). CiloGear's W/NWD claims to be extremely durable. We didn't test it in this review.
Many packs will feature fabrics with a lower denier on the upper sides as a way of saving weight, and then feature heavier weight, higher denier fabrics on the bottom of the pack, and on other high wear areas like the front where you may stow your crampons. Our testers found that when using the packs in actual climbing situations the sides of the pack were also exposed to abrasion and seemed to take more damage than the front. It might be that the only part of a pack body that isn't a high wear area is the part that's against your back.
The secondary durability with alpine packs is the quality of their construction. Do compression straps tear out of seams under bulging loads? Does that initially cushy hip belt wimp out over time? Imagine a worst-case scenario: you arrive at the belay, clip your pack to the anchor by it's haul loop, only to have that rip out and your pack falls to the deck hundreds (or maybe thousands) of feet below.
Many of the packs in this test, such as the Variant 52, offer many features. These buckles, straps, bells, and whistles add up and raise the weight of the pack. The only way to lighten a pack without removing all of these features is by making it out of wimpier fabric. We think this trade-off is bogus. Our testers discovered that they would rather have fewer features and more durability. What good are all those extras when the pack can't survive actual climbing use?
We awarded durability points based on the overall durability of the pack. Your durability needs will depend on the frequency with which you climb, and the type of climbing you do. In our experience, alpine rock climbing tears up packs much more quickly than alpine ice or water ice climbing. Durability is also an important consideration if you plan to use your pack for cragging. The Arc'teryx Alpha FL and the Mountain Hardwear Direttissima 50 OutDry are the two toughest packs we tested while the HMG Ice Pack and the Wild Things Guide Pack are the most fragile.
One of the more versatile features an alpine pack can have is the option to completely remove all of its suspension components, including all of the foam padding. Only two of the packs in this test let our testers do that, the Wild Things Guide Pack and the CiloGear WorkSack. Though the Gregory Alpinisto 50 has a removable foam bivy pad, most of the back padding foam cannot be removed. We wish the bigger companies would pay attention and include the option to remove all the padding.
We also like packs with features that have multiple uses, like the ice tool handle retention/compression strap on the Patagonia Ascensionist 40. Packs with good weight-to-volume ratios score well in versatility since they allow for increased capacity with minimal weight punishment. We also awarded versatility points to packs with the durability features to perform in both alpine rock and ice climbing situations.
Some manufacturers went overboard in the attempt to make their packs more versatile. The Gregory Alpinisto 50, for example, has webbing on the side specifically for carrying skis A-frame style. Our testers found that any pack with two compression straps on either side carries skis just fine without additional dedicated, single use webbing. The most versatile pack we tested was the CiloGear 45L WorkSack.
Here we scored packs based on the quality, functionality, and ease of use of the included features. All of the packs in the review have ice tool/axe attachment systems — some of them, like the sewn loops and velcro of the Wild Things Guide Pack are a bit old-school, some are a bit finicky, like the brand specific attachments on the Gregory Alpinisto, and some are very secure and easy to use. Removable hip belts, lids, and frames are standard features we expect on these packs. Having additional modular features led to a higher score.
Removable hip belt padding is an important feature for our testers. Big padded hip belts are great on the trail, but not so sweet when we were also wearing a climbing harness. All of the packs that have hip belt padding gave us the option to remove it. Some of our testers like having a bit of webbing around the waist to keep the load more stable on their backs when climbing. Most of the packs have some non-removable webbing component to the hip belt to achieve this. The Mountain Hardwear Direttissima 50 has a removable webbing hip belt included with the pack. One of the many straps that comes with the CiloGear WorkSack can be used to rig a low-profile hip belt. The Osprey Variant 52 has a removable hip belt but no low-profile webbing option.
Many of our testers used hydration systems in warmer weather. Packs that have simple hydration related features received higher scores in this category. We like the option to hang the hydration reservoir inside the pack. We are not big fans of a dedicated pocket for the reservoir and prefer a good packing job to carrying the additional weight. The framesheet pocket of the CiloGear WorkSack is big enough to also contain a 3 liter hydration bladder, which is an elegant solution for those who can't live without a pocket. An opening for the hose to pass out of the pack and a bit of webbing on the shoulder strap to guide the hose complete our preferred hydration feature set.
Simplicity is a desirable feature. Well-designed alpine climbing packs are less featured overall compared to backpacking packs. An excess of features adds weight and means there are more things to break. For this reason we gave points to packs that offered only the necessary features. We found the Osprey Variant 52, for example, to be overly featured for an alpine climbing pack. Our testers found it's myriad straps, buckles, and pockets to be too much. The CiloGear 45L WorkSack had all the features we wanted and none that we didn't.
There are two parts to comfort in an alpine or mountaineering backpack — comfort on approach, and comfort while climbing technical terrain. Smaller packs with very flexible (or minimal) suspensions tend to be much more comfortable than larger packs while climbing. Larger packs, however, tend to have more substantial suspension systems, framesheets, stays, padding, etc and are therefore more comfortable on the approach than a loaded up small capacity pack that lacks a padded hip belt or frame. A stiff but well-padded suspension that was completely removable allowed packs to shine in this category. We would have liked to see more padding in the hip belts of the CiloGear, Black Diamond, and Patagonia packs to add more comfort when hiking. The two most comfortable packs to hike in that we tested were the Mountain Hardwear Direttissima 50 and the Osprey Variant 52. The simple Arc'teryx Alpha FL was our favorite pack to have on when climbing technical terrain.
Depending on the style of alpine climbing you plan to be doing and the mountains that you predominantly climb in, the right pack in this category can differ from person to person. Considering the nature of alpine climbing, factors such as weight, volume, and durability are an important part of this decision. We hope to help you narrow down the wide selection on the market with the tests and observations in this review. Read through our Buying Advice article for more information on what to keep in mind while making your purchase.
— Ian McEleney and Chris Simrell
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