If you want to climb multi-pitch routes, finding the best climbing backpack ranks up there with the right shoes and other essential gear. So we rounded up testers who had a look at 50 packs and picked the most promising 10 for extensive comparisons. They posted one-day ascents of El Cap, took long routes at Washington Pass and navigated awkward chimneys. They logged multi-pitch miles from the aztec sandstone of Red Rocks to the polished granite of Whitehorse Ledge. The result was essential information on which packs were the most comfortable and longest-lasting, and which offered useful climbing features as opposed to fluff.
The Best Climbing Backpacks of 2019
|Price||$99.00 at REI|
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|$48.35 at Amazon|
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|$99.95 at Backcountry|
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|$47.00 at Patagonia|
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|Pros||Light, stylish, comfortable, versatile||Comfortable, easy to pack||Durable, sleek, stylish||Durable, comfortable, simple||Light, durable, simple|
|Cons||Expensive, no emergency whistle||Heavy, below average durability, no emergency whistle||Uncomfortable shoulder straps, no external carrying options||Heavy, few hydration features||No hip belt, uncomfortable for the broad shouldered|
|Bottom Line||This light and comfortable pack is an expensive but durable choice for multi-pitch climbing.||Comfortable but at or below average in most other ways.||This classic is still going strong, though you cannot carry anything on the outside of the pack.||This comfortable pack is light on features and heavy on durability.||This simple pack doesn't have the best feature set but is light and durable.|
|Rating Categories||Patagonia Linked Pack 18L||Petzl Bug||Black Diamond Bullet||Black Diamond Creek 20||Lightweight Black Hole Cinch...|
|Climbing Utility (25%)|
|Specs||Patagonia Linked...||Petzl Bug||Black Diamond Bullet||Black Diamond...||Lightweight Black...|
|Measured Weight||1.23 lbs||1.1 lbs||1.1 lbs||1.7lbs||1 lbs|
|Fabric Type||940D CORDURA Ballistic nylon||400d nylon||420d nylon, 1260d ballistic nylon||1200d polyester with TPU coating||210d nylon with TPU-film laminate|
|Accessory Pockets?||One external zip, one internal zip||One external zip, one external open, one internal zip||One external zip, one internal zip||One internal zip||One external zip, one internal zip|
|Outside Carry Options?||Top carrying handles, 2 external daisy chains||Top strap, one daisy chain||No||Top strap, two daisy chains||Two daisy chains|
|Hip Belt||Yes, removable||Yes||Yes, removable||Yes, removable||No|
|Hydration System Compatible||Yes||Yes||Yes||No||Yes|
Best Overall Model
Patagonia Linked Pack 18L
The Patagonia Linked Pack 18L topped only one of the five metrics we used to rate these backpacks, but it posted the best overall score and ended up the overall winner. It's the pack our testers consistently reached for. A climbing pack must balance the opposing qualities of durability and weight and this pack does it best. Testers of a variety of shapes and sizes found it to be comfortable. Only one other pack in our test (the Black Diamond Creek 20) matched the combination of great haul loops, snag-free exterior, and ability to swallow a lot of stuff.
Nice changes could be if the sternum strap buckle doubled as an emergency whistle and a simpler attachment for the hip belt, perhaps just a girth hitch. But basically, this is a great pack for anyone planning to do a lot of multi-pitch climbing. We confidently give it our Editors' Choice award.
Read review: Patagonia Linked Pack 18L
Best for Budget-Minded
REI Co-op Flash 18
It's not specifically designed for rock climbing, but the REI Co-op Flash 18 is included in our review because we see it at the crag all a lot. Why would that be? Because it has two qualities that are near and dear to many climbers: it's inexpensive and it's light. It crushes every other pack in our review on these two metrics, has a surprisingly decent set of features, and is reasonably comfortable.
Not too surprisingly, there's a down side to the low price and weight — it is the pack's poor durability. Don't wear this pack climbing a chimney or tight corner. Also, avoid hauling it. For those who only occasionally climb with a pack, or who want the very lightest model, pick this one.
Read review: REI Co-Op Flash 18
Top Pick for Durability
Black Diamond Creek 20
The Black Diamond Creek 20 is a pleasing hybrid of haulbag and small climbing pack. Like a haulbag, it's incredibly durable and stands up straight when empty, which makes packing easier. Like a small climbing pack, it's pretty comfortable on the hike to the cliff. It's also not half bad once you actually leave the ground with it on. We generally appreciated it's simple, utilitarian design.
Like a haulbag, it's also pretty heavy. This is the price for all that abrasion resistance. Additionally, some of our testers missed hydration system friendly features - like something to hang a bladder from, and a pass-through for the hose. Climbing guides, first ascensionists, folks engaged in rebolting projects…if you need a little more volume and want something durable and straightforward, this is your climbing backpack.
Read review: Black Diamond Creek 20
What Is a Rock Climbing Daypack?
One of the joys of rock climbing is getting high off the ground. Exhilarating exposure and incredible views can give you, literally and figuratively, new perspective. The challenge posed by long routes is staying comfortable and safe enough to climb your best while several hundred feet off the ground. A backpack helps overcome this problem by giving you a way to carry the food, water, and gear necessary to keep you happy and alive. While any old backpack is capable of getting the job done, we set out to discover what packs built specifically for multi-pitch rock climbing have to offer. These packs are more robust than a hiking day pack, more substantial than a hydration pack, and smaller and more ergonomic than an alpine climbing backpack. They have features specific to rock climbing, like reinforced haul loops and rope straps.
Why You Should Trust Us
A climbing pack is a pretty specialized item that must be lightweight, move with you, and not interfere with your harness, head, or the rock you move over. We tasked OutdoorGearLab Review Editor Ian McEleney to find out which models in the current market do this best. Ian's climbing career started in New England, and over time, like many, he made his way west, where even more rock and bigger mountains are found. Throughout, he's gotten on everything from crags to big walls. He now lives and guides in the Sierra Nevada as an AMGA certified alpine guide, and makes annual trips to Red Rock, Washington's Cascades, and Alaska.
This study began with market research and the examination of over 50 models before carefully selecting the 10 strongest offerings, which we purchased and tested. We originally planned to cover testing out in the field, over 5 months, in locations ranging from South America to Devil's Tower. This we did, with packs going up the nose in a day to routes in the Canadian Rockies, to name a couple more. However, we decided to supplement this with controlled testing at a climbing gym, for more direct comparison between models, as the loads and routes varied so much in the field. This indoor portion of testing yielded more consensus among our group, and we feel this review is more robust as a result.
Related: How We Tested Climbing Packs
Analysis and Test Results
The climbing backpacks we tested ranged in volume from 12 to 24 liters. This is the ideal range for a climbing pack: any smaller and you might as well clip that stuff to your harness, any larger and it makes climbing harder. Our testers find this size range useful for everything from a leisurely single pitch photo shoot to a grade VI speed ascent. With good packing, most climbers can expect to fit two liters of water, a pair of approach shoes, some snacks, and a layer or two in most of these packs. Some come with additional external attachment points, like daisy chains or compression straps for securing big cams, a rope, or an ice axe.
Related: Buying Advice for Climbing Packs
We enjoy placing an emphasis on discovering gear that not only offers excellent value, but also scores toward the top of the pack. For this year's lineup, we've included 11 packs that span a range of budgets and fit various needs and wants. While climbing packs are generally a lower budget item, the models we've reviewed range from $40 to $100. The highest value products include the REI Co-Op Flash 18, Trango Ration, and Black Diamond Bullet.
Rock climbers should already know how important weight is. On a difficult redpoint, shedding a pound or two can be the difference between flailing and sending. The same is true in the alpine realm where extra weight can wear you out before you even get to the route. As far as rock climbing daypacks go, weight may not be quite as critical. The majority of the climbers we know wear packs mostly for long moderate routes where weight is less important. Some have the second carry a pack for the team so the leader can move freely. And when things do get truly desperate, you're usually better off hauling a pack instead of wearing it. Many packs in this test have some features designed specifically for this, and several are reinforced to take the extra abuse hauling dishes out.
Our testers only seemed to notice the weight of a pack when it was really light (the 10 ounce REI Co-op Flash 18) or really heavy (the 43 ounce Metolius Mescalito). It is possible to produce a 16L pack even lighter, but not without sacrifices in durability, function, or cost. Although there are few ways to trim weight from the Patagonia Lightweight Black Hole Cinch 20L without scissors, every other pack in the review can be slimmed by about two ounces or more if you remove hip belts, sternum straps, and supplemental padding. Weight itself represents 10% of our overall scores, and that's about 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 design. We define materials as the fabrics, zippers, and buckles. The design of the pack is the shape and layout of features, the location of the seams, redundancy of haul loops, etc.
Three of the packs in our test (the Black Hole, Mescalito, and Black Diamond Creek 20) have notably different materials to increase durability. The Creek is made of a high denier polyester with a thick urethane coating. The Black Hole is made of a lighter weight nylon with a thick urethane coating. The Mescalito is made of a lighter weight version of the Durathane material on their haulbags, which are some of the burliest out there.
Materials we tested ranged from the flimsy 100-denier nylon on the body of the Gravity Pitch to 1260d on the base of the Black Diamond Bullet to the Durathane of the Mescalito, which brings us to the second factor: construction. Higher denier fabrics weigh more. To shave ounces, designers only use heavier materials on the parts of gear most subject to abuse.
On the packs in our test, we found heavier fabrics on the bottom. The Bullet and Petzl Bug packs feature higher denier bases that wrap up the sides to some degree. Although this might help keep 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 scrape against the rock during actual climbing and hauling and are where the most reinforcement should be targeted. There is little to no reinforcement to the front or sides of most of these packs.
Our testers reached for the Mescalito when we know we'd be spending most of the route hauling (versus climbing with) the pack. We avoided hauling the Flash, knowing that's what it's not intended for, and because we didn't want to ruin it for future testing.
All the evaluation criteria—weight, durability, 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, most of these climbing backpacks share some of the same features.
They're almost 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 tabs on the shoulder straps to secure a bite valve. The Mescalito and Creek both lack these niceties. Key clips inside accessory pockets are also almost entirely universal; here only the Mescalito mysteriously lacks one in its zippered lid pocket.Pockets
The placement of pockets was another matter. Pocket placement and shape came in many forms, and this makes a difference. The "pocket bag" is the name of place where your stuff goes when you stick it in the pocket. External pockets that had pocket bags on the inside of the pack were the hardest to use, especially if they were low on the pack. Our testers had a difficult time getting anything out of the external zipper pockets on the Bug and Cierzo 18. Conversely, the pocket bag on the big external zipper pocket of the Patagonia Black Hole protrudes from the pack like a blister and was easy to use. A small internal pocket, usually large enough for a phone, keys, and headlamp, is a common feature we've come to appreciate.Streamlined
Laybacks, stem boxes, offwidths, and shoulder scums can all require you to place your back or sides of the stone. Snagging your pack on Red Rocks scrub oak during an exposed walk off is also frustrating and potentially dangerous. A streamlined pack has the potential to turn an exasperating struggle into a manageable inconvenience.
The Bullet has no exterior catch points besides a single carry handle on top. It's pretty much guaranteed to slide past all obstacles. The Bug and Flash are also streamlined but include haul loops and a few attachment points that could potentially get hung up. Most grabby were the Ration and Cierzo 18, which have cords, loops, and other gizmos as potential snag points.Hauling
The Mescalito have two top attachment points, but they require an additional sling or some cord to rig. The rest of the packs have the single standard loop positioned between the shoulder straps. Our testers found this to be sufficient for all but the most problematic hauling. For the paranoid, it's possible to use these single haul loops combined with a sling through a shoulder strap to improvise redundancy, but this requires extra gear and is less convenient.
As noted under durability, hauling is hard on packs. The Mescalito, Creek, and Bullet all have flaps built into the back of the pack to tuck shoulder straps into when hauling. The shoulder straps on the Bug can be crammed into the topo pocket on the back of the pack. The Ration comes with a cover that the whole thing slides into before hauling; this model provided the only option in the review to protect an entire pack from abrasion.Hip Belts
If you're going to be hiking around a daypack full of water, layers, and snacks along with big cams, a helmet, and rope strapped to the outside, the total weight can get heavy; support and stabilization become a concern. All the packs come with similar shoulder straps and padding. We have gripes with the Black Hole and Gravity Pitch because they're the only bags without hip belts. We really like the options provided by a removable hip belt like the Flash, Linked, or Cierzo 18. We'd even settle for the tuckable hip belt on the Petzl Bug, but no hip belt is a deal breaker for many climbers we spoke to.
This is one of our trickier categories, as there are endless ways to use a small backpack. Our most popular secondary application for these packs is everyday 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, though the more voluminous models are more useful at the farmer's market.
There are no restrictions on filling the main compartments with books, groceries, or anything else. However, there is a subjective quality affecting this application - style. We hesitate to tell anyone what to wear, but feel it's worth mentioning the testers and climbers we talked to preferred the Bullet and Black Hole's sleek exteriors for social occasions. The Creek and Cierzo can 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 an overnight excursion. Therefore, we factored in the packable bulk of these packs when they're empty. The Mescalito is bulky enough that it's only worth packing into a much larger pack and even then just if you need a mini haul bag in the backcountry. The Creek is only slightly smaller.
At the other end of the spectrum the Flash 18 and Trango Ration vie for the smallest. We often tossed it the Flash into the bottom of our cragging pack when headed for a cliff with a mix of single and multi-pitch routes, just to give us options. It's streamlined enough to function as a stuff sack within a larger pack. We think this is really useful for climbing trips where you hike into a base camp with overnight loads and climb several multi-pitch routes nearby over successive days as you might do in Wyoming's Wind River Range or Washington's North Cascades.
When multi-pitching, it's common to 'carry-over' routes, meaning you approach from one way and descend another. In these situations, it's usually most comfortable to carry as much gear as possible in/on your daypack for the hiking, instead of letting it jangle around on your harness or a shoulder sling. For this reason, we like packs with external attachment options. Our favorites were contenders that balanced external carry options with a snag-free design. All the models except the BD Bullet have a few attachment points and a way to secure a rope. The Bullet may be streamlined, but it won't help you transport a carry-over load.
Beyond these qualities, evaluating versatility become more pack specific. Half of the packs in the test had enough exterior attachment points that we'd consider using them for moderate alpine missions. The Arc'teryx Cierzo 18 is built specifically for this purpose and really shone in an alpine setting. Both of the Patagonia packs had a combination of lightweight and sufficient attachment points for a pair of ice tools and (maybe) crampons.
The Mescalito is burly enough that a pair of testers used it as a sub-bag (with snacks, water, and layers for each day) on a big wall ascent of the eponymous El Cap route. 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).
It is hard to imagine another sport with as much variety of movement as rock climbing. From basic maneuvers like laybacks, drop knees, and stems to the esoteric inventions of inverted offwidth specialists, different routes can drive us to contort our bodies into all sorts of shapes. A good climbing backpack should be able to accommodate these movements (or at least be haulable when things get a little too "Cirque Du Soliel").
One difference between climbing daypacks and regular hiking daypacks is where they rest on your back; climbing specific bags should be designed to stay up high on the back to prevent them from obstructing access to your chalk bag. At the same time, a climbing pack shouldn't be positioned too high, such that the back of your helmet hits it every time you look up. All of the contenders in our test have slightly different back lengths, and shapes and the way a pack fits your shape is a make-or-break factor that no online review can account for. We strongly recommend (especially for more petite climbers) trying them on before buying.
Nevertheless, a tapered profile didn't guarantee a good comfort score. Multi-pitch routes often have a long approach, and climbing daypacks have to be able to tote gear on that approach with a (reasonable) level of comfort. The Black Hole Cinch 20 and Gravity Pitch lost points because they lack hip belts and could become painful after bouncing down a long walk-off with a heavy load.
The generous padding on the shoulder straps and hip belt of the Mescalito stand in contrast to the spartan padding on the Cierzo, which becomes uncomfortable when overloaded. Many of our testers also reported specific complaints about the Bullet. This pack has widely spaced and especially curved shoulder straps that were prone to sliding off the shoulders of even our broadest-shouldered testers. Keeping the sternum strap clipped solved this problem, but wasn't a solution many of our testers liked.
If you're into sending multi-pitch routes, the chances are good that you've realized the utility of a small climbing pack to transport the kit you need for the day. A combination of small and lightweight, while still being comfortable and durable, is what we're seeking for long days in the vertical realm. That said, these bags are also handy in everyday urban life. We hope our months of wearing (and hauling) these bags up rock faces has produced a review that will prove helpful in your search for a new climbing daypack.
— Ian McEleney