Best Climbing Backpack of 2020
Best Overall Model
The North Face Route Rocket
The North Face Route Rocket is tied for first place in two of our five evaluation criteria, it boasts the best overall score and is our lead tester's favorite. Our team loved the simplicity of the bag, no need to read the manual for this one. The small zippered pocket is accessible whether the main pocket is open or not. We suspect that the generous coating on the pack's fabric will allow it to outlast bags made from fabrics of a similar denier. The Route Rocket is comfortable, especially for taller climbers.
The main compartment zipper is much deeper on one side than the other. This is a feature we generally liked but it could catch climbers unawares and possibly lead to dropping something important - watch out if you have butterfingers at the anchor. While it's design is simple, this pack is only in the middle of our group when it comes to weight. These small quibbles aside, this is a great pack for multi-pitch climbers, and we're happy to give it our Editors' Choice Award.
Read review: The North Face Route Rocket
Best for Budget-Minded
REI Co-op Flash 18
Even though it's not designed for rock climbing, we include the REI Co-op Flash 18 in our review because we see it out at the crag all the time. 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 the review on these two fronts. It also has a surprisingly decent set of features and is reasonably comfortable.
The low price and weight come at a cost, and that's durability. This is not a pack to wear while climbing a chimney (or tight corner). Climbers should avoid hauling it at all costs. For those who only occasionally climb with a pack, or must have the lightest model, this is a great choice.
Read review: REI Co-Op Flash 18
Best 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 really durable and stands up straight when empty - for easier packing. 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 simple and durable, this is your pack.
Read review: Black Diamond Creek 20
Best for Alpine Climbing
Black Diamond Blitz 20
The Black Diamond Blitz 20 is a great small pack for alpine climbing. It sports a simple, uncluttered design. This, coupled with a light fabric, keep the pack weight low. It has most of the features we like in a small climbing pack, as well as external ice axe attachment points. The main pack opening is fast and easy to use.
Our two gripes with this pack come from its purpose-driven design. The lightweight fabric the pack is made of does not stand up to abrasion well. The pack has almost no external attachment points (aside from those for an ice axe), so it's hard to control items that might get strapped on without getting clever with slings and carabiners. However, this encouraged our testers to keep their kit pared down to the minimum. Take this pack on that fast and light mission you've been dreaming of, and you won't regret it.
Read review: Black Diamond Blitz 20
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 climbed 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, Yosemite, Washington's Cascades, Utah's desert, and Alaska.
This study began with market research and the examination of over 50 models before carefully selecting the 13 strongest offerings, which we purchased and tested. We conducted testing out in the field, over 5 months, in locations ranging from Cochamo in South America to Devil's Tower in Wyoming.
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. With good packing, most climbers can expect to fit a couple of liters of water, a pair of approach shoes, some snacks, and a layer or two in most of these packs.
Related: Buying Advice for Climbing Packs
What Is a Rock Climbing Daypack?
One of the joys of climbing is getting up off the ground. Getting high can give you, literally and figuratively, new perspectives. The challenge posed by long routes is staying comfortable and safe enough to climb your best while hundreds (or thousands) of feet off the ground. A backpack helps overcome this problem by carrying the food, water, and gear necessary for you to send. While your high school bookbag can hold stuff, we set out to discover what packs explicitly built 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.
We enjoy discovering gear that's not only inexpensive 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 occupy a range of prices. The highest value products include the REI Co-Op Flash 18, Trango Ration, and Black Diamond Bullet.
It is hard to imagine another sport with as much variety of movement as rock climbing. From basic maneuvers like laybacks, 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 the back of your harness. At the same time, a climbing pack shouldn't be positioned too high, otherwise, your helmet hits it every time you look up. All of the contenders in our test have slightly different back lengths and shapes. 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.
Differentiation came from the tapered designs of The North Face Route Rocket and BD Rock Blitz that more closely matched a body's shape (wider at the shoulders, narrower toward the hips). We preferred this design to the basic rectangular shape of the Bullet, Flash, and Petzl Bug.
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 Payload 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. Many of our testers reported specific complaints about the Bullet. This pack has widely spaced and curved shoulder straps that were prone to sliding off the shoulders of even our broadest-shouldered testers. Keeping the sternum strap clipped generally solved this problem.
Padding is also -obviously- important. The shoulder straps and hip belt of the Mescalito are far more padded than any others. The rest of the packs featured adequately padded shoulder straps and hip belts without padding.
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 metrics.
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 lack these niceties. Key clips inside accessory pockets are also almost entirely universal; here, it's only the Payload and Mescalito that mysteriously lack one in their zippered lid pockets.Pockets
The placement of pockets was another matter. The "pocket bag" is the name of the 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 in or out of the external zipper pockets on the Bug and Flash. A small internal pocket, usually large enough for a phone, keys, and headlamp, is a common feature we've come to appreciate. The dual interior/exterior opening on the pocket of the Route Rocket was a tester favorite.Streamlined
Laybacks, stem boxes, offwidths, and shoulder scums can all require you to place your back or sides on 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 Rock Blitz, Bug, and Route Rocket are also streamlined but include haul loops and a few attachment points that could potentially get hung up. The most grabby are the Ration, Blitz, and Alpha AR, which have cords, loops, and other gizmos as potential snag points.Hauling
Despite the similarities, there were also important differences. Hauling a pack is something no one enjoys doing, but it's often much easier than wearing a bag up a strenuous overhang or tagging it inside a difficult chimney (Epinephrine anyone?). If you gotta haul, you probably want to do it using two beefy haul points. The BD Creek has a pair of loops that can be clipped together with one locking carabiner when the pack isn't overstuffed. This is easy, bomber, and takes minimal gear.
The Mescalito has two top attachment points, but they require an additional sling or some cord to rig. The rest of the packs have a single loop 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, Route Rocket, Multi-pitch 20, 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. Our favorite setup is a removable hip belt. This is what most of the packs offer. We have gripes with the Payload 18 and Gravity Pitch because they're the only packs without hip belts, this is a deal-breaker for some climbers. The hip belt is permanently attached to the Petzl Bug, but it can be tucked away.
The last feature we wish was included on all climbing backpacks is a safety whistle. Half of the packs in the review have whistles that double as the buckle for their sternum strap; always at hand, impossible to forget. The potential emergency signaling use of a whistle is way too valuable for this light, simple device not to be included on any pack designed explicitly for a sport like rock climbing.
Overall, we were impressed with how well these packs held up. Durability is primarily determined by two factors: materials and design. Materials include 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.
Most of the packs we tested are composed primarily of nylon. Nylon's abrasion resistance can vary wildly (think of the tissue-like delicacy of a windbreaker vs. the bullet stopping force of a flak jacket). The most widely listed metric to describe nylon durability is denier. Denier doesn't measure strength but rather the fineness of an individual yarn (determined as the mass in grams of a 9000-meter long strand). This gives an okay idea of how durable a given fabric is, a higher number corresponds to a higher level of durability. Other factors, like the density of the weave or additional coatings, can affect abrasion resistance and muddle denier's descriptive usefulness. We suspect that the proprietary coatings on the Route Rocket and Alpha AR 20 will boost their durability.
Materials we tested ranged from the flimsy 100-denier nylon on the body of the Gravity Pitch to the 1260d on the base of the Black Diamond Bullet. Three packs in our test (the Mescalito and Black Diamond Creek 20, and the Mountain Hardwear Multi-pitch 20) have notably different materials to increase durability. The Creek is made of a high denier polyester with a thick urethane coating. The Mescalito is made of a lighter-weight version of the Durathane material on the Metolius haul bags. The Multi-pitch 20 is made with a blend of 83% cotton canvas and 17% polyester.
This brings us to design. Higher denier fabrics weigh more. To shave ounces, designers only use heavier materials on parts of the pack most subject to abuse; we found heavier fabrics on the bottom. 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. Pack designers don't seem to be aware of this.
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 Blitz, knowing that's what it's not intended for, and because we didn't want to ruin it for future testing.
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. Our testers and climbers we talked to preferred the Bullet's sleek exterior for social occasions. The Alpha AR 20 and Blitz 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 only 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 Rock Blitz vie for the smallest. We often tossed 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. 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 California's Sierra Nevada.
When multi-pitching, it's common to 'carry-over', meaning you approach from one direction and descend another, not returning to the base of the route. 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 becomes 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 Black Diamond Blitz is built specifically for this purpose. The Payload had a combination of low weight 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).
Rock climbers should already know how important weight is. Every serious sport climber knows that 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. Most 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.
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 that's even lighter, but not without sacrifices in durability, function, or cost. Most every 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; not critical but worth consideration.
If you're into climbing 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. 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