Best Climbing Backpack of 2021
|Price||$80 List||$69.95 at Amazon||$98.95 at Backcountry||$99.95 at Backcountry|
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|$59.95 at Backcountry|
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|Pros||Simple, great zippered pocket, streamlined||Comfortable, easy to pack, great packing volume||Durable, functional, versatile||Durable, comfortable, simple||Simple, sturdy, light|
|Cons||Limited attachment points, easy to drop stuff||Heavy, average durability, no emergency whistle||Heavy, no key clip, not tapered||Heavy, few hydration features||No emergency whistle, draw cord and cord lock blend into pack|
|Bottom Line||Though there are no extra features, this bag ticks all the boxes for multi-pitch climbing||This pack is great to climb with and easy to load, though it's not particularly light||Though it's heavy, this pack makes up for it with durability and great climbing features||This comfortable and utilitarian pack is light on features but heavy on durability||This is a great pack for multi-pitch rock climbs at a very fair price|
|Rating Categories||The North Face Rout...||Petzl Bug||Mystery Ranch Skyli...||Black Diamond Creek 20||Black Diamond Rock...|
|Climbing Utility (25%)|
|Specs||The North Face Rout...||Petzl Bug||Mystery Ranch Skyli...||Black Diamond Creek 20||Black Diamond Rock...|
|Measured Weight||1.1 lbs||1.1 lbs||1.4 lbs||1.7 lbs||0.9 lbs|
|Fabric Type||420D nylon||400D nylon||1000D cordura nylon||1200D polyester with TPU coating||840D nylon|
|Accessory Pockets?||One external zip||One external zip, one external open, one internal zip||One internal zip, one external zip||One internal zip||One external zip, one internal zip|
|Outside Carry Options?||Daisy chains||Top strap, one daisy chain||Top strap, side straps, ice axe attachments||Top strap, two daisy chains||Top strap doubles as rope strap|
|Hip Belt||Yes, removable||Yes||Yes, removable||Yes, removable||Yes, removable|
|Hydration System Compatible||Yes||Yes||Yes||No||Yes|
Best Overall Climbing Backpack
The North Face Route Rocket
Scoring highly in almost all of our metrics, The North Face Route Rocket is a tester favorite. The pack's features are simple but well thought out. The zippered pocket has a phone and eyewear-friendly fleece lining and is accessible from both inside and outside the pack. The fabric is coated on the outside, and we find this boosts overall durability. In addition, this pack is quite comfortable, particularly for taller climbers.
We like that the main pack zipper is deeper on one side, but this is an unusual feature that — if not anticipated — increases the likelihood of dropping stuff. And while this pack isn't particularly heavy, it's also not ultralight. However, these are fairly minor concerns. We think this is a good bag for long routes and well deserves the top marks it received.
Read review: The North Face Route Rocket
Best for the Budget-Minded
Black Diamond Rock Blitz 15
The Black Diamond Rock Blitz 15 is a good small climbing pack at a nice price. We like its simple design, and it has almost all of the features we want without any extra junk. This spartan layout allows for heavier materials in the construction without a weight penalty. In turn, these heavier materials add durability.
Two of the features we missed on this pack were a sternum strap buckle that doubles as an emergency whistle (a feature found on some other BD packs) and external attachment options — aside from the rope strap on top of the pack, there aren't any. We also wish that the top drawcord and cord lock weren't black, as they blend into the black fabric atop the pack. Nonetheless, we think this pack is an excellent value for rock climbers looking to get more than half a rope length off the ground and still have some bills in their pocket.
Read review: Black Diamond Rock Blitz 15
Best for Durability
Black Diamond Creek 20
The Black Diamond Creek 20 has some of the best features of a haul bag (durability, stand-up construction) and the comfort (both on the hike in and on route) of a small climbing pack. It's incredibly durable and has a simple design and construction that make it easy to pack and easy to dig into. Professional climbing guides, first ascensionists, desert climbers rolling with a lot of water, climbers in cold environments who need extra layers…really anyone who needs a bit more than 16 liters of volume but doesn't want to sacrifice climbability should check out this bag.
The price of this durable and utilitarian design is weight; it's the heaviest model in our review. However, if you're hard on gear or just want to buy one pack and not think about it again for 5 - 10 years, this is the small climbing pack for you.
Read review: Black Diamond Creek 20
Best for Alpine Climbing
Black Diamond Blitz 20
Dreaming about predawn starts and prancing through the mountains unencumbered by overnight gear? Check out the Black Diamond Blitz 20. The design is as simple as they come, and that's paired with light materials for a low weight. We like the features, including a quick-and-easy main pack opening and good external ice axe attachment points.
Our two complaints come from taking this alpine-focused design into the rock realm. The pack is not very abrasion resistant, and it is almost free of external attachments. Strapping gear to the outside securely means being crafty with slings and carabiners. That being said, this forced us to keep our gear pile small. This is the pack for that C2C backcountry day you've been scheming about.
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 more rock and bigger mountains are found. Throughout, he's climbed on everything from boulders 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 at full retail for testing. We conducted our testing out in the field, in locations ranging from Cochamo in South America to Devil's Tower in Wyoming.
Related: How We Tested Climbing Packs
Analysis and Test Results
We tested these small climbing packs for comfort, climbing utility, durability, versatility, and weight. Below we dive into those metrics and how the models compared to each other. Keep in mind the type of climbing you do (and hope to do) as you're reading. Certain models are better for certain kinds of climbs.
Related: Buying Advice for Climbing Packs
What Is a Rock Climbing Daypack?
One of the joys of climbing is getting up off the ground. The challenge posed by long routes is staying comfortable and safe enough to climb your best while hundreds (or thousands) of feet up a rock face. A backpack helps by carrying the food, water, and gear necessary for you to send. While your high school bookbag can certainly hold stuff, we set out to discover what packs explicitly built for multi-pitch rock climbing have to offer. These bags 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 range in size from 12 - 24 liters. Smaller, and all that stuff could ride on your harness. Larger, and all the fun is sucked out. 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.
We enjoy discovering gear that's not only inexpensive but also performs well. For this year's lineup, we've included 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 occupy a range of prices. The highest value products (meaning a great balance of price and performance) include the Black Diamond Rock Blitz 15 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 Soleil").
One difference between climbing daypacks and regular hiking daypacks is where they rest on the back; climbing-specific bags are 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 because your helmet will hit 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 or making sure you can do a return or exchange online if needed.
Differentiation in our tested packs came from designs that taper (wide at the top, narrow at the bottom) to match a body's shape more closely. Packs of this shape give more clearance around the harness so your arms won't bump into them as often. We generally prefer this design to a basic rectangular shape.
Nevertheless, a tapered profile doesn't guarantee a good comfort score, as evidenced by the Petzl Bug — this rectangular pack is the most comfortable in our lineup. Multi-pitch routes often have a long approach, and climbing daypacks should be able to tote gear on that approach with a (reasonable) level of comfort. Padding is also of obvious importance. The amount of padding on the shoulder straps of our tested packs varied but was always adequate. The hip belts on these packs are not padded. The Route Rocket scored high for comfort as well due to a fantastic balance of padding and tapering.
Sometimes seemingly small things can cause discomfort, so it's important to consider details. The Payload 18 lost points because it lacks a hip belt and can become unpleasant when bouncing down a long walk-off with a heavy load. The Bullet has widely spaced and curved shoulder straps that were prone to sliding off the shoulders of even our broadest-shouldered testers. However, keeping the sternum strap clipped generally solved this problem.
All of our 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 features outside the scope of those other metrics which still need to be considered.
Almost all of our packs were hydration system compatible, with sleeves or pockets along the back to tuck a bladder, a hole through the top to pass a hose, and tabs on the shoulder straps to secure a bite valve. The Creek 20 lacks these niceties, but if you prefer to have your water in a bottle, this may not be a dealbreaker. Key clips inside accessory pockets are also almost entirely universal; here, it's only the Payload, Summit Lite, and Skyline 17 that mysteriously lack one in their zippered pockets.Pockets
Pocket placement and construction are important to consider. External pockets with a "bag" on the inside of the pack can be harder to use because they get squished by whatever is inside the pack. This construction made it difficult for our testers to get things in and out of the external zipper pockets on the Bug and Neon, particularly when overpacked. 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 is a tester favorite. The Rock Blitz has a pocket that lives up against the wearer's lumbar spine and is a great protected place to stash a phone.
Laybacks, stem boxes, offwidths, and shoulder scums can all require you to place your back or sides against rock. Snagging your pack on underbrush 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 BD 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 15, 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 packs are the Tarak, Skyline 17, and Alpha AR, which have cords, loops, and other gizmos as potential snag points.
Hauling a pack is something no one enjoys doing, but it's often much easier than wearing a bag up a strenuous overhang or hanging it from your harness inside a difficult chimney (Epinephrine anyone?). However, if you have to haul, you probably want to do it using two beefy haul points. The Creek 20 and Mystery Ranch Skyline have 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 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 Creek, Route Rocket, Bullet, and Mountain Hardwear Multi-Pitch 20 all have flaps built into the back of the pack to tuck shoulder straps into when hauling. The shoulder straps on the Bug can also be crammed into the special topo pocket on the back of the pack.
If you're going to be hiking around with a daypack full of water, layers, snacks, 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 in our review come with decent shoulder straps. When it comes to the hip belt, our favorite setup is a removable one, which is what most of the packs have. We have gripes with the Payload 18 because it is the only pack without a hip belt — this is a dealbreaker for some climbers. The hip belt on the Petzl Bug is permanently attached, but it can be tucked away.
An important feature that we wish was included on all climbing backpacks is a safety whistle. Half of the packs in this 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 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 Arc'teryx Alpha AR 20 and the Route Rocket will boost their durability over the long haul.
Materials we tested ranged from the flimsy 70 denier nylon on the body of the Neon Light to the 1260d on the base of the Black Diamond Bullet. In another vein, the Black Diamond Creek 20 and the Mountain Hardwear Multi-Pitch 20 both have notably different materials to increase durability. The Creek is made of a high denier polyester with a thick urethane coating. 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 — like on the bottom. However, although this might help keep the bottom of your pack from falling out, we believe the more likely places to get worn on a climbing backpack are the front and sides. These problem areas usually scrape against the rock during actual climbing and hauling and are where the most reinforcement should be targeted. Pack designers seem blissfully unaware of this.
This is one of our trickier metrics, as there are endless ways to use a small backpack. Our most common other use 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 bigger bags are more useful at the farmer's market.
There are no restrictions on filling the main compartment of your bag with books, avocados, or anything else. However, there is a subjective quality affecting this application — style. Testers and climbers both liked the sleek exterior of the Bullet for social occasions. Many others 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 pack inside a larger bag for carrying gear to the cliff or on an overnight trip. Therefore, we factored in the packable bulk of these bags when they're empty. The Creek 20 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. At the other end of the spectrum, the Exped Summit Lite and BD Rock Blitz 15 vie for the smallest. We often tossed the Rock Blitz 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 especially useful on trips where you hike into a base camp with overnight loads and climb several long climbs 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 climbing backpacks with external attachment options. Our favorites were contenders that balanced external carry options with a snag-free design. The Multi-Pitch 20 has a clever mesh pocket for holding your climbing shoes on the way to and from a route. 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. While this may limit its uses, it may also be desirable by high-speed adventurers who prefer zero possibility of snagging (mountain bikers, resort skiers).
Beyond these qualities, evaluating versatility becomes more pack-specific. Half of the packs in this 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 Mystery Rancy Skyline 17 and Cotopaxi Tarak 20 also sport ice tool attachments. The Outdoor Research Payload has a combination of low weight and sufficient attachment points for a pair of ice tools and (maybe) crampons.
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 your 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 their 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 (or lack thereof) when it was really light (like the 10 ounce Summit Lite) or really heavy (like the 27 ounce Creek). It is possible to create a 16-liter pack that's even lighter than 10 ounces but not without sacrifices in durability, function, or cost. We felt like the Rock Blitz struck a nice balance of weight and durability. Most every pack in this review can be slimmed by about two ounces or more if you remove hip belts, sternum straps, and supplemental padding. Weight itself represents just 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