The world's most in-depth and scientific reviews of outdoor gear

The Best Climbing Packs of 2019

Testing the BD Bullet high above the Crooked River  Smith Rock State Park  OR.
By Ian McEleney ⋅ Review Editor
Thursday December 13, 2018
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Is there a multi-pitch climb in your future? Are you making plans for a long route in Red Rocks, Eldorado Canyon, or Looking Glass? We've got 11 climbing packs, culled from a field of over 50, in our review. They've been tested side-by-side on routes all over the country, from the aztec sandstone of Red Rocks, to the polished granite of Whitehorse Ledge. Our testers wore them on in-a-day ascents of El Cap and long routes at Washington Pass, climbed awkward chimneys, and hauled the occasional cruxy pitch. All of this vertical mileage helped us figure out which packs were the most comfortable and longest-lasting, and distinguish the useful climbing features from the fluff.


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Awards Editors' Choice Award   Top Pick Award  
Price $99.00 at REI
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Overall Score Sort Icon
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Pros Light, stylish, comfortable, versatileComfortable, easy to packDurable, sleek, stylishDurable, comfortable, simpleLight, durable, simple
Cons Expensive, no emergency whistleHeavy, below average durability, no emergency whistleUncomfortable shoulder straps, no external carrying optionsHeavy, few hydration featuresNo 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 Linked Pack 18L Petzl Bug Bullet Creek 20 Lightweight Black Hole Cinch 20L
Weight (10%)
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7
Durability (20%)
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8
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7
Climbing Utility (25%)
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Specs Linked Pack 18L Petzl Bug Bullet Creek 20 Lightweight Black Hole Cinch 20L
Capacity (Liters) 18 18 16 20 20
Measured Weight 1.23 lbs 1.1 lbs 1.1 lbs 1.7lbs 1 lbs
Padded back? Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes

Updated December 2018
With an updated selection, our team of experts pushed each pack's limits while rock climbing all over the globe. Our Editors' Choice, the Patagonia Linked Pack, has seen some changes for the better, while the updated REI Co-op Flash 18 is still our favorite option for those on a budget. We've also included the Black Diamond Creek 20, which steals the show for being the most durable.

Best Overall Model


Patagonia Linked Pack 18L


Capacity: 18 liters | Weight: 1.23 lbs
Light
Stylish
Comfortable
Versatile
Expensive
No emergency whistle
Patagonia updated the Linked Pack, now offering an extra two liters of storage, a burlier fabric, and dual external daisy chains. Check out the individual review to get the whole scoop!

Despite the fact that the Patagonia Linked Pack 18L only owns one of our five evaluating metrics, it's the top overall scorer and the pack our testers consistently reached for. Any pack you're wearing while climbing needs to balance the opposing qualities of durability and weight; this pack does that 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 it's combination of great haul loops, snag-free exterior, and ability to swallow a lot of stuff.

We were overall very pleased with this pack. If we had to make any changes, it might be nice if the sternum strap buckle doubled as an emergency whistle. We also would like to see a simpler attachment for the hip belt, perhaps just a girth hitch. Ultimately, this is a great pack for anyone who's planning on doing a lot of multi-pitch climbing and we confidently give it our Editors' Choice Award.

Read review: Patagonia Linked Pack 18L

Best for Budget-Minded


REI Co-op Flash 18


Best Buy Award

$39.95
at REI
See It

Capacity: 18 liters | Measured weight: 0.6 lbs
Light
Cheap
Ice axe loop
Fragile
Limited climbing utility

Even though it's not specifically designed for rock climbing, we included 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, 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

Top Pick for Durability


Black Diamond Creek 20


Top Pick Award

$89.95
(10% off)
at Amazon
See It

Capacity: 20 liters | Measured weight: 1.7 lbs
Durable
Simple
Comfortable
Heavy
Few hydration features

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.

We found the Patagonia Linked to be the most comfortable of all the small climbing day packs. Its lightweight suspension allowed free movement even with arms overhead.
We found the Patagonia Linked to be the most comfortable of all the small climbing day packs. Its lightweight suspension allowed free movement even with arms overhead.

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.

When hiking in on the approach with the Hueco 20 (right) the lack of a hip belt had our testers passing the rope off to partners with more comfortable packs  like the Petzl Bug.
When hiking in on the approach with the Hueco 20 (right) the lack of a hip belt had our testers passing the rope off to partners with more comfortable packs, like the Petzl Bug.

Value


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.


Weight


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.

Durability


The streamlined exterior of the BD Bullet helps it slide easily up chimneys when tagged off a harness.
The streamlined exterior of the BD Bullet helps it slide easily up chimneys when tagged off a harness.
There's no question that climbing backpacks need to be tough. They've got to endure branches and cactus spines on the way to the cliff, only to be subjected to abrasion while on route. While coarse rock damages skin and clothing, the situation is even worse for climbing backpacks, because without sensitive nerve endings, they receive little sympathy. Big wall climbers know the destructive potential of rock friction that's capable of quickly wearing holes through the burliest urethane or vinyl haul bags.


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.

If a climbing pack's main compartment is closed by a zipper it should be a big burly one (Bullet  left) or at least covered by a flap (Bug  center). The Hueco 20 (right) has the smallest and weakest zipper.
If a climbing pack's main compartment is closed by a zipper it should be a big burly one (Bullet, left) or at least covered by a flap (Bug, center). The Hueco 20 (right) has the smallest and weakest zipper.
Most of the packs we tested are composed primarily of nylon. Nylon's abrasion resistance can vary wildly depending on the strength of the fibers and the density of the weave they make up (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, with a higher number corresponding to a higher level of durability. Other factors, like the density of the weave or post-spinning chemical coatings, can affect abrasion resistance and muddle denier's descriptive usefulness.

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.

The SwiftCord is system is a pain to use  but in combination with the top strap carries a rope with no flopping around.
The SwiftCord is system is a pain to use, but in combination with the top strap carries a rope with no flopping around.

Climbing Utility


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 Trango Ration with and without the removable haul cover.
The Trango Ration with and without the removable haul cover.
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 one inside a difficult chimney (Harding Slot anyone?). And if you gotta haul, you probably want to do it using two beefy haul points. The Patagonia Linked and BD Creek both have a pair of loops that can be clipped together with one locking carabiner when the packs aren't overstuffed. This is easy, doesn't take extra gear, and is bomber.

The Mescalito and Hueco 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, Hueco, 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.

The hip belt on the BD Bullet is removable via a simple sewn loop thread-through attachment.
The hip belt on the BD Bullet is removable via a simple sewn loop thread-through attachment.

Emergency Whistles
The sternum strap on the REI Flash 18 doubles as an emergency whistle.
The sternum strap on the REI Flash 18 doubles as an emergency whistle.
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.

Versatility


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.

The rope strap on top of the Hueco 20 easily secures a 60m 9.4mm rope.
The rope strap on top of the Hueco 20 easily secures a 60m 9.4mm rope.

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).

The Patagonia Linked is stylish enough to wear for urban activities.
The Patagonia Linked is stylish enough to wear for urban activities.

Comfort


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.

The three most comfortable packs in our test: the Creek 20  Linked  and Bug (L-R). They were chosen for their comfort both on the trail and on the climb.
The three most comfortable packs in our test: the Creek 20, Linked, and Bug (L-R). They were chosen for their comfort both on the trail and on the climb.

Our biggest complaint about the BD Bullet is the wide shoulder straps. No matter the size or build of the tester these always seemed to be slipping off their shoulders.
Our biggest complaint about the BD Bullet is the wide shoulder straps. No matter the size or build of the tester these always seemed to be slipping off their shoulders.
Differentiation came from the tapered designs of the Patagonia Linked and Arc'teryx Cierzo 18 that more closely match 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 Black Hole Cinch 20, Hueco, 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.

Conclusion


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. As a further resource, be sure to consult our Buying Advice article for advice on how to find the right bag that matches your back (and climbing lifestyle!).


Ian McEleney