What's the best backpack for rock climbing? To find out we went over eleven of the most popular rock climbing daypacks stitch by stitch during our multi-month test.
Why Do You Need a Rock Climbing Daypack?
It wasn't long after the 1786 first ascent of Mount Blanc before climbers started looking for a comfortable and efficient way to carry stuff. Almost two centuries later backpacks explicitly designed for multi-pitch rock climbing appeared. At first, these were rudimentary, little more than minimalist bags sewn with sturdy fabrics. Today that's still mostly true, except the materials have improved, weights have decreased, and a few convenience features have been added.
When looking for something to carry the gear to keep you comfortable during a day in the vertical, you need a pack that's reliable and not annoying to climb with. For most readers, this will be a small backpack worn during ascents of multi-pitch routes completed in one day. It needs to be able to store things like water, food, layers, headlamp, phone, and perhaps shoes for a carry-over descent. There are thousands of backpacks that could hold that gear. In our Overview article, we focused on products designed specifically for climbing applications.
The Contenders to be Your Rock Climbing Backpack
As skills develop and experience multi-pitch climbing grows, climbers can expect speed to increase and a decrease in their need for a small pack. It's possible to carry some of the contents of a daypack on your person. An insulating layer can be knotted around the waist or crammed into its own pocket, a water bottle and shoes can be clipped to your harness, and food and headlamps fit inside pockets. Each climber should make their own decisions when it comes to gear selection and route choice based on a conservative assessment of their ability and conditions. For certain routes though, the freedom of climbing with no pack is worth the sacrificed storage capacity.
If you prefer long, face climbing routes in stable weather, a hydration pack might be superior to a rock climbing-specific daypack. Hydration packs are smaller and more compact than climbing daypacks and sport a narrower profile that makes them more comfortable to climb with. However, those advantages come with limitations. They're usually too small for extra layers or shoes, or really anything beyond a water bladder and a granola bar. They're also more delicate. Still, we like hydration packs on sunny, strenuous routes when we want a bunch of water but don't want the burden of a full-fledged backpack.
Rock Climbing Specific Daypacks
This is the style of pack we highlight in our main review article. They're small (12-24L) and designed to ride high on the back so they won't interfere with a harness. They're also tougher than the average backpack, like the burly Black Diamond Bullet, sewn with thicker fabrics to resist abrasion. Many of these packs have some removable parts that let you customize them for your preferences and objectives. The best designs also include strong anchor points for occasional hauling. Hiking daypacks can also work for the climber who rarely climbs long routes, but you will sacrifice some durability.
Mini Haul Bags
Another option for tackling strenuous routes is to take the pack off and haul it. This can be the best strategy for success on routes with sustained, difficult climbing. Hauling a pack with a day's worth of gear (<30lbs) isn't that bad, and if you use a progress capture pulley and static tag line it's even easier. Options available include the Black Diamond Stubby,Metolius Mescalito, and Black Diamond Creek 20. We also like this kind of pack for in-a-day big wall routes so you can keep the aid gear stowed until you need it.
Alpine and Mountaineering Packs
When elevation increases and temperatures plummet, climbers are forced to bring extra gear if they want to stay safe and comfortable. Climbing with a pack is more common in the alpine for these reasons and because alpine terrain, which is often less technical, makes wearing one less annoying.
Alpine packs can be lighter because abrasion is less of a concern in snowy and icy environments. They're usually larger to accommodate bulkier insulating layers. Of the eleven models in this review, only the Arc'teryx Alpha AR 20 and the Black Diamond Blitz 20 are designed specifically for alpine climbing. Interested mountaineers should check out our review of mountaineering and alpine climbing backpacks.
Considerations for Rock Climbing Specific Daypacks
After you've decided you need a rock climbing backpack, the next question is what size? The packs we tested ranged from 12 to 24 liters. Smaller than that and the contents could fit on your harness, much larger and it can be miserable to climb with.
If you need to carry more gear than a single pack can hold, it's generally better to add a second pack for the leader instead of forcing a more substantial pack on the follower. Any of the models we reviewed will work for a leader or follower. We recommend keeping the leader's pack lighter than the follower's whenever possible. Depending on the route and amount of gear required, it can sometimes be better to pair a rock climbing-specific pack for the follower with a lighter hydration pack for the leader.
Sport vs. Trad (Weight vs. Durability)
The most significant consideration when selecting a climbing pack should be the type of climbing you intend to do. Bolted face routes and sustained chimney systems place dramatically different demands on a pack. Climbers who clip bolts exclusively, or tradsters who abhor awkward wideness, can sacrifice durability to enjoy a lighter pack. Offwidth masochists and adventure climbers need more abrasion resistance and are better off with a tougher bag, like our Top Pick For Durability, the Creek 20.
Packed Size (Streamlined vs. Junk Show)
Almost every single pack in our review has a few options for attaching a rope or big cam to the outside; the one exception is the sleek exterior of the BD Bullet. However, having a yard sale of water bottles, helmets, big cams, and extra layers dangling from the outside of your pack is problematic on the approach and dangerous on the climb. Be sure that gear attached to the outside is secure and not flopping around.
Our testing team recommends that climbers pack as much of their kit inside the pack as possible. However, no rock climbing daypack can accommodate the bulk of a rope or #5 Camalot inside without leaving everything else out. Consider how often you will be strapping things to the outside and take a good look at each pack's attachment options. Some require more prep time than others.
Beyond the larger considerations, there are a few other features that differentiate the rock climbing daypacks. Chimneys and hard crux pitches can call for hauling a pack. The Mountain Hardwear Multi-Pitch 20 has two sturdy loops designed for this job. The single haul loop found on other packs will be sufficient for most climbers most of the time. It's possible to rig these packs with more haul points using the shoulder straps or other attachment points, a sling, and a little creativity.Hip belts
Ten of the packs we tested have removable hip belts. Two have no hip belt at all, and one comes with it permanently attached. Many of our testers want a hip belt some - but not all - of the time. Unless you know your hip belt preference, we suggest you choose one of those ten and experiment for yourself.Emergency Whistles
The final feature we wish were included on all rock climbing daypacks is a safety whistle. Whistles are light and small and can be a useful signaling device in an emergency. Six of the packs we used incorporate a whistle into the buckle of the sternum strap. The other models in the test should include this low-cost safety feature in the future.
Though it's very important, fit is incredibly difficult to convey with words. After you've made a decision based on the above criteria, consider fit. If at all possible, try the pack on at your local climbing shop. Some online retailers have generous return policies that can help. It's important that your choice is tuned into your back length. The bottom of the pack should ride above your hips. If it's too long it will obstruct access to the rear gear loops on your harness or the back of your helmet will hit the top of the pack when you look up.
The last decision to make is how much you're willing to spend. Premium packs can cost over $80, which might be more than occasional multi-pitchers are willing to spend. It's entirely possible to climb comfortably with the more affordable Flash 18 or many other less expensive, non-sport-specific, packs. The reverse is also true; most of our tester packs work well on a day hike, mountain bike ride, or day at the ski area. If you don't plan to haul or climb in areas with coarse rock, then the added durability and features of the nicer packs may not be worth the cost.