What's the best backpack for rock climbing? To find out we went over five of the most popular rock climbing daypacks stitch by stitch during a multi-month test. By the end, we had a pretty good idea of what to look for in a good climbing pack, so we wrote this article to share our newfound wisdom with you.
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 their stuff. Almost two centuries later—after technical rock climbing had grown into its sport separate from mountaineering—backpacks explicitly designed for rock climbing began to appear. At first, these were rudimentary, little more than minimalist packs sewn with sturdy fabrics. Today that's still mostly true, except the materials have improved, weights have decreased, and they've added a few convenience features.
When looking for something to carry the gear to keep you comfortable and safe during a day in the vertical, you need a solution that's also reliable and not too annoying to climb with. For most readers we envision this to be a small backpack worn during ascents of moderate, multi-pitch classics completed in a single day. It needs to be able to store things like water, food, layers, headlamps, a camera, and perhaps shoes for a carry-over descent. There are quite literally thousands of backpacks that could do this, so in our Best in Class article, we tried to focus on the best designs suited for the most popular climbing applications. Here, we will explore those options and other types of packs that might be useful for different climbing goals.
The Contenders to be Your Rock Climbing Daypack
Rock Climbing Specific Daypacks
This is the style of pack we highlight in our main review article. They're small (16-20L), compact, 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 are modular with removable hip belts, sternum straps, and back panels that let you customize them to your personal preferences and objectives. The best designs also include strong anchor points for secure hauling on the occasional crux pitch (the Patagonia Linked Pack 18L is a good example)—no regular daypack though is built to handle sustained hauling. The burly materials and extra features increase the cost, so we also included one regular hiking daypack in our review, the REI Co-op Flash 18, because it's a cheap alternative and fairly popular among climbers. Other hiking daypacks can also work as stand-ins for the rare multi-pitcher, but you will sacrifice some durability.
Hydration packs are typically even smaller and more compact than their rock climbing counterparts, and with a narrower profile that often makes them more comfortable to climb with especially the Osprey Raptor 10 or CamelBak M.U.L.E.. However, these 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 or two. They're also delicate and should never be hauled or chimneyed. Still, we like hydration packs on sunny, strenuous routes where we know we'll need to drink a lot but don't want the burden of a full-fledged backpack.
Mini Haul Bags
The other option for tackling strenuous routes besides slimming down to a hydration pack is to take the pack off and haul it. This is often the best strategy for success on routes with sustained and difficult climbing. Hauling a pack with a day's worth of gear (<30lbs) isn't that bad, and if youprogress capture pulley and static tag line it's even easier. Options available include the Fish Atom Smasher, Metolius Mescalito, Black Diamond Creek 20, and Runout Customs Canyon Pack V2. 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 because less technical terrain makes wearing one less annoying.Alpine packs can be lighter because abrasion is not as massive of a concern and they're usually larger to accommodate bulkier insulating layers. Of the ten models in this review, only the
Considerations for Rock Climbing Specific Daypacks
After you've decided you need a rock climbing daypack, the next question is how big? The packs we tested all ranged from 16 to 20 liters, and we feel this is the ideal size for a climbing daypack. Much smaller than 16L and the contents could fit on your harness, much larger and it gets miserable to climb with.
Therefore, we suggest shoppers stick to this approximate capacity. If you need to carry more gear than a single pack can hold, it's usually 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 swapping them though, always to give the leader the lightest/smallest pack. Depending on the route and amount of gear required, it can sometimes be better to pair a rock climbing specific daypack for the follower with a 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. Exclusive sport climbers, or tradsters that avoid awkward wideness, can sacrifice durability to enjoy a lighter model, like the Flash 18. Offwidth masochists and adventure climbers need more abrasion resistance and are better off with a tougher bag, like the Editors' Choice Linked, or 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 troublesome on the hike in and can be dangerous on the climb.
Our testing team recommends that climbers try hard to 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 at home. Consider how often you will need to 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 often necessitate hauling your pack. The Linked, Creek 20, and Mountain Hardwear Hueco 20 all have two sturdy loops designed for hauling. The single haul loop found on all packs in this test will be sufficient for most climbers most of the time. It's possible to rig the other packs in this test with redundant hauling points using the shoulder straps or other attachment points, and a little creativity.Hip belts
Several manufacturers recognize that different climbers prefer to climb with or without a hip belt. Seven of the packs we tested come with removable hip belts. 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 seven and experiment for yourself.Emergency Whistles
The other big decision you need to make is how much you're willing to spend. The premium packs cost $80+, which is probably more than most occasional multi-pitchers are willing to spend. It's entirely possible to climb comfortably with the $40 Flash 18 or many other affordable, non-sport specific, packs. 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.