Best Climbing Backpack of 2021
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|$129 List||$132.92 at Amazon|
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|$80 List||$98.95 at Backcountry|
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|Pros||Versatile, colorful||Versatile, well-featured||Versatile, comfortable||Simple, great zippered pocket, streamlined||Durable, functional, versatile|
|Cons||Heavy, not durable, large size||Expensive, complicated||No hydration system, T-hook buckles are hard to use||Limited attachment points, easy to drop stuff||Heavy, no key clip, not tapered|
|Bottom Line||The versatile nature of this bag detracts somewhat from its climbing-specific performance||This is a good all-around small pack that doesn't excel at rock climbing||Though it has some flaws, this pack is comfortable and a great choice for climbers who are into long routes as well as skiing and running||Though there are no extra features, this bag ticks all the boxes for multi-pitch climbing||Though it's heavy, this pack makes up for it with durability and great climbing features|
|Rating Categories||Cotopaxi Tarak 20L||Arc'teryx Alpha AR 20||Ultimate Direction...||The North Face Rout...||Mystery Ranch Skyli...|
|Climbing Utility (25%)|
|Specs||Cotopaxi Tarak 20L||Arc'teryx Alpha AR 20||Ultimate Direction...||The North Face Rout...||Mystery Ranch Skyli...|
|Measured Weight||1.3 lbs||1.2 lbs||1.4 lbs||1.1 lbs||1.4 lbs|
|Fabric Type||210D ripstop nylon||Ripstop nylon||Ripstop nylon||420D nylon||1000D cordura nylon|
|Accessory Pockets?||Two external zip, one internal zip||One external zip, one internal zip||One external zip, two shoulder strap||One external zip||One internal zip, one external zip|
|Outside Carry Options?||Daisy chains, compression straps||Daisy chains, shock cord, two ice axe attachments, side attachment points||Daisy chains, ice axe attachments, ski attachments||Daisy chains||Top strap, side straps, ice axe attachments|
|Hip Belt?||Yes, removable||Yes, removable||Yes, removeable||Yes, removable||Yes, removable|
|Hydration System Compatible?||Yes||Yes||No||Yes||Yes|
Best Overall Climbing Backpack
The North Face Route Rocket
The North Face Route Rocket tied for first place in two of our five evaluation criteria, grabbing the best overall score and designation as our lead tester's personal favorite. Our team enjoyed the simplicity of design as well — no need to read the manual here. A small zippered pocket is accessible whether the main pocket is open or not, and we suspect the extra coating on the pack's fabric makes it burlier than bags made from nylons of a similar denier. Taller climbers will find the Route Rocket particularly comfortable.
The main compartment zipper is much deeper on one side than the other. While we liked the extra accessibility, it could surprise climbers and possibly lead to dropping something important — watch out if you have butterfingers at the anchor. And, while its design is simple, this pack is only in the middle of our group when it comes to weight. All that aside, this is a great pack for multi-pitch climbers, and we're happy to give it top honors.
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 is like a haul bag… but tiny! True to its looks, it's really durable and stands up straight when empty for easier packing. Unlike a haul bag, it's not only pretty comfortable on the hike in to the cliff but also not half bad once you actually leave the ground with it on. We genuinely appreciated the simple, utilitarian design.
Like a haul bag, the Creek 20 is also pretty heavy. This is the price for impressive abrasion resistance. Additionally, some of our testers missed hydration system features like a pass-through for the hose and, especially, something to hang the reservoir from. Guides, first ascensionists, climbers 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
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 specialized piece of gear that must be light, 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 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 define these metrics and discuss standout models. Think about what kind 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 other 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 from 12 - 24 liters in volume. Smaller, and you could climb without a pack. 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 desires. While a pack shouldn't be the most expensive piece of climbing gear you buy, 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 The North Face Route Rocket. We also really appreciate the Black Diamond Bullet for those that want a super streamlined option and the Petzl Bug for an impressive combo of comfort and volume.
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 call for us to move our bodies in all sorts of ways. 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").
Climbing-specific packs should ride high on your 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 shouldn't be padded. The Route Rocket scored high for comfort as well due to a fantastic balance of padding and tapering.
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, though the Mystery Ranch Skyline 17 mysteriously lacked one in its zippered 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, 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 Rock Blitz 15, Route Rocket, and Mountain Hardwear Multi-Pitch 20 are all pretty streamlined but include haul loops and a few attachment points that could potentially get hung up. Though it scores well in this metric, the Skyline 17 has cords, loops, and other gizmos as potential snag points. Fortunately, most of these are removable.
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 Skyline each 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, 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. No hip belt at all 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 extra coating on the Route Rocket will boost its durability over the long haul.
Materials we tested ranged from the flimsy 70 denier nylon on the body of the Neon Light to the 1000d on the Skyline. 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 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 secondary 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 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 BD Rock Blitz 15 is the smallest. We often tossed it 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 and Arc'teryx Alpha AR 20 are built specifically for this purpose. The Mystery Ranch Skyline 17 also sports ice tool attachments. The Ultimate Direction Scram has features specifically for multiple sports; shoulder strap pockets for trail running and ski and ice tool attachments.
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 or really heavy (like the 27-ounce Creek). It is possible to create packs even lighter than what we reviewed, but not without sacrifices in durability, function, or cost. We felt like the Rock Blitz struck a nice balance of weight and durability. Almost 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
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