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How to Choose a Mountaineering and Alpine Climbing Backpack

The Mission 75 was comfortable on long glacier slogs  hauling sleds  and up high on ridges like this one near Denali Basecamp  Alaska Range.
Thursday August 30, 2018

The pack is an iconic gear item in alpine climbing, second only to the ice axe in symbolism and function. So it's no surprise that our experienced testing team has a bit of a pack fetish. We've spent years putting the top-rated alpine packs through their paces in the best (and worst) that North American mountaineering has to offer. Our testers have a good grasp on the strengths and weaknesses of these packs and some good ideas about how to find the best one for you.

So which alpine or mountaineering backpack is right for you? Answering this question requires some reflection. Your mountaineering backpack needs greatly depend on your style of alpine climbing and the character of your home range. Those who primarily climb rock in the High Sierra of California will require a high degree of fabric durability and may care less about the quality of an ice tool attachment. Those who are primarily climbing in glaciated mountains like the Cascades will look for axe and tool attachments and a waterproof design. Those largely climbing ice may choose a lighter fabric at the expense of abrasion resistance.

Before reading this article, answer some of these questions for yourself. Then we'll walk you through how to find the right pack for you.
  • What type of alpine climbing do you prefer?
  • What kind of alpine climbs do you plan to attempt in the future?
  • Will you sacrifice some comfort on the way to basecamp for climbing performance? - Do you need one pack to do it all?
  • Are you a light weight specialist with bivy gear the size of two water bottles?
  • Are you an in-a-day alpine climber or do you like to disappear into the wilderness for weeks at a time?

Dragging sleds on an expedition in Alaska.
Dragging sleds on an expedition in Alaska.

One Pack or Two


Often, alpinism involves carrying a large load over non-technical terrain into a base camp and then completing one or more technical day climbs. When pursuing this strategy, climbers with long approaches to routes that are near their technical limits might opt for a "big pack" to get to base camp and then a "little pack" for the send. The big pack, little pack means that you are always using the ideal pack for each activity.

While this works well for picking off routes from a base camp, it's a poor strategy if you have to carry a lot of stuff on the route, like lots of layers or bivy gear. You're also adding weight. Backpacking packs are heavier than their alpine counterparts, and when you add in a small climbing day pack, your total weight could be 3 or 5 pounds more than if you carried one versatile pack. Instead, you could pack more cams, ice screws, chocolate, or just enjoy the pleasure of a lighter load!

On the approach with the Black Diamond Speed and a kit for a stormy day of climbing on Bourgeau Left in the Canadian Rockies. At the base of the route we removed the lid  lid straps  hipbelt  and framesheet and carried it up the route as the one pack for the team.
On the approach with the Black Diamond Speed and a kit for a stormy day of climbing on Bourgeau Left in the Canadian Rockies. At the base of the route we removed the lid, lid straps, hipbelt, and framesheet and carried it up the route as the one pack for the team.

Luckily, many modern technical climbing packs make it easier to pack just one by either:
  • Allowing you to strip them down to shed weight by removing lids, frame sheets, hip belts, or suspension features, or
  • Focusing on lightweight materials, excellent ergonomics, and high-level packing skills to ensure comfort with a wide range of load types and weights

As technologies progress, more packs are leaning towards the latter options, with some stellar results, like one of our favorites, the Arc'teryx Alpha FL 45. It's these all arounders that we focus on in our review.

Your standard backpack isn't made for high alpine strike missions.
Your standard backpack isn't made for high alpine strike missions.

What is a Mountaineering Backpack?


Let's first address this basic question: What makes a pack a mountaineering backpack? This is something all climbing manuals discuss, from Mark Houston and Kathy Cosley in their current text, Alpine Climbing: Techniques To Take You Higher, to Gaston Rebuffat in his 1954 classic Starlight And Storm. Rebuffat may have best summed up the underlying reason for packs specific to alpine climbing and mountaineering, "Weight is the great enemy." Big packs wear you out and disrupt your balance, breathing, and movement economy. That's not acceptable in an environment where your first line of defense against the mountain's hazards is fast and efficient movement.

Alpine climbing packs are intended for both hiking (on the approach) and on technical terrain (climbing). So they need to be lightweight, simple in design, and low profile. Climbing takes precedence over hiking here. Mountaineering backpacks may sacrifice hiking comfort and frame support for increased climbing performance. It's usually preferable to wrestle with a beastly pack on the trail than on the climb.

Simple, lightweight gear demands that we use it intelligently. If you don't pack a mountaineering backpack carefully, you'll never get all of your stuff in there, and you'll end up carrying around empty space. For a good lesson in how a top alpinist loads his backpack, watch this video of Steve House. Note that the rope, helmet, and crampons (without a separate case!) go inside the pack, negating the need for extra straps to attach them to the outside.



Comfort & Climbing Performance


If you walk through the backpack section at any outdoor store, you'll see a lot of big packs with beefy suspension. But when you start to pick out the climbing specific packs, you might notice the frames, straps, and bulk all start to trim down. This is for many reasons. One, of course, it to save weight on a pack you'll be potentially hauling up and down thousands of feet.

But the minimal frame should beg the question — doesn't that compromise comfort, especially on the hike into your climb? The first way pack manufacturers addressed this problem was to make pieces of the suspension, like metal stays, hip belts, brains (or lids), and frame sheets removable. This meant you could have the support you wanted on the approach, and the lightweight and mobility you need for the climb.

More modern packs are designed with no lid and completely flat back panels. They are also outrageously comfortable. What's going on here? To understand, we consulted with a Physical Therapist and climber, Andra DeVoght, DPT, from Washington, an epicenter of alpine climbing in the U.S.

Andra DeVoght  DPT of Insight Physio  examining the Mutant 38. It is quite comfortable  but the frame requires the use of this single metal stay  otherwise  it folds and crumples.
Andra DeVoght, DPT of Insight Physio, examining the Mutant 38. It is quite comfortable, but the frame requires the use of this single metal stay, otherwise, it folds and crumples.

DeVoght tried on every pack and gave us her opinion. Interestingly, her opinion perfectly matched what our testers found in field tests — flat back panels allow for excellent freedom of movement on the climb. We also didn't find much discomfort on the approach! Our climbers chalked this up to two main things: no lid and a narrower diameter pack, keeping weight closer and lower, eliminating the need for load lifter straps. And the flat back panel rested flush on our backs, which helped distribute the weight further and gave us excellent control of the pack on technical climbs.

Andra echoed these points and added some mind-blowing concepts — spinal extension and flexion. Aggressive lumbar support, found in most backpacks, tilts your pelvis forward and sticks your butt out. This is spinal extension — back arched forward, chest thrust forward. This is a very strong structural position for those not used to a heavy pack.

You don't want your backpack to get in the way of your climbing.
You don't want your backpack to get in the way of your climbing.


But climbers are used to backpacks. And they need to be able to move much more than a backpacker on a trail. With your butt sticking out, it's harder to high step. And with your chest and spine thrust forward, you can't rotate as easily to reach that hand hold or swing that ice tool. With a flexible, flat back panel, you can reverse your spine into flexion, gently curling your torso as if doing abdominal crunches.

As if that increased mobility is not enough, spinal flexion also allows you to fully exhale. For any expedition and high altitude climbers out there who are familiar with pressure breathing, this is a similar concept. When you exhale fully, as in pressure breathing, you can literally change your blood pH — and it feels really good. The key to good breathing is making way for fresh air. And the first step of that process is to get the old air out.

Putting all of that together, these lightweight packs feel better for a reason. They let us move with more fluidity and less resistance, and they let us inhale and exhale more thoroughly and efficiently. Exceptional gear really can improve our endurance.

How much gear do you need to carry?
How much gear do you need to carry?

Capacity


The alpine packs we tested in this review range in size from 30-105 liters in capacity. If you're in the market for a small climbing pack to take on multi-pitch rock routes (and have no need for an axe or crampons), then you will be best off with a pack of 15-25 liters in capacity. Take a look at our climbing pack review for this genre.

Our testers are passionate and experienced climbers and mountaineers, and they all own a quiver of packs. However, we have found that 30-50 liter packs are the most versatile sizes. If you take lots of day-long, weekend or three-day trips, this is a good size range for you.

With diligent packing and a lightweight kit the Alpha FL can be a pretty versatile pack. Here it is on day three of a five day trip in The High Sierra carrying gear that included a light alpine rock rack.
With diligent packing and a lightweight kit the Alpha FL can be a pretty versatile pack. Here it is on day three of a five day trip in The High Sierra carrying gear that included a light alpine rock rack.

A 40-50 liter pack may be the best size if you frequently climb in the winter and ice climb. All the extra clothing you'll take in winter tend to fit more easily in a pack of this size than a smaller contender. If you want to purchase only one alpine climbing pack and take multi-day trips occasionally, a 40-50L model is the best choice. With 50 liters, you can much more easily accommodate the items you need to live in the mountains — stove, fuel, shelter, and extra food. Our testers can make this size work for up to 5-day trips in the summer, with excellent packing and a focus on the necessities.

If you're considering purchasing two (or more) packs with the same listed volume but different manufacturers, be aware that not all companies measure volume the same way. Find out what the actual volume is of the packs you're interested in. We decided to do this for all the packs that we reviewed. We use a method similar to but not exactly the same as the ASTM standard some of the pack manufacturers use. Find out more about our testing methods by reading How We Tested Mountaineering Backpacks

Ice climbing doesn't require a highly abrasion resistant pack.
Ice climbing doesn't require a highly abrasion resistant pack.

Fabric and Durability


Once you've decided what capacity pack is best for you needs, consider what your durability needs are. The common trade-off between weight and durability is at play here — lighter-weight fabrics are generally less durable than heavier fabrics. A crucial factor that determines your durability needs is the type of alpinism you intend to do. Routes with technical rock climbing are harsh on a pack's outer fabric. Climbing tight corners, rubbing the pack against the wall as it hangs from an anchor, even a short haul up a cruxy section — all of these actions produce a tremendous amount of wear and tear in terms of fabric abrasion.

Ice and snow climbing and glacier travel tend to be a bit nicer to fabric. Yes there are crampon points to watch out for, and the occasional mixed chimney to grovel up, but you're often tossing your pack around into snow, not rocks. Ultimately there is a value judgment you have to make - how much durability am I willing to sacrifice to save weight? If you climb very regularly, you will appreciate more durability. Lightweight fabrics will make bigger weight saving on larger packs than on smaller packs. For this reason, it's usually a good idea to look for durable fabrics for your smaller pack, particularly if you'll be taking it rock climbing frequently.

You don't want your pack to fail you when you're depending on it the most.
You don't want your pack to fail you when you're depending on it the most.

Durability — What To Look For


Durability is a combination of fabric selection and the durability of the pack's components (axe attachment, buckles, etc.). Technical fabrics can be confusing, Here are some basics:

The denier (d) of a fabric is a rough measurement of the fineness of the fibers used to create it. In other words, a higher denier fabric means more durability than a lower denier fabric, though it also means more weight. Think of the vast difference in weight, durability, and feel between the nylon on an expedition duffle bag (perhaps 1000d), and the nylon on an ultralight tent (perhaps 10d).

Different materials have different properties. Most packs are made from nylon fabrics — a common example is nylon with Dyneema ripstop — which offers better tear resistance than nylon by itself. To find the best balance of weight and durability, look for packs that use a combination of fabrics — robust fabrics on the bottom and the side panels and lightweight fabrics on the upper sides, front and the lid, where wear and tear is much less.

If your back is waterproof or resistant, consider how long that will last. Nylon fabrics are not waterproof by themselves, so nylon fabrics usually have a Polyurethane (PU) coating on the inside. This coating can degrade and wear off over time, making a pack less weather resistant.

Jared carries the 3400 Ice Pack loaded for bear in The High Sierra.
Jared carries the 3400 Ice Pack loaded for bear in The High Sierra.

Dyneema Packs
Non-woven Dyneema or Cuben fiber is lightweight for its strength and is 100% waterproof. It's constructed of Dyneema threads laminated between tough and UV light resistant Mylar. One of Dyneema's properties is that it can't hold dye, so it's always white, but not all white packs (or parts of packs) are made of Dyneema/Cuben Fiber. A technology from the sailing industry, NWD is making its way into the outdoor industry slowly, mostly via small manufacturers. The major drawback of NWD is that although it is strong in terms of tear resistance, it does not stand up to abrasion. This is a huge downside for use as a pack fabric. Companies that use NWD in packs are generally approaching this problem by constructing packs from hybrid fabrics. Hyperlite Mountain Gear, for example, uses a Cuben fiber laminated to a woven polyester. While waterproof and light, this hybrid fabric still lacks robust abrasion resistance.

Make sure your pack holds all your tools securely.
Make sure your pack holds all your tools securely.

Durability of Features

Feature durability is important since broken features (like a broken axe attachment) can render your pack useless for some trips — and potentially send your tool hurtling down the mountain. For this reason, we look for features that are both robust and simple. The most durable axe/tool attachment is likely simple sewn loops on the bottom of a pack. These are tried and true, but a bit less secure for the heads of modern ice tools, which often don't have an adze or hammer.

During our testing, we broke a handful of features (buckles, pull tabs on shock cord, etc.). But, in every instance, we were able to fix the issue by replacing shock cord or buying a new buckle. The moral here is that the most durable features are generally the simplest. One feature that is very difficult if not impossible to fix is a wrecked zipper. Mountaineering packs shouldn't have zippers as their primary openings and should avoid long zippers on the pack body.

Features


Certain important features like fabrics and main closures are discussed above. Beyond the fabric type, you want to choose a pack based on its features. Simplicity is the most desirable feature and leads to packs that are more durable and lighter. This is what distinguishes an alpine pack from other packs.

There are a variety of ice tool attachments out there. We like packs that slide the picks into secure, snag-resisting sleeves (the fabric here must be durable), where the head is secured either with a buckle or T-bar, and the shafts are attached to the pack with a loop of shock cord, a velcro loop, or are slipped into the compression strap.

How to carry your rope draped across the pack...
How to carry your rope draped across the pack...

You're often carrying a rope when alpine climbing. Our testers prefer to get the rope inside the pack when they can. When they can't, the best thing to do is finish the coil, so it drapes nicely over the top of the pack. If you don't know how to finish your rope coil to facilitate this, watch the way this guy finishes his butterfly coil. If you are attempting routes on which you might have to haul you pack for a pitch or two, make sure to look for robust haul points.

We love packs that contract and expand for almost any adventure.
We love packs that contract and expand for almost any adventure.

Adaptability


We used to look for packs that had the option to "strip" weight by removing the lid, hip belt, and frame. Removing these items can make a pack lighter for climbing. A padded hip belt may be great for hiking in but restricts harness access and comfort while on route. Having the option of removing it, or even leaving it at home altogether, may be ideal. And having a removable pad for the frame sheet (or your back panel) could mean you don't need to bring a sleeping pad.

However, the times are changing, and packs are coming increasingly "stripped down" already. This means there is less we need to remove to make it lighter. Sometimes we couldn't remove anything if we wanted to with some newer pack designs. This is a change, but not necessarily for the worse. We are instead starting to carry very lightweight inflatable sleeping pads, which are extremely comfortable and putting our lightweight packs underneath us to protect the pad from getting holes. These pads are increasingly durable and light, so it has been working for us. We can even use short inflatable pads and put our rope under our feet.

More and more, we're finding creative ways to make our climbing experience a lightweight adventure.

A minimalistic frame makes finding a good fit essential.
A minimalistic frame makes finding a good fit essential.


Fit


Purchasing a pack that fits well is critical to comfort. The less padding in a pack's suspension and hip belt, the more important fit is. Do your homework and try the packs on in a shop or order them from an online retailer with a great return policy. Most pack models come in at least two sizes. Measure the length of your torso — bottom of the neck at that bony protrusion, to top of hips along your spine (see the Properly Sizing and Fitting section of our backpacking buying advice for more on this process).


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