Your needs from a mountaineering backpack will 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 (for example) may require a high degree of fabric durability and may care less about the quality and ease of use of their ice tool attachment. Those who are primarily climbing in glaciated mountains like the Cascades may care a bit more about axe/tool attachments and a waterproof design. Those largely climbing water ice or alpine ice climbs may choose to opt for a lighter fabric at the expense of abrasion resistance.
Do you carry a large load over non-technical terrain into a basecamp and then complete one or more technical day climbs? When pursuing this strategy, climbers with very long approaches to routes that are near their technical limit might opt for a "big pack, little pack" strategy. This entails carrying everything to camp in a backpacking pack and then using a small climbing day pack for the send. "Big pack, little pack" means that you are always using the ideal pack for whatever your activity is. While this works well for picking off routes from a basecamp, it's a poor strategy if you have to carry a lot of stuff on the route (like lots of layers for a winter climb), or if you're planning to bivy. The other big downside is the additional 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 - 5 pounds more than if you carried one versatile pack. Carrying 3 - 5 fewer pounds of backpack weight alone could leave you with room for more cams, ice screws, chocolate, or just the pleasure of a lighter load!
We encourage you to read our Alpine Climbing Pack Buying Advice article for a more detailed discussion on choosing an alpine pack. In particular, check out our analysis of posture as it relates to climbing packs. We collaborated with a climber and physical therapist who taught us a few things about the way alpine climbing packs carry, and why we are seeing more and more flat back panels (and less lumbar support) in climbing packs.
The pack is an iconic gear item in alpine climbing, second only to the ice axe in symbolism. Your pack will carry all your precious gear, and might accompany you on every trip you take for years. For these reasons and more it's no surprise that our experienced testing team exhibits a bit of a pack fetish. We've spent the last 7 months putting 8 of 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 the strengths and weaknesses of these packs and some good ideas about how to find the best one for you.
Let's first address this basic question: What makes a pack an "alpine climbing pack"? 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 the design of packs specific to alpine climbing and mountaineering, "Weight is the great enemy". a more massive pack makes you tire more quickly and disrupts your balance. That's not acceptable in an environment where your first line of defense against the mountain's hazards is your movement.
Alpine climbing packs differ from backpacking packs or hiking day packs in that they are intended for use both hiking (on approach) and while climbing technical terrain—be it easy ridge scrambling, glacier travel, steep rock, or ice couloirs. Because of this they need to be lighter in weight, simpler in design, and lower profile. Climbing takes precedence over hiking here. Alpine climbing packs should sacrifice hiking comfort and frame support for increased climbing performance. It's much better to wrestle with a beastly pack on the trail than on the climb.
Alpine climbers and mountaineers trade the weight and complexity of stuff for the agility and freedom of skill and experience. 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 light weight and mobility you need for the climb.
In this review, we are starting to see something new: packs designed with no lid and completely flat back panels that are outrageously comfortable. What's going on here? To understand, we consulted with a Physical Therapist and climber from Washington, an epicenter of alpine climbing in the U.S.
Andra DeVoght, DPT, tried on every pack and gave us her opinion. Interestingly, her opinion matched perfectly with what our testers found in field tests: those flat back panels allow for excellent freedom of movement on the climb, so good it would be worth the discomfort on the approach.
But we also didn't find much discomfort on the approach! And the packs didn't even have load lifter straps on top of the shoulder straps to bring the weight closer to our center of gravity.
Our climbers chalked this up to two main things: no lid and a narrower diameter pack. This keeps 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, but added some mind-blowing concepts: she primed us on spinal extension and flexion. When you have aggressive lumbar support in a pack, as with most backpacking packs, this tilts your pelvis forward and sticks your butt out (think of the bowl of your pelvis angling forward), and puts you in spinal extension—back arched forward, chest thrust forward. This is not inherently a bad thing: it is a very strong structural position. For those unaccustomed to carrying a backpack, this will help them get through a trip in a strong position.
But climbers are often more accustomed to carrying 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 (try it: tuck your tailbone in and lift your knee, then stick your butt out and try again). 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—the first step of that process is to get the old air out.
So 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.
The alpine packs that 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 Backpack Review for this genre of climbing pack.
Our testers are passionate and experienced climbers and mountaineers, and they all own a quiver of packs, so they can always have the appropriate tool for the job. However, we have found that 30-50 liter packs are the most versatile sizes.
If you take lots of trips that are of a moderate length, over a weekend (or 3 day weekend), then you will best appreciate this size pack. With 50 liters, you can much more easily accommodate the items you need to live in the mountains—stove, fuel, shelter, and all the 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.
A 40-50 liter pack may be the best size if you frequently climb in the winter and/or 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 40-500L model is the best choice. So, we tested favorite competitors from each manufacturer that were in the 30-50L range.
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
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, the rubbing of a pack against the wall as it hangs from an anchor, even a short haul up a cruxy section, all of these things produce a tremendous amount of wear and tear in terms of fabric abrasion. Ice and snow climbing and glacier travel tends 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 judgement 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.
What To Look For
Overall 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 (white grid pattern) which offers better tear resistance than nylon by itself. 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. 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 light weight fabrics on the upper sides, front and the lid, where wear and tear is much less.
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 obviously 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.
Durability of Features
Feature durability is important since broken features (like a broken axe attachment) will render your pack useless for some trips—and potentially send your tool hurtling down the mountain. For this reason we look for two things: robust features and simple features—fewer, burlier features are less likely to break. The most durable axe/tool attachment is likely simple sewn loops on the bottom of the pack in which you secure the head of your axe. These are tried and true, but a bit less secure for the heads of modern ice tools that 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 and threading it on. 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.
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. Our favorite by far is the type used on most of the packs in this test where the picks are slipped into fabric sleeves (fabric here must be durable), and the shafts attached to the pack with a loop of shock cord, a strap-and-buckle, or slipped into the compression strap.
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. The lid can help hold the rope in place, or it tucks into the compression straps if necessary. This bit of knowledge and skill (which weighs nothing) makes straps on top of the pack specifically for carrying the rope unnecessary. 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 used to look for packs that had the option of "stripping" weight by removing the lid, hip belt, and frame. Removing these items can make a pack lighter for climbing. And 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—and 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 light weight adventure.
Purchasing a pack that fits well is absolutely 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 our How To Choose The Best Backpack article, the Properly Sizing and Fitting section, for more on this process).