Gone are the days when climbing consisted of swami belts, hobnailed boots, and weeks spent nailing pitons into swaths of granite. Current trends in climbing gear have moved toward functionality, performance, and thoughtful design, and packs have followed suit. In this article, we break down the top climbing backpacks of 2019 into three categories: crag, follower, and alpine. Each balances different demands, but these packs all share a focus on organization (whether inside or out) and generally are lightweight and durable. For more background information, see our climbing backpack comparison table and buying advice below the picks. To complete your kit, see our articles on climbing shoes, harnesses, and helmets.
Weight: 2 lbs. 11 oz.
Capacities: 22, 38, 52L
What we like: Accommodates heavy loads well; extremely versatile.
What we don’t: Heavier than most alpine packs and the hipbelt is not removable.
To be honest, we didn’t think we’d ever see an Osprey—a favorite among backpackers and hikers—at the top of a climbing article, but we stand corrected. Their alpine-specific Mutant is a super impressive climbing pack, combining class-leading comfort with an array of technical features and a customizable build. With a framesheet, padded hipbelt, and comfy shoulder straps, the Mutant carries and distributes weight better than other streamlined alpine packs, even with loads up to 50 pounds. And when you’re ready to climb, it easily strips down to become a fast-and-light climbing machine.
All told, the Mutant is one of the most versatile packs on this list, and so comfortable and durable that we’d even recommend it for the crag. It also has all the features we look for in an alpine-specific pack, including ice tool attachments, removable components, ski-carry loops, and glove-friendly zipper pulls. We do wish the Mutant’s hipbelt was detachable—it wraps around the pack to stay out of the way of a harness, but we prefer the added customization when possible. And for a follower pack or overnight rig, check out the 22-liter and 52-liter versions of the Mutant... Read in-depth review
See the Osprey Mutant 38
Best Backpack for Cragging
Weight: 4 lbs. 7 oz.
Capacities: 20, 35, 50L
What we like: Easy to pack and ridiculously durable.
What we don’t: The cavernous compartment can feel like a black hole.
If you’re anything like the average climber, you most likely spend more time cragging than multi-pitching or schlepping into the mountains. While any old pack will get you to the crag, a workhorse like Black Diamond’s Creek 50 will make it less of a chore. With an upright base for simple loading and unloading, convenient pockets, full side-zip access to the main compartment, and the most durable fabric (1,200-denier polyester) of any pack on this list, it's ideal for day-in and day-out abuse.
The Creek 50 is one of the most rugged and well-built options out there, but unless you consistently carry a massive trad rack, you may find its 50-liter capacity to be excessive. Black Diamond also offers the Creek in a 35-liter build as well as an on-route 20-liter haul bag for those who want the same high quality without the volume. Or, consider their Crag 40: it’s a lightweight, streamlined version of the Creek: half the price, but also half the bag, in our opinion. All in all, duffel-style packs like the Patagonia Cragsmith below allow for easier access to your gear than these top-loaders, but when it comes to a crag pack that can swallow a triple rack, 70-meter rope, and even your winter puffy, it’s hard to beat the Creek 50.
See the Black Diamond Creek 50
Best Budget/Follower Pack
Weight: 10 oz.
Capacities: 18, 22L
What we like: The lightest and least expensive follower pack.
What we don't: Thinner and less durable than the competition.
We know what you’re thinking: REI? A climbing pack? The answer is a resounding “yes.” In fact, the Flash 18 is the lightest and cheapest model on our list yet still manages to include a bunch of useful features. Like many other follower packs, the Flash 18 has a top draw cord that can be opened and closed one-handed, a backpanel that can be taken out and used as a sit pad, removable hip and sternum straps, and even daisy-chain attachment points and an ice axe loop. For $40 and just 10 ounces, that's a whole lot of pack.
But despite its impressive weight and price, the Flash 18 does have its downsides, most notably in terms of durability. The 140-denier nylon construction pales in comparison to more rugged follower packs like the Patagonia Linked (940D) and Black Diamond Blitz (210D) below. It is not made to be hauled up routes, won’t last long in chimneys, and is bound to get ripped if you’re loading it down with your sharp climbing gear on the walk out. But for $40, you could have two or three Flash 18s for the cost of one of the competing models.
See the REI Co-op Flash 18
Best Backpack for Alpine Climbing
Weight: 1 lb. 8 oz.
Capacities: 30, 45L
What we like: Minimalist yet durable, waterproof, and comfortable.
What we don’t: Expensive and a bit difficult to pack.
To create the ultralight Alpha FL, Arc’teryx merged the lidless, top-loading design of a follower pack with a rugged, medium-capacity bag. This pack is an alpinist’s dream: it’s streamlined, carries well, and is both waterproof and highly abrasion-resistant. The Alpha FL’s collar expands to accommodate a 45-liter load on the approach, and then compresses to a remarkable 33-liter shape that climbs like an extension of the body. Accessing the contents is a breeze—even with gloves on—and lash points, bungee attachments, and a top strap secure anything from skis and crampons to a rope and sleeping pad to the pack’s exterior.
Shaving weight usually comes with sacrifices, and the Alpha FL is no exception. Its slender shape can make packing bulky items a chore, the hipbelt isn’t padded, and you’ll have to add compression straps if you want to cinch down a light load from the sides. It’s worth noting that Hyperlite’s Dyneema 2400 Ice Pack below offers more resilient materials, but the Alpha FL’s shape and features are superior for fast-and-light missions. It definitely speaks volumes that you’re likely to see this pack more than any other on technical routes in big mountains.
See the Arc'teryx Alpha FL 45
Best of the Rest
Weight: 3 lbs. 7 oz.
Capacities: 32, 45L
What we like: Durable and allows for great organization.
What we don’t: Can be difficult to close with a full load.
Patagonia’s calls their newest iteration of a crag pack a “gear dumpster,” and we think that’s an appropriate designation. The Cragsmith’s U-shaped zipper allows easy access to the entire contents of the pack without exposing gear—or the pack’s suspension system—to dirt. It's also lined with a small layer of foam, which helps hold the structure to make loading and unloading easier. With 630-denier fabric, the Cragsmith is a strong and well-made daily workhorse that will protect your gear in most conditions.
For the right application, the Cragsmith is close to ideal: it’s comfortable, sleek, and even burly and protective enough to serve as a haul bag. But while the Cragsmith is one of our most durable options, it does come with its fair share of compromises. Compared to a top-loading pack like the BD Creek 50, Patagonia’s offering is simply not as convenient. You can’t haphazardly throw heaps of gear into the Cragsmith, and we’ve often seen friends struggle to seal up the top zip with a hefty load. But for sport climbing or when you’re splitting the rope and rack between two people, the Cragsmith is one of our favorite crag packs.
See the Patagonia Cragsmith 45L
Weight: 1 lb. 3.7 oz.
Capacities: 18, 28L
What we like: Extremely durable, comfortable, and easy to access.
What we don’t: Pricey for an 18-liter pack.
From hiking to technical climbing, Patagonia’s bags are synonymous with toughness and reliability (at a price). The Linked is a durable, thoughtfully designed, climbing-specific pack that performs just as well on your back as attached to the end of a haul line. The tapered build sits high and close to the body and is secured with comfortable shoulder straps, while the robust 940-denier nylon fabric and reinforced haul handles make it burly enough to drag up coarse rock. At the belay, the Linked hangs easily from the anchor by its two loops, allowing it to open wide and provide easy access without spilling your gear.
At 1 pound 3.7 ounces, the Linked is heavier than most other packs of similar capacities, and it doesn’t compress quite as well. But for a small yet burly haul bag, this is about as light as it gets. Our main gripe, however, is the $99 price tag, which is quite steep for an 18-liter pack. But as often is the case with Patagonia, you get what you pay for: the Linked offers premium construction, durability that may outlast two Flash 18s, and a climbing-specific design that makes it super capable on any route.
See the Patagonia Linked 18L
Weight: 2 lbs. 10 oz.
What we like: Extremely durable; affordable.
What we don’t: Not as user-friendly as Patagonia’s Cragsmith.
Combining the carrying comfort of a backpack with the superior convenience of a duffel bag, Metolius’ Crag Station boasts one of the most unique designs on our list. It’s business as usual until you arrive at the crag, where the pack then lays flat and zips open wide, allowing for easier access to gear than any top-loading pack. Metolius also reinforced the sides of the Crag Station with Duathane—the same material used on their haul bags—to boost durability. But just to be clear, we wouldn’t advise hauling this bag as its front zip would be too difficult to access when hanging mid-wall.
What are the downsides of the Crag Station? To start, the suspension system only comes in one size, meaning it probably won’t fit those with particularly large or small builds. Further, its design doesn’t provide the access of the Patagonia Cragsmith’s U-shaped zipper, nor is it made with padding to provide a barrier between your back and sharp equipment. Finally, trad climbers might find the 41-liter Crag Station to be too small for all their gear. Overall, if you’re looking for a crag pack with easy access, we’d first recommend the more comfortable, convenient Patagonia Cragsmith. But for a bump in durability and a simple but practical design, the Crag Station is a steal at $129.
See the Metolius Crag Station
Weight: 14 oz.
Capacities: 20, 28L
What we like: Alpine-centric: this bag is lightweight and stuffs down small.
What we don’t: We’ve experienced durability issues with other lightweight BD products.
The Black Diamond Blitz 20 is a follower pack made for the mountains. With ice tool pockets, a removable bivy pad and hipbelt, and a minimalistic design that easily stuffs away into a larger pack on the approach, it can handle serious alpine missions. The bag sports a tapered design that rides high on the back between the shoulders—tight to the body and out of the way of the harness—and the one-handed top closure doubles as a way to cinch down a half-full load (bummer: no compression straps).
Durability-wise, however, we have mixed feelings about Black Diamond packs. Our Creek 50 still is going strong after over four years of constant use, but other packs that prioritize weight-savings have been shredded after only one serious mission. We have these same concerns about the Blitz, which is why it’s not one of our top contenders. It’s worth noting that the Blitz utilizes the same 210-denier nylon as the Patagonia Ascensionist below, but it’s hard to let go of our firsthand experiences from the past.
See the Black Diamond Blitz 20
Weight: 1 lb. 12.9 oz.
Capacities: 30, 45, 55L
What we like: More capacity than the Arc’teryx Alpha FL for $70 less.
What we don’t: Recommended load limit of 33 pounds.
The Exped Black Ice goes head-to-head with our #4 pick, the Arc’teryx Alpha FL, featuring a similar waterproof build, roll-top closure, and highly streamlined design. Both have minimally padded suspension systems, a small zippered pocket on the front, and multiple lash points for securing gear on the outside of the pack. With 400-denier fabric, the Black Ice is just as robust as the Alpha FL, and we also appreciate the durability of the Exped’s partially metal hipbelt closure. Keep in mind that you pay a small weight penalty (6 ounces) with the Exped, but also get slightly more volume (as we mentioned above, the Alpha FL actually is a 33-liter pack with an extendable collar) and a few more options for external carry. But the biggest difference between the two packs is in price: at $179, the Black Ice is a full $70 cheaper than the Arc’teryx.
For all but the most weight-conscious of alpinists, the savings is well worth it. That said, for those who need a pack that climbs as an extension of the body, the Arc’teryx provides a smaller, more jet-pack-like fit. And keep in mind that both of these packs forgo organizational features and comfort for the sake of minimalism. In fact, the Exped is only rated to carry 33 pounds compared to the 50-pound load limit of the Osprey Mutant above. If you’re traveling fast and light this won’t be an issue, and you’ll be thankful for the streamlined build when wearing the Black Ice as a follower pack on technical terrain.
See the Exped Black Ice 45
Weight: 3 lbs. 10 oz.
Capacities: 45, 60L
What we like: Feature set allows for great crag organization.
What we don’t: Cotton body fabric lacks durability and stains easily.
Mountain Hardwear is making a comeback in the climbing scene, and it shows in their functional and durable Crag Wagon. This thoughtfully-designed pack combines features from the Creek, Cragsmith, and Crag Station above, ultimately providing climbers with another quality option. Like the BD Creek, the Crag Wagon has a haul-bag design for easy top loading, but the front panel also opens to give you easy access to all your gear. A Kevlar base, internal gear loops, removeable rope tarp, and a large front pocket for quick gear retrieval round out the pack’s feature set, making the Crag Wagon one of the best-organized crag packs on our list.
Price-wise, the Crag Wagon is similar to Patagonia and Black Diamond’s crag packs, but the Metolius Crag Station still leads the charge at a very affordable $129. But our biggest gripe with the Mountain Hardwear—and why we rank it here—is the mostly-cotton body fabric, which is overall less durable and more likely to stain (especially in the light blue and yellow colorways) than polyester or nylon. In addition, the accent fabric is a relatively thin 70 denier. In terms of capacity, we find the 45-liter version sufficient for most days of sport and trad climbing, although you might want the 60-liter version for gear-intensive crags like Indian Creek.
See the Mountain Hardwear Crag Wagon 45
Weight: 2 lbs. 0.5 oz.
Capacities: 30, 40L
What we like: One-handed opening allows for easy access at the belay.
What we don’t: Doesn’t expand much to accommodate oversized loads.
The Patagonia Ascensionist is designed with both the approach and climb in mind, so it’s no surprise that it transitions almost seamlessly between the two. When loaded down on the hike, a rope strap and side compression straps allow you to attach additional gear. Once you reach the climb, slide the pads off the webbing hipbelt, cinch the bag down tight, and you’ve got yourself a lightweight climbing machine. On the way up, the Ascensionist allows the most convenient, one-handed access to its contents of any alpine pack we have listed.
With 210-denier fabric and a weight of just over 2 pounds, it’s evident why the Ascensionist ranks below the Arc’teryx Alpha FL. Not only is it less durable, but it's heavier too. And while Patagonia advertises that the collar expands to handle larger loads, we found its give quite limiting compared to the competition. Further, the Ascensionist doesn’t carry comfortably when loaded down and its unisex design failed to fit our female tester. But if you don’t need the fantastic climbability of the Alpha FL above or burly waterproofing of the Exped Black Ice below, the Ascensionist is a fine middle ground.
See the Patagonia Ascensionist 40L
Weight: 2 lbs. 2.1 oz.
Capacities: 40, 55, 70L
What we like: Lightweight and durable.
What we don’t: Expensive and the closure system isn’t user-friendly.
Dyneema is among the strongest fabrics in the world in terms of strength-to-weight ratio, resists moisture to an impressive degree, and is super lightweight. Suffice it to say, we generally trust packs that utilize this material. And the Dyneema 2400 (40-liter) Ice Pack is the most durable alpine option in our round-up, trumping even the Arc’teryx Alpha FL and Exped Black Ice above. It also compresses better than both with a roll-top that gathers excess fabric and side straps that cinch the load close to the back. To top it off, aluminum stays, firm foam padding, and a padded hipbelt allow it to carry more comfortably than a pack like the Alpha FL.
At $500, the Ice Pack is the most expensive model on this list by far, and it does have shortcomings. Most notably, the closure system is overly complicated, with strong Velcro and multiple straps adding to the inconvenience of a roll-top. Furthermore, Dyneema lacks breathability: with no panel between the fabric and the back, you’ll get sweaty in the summer heat (and have little buffer between you and your gear). For $310 cheaper, you can opt for the less durable 50D/150D hybrid 2400 Ice Pack, but we’d go for a more breathable and easily accessible option on this list if budget is the major concern.
See the Hyperlite Dyneema 2400 Ice Pack
Weight: 1 lb. 9.6 oz.
Capacities: 20, 30L
What we like: Fully featured and durable follower pack.
What we don’t: Overbuilt for most purposes.
The Multi-Pitch 30’s name gives it away: this is a burly pack ideal for both carrying and hauling on-route. It prioritizes longevity and function over the minimalism of follower packs like the REI Flash 18, and is most similar to the Patagonia Linked above, with burly fabric, two haul points, shoulder straps that stuff into the backpanel, and a removable hipbelt. Overall, we find the Multi-Pitch to be great in use: the flat Kevlar bottom props the pack up for easy loading, while the top zip lets you retrieve gear at a belay without the risk of spilling the contents. And organizational options abound: the pack features a small exterior zip pocket, deployable mesh pocket, lash points, and interior gear loops.
We’re especially intrigued by the Multi-Pitch 30 for its size: at 30 liters, this pack can easily play double-duty as your approach or crag pack, in addition to being a follower pack. On the flip side, it’s not quite ideal for either: we find it overkill for most on-route applications (it’s also available in a 20-liter capacity) and too small for most approach/crag needs. The Multi-Pitch is heavy too: at 1 pound 9.6 ounces, it’s almost triple the weight of REI’s Flash 18. Overall, we still prefer the Patagonia Linked for its simpler and more durable drawstring closure and longer haul loops that easily meet together at the top of the pack.
See the Mountain Hardwear Multi-Pitch 30
Weight: 2 lbs. 9 oz.
Capacities: 20, 35L
What we like: More comfort and convenient features than the Alpha FL.
What we don’t: Not as durable as the Osprey Mutant.
Cutting-edge alpinists across the world laud the Arc’teryx Alpha FL for its no-frills, lightweight build that climbs like an extension of the body. For climbing technical rock or ice with a 30-plus-liter pack, it simply doesn’t get much better. But the FL leaves a lot to be desired in terms of comfort, convenience, and capacity, and not all alpinists need that superb climbability. Enter the new Alpha AR 35, Arc’teryx’s “all-round” climbing backpack. With a larger feature set than the FL, including a padded hipbelt and framesheet, the AR is able to handle much heavier loads with ease. Further, the framesheet and lid are removable, giving the pack the versatility needed for both the approach and the climb.
The Arc’teryx Alpha AR is a significant one pound heavier than the FL and does not have a streamlined, torpedo-like shape that lends itself so well to technical climbing. In fact, it’s most similar to our chart-topping Osprey Mutant, both in versatility and comfort. Both packs clock in at similar weights and capacities, prioritize padded suspension systems for comfort on the approach, and can be stripped down for saving weight. But the Osprey is $50 cheaper and wins out in its ability to customize, and we find that its fabric holds up much better than that of the Arc’teryx. Take note: the AR also is available in both a 55-liter pack great for overnight missions (2 pounds 14 ounces; $249) and a 20-liter follower pack (1 pound 3 ounces; $129).
See the Arc'teryx Alpha AR 35
Weight: 3 lbs. 2 oz.
What we like: An affordable pack with convenient, crag-specific features.
What we don’t: Not as well made as the Black Diamond Creek 50.
For the everyday cragger in need of a high-capacity bag, the Trango Crag Pack 2.0 manages to cram a whole lot of features into a $120 package. A small removable tarp extends from the pack to keep your gear clean, a large external pocket fits a guidebook nicely, and an external mesh pouch can store sweaty climbing shoes. Further, the tapered, upright design—similar to that of the Black Diamond Creek 50—makes loading and unloading gear quick and painless. And with the 2019 upgrade, the Crag Pack got significantly more durable 1,000-denier fabric, and even features a handy micro-fiber pocket for your phone.
Unlike the Creek 50, Trango’s model uses a top zipper closure instead of a drawstring and buckle. In our opinion, this wasn’t the best choice: the durability and ease of use of a drawstring closure far surpasses the top zip. Furthermore, the zipper closure leaves the Crag Pack with no way of compressing down when only half full, which can leave a lot of empty and awkwardly-distributed space. But if you want a durable pack that can carry all your gear for way less than the $210 Creek 50, Trango’s Crag Pack 2.0 is a nice budget option.
See the Trango Crag Pack 2.0
Weight: 2 lbs. 8 oz.
Capacities: 22, 30, 40, 50L
What we like: Comfortable and has a protective crampon patch.
What we don’t: Durability issues and lacks internal organization.
Black Diamond’s Speed is a jack of all trades, but master of none. The good: it’s relatively affordable and comes with all the features you’ll need for rock climbing, ice climbing, mountaineering, and even skiing. In fact, we like the reinforced crampon patch and ice tool attachments better than most. And like many alpine packs, the Speed is made to comfortably carry a heavy load on the approach and then strip down (shedding almost a pound) for the climb.
What are the downsides of the Black Diamond Speed 40? Despite the denier rating (210D x 420D), which is similar to many other packs in this category, we’ve had a 22-liter Speed that developed holes in the collar after one pitch of hauling. Second, at 2.5 pounds, it’s certainly not our top choice for fast-and-light missions. Third, given the build and lack of a DWR finish, the fabric won't keep your gear dry in a rainstorm like other alpine packs. And perhaps worst of all, the Speed is lacking internal organization. If you remove the lid, you’re left with nothing in the way of pockets. Having said all that, it's a moderately-priced pack that may surprise you with its comfort.
Black Diamond Speed 40
|Osprey Mutant 38||$170||Alpine||2 lbs. 11 oz.||22, 38, 52L||210D & 420D|
|Black Diamond Creek 50||$210||Crag||4 lbs. 7 oz.||20, 35, 50L||1200D|
|REI Co-op Flash 18||$40||Follower||10 oz.||18, 22L||140D|
|Arc’teryx Alpha FL 45||$259||Alpine||1 lb. 7 oz.||30, 45L||400D|
|Patagonia Cragsmith 45L||$199||Crag||3 lbs. 7 oz.||32, 45L||630D|
|Patagonia Linked 18L||$99||Follower||1 lb. 3.7 oz.||18L, 28L||940D|
|Metolius Crag Station||$129||Crag||2 lbs. 10 oz.||41L||Unavail.|
|Black Diamond Blitz 20||$80||Follower||14 oz.||20, 28L||210D & 200D|
|Exped Black Ice 45||$179||Alpine||1 lb. 12.9 oz.||30, 45, 55L||400D|
|Mountain Hardwear Crag Wagon 45||$200||Crag||3 lbs. 10 oz.||45, 60L||70D & 200D|
|Patagonia Ascensionist 40L||$179||Alpine||2 lbs. 0.5 oz.||30, 40L||210D|
|Hyperlite 2400 Ice Pack||$500||Alpine||2 lbs. 2.1 oz.||40, 55, 70L||375D|
|Mountain Hardwear Multi-Pitch 30||$120||Follower||1 lb. 9.6 oz.||20, 30L||
70D & 200D
|Arc'teryx Alpha AR 35||$219||Alpine||2 lbs. 9 oz.||20, 35, 55L||315D|
|Trango Crag Pack 2.0||$120||Crag||3 lbs. 2 oz.||45L||1000D|
|Black Diamond Speed 40||$180||Alpine||2 lbs. 8 oz.||22, 30, 40, 50L||210D & 420D|
- Types of Climbing Packs: Crag, Follower, Alpine
- Fabric and Durability
- Carrying Comfort
- Closure Systems and Access
- Pockets and Organization
- Exterior Gear Attachment
- Haul Loops
- Hydration Compatibility
- Streamlining Your Pack
Whether you’re hiking five minutes to hang out at the crag for afternoon, taking 48 hours to ascend a towering granite spire in Patagonia, or free climbing at your limit with a day’s worth of supplies, the right pack can make all the difference. To help, we’ve broken down our favorite models into three categories: crag, follower, and alpine.
In general, cragging often means walking between five and 20 minutes and posting up in one location for the entire day. You’ll not only need a pack that can carry all your gear and then some, but one that organizes it well too. Crag packs are designed with an emphasis on comfort, easy access, and durability. Some, like the Black Diamond Creek 50, have haul-bag-style bases for simple loading, while others like Metolius’ Crag Station are designed with unique back or front openings for access to all your gear at once. Look for organizational pockets, comfy suspension systems, and even crag-specific features like built-in rope tarps, gear loops, or guidebook compartments.
Most crag packs carry 40 to 50 liters, so you can fit a double rack, your down jacket, and maybe even a couple of post-send beers. Ideally, you should be able to fit all of your day’s gear inside the bag. While carrying a rope and ice equipment on the outside of your alpine pack makes sense for mountain expeditions, there’s no reason to deal with that sort of inconvenience at the crag. Get a pack that can swallow all of your gear easily without needing to stuff all the nooks and crannies or dangle things on the outside. And if you don’t carry trad gear, you can likely get away with a lower-volume bag.
Follower packs are designed to carry a day’s worth of supplies—water, food, sunscreen, extra layers, etc.—while accompanying you on a multi-pitch route. But buyer beware: “follower pack” sometimes can be a misnomer. Most parties will climb with one 16-to-30-liter pack (carried by the follower), although the leader often will carry a small pack as well on overnight or alpine routes. Others who are free climbing long routes at their limit might choose to haul their “follower” pack rather than climbing with a bigger load.
Follower packs are identified by their small capacity—generally between 16 and 30 liters—and have features like easy-to-access exterior pockets, reinforced haul loops, streamlined webbing hipbelts (or no hipbelt at all), and one-handed top drawstrings for quick retrieval of gear at the belay. Some are made with a focus on low weight and packability, while others (like Patagonia’s Linked Pack or Mountain Hardwear’s Multi-Pitch) are made with high-denier fabrics for durability while scraping through chimneys or being dragged up thousands of feet of coarse granite.
When it comes to alpine packs, the focus is less on comfortable suspension systems and organizational features and more on weight savings and versatility. Because an alpine pack needs to be useful for both hiking and climbing, most have the ability to streamline, including features like removable lids, hipbelts, and compression straps (for more, see our section on “Streamlining Your Pack”). Some also come with shock cords or accessory straps for securing crampons, ice axes, or other bulky gear to the outside so you can hike with a massive load and strip down to a tight pack for the climb.
Alpine packs range from 30 to 60 liters, and most climbers will err on the smaller side to avoid added ounces and poor weight distribution. In general, stay in the 30-liter range for a day trip, 45 liters for an overnight, and 60 liters for multi-night trips when you’re carrying many days worth of supplies into basecamp. And be sure to pay attention to load limits—they’re crucial for comfort on the trail. It’s surprisingly easy to overload an alpine pack with a rope, ice tools, crampons, and climbing helmet, but hiking with 40 pounds of gear in a pack that’s only designed to carry 30 soon will feel severely strenuous.
When it comes to gear you’re carrying on your back, weight matters. That said, it's much more of a concern when you’re climbing 2,000 feet of 5.10 in a day compared to a five-minute walk to the crag. Because of this, crag packs sacrifice a bit of weight-saving for organizational features, comfort, and durability, while follower and alpine packs shave off heavy fabrics, pockets, and cushy suspension systems to be fast and light. As always, be aware that there are sacrifices when shaving weight. If minimizing ounces is not your top priority, you should consider the slightly heavier, more durable, and more comfortable options.
In general, our three categories above provide general guidelines for capacities: follower packs are about 16 to 30 liters, crag packs are in the 40-to-50-liter range, and alpine packs anywhere from 30 liters for a day mission to 60 liters for a week. It’s important to think about what you intend to stuff inside—a pack that’s too small won’t fit your necessary gear, but a half-empty pack is a waste of material and likely won’t evenly distribute your load. We’d rather err on the side of too large for a crag pack, but prefer our alpine packs to be fully stuffed, even with gear attached to the outside. This is one reason we really like Arc’teryx Alpha FL 45—it’s a 33-liter pack with the ability to fit 45 when the need arises.
Durability always is a consideration when it comes to outdoor gear, but it matters even more when it comes to items that are constantly dragged across rock and dropped on uneven surfaces. While some climbing packs are designed with an emphasis on durability, others sacrifice a bombproof exterior to shave weight. The materials used to construct any given pack will help you determine if it suits your purposes: the 140-denier nylon of the REI Flash 18, for example, makes it a clear choice for a lightweight bag, but it will shred quickly when hauled up rough rock. The Patagonia Linked Pack, on the other hand, is made of burly 940-denier nylon, which is perfect for hauling but almost 10 ounces heavier (and far less compressible) than the Flash.
Because rock climbing generally is a fair-weather activity, most of the packs here are not made to be highly water-resistant or waterproof. Those who climb in the mountains, however, might find value in a more protective pack. Arc’teryx’s Alpha FL and the Hyperlite Dyneema 2400 Ice Pack, for example, are made with waterproof or highly water-resistant materials.
The three types of packs will also often vary significantly in terms of carrying comfort. For the most part, regardless of the pack, you’ll want your load to rest mostly on your hips rather than your shoulders. Crag packs often have fully padded hip belts, comfortable shoulder straps, and a cushy backpanel that should be able to handle a full load with ease. You can get away with added bulk and weight when you’re only hiking short distances, and will probably find that your load actually feels lighter with the beefy suspension. There’s really no reason not to crag in comfort.
On the other hand, many alpine and follower packs will forgo padding—on the hipbelt and backpanel in particular—for a more streamlined and lighter design. Some maintain a higher level of comfort than others: the Osprey Mutant 38, for example, has a padded hipbelt and shoulder straps, while the Arc’teryx Alpha FL features just a simple webbing hipbelt. In terms of climbing with a pack on, many climbers prefer to have their small follower pack sit high on their back and out of the way of their harness rather than swinging low around their waist. All of the alpine and follower packs we feature have adjustable straps to cater to different body types and carrying preferences.
A pack’s closure system is a great way to identify where it excels. Does it have a one-handed drawstring? It must be made for fast-and-light endeavors when retrieving items from your pack needs to be quick and easy. A U-shaped zip panel on the rear? Sounds like stellar organization at the crag. A removable lid with drawstring underneath? We’re thinking this would make a great pack to load up for the approach and then strip down for streamlined carry on-route.
We see the most variation in access when it comes to crag packs, and this is no surprise to us. As we’ve mentioned above, convenience is the name of the game at the crag. Packs like the Patagonia Cragsmith, Black Diamond Creek 50, and Metolius Crag Station are all like traveling suitcases, designed to provide easy and organized access to your gear. Conversely, we’d find no need for the convenience of a duffel-style pack in the alpine. In fact, hanging from an anchor, we’d probably spill all our gear trying to open it.
Again, we’ll make a distinction here between crag and alpine/follower packs. At the crag, we’ll gladly pay the price in weight and bulk for pockets of different sizes and unique loading and access. Among top-loading packs, duffel-style bags, and full U-shaped panels, it’s generally personal preference. Some crag packs come with built-in gear tarps, and others have internal loops for organizing your gear. Because the approach is shorter, you don’t really need pockets on your hipbelt like you might want on an alpine pack (we think the Patagonia Cragsmith’s design is overkill in this respect).
When it comes to long approaches or climbing with a pack on, climbers are willing to make all sorts of sacrifices in the way of organization shave weight and bulk. Most alpine or follower packs have just one small zippered pocket, inside or out. It might seem too small to be useful, but it’s not. Having quick access to your headlamp or a bar is much better than digging around in the depths of a 40-liter pack at the belay. That said, be wary of zippered pockets on the body of the pack, like that of the Patagonia Ascensionist, Arc’teryx Alpha FL, or Black Diamond Blitz. These pockets are extremely difficult to access while the pack is loaded and cinched down.
Attaching gear to the outside of a pack can quickly go from organized to completely chaotic, so be careful what (and where) you attach. Generally, alpine climbers will carry an overloaded pack on the approach so that once harness, climbing shoes, helmet, rope, rack, and draws have been removed, the bag isn’t unwieldy and oversized on the climb. Most alpine-specific packs come with daisy chains, rope straps, accessory straps, and ice tool attachments for this very reason. Many follower packs also have multiple gear attachment points, which is handy if you’re climbing in Squamish and walking off the summit of the Chief with all your gear. It’s our opinion that once on-route, you should not be climbing with a heap of gear dangling from your pack.
In terms of crag packs, we strongly recommend finding one that can accommodate all of your gear in the inside compartment. Being able to throw everything into a pack allows faster loading and a more comfortable carry. But in the event that you need to hang a tag line or #6 cam from the outside, most crag packs come with a few external attachment points.
If you’re hauling your pack up a climb or hanging it from the anchor at a belay, you’ll want to make sure that it has a strong attachment point. Many climbing-specific packs are made with reinforced haul loops for this very purpose. The Patagonia Linked Pack outperforms the rest of our top picks in this department, with large handles that easily meet over the contents of the pack, providing two separate points of attachment for added security. If a pack just has one haul loop—especially if it’s not reinforced for hauling (like that of the REI Flash 18)—we recommend looping a carabiner through both the haul loop and a shoulder strap. Two points of contact—or in climber speak, “redundancy”—is the standard when it comes to safety in the vertical realm.
We don’t mention hydration compatibility much in this article, and we have our reasons. For one, craggers likely won’t need to have water on the go during their short commute to the crag. Further, when it comes to follower packs, we don’t recommend climbing with a hydration reservoir’s tube hanging out of your pack. It can get scuffed on the rock or get in your way while you’re reaching for the next hold. And as for alpinists, most climbers we know choose not to weigh their pack down on the approach with liters of water, instead attaching a small .5-liter bottle to the outside of their pack with a carabiner and filling up beside the trail throughout the day.
That said, there certainly are times when it’s nice to have constant access to water via a hydration reservoir. In fact, most alpine and follower packs in this article are hydration-compatible, with the exception of just a couple. And crag packs are a different story—none on our list have a dedicated spot for a reservoir.
Many climbers—especially those headed into the mountains or up a long multi-pitch route—will want a pack with the ability to shed unneeded weight and bulk. Most of the alpine packs here have features like removable straps, lids, hipbelts, framesheets, stays, and more. These components allow a pack to carry more gear on the approach, and then strip down to bare bones for the climb. Essentially, you’ll want your alpine pack to look like a follower pack when you take it on-route: webbing hipbelt, no lid, and nothing more than a light backpanel/bivy pad for suspension. It will not only climb better, but also will be much lighter. Incredibly, a pack like Osprey’s Mutant 38 can go from weighing 2 pounds 11 ounces when fully featured to 1 pound 13 ounces when stripped.
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