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: 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 Ascensionist 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 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 hip belt 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 CiloGear’s 3030 WorkSack and Hyperlite’s Dyneema 2400 Ice Pack below offer more resilient materials, but the Alpha FL is superior for fast-and-light missions. It definitely speaks volumes that you’re more likely to see this pack than any other on technical routes in big mountains.
See the Arc'teryx Alpha FL 45
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.
For that weight and price, why isn’t the Flash 18 ranked higher? The Flash’s 140-denier nylon construction pales in comparison to rugged packs like the Patagonia Linked and Mountain Hardwear Multi-Pitch 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 other follower pack. If you’re new to climbing or don’t demand much of your pack, the Flash is a solid choice.
See the REI Co-op Flash 18
Best Backpack for Cragging
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
Best of the Rest
Weight: 2 lbs. 13 oz. (1 lb. 8 oz. stripped)
What we like: Comfortably carries an overnight load and strips down to a streamlined summit pack.
What we don’t: Requires time and care to customize your pack.
If anyone in the industry is geeking out about pack materials and design, it’s CiloGear. This small and quirky Portland-based company designs and constructs all of their packs in-house, creatively piecing together materials to maximize both weight savings and durability. And each pack is extremely customizable: the lid, hip belt, compression straps, and backpanel/sit pad are easily removable so you can hike into basecamp in comfort and then strip the pack down into a sleek alpine climbing machine (patience required).
CiloGear WorkSacks range from 20 to 75 liters, and each one is made to expand and compress to fit a range of loads. The 3030 is their most versatile design and our favorite size for alpine climbing missions: it’s a 40-liter pack with the suspension of a 30-liter, meaning it can accommodate an overnight kit but streamlines to condense into an ideal climbing pack. And like most of CiloGear’s packs, the 3030 also comes in a Guide Service model with burlier materials, and a W/NWD model that boasts an ultra-durable (and ultra-expensive) fully Dyneema design. These packs might not look as sleek as the competition, but they’re the real deal and will earn you major street cred in the mountains.
See the CiloGear 3030 WorkSack
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. 11 oz.
Capacities: 22, 38, 52L
What we like: Accommodates heavy loads well; breathable.
What we don’t: Heavier than most alpine packs; hipbelt is not removable.
Backpackers and hikers likely are familiar with Osprey, but their new alpine-specific Mutant is an impressive climbing pack. With a framesheet, padded hipbelt, and comfy shoulder straps, it carries and distributes weight better than a pack like the Alpha FL above. The textured mesh backpanel and shoulder straps also mean it’s significantly more breathable than the Hyperlite Dyneema 2400 Ice Pack below, while patches of stretchy, puncture-resistant “honey comb” 210D nylon boost its durability significantly.
While comfortable, we do wish the Mutant’s hipbelt was detachable. It does wrap around the pack to stay out of the way of a harness, but we prefer the added customization when possible. But the lid, helmet attachment system, framesheet, side straps, and rope attachment straps all can be removed, which cuts serious weight. All in all, the Mutant is not the lightest or sleekest of alpine packs, but Osprey’s new climbing model may be the most comfortable. And for $160, it also happens to be the cheapest of the group.
See the Osprey Mutant 38
Weight: 3 lbs. 9 oz.
What we like: An affordable pack with convenient, crag-specific features.
What we don’t: Less durable than the Black Diamond Creek 50.
For the everyday cragger in need of a high-capacity bag, the Trango Crag Pack manages to cram a whole lot of features into a $99 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.
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 wasted (read: 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 is a nice budget option.
See the Trango Crag Pack
Weight: 10 oz.
Capacities: 20, 30, 40, 45, 60, 75L
What we like: Waterproof; comes in three versions for lighter weight or increased durability.
What we don’t: Can be difficult to access contents on the go.
CiloGear’s 20-liter WorkSack ditches the more common lidless follower pack design for a waterproof bag with a small flap lid. At 11 ounces, this pack is almost as light as REI’s Flash 18, but rides higher on your back and includes a reinforced haul loop. Again, CiloGear offers the same design in lightweight and burly Dyneema (9 ounces; $150) and a rugged Guide Service version (15 ounces; $85). With ultra-durable fabric and stowable shoulder straps, the Guide Service 20L WorkSack (aka the “Hauly”) gives the Linked Pack a run for its money as one of our favorite follower packs to haul up a route.
As is often the case, the standard 20-liter WorkSack sacrifices durability for weight savings and packability, similar to Black Diamond’s Blitz and the Arc’teryx Cierzo below. If accessibility is your top priority, these other lidless packs offer one-handed access to the main compartment, whereas the WorkSack’s clipable buckle and standard drawstrings are less user-friendly. But while it sacrifices easy access, the top flap provides impressive waterproofing. This pack may be minimalistic in terms of features and design, but it will get the job done and keep your gear protected and dry—and that’s all we can really ask of a follower pack.
See the CiloGear 20L WorkSack
Weight: 2 lbs. 10 oz.
What we like: Extremely durable.
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 is still going strong after over three 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 lands a spot on the bottom half of our list. It’s worth noting that the Blitz utilizes the same 210D 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: 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 210D fabric and a weight of just over 2 pounds, it’s evident why the Ascensionist ranks below both the the Arc’teryx Alpha FL and CiloGear WorkSack. 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 burly waterproofing of the Alpha FL and want a more polished design than CiloGear’s packs, the Ascensionist is a fine middle ground.
See the Patagonia Ascensionist 40L
Weight: 1 lb. 12 oz.
Capacities: 16, 25L
What we like: Can hold more than its 25-liter capacity with all of the external attachment points.
What we don’t: Heavy and not as durable as Patagonia’s Linked Pack.
Mountain Hardwear’s new Multi-Pitch line-up is impressive in both functionality and durability. The flat bottom props the pack up for easy loading, while the top zip allows you to retrieve gear at a belay without the risk of spilling the pack’s contents. A small exterior zip pocket is ideal for storing route beta or a bar, and a deployable mesh pocket, daisy chains, and built-in gear loops allow the 25-liter pack to hold more than its fair share of equipment, both inside and out. But the best part, by far: the Multi-Pitch is significantly more durable than most follower packs on the market. With 840D base and body fabric and a tuck-away webbing hipbelt, it’s designed to be hauled up difficult pitches.
Why is this impressive pack so low on our list? To start, the Multi-Pitch 25 is new and we have yet to see if it will hold up to all the wear and tear that it is made for (we’ll report back). Additionally, we prefer a drawstring top over a zipper closure, as zippers tend to break when scraped over rock repeatedly. Finally, this pack is heavy: at 1 pound 12 ounces, it’s over 8 ounces more than the similarly burly Patagonia Linked Pack and almost triple the weight of REI’s Flash 18.
See the Mountain Hardwear Multi-Pitch 25
Weight: 1lb. 3 oz.
Capacities: 18, 28L
What we like: DWR finish on a lightweight pack.
What we don’t: Uncomfortable and the SwiftCord compression system feels flimsy.
Despite a number of upgrades in recent years, the Arc’teryx Cierzo remains toward the bottom of our list. But let’s start with the positives: the pack is light and extremely packable, and the one-handed draw cord is very user-friendly, even with gloves on. That said, the external pocket is virtually inaccessible when the pack is cinched down and we’re not impressed with the thin SwiftCord bungee. Not only is it liable to snag, but we don’t trust it to keep gear secured to the outside of the pack.
The Cierzo’s 28-liter capacity is larger than the other follower packs in our article, but we specifically chose this pack over its 18-liter sibling, and mainly because of the shoulder straps. It’s not that the straps on the 28-liter are anything to write home about, but those on the 18-liter render the pack almost useless—they fail to carry anything heavier than a few pounds comfortably. Plus, the 28-liter has a removable bivy pad and DWR finish. If you’re in this capacity range and have the budget, you should consider the 30-liter Arc’teryx Alpha FL above, which is a much more durable, fully waterproof pack that comes in at only one ounce heavier.
See the Arc'teryx Cierzo 28
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 pack in our round-up, trumping even the Arc’teryx Alpha FL and CiloGear WorkSack 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: 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.
The not-so-good: despite the denier rating (210D x 420D), which is similar to a number of other packs in this category, we’ve had a 22-liter Speed that developed holes in the collar after one pitch of hauling. And at 2.5 pounds, it’s certainly not our top choice for fast-and-light missions. Furthermore, the fabric won't keep your gear dry in a rainstorm like other alpine packs with added water-resistant finishes or higher-quality materials. And perhaps worst of all: the Speed is lacking interior 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
|Black Diamond Creek 50||$210||Crag||4 lbs. 7 oz.||20, 35, 50L||Polyester (1200D)|
|Arc’teryx Alpha FL 45||$259||Alpine||1 lb. 7 oz.||30, 45L||Nylon (400D)|
|REI Co-op Flash 18||$40||Follower||10 oz.||18L, 22L||Nylon (140D)|
|Patagonia Cragsmith 45L||$199||Crag||3 lbs. 7 oz.||32, 45L||Nylon (630D)|
|CiloGear 3030 WorkSack||$209||Alpine||2 lbs. 13 oz.||40L||Nylon (210D & 500D)|
|Patagonia Linked 18L||$99||Follower||1 lb. 3.7 oz.||18L, 28L||Nylon (940D)|
|Osprey Mutant 38||$170||Alpine||2 lbs. 11 oz.||22, 38, 52L||Nylon (210D & 420D)|
|Trango Crag Pack||$99||Crag||3 lbs. 9 oz.||48L||not available|
|CiloGear 20L WorkSack||$79||Follower||10 oz.||20, 30, 40, 45, 60, 75L||Nylon (70D & 210D)|
|Metolius Crag Station||$129||Crag||2 lbs. 10 oz.||41L||Nylon & Durathane|
|Black Diamond Blitz 20||$80||Follower||14 oz.||20, 28L||Nylon (210D & 200D)|
|Patagonia Ascensionist 40L||$179||Alpine||2 lbs. 0.5 oz.||30, 40L||Nylon/polyester (210D)|
|Mountain Hardwear Multi-Pitch 25||$110||Follower||1 lb. 12 oz.||16, 25L||
|Arc’teryx Cierzo 28||$119||Follower||1 lb. 3 oz.||18, 28L||Nylon (100D & 210D)|
|Hyperlite 2400 Ice Pack||$500||Alpine||2 lbs. 2.1 oz.||40, 55, 70L||Dyneema (375D)|
|Black Diamond Speed 40||$180||Alpine||2 lbs. 8 oz.||22, 30, 40, 50L||Nylon (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 5 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 warmest puffy, 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 (like the CiloGear 20L WorkSack) 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 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 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 CiloGear’s 3030 pack—a 30-liter pack with the ability to fit 40 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 140D 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 940D 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. CiloGear’s WorkSack 20L, Arc’teryx’s Alpha FL, and the Hyperlite Dyneema 2400 Ice Pack all are made with waterproof or highly water-resistant materials. The latter two even are seam-sealed, making them fully impervious to precipitation (when closed properly).
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, more annoyingly, 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 using a purifier.
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 we feature here have 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 be much lighter. Incredibly, a pack like CiloGear’s WorkSack 3030 can go from weighing 2 pounds 13 ounces when fully-featured to a mere 1 pound 8 ounces when stripped.
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