Why Do You Need a Rock Climbing Daypack?
It wasn't long after the 1786 first ascent of Mount Blanc before climbers started looking for a comfortable and efficient way to carry their stuff. Almost two centuries later—after technical rock climbing had grown into its own sport separate from mountaineering—backpacks designed specifically for rock climbing began to appear. At first these were rudimentary, little more than minimalist backpacks sewn with strong fabrics. Today that's still largely true except the materials have improved, weights have decreased, and they've added a few convenience features.
When looking for something to carry the gear to keep you comfortable and safe during a day in the vertical, you need a solution that's also reliable and not too annoying to climb with. For most readers we envision this to be a small backpack worn during ascents of moderate, multi-pitch classics completed in a single day. It needs to be able to store things like water, food, layers, headlamps, a camera, and perhaps shoes for a carry-over descent. There are quite literally thousands of backpacks that could do this, so in our Best in Class article we tried to focus on the best designs suited for the most popular climbing applications. Here, we will explore those options and other types of packs that might be useful for different climbing goals.
The Contenders to be Your Rock Climbing Daypack
Rock Climbing Specific Daypacks
This is the style of pack we highlight in our main review article. They're small (16-20L), compact, and designed to ride high on the back so they won't interfere with a harness. They're also tougher than the average backpack, like the burly Patagonia Linked Pack 16L or Black Diamond Bullet, sewn with thicker fabrics to resist abrasion. Many of these packs are modular with removable hip belts, sternum straps, and back panels that let you customize them to your personal preferences and objectives. The best designs also include strong anchor points for secure hauling on the occasional crux pitch (the Petzl Bug is a good example)—no daypack though is built to handle sustained hauling. The burly materials and extra features increase cost so we also included one regular hiking daypack in our review, the REI Co-op Flash 18, because it's a cheap alternative and fairly popular among climbers. Other hiking daypacks can also work as stand-ins for the rare multi-pitcher, but you will sacrifice some durability.
Hydration packs are typically even smaller and more compact than their rock climbing counterparts, and with a narrower profile that often makes them more comfortable to climb with especially the Osprey Raptor 10 or CamelBak M.U.L.E.. However, these advantages come with limitations. They're usually too small for extra layers or shoes, or really anything beyond a water bladder and a granola bar or two. They're also delicate and should never be hauled or chimneyed. Still, we like hydration packs on sunny, strenuous routes where we know we'll need to drink a lot but don't want the burden of a full-fledged backpack.
Mini Haul Bags
The other option for tackling strenuous routes besides slimming down to a hydration pack is to take the pack off and haul it. This is often the best strategy for success on routes with sustained difficult climbing. Hauling a pack with a day's worth of gear (<30lbs) really isn't that bad, and if youprogress capture pulley and static tag line it's even easier. Options available include the Fish Atom Smasher, Metolius Mescalito, Black Diamond Creek 20, and Runout Customs Canyon Pack V2. We also like this kind of pack for in-a-day big wall routes so you can keep the aid gear stowed until you actually need it.
Alpine and Mountaineering Packs
When elevation increases and temperatures plummet, climbers are forced to bring extra gear if they want to stay safe and comfortable. Climbing with a pack is more common in the alpine because less technical terrain makes wearing one less annoying. Alpine packs can be lighter because abrasion is not as huge of a concern and they're usually larger to accommodate bulkier insulating layers. Of the five packs in this review, none are designed for mountaineering—only the Flash 18 has an ice axe loop, but even that is incomplete without a shaft attachment cord. Interested mountaineers should instead check out our review of mountaineering and alpine climbing backpacks.
Considerations for Rock Climbing Specific Daypacks
After you've decided you need a rock climbing daypack, the next question is how big? The packs we tested all ranged from 16 to 20 liters and we feel this is the ideal size for a climbing daypack. The Black Diamond Bullet is the smallest pack at 16L, any smaller and the contents could fit on your harness. The Mountain Hardwear Hueco 20 is the largest, much larger and it gets miserable to climb with. Therefore, we suggest shoppers stick to this approximate capacity. If you need to carry more gear than a single pack can hold, it's usually better to add a second pack for the leader instead of forcing a larger pack on the follower. Any of the packs we reviewed will work for a leader or follower. We recommend swapping them though, to always give the leader the lightest/smallest pack. Depending on the route and amount of gear required, it can sometimes be better to pair a rock climbing specific daypack for the follower with a hydration pack for the leader.
Sport vs. Trad (Weight vs. Durability)
The biggest consideration when selecting a climbing pack should be the type of climbing you intend to do. Bolted face routes and sustained chimney systems place dramatically different demands on a pack. Exclusive sport climbers, or tradsters that avoid awkward wideness, can sacrifice durability to enjoy a lighter pack, like the REI Co-op Flash 18. Offwidth masochists and adventure climbers need more abrasion resistance and are better off with a tougher bag, like the Editors' Choice Patagonia Linked Pack 16L.
Packed Size (Streamlined vs. Junk Show)
In our old review there wasn't much middle ground between the sleek exterior of the Black Diamond Bullet and the circus of straps and daisy chains that is the Petzl Bug. If you wanted to carry a rope or big cam on the outside, you had to settle for a pack equipped to carry 3+ of each. That's no longer the case. Both the Patagonia Linked Pack 16L and Mountain Hardwear Hueco 20 now combine streamlined exteriors with rope straps and recessed anchor points. The result is two packs with increased usefulness that are still unlikely to snag. We suggest uncertain shoppers select a pack with at least some external carrying possibilities in case they discover they need to strap stuff to the outside in the future.
Beyond the larger considerations, there are a few other features that differentiate the rock climbing daypacks. Chimneys and hard crux pitches often necessitate hauling your pack. The Patagonia Linked is the only climbing pack we tried with two sturdy loops designed for hauling. It's possible to rig the Mountain Hardwear Hueco 20 and Petzl Bug for redundant hauling but it's difficult to do with the REI Co-op Flash 18 or Black Diamond Bullet.
Several manufacturers recognize that different climbers prefer to climb with or without a hip belt. Three of the packs we tested come with removable hip belts. Unless you know your hip belt preference, we suggest you chose either the Patagonia Linked, BD Bullet, or REI Co-op Flash 18 and experiment for yourself.
The other big decision you need to make is how much you're willing to spend. The premium packs cost $70+, which is probably more than most occasional multi-pitchers are willing to spend. It's entirely possible to climb comfortably with the $40 Flash 18 or many other affordable, non-sport specific, packs. If you don't plan to haul or climb in areas with coarse rock, then the added durability and features of the nicer packs may not be worth the cost.