Best Overall Rock Climbing Daypack
Patagonia Linked Pack 16L
No emergency whistle
This pack led from the beginning and never looked back. It is far and away our favorite climbing backpack and receives the first place score in three out of six evaluation criteria. We particularly like its low weight, functionality, comfort, and versatility. It is the only pack with legitimate haul loops and a sleek design with enough external carrying potential. Even its weaknesses were only slight. The durability of its 630-denier body is a concern but is bolstered by polyurethane and DWR coatings. Packed size is another category where it didn't come in first, however, we can't complain much about its compact shape or sleek exterior. Potential improvements include an emergency whistle and removable elastic cords for the attachment points on the sides. Nevertheless, the Patagonia Linked Pack 16L
is still a huge improvement over previous options and we're happy to give it our Editors' Choice Award.
Read full review: Patagonia Linked Pack 16L
Best for Budget-Minded
REI Co-op Flash 18
Limited climbing utility
New Version Available!
The latest version of this affordable pack is the REI Co-op Flash 18. The updates, which are covered fully in the individual review, include changes to the shoulder straps, a thicker, single daisy chain, and a new nylon carry handle/hauling loop. Overall, this pack remains similar to its predecessor, and without a price change, it's still our budget pick.
The only pack in this selection not explicitly designed for rock climbing is the REI Co-op Flash 18. This could be one reason why it's so much less expensive (for some reason gear marketed for life-threatening activities is always pricier). We chose to add the Flash to this review because it's a popular choice among many climbers we know. The reasons why are simple: it's light and cheap. For a lot of applications, it's also equally functional compared to the higher-priced options. The Flash's greatest weakness is durability. Its 140-denier nylon will get shredded rubbing over coarse rock. For 40 bucks, however, it won't cost you too much to replace a bag destroyed by abrasion when climbing and hauling.
Read full review: REI Co-op Flash 18
Analysis and Test Results
What Is a Rock Climbing Daypack?
One of the joys of rock climbing is getting high off the ground. The exhilarating exposure and incredible views give you a chance to see the world from a whole different perspective, both figuratively and literally. One of the challenges, though, is trying to remain comfortable and safe while spending the day a few hundred feet off the ground. A rock climbing backpack helps overcome this problem by giving you a way to carry the food, water, and gear necessary to keep you happy and alive. Although any old backpack is capable of holding these supplies, we set out to discover what is the best bag for multi-pitch rock climbing. These packs are tougher than a hiking day bag, larger than a hydration pack, and smaller and more ergonomic than a mountaineering backpack. They also have some features specific to rock climbing, like reinforced haul loops and rope straps.
Testing the BD Bullet high above the Crooked River, Smith Rock State Park, OR.
All the climbing backpacks we tested ranged from 16 to 20 liters. We feel this is the ideal range for a climbing pack: any smaller and you might as well clip the contents to your harness, larger and they're too unwieldy to climb with. Our testers find this size range useful for anything from a leisurely single pitch photo shoot to a grade VI speed ascent. You can expect to fit 2L of water, a pair of micro puffies, some snacks, and a camera in any one of these packs. Some come with additional external attachment points, like daisy chains or compression straps for securing big cams or a rappel line.
Criteria for Evaluation
From left to right, the Petzl Bug, Black Diamond Bullet, Mountain Hardwear Hueco 20, REI Flash 18, Patagonia Linked 16L.
Most rock climbers should already know how important weight can be. On a difficult redpoint burn a pound or two can be the difference between flailing and success. The same is true in the alpine realm where extra weight can sap your strength before you even get to the route. As far as rock climbing daypacks go though, weight may not be quite as critical. For one, the difference between the lightest and heaviest packs we tested is only 8 ounces. Although this difference is significant enough to be noticeable on a particularly strenuous pitch, the majority of the climbers we know wear packs for long moderate routes where weight is less important. And when things do get truly desperate, you're usually better off hauling a pack instead of wearing it. (Many daypacks can handle some hauling but for sustained hard routes a vinyl-coated mini haul bag is usually better, like the Fish Atom Smasher or Black Diamond Stubby).
The packs we tested are all made of nylon and ranged from 12.0 (REI Co-op Flash) to 20.3 ounces (Petal Bug). It is possible to produce a 16L pack even lighter, but not without significant sacrifices in durability or function. Although there are limited ways to trim the weight from the Mountain Hardwear Hueco 20
and Petzl Bug
, the Patagonia Linked, REI Co-op Flash 18, and Black Diamond Bullet
can all be slimmed by 1.9 oz or more if you remove hip belts, sternum straps, and supplemental padding. Weight itself represents 10% of our overall scores and we think that's what it should be. Not critical but worth some consideration.
There's no question that climbing backpacks need to be tough. They've got to get past branches and cactus spines on the way to the cliff, only to be subjected to relentless abrasion while on route. Anyone whose ever thrashed up an offwidth crack knows how unforgiving coarse rock can be on skin and clothing, the situation is even worse for backpacks though, because without sensitive nerve endings nearby, they receive little sympathy. Big wall climbers also know the destructive potential of rock friction that's capable quickly wearing holes through the burliest urathane or vinyl haul bags.
Small climbing daypacks are expected to be lightweight and comfortable while still withstanding some of this abuse. Overall we were impressed with how well they held up. Durability is primarily determined by two factors: materials and construction. Materials we consider to be the fabrics, zippers, and buckles used to make them. Construction is the design of the pack itself, ie. the shape and layout of features, location of the seams, types of closures used, redundancy of haul loops, etc.
All the packs we tested are composed primarily of nylon. Nylon fabric's abrasion resistance can vary wildly depending on the strength of the individual fibers and the density of the weave they're sewn into (think of the tissue-like delicacy of a windbreaker vs. the bullet stopping strength of pre-kevlar flak jackets). Within the outdoor industry, the most widely listed metric to describe nylon strength is denier. However, denier doesn't actually measure strength but rather the fineness of an individual yarn, determined as the mass in grams of a 9000-meter long strand. It can give you an OK idea of how strong a given fabric is—a higher number generally corresponding with greater durability. Other factors though, like the density of the weave or post-spinning chemical coatings, can affect abrasion resistance and muddle denier's descriptive usefulness.
The bags we tested ranged from the flimsy 140-denier on the body of the REI Co-op Flash to 1260d on the base of the BD Bullet, which brings us to the second factor: construction. Higher denier fabrics weigh more. In order to shave ounces, designers only use heavier fabrics on the parts of gear most subject to abuse. For climbing packs this usually means the base (bottom). The Patagonia, Black Diamond, and Petzl packs all feature higher denier bases. Mountain Hardwear instead chose to reinforce the base with a second layer of the same 400d fabric used on body of the Hueco 20L. Although these measures are good for preventing the bottom of your pack from falling out, we believe the more likely places to wear on a climbing backpack are the front and sides. These problem areas are what usually scrapes against the rock during actual climbing and hauling. The Hueco has vinyl-coated fabric for its front and the Patagonia Linked uses 630d nylon for its entire body (higher than any of the other packs). There is little to no reinforcement to the front or sides of other packs.
Ultimately, when considering both materials and construction characteristics within our overall durability score, we found the Bullet to be the burliest and the Flash to be the most fragile.
The side panels of the rock climbing daypacks we tested. Their capacities increase from left to right: Black Diamond Bullet (16L), Patagonia Linked (16L), REI Flash (18L), Petzl Bug (18L), and Mountain Hardwear Hueco (20L).
You don't have to be inside the depths of a squeeze chimney for a backpack to get in the way while rock climbing. Laybacks, stem boxes, and offwidths can all require you to place your back or sides against the stone. Snagging your pack on a branch during the approach or descent is also frustrating and, in the wrong terrain, potentially dangerous. A compact, streamlined pack has the potential to turn an exasperating struggle into an manageable inconvenience. For this reason we selected packed size as a criteria for evaluation.
We analyzed it from two different perspectives: the total size of a pack and the likelihood of straps, flaps, and extra gizmos to snag on obstacles. The packs we tested ranged from 16 to 20 liters and came shaped as either a basic rounded rectangle or with a subtle top to bottom taper. Both are efficient shapes for storing volume and we didn't identify a particular geometric design more awkward or cumbersome to carry.
We observed more difference in the likelihood of snags. The BD Bullet has no exterior catch points besides a single carry handle on top. It's pretty much guaranteed to slide past all obstacles and received our highest score in packed size. The MH Hueco and Patagonia Linked are also streamlined but include dual haul loops and an assortment of attachment points that could potentially get hung up. The REI Co-op Flash is a little worse, with two 7-pocket daisy chains and an extra ice axe loop. None came close though to the junk show that is the exterior of the Petzl Bug. We like the daisy chain and six compression straps it includes for securing gear to the outside, but these features also create a lot of extra spots to snag and scrape.
All the evaluation criteria—weight, durability, packed size, comfort, etc.—were selected because they can affect a pack's overall usefulness for rock climbing. However, within the metric 'climbing utility' we focused on qualities outside the scope of those other categories. In this vein, all of these packs share some of the same features. They're all hydration system compatible with sleeves or pockets along the back to tuck a bladder, a hole through the top to pass a hose through, and a tabs on the shoulder straps to secure a bite valve. Key clips positioned inside accessory pockets are also universal [Editors' Note: We know far too many climbers who've dropped their keys while climbing. Key clips are not fool proof. Find a hiding spot for your keys on your vehicle and tell your partner where they are so there's no chance of getting stranded.]
Regardless of the closure method, the packs we tested are all designed to prevent gear from spilling out when opened on route. The REI Co-op Flash, Patagonia Linked, and MH Hueco are all dependable top-loaders. Although the Petzl Bug and BD Bullet are panel-loaders, the Bug's zippers don't extend down very low and the Bullet has triangular flaps to keep gear inside even when it's long zippers are fully opened.
Despite the similarities there were also important differences. Hauling a pack is something no one enjoys doing, but it's often preferable to wearing a bag up a strenuous overhang or tagging one inside a difficult chimney (Harding Slot anyone?). And if you gotta haul, you probably wanna do it using two beefy haul points. The Patagonia Linked is the only the pack that has a functioning pair. Mountain Hardwear does include two loops on the top of the Hueco, but they're too short to reach each other and are designed more for clipping into an anchor than for hauling. It is possible to improvise redundancy on the Petzl Bug, REI Co-op Flash, and BD Bullet using their single haul loops combined with a sling through a shoulder strap, but this requires extra gear and is less convenient.
The design choices on the BD Bullet, in particular, are strangely contradictory. It is the only climbing daypack with a nifty flap on the back panel where you can hide the shoulder straps (just like on a full-blown haul bag). This would be a great feature because with the shoulder straps tucked in you're left with a totally streamlined bag, ideal for hauling. However, the problem is that hiding the shoulder straps requires they be disconnected and then you're left with no way to backup the Bullet's single haul loop. The next manufacturer to adopt shoulder strap stowing on a climbing daypack should be sure to include two strong haul loops.
External Carrying Options
A rappel line clipped into the MH Hueco using its aluminum buckle rope strap.
When multi-pitching it's also common to 'carry-over' routes—approach from one way and descend another. In these situations it's usually most comfortable to carry as much gear as possible in/on your daypack for the hiking, instead of letting it jangle around on your harness or an over-the-shoulder sling. For this reason we like packs with external attachment options. All the packs except the BD Bullet have a few attachment points and a way to secure a rope. The Bullet may be streamlined, but it won't help you transport a carry-over load.
The hip belt on the BD Bullet is removable via a simple sewn loop thread-through attachment.
If you're going to be hiking around a daypack full of water, layers, and snacks along with big cams, a helmet, and rope strapped to the outside, the total weight can get surprisingly heavy and support becomes a concern. All the packs come with similar shoulder straps and padding. We have gripes with the MH Hueco because it's the only bag without a hip belt. We found this irksome because its 20 liter capacity and rope strap easily allow you to pack loads heavy enough to require extra support. Why not include a removable hip belt like the BD Bullet, REI Co-op Flash ,or Patagonia Linked? We'd even settle for the tuckable hip belt on the Petzl Bug, but no hip belt is a deal breaker for many climbers we spoke with.
The last feature we wish was included on all climbing backpacks is a safety whistle. The MH Hueco, REI Co-op Flash and BD Bullet all have whistles that double as the buckle for their sternum strap—always at hand, impossible to forget. The potential emergency signaling use of a whistle is way too valuable for this light, simple device not to be included on any pack specifically designed for a risky sport like rock climbing.
This category is tricky to judge because there are near infinite ways to use a small backpack. The most popular secondary application we envision for these packs is everday urban activities like going to class, shopping for groceries, or toting around a laptop. For this type of use all the bags we tested are more than capable. Each has a interior sleeve or pouch along the back panel big enough for a small laptop and there's no restrictions on filling the main compartments with books, groceries, or anything else. The subjective quality affecting this application though is style. We hesitate to tell anyone what to wear, but feel it's worth mentioning the testers and climbers we talked to preferred the BD Bullet and Patagonia Linked's sleek exteriors for social occasions. The REI Co-op Flash, MH Hueco, and Petzl Bug can all come off as a bit too technical for around town errands.
We also suspect a lot of rock climbers will want to stuff their small climbing daypack inside a larger backpack for carrying gear to the cliff or on a overnight excursion. Therefore, we factored in the packable bulk of these packs when they're empty. The Petzl Bug is the largest, followed by the MH Hueco, BD Bullet, and Patagonia Linked. The Flash 18 is the smallest. The differences aren't huge, yet we think this could be a factor for climbing trips where you hike into a base camp with overnight loads and climb several multi-pitch routes nearby over successive days, like you might do in Wyoming's Wind River Range or Washington's North Cascades.
The Patagonia Linked is stylish enough to wear for urban activities.
Beyond these two broad qualities, evaluating versatility become more pack specific. The Petzl Bug's inelegant external straps work great for carrying skis in an A-frame configuration. With some finagling the Linked could pull this off as well, but there isn't any obvious way to carry skis with the Hueco, Flash, or Bullet. The Hueco lost additional points because it lacks a hip belt and with 20 liter capacity and a rope strap, it is certainly possible to fill it with loads heavy enough that you'd wish it had one. The BD Bullet's sleek exterior does limit its uses, but it could be desired by high speed adventurers who prefer zero possibility of snagging (mountain bikers, resort skiers).
The back panels of the climbing day packs we reviewed. Our favorite suspension was on the Patagonia Linked (red), followed by the Petzl Bug (middle right) and REI Flash 18 (far right). The MH Hueco (middle left) lacks a hip belt and the BD Bullet (far left) has wide shoulder straps that are prone to sliding off.
It is hard to imagine another sport with as much variety of movement as rock climbing. From basic maneuvers like laybacks, drop knees, and stems to the esoteric inventions of inverted offwidth specialists, different routes can dictate our bodies contort in all manner of ways. A good climbing backpack should be able to accommodate these movement (or at least be haulable when something gymnastic is required). One difference between climbing daypacks and regular hiking daypacks is where they rest on your back; climbing specific bags should be designed to stay up high on the back to prevent them from tangling with gear on a harness and to allow for extra lower back mobility. At the same time, a climbing pack shouldn't be positioned too high, where it could interfere when looking up with a helmet on. All the bags we tested fit us at the appropriate height.
Differentiation came from the tapered designs of the Patagonia Linked and MH Hueco that more closely match a body's shape (wider at the shoulders, narrower toward the hips). We preferred this design to the basic rectangular shape of the BD Bullet, REI Co-op Flash, and Petzel Bug. Nevertheless, a tapered profile didn't guarantee a good comfort score. The MH Hueco lost points because it lacked a hip belt and could become painful after bouncing down a long walk-off with a heavy load. Many of our testers also reported specific complaints about the BD Bullet. This pack has widely spaced and especially curved shoulder straps that were prone to sliding off the shoulders of even the broad, 6'3" author. Keeping the sternum strap clipped solved this problem, but wasn't a solution many of our testers liked.
We found the Patagonia Linked to be the most comfortable of all the small climbing day packs. Its lightweight suspension allowed free movement even with arms overhead.
If you're into climbing multi-pitches, chances are good that you've realized the utility of a small climbing pack to carry your essentials for the day. Generally, a combination of small and lightweight, while still being comfortable and durable, is what we're seeking for our long vertical pursuits. That said, these bags can be handy in everyday urban life, too. We hope our months of hauling these bags up rock faces has produced a review that will prove helpful in your search for a new climbing daypack. As a further resource, be sure to consult our Buying Advice
article for advice on how to find the the right bag that matches your back (and climbing lifestyle!).