Updated November 2017
Ready for the winter alpine season? So are we. We've updated our review to include the newest models as well as tried and true classics. The Osprey Mutant 38 is the new winner of our Editors' Choice award, followed by the Arc'teryx Alpha FL, our Top Pick for fast and light missions. We've awarded the Gregory Denali 100 the best pack for expeditions, and the Black Diamond Speed 50 for those who want to be a little kinder to their wallets.
Best Overall Mountaineering and Alpine Model
Osprey Mutant 38
Easy to overstuff
Carries heavy loads well
Side strap system can be cumbersome
Modularity adds some complexity
Metal stay required for support, bends easily
Our Editors' Choice Award goes to the Osprey Packs Mutant 38
. As the name might suggest, this pack is a new breed, leading the charge in a brave new world of comfortable, high-performance climbing packs. The Mutant is a successful cross between Osprey's focus on comfort, and the light, fast, and simple designs desired by alpine climbers. This is an entirely featured alpine climbing pack that is still simple enough to compete with our light-and-fast specialist packs. If we could only own one model, this would be it. It carries heavy loads like a beast, then strips down into a light and streamlined summit machine. So whatever mutation happened at Osprey that allowed this pack to make it to the shelves—we hope there is more of that on the way.
Read review: Osprey Mutant 38
Best Bang for the Buck
Black Diamond Speed 50
Well thought out features
The Black Diamond Speed 50
is a standard, no-nonsense, reliable backpack that is up for all types of mountain adventures. It works for alpine climbing, backcountry skiing, and we've even used it to haul sleds to our base camp for technical climbs in the Alaska Range. This is the real Jack-of-all-Trades in our fleet. It gets our Best Buy Award because it packs a little more value than our Editors' Choice winner, the Mutant, which is (ironically) $30 cheaper. The Speed 50 is just a bit more versatile than the Mutant due to its higher volume and simplicity. If you need one pack that can do everything, you can make it happen with this model, albeit with some sacrifices to comfort. We love how streamlined this model is with the use of thinner webbing, smaller buckles, and simple ice tool attachments. This contender is also available in 40L and 30L with the same feature set. If you need a pack for alpine climbing and multi-pitch rock climbing, we recommend this budget set-up: the Black Diamond Speed 40 and the REI Co-op Flash 18
Read review: Black Diamond Speed 50
Top Pick for Fast and Light
Arc'teryx Alpha FL 45
Great weight-to-volume ratio
Must rig own side straps
Less comfortable with overstuffed or heavy loads
Must pack thoughtfully for a balanced load
Our Top Pick Award for Fast-and-Light goes to the Arc'teryx Alpha FL 45
. This is the second time the Alpha has been an award winner in our reviews, ousted in this round by the Mutant for Editor's Choice. This rucksack rewards the savvy packer with an excellent weight-to-volume ratio and impressive durability, especially for its light weight. It is best thought of as a 30-liter pack that can be overstuffed with lightweight, bulky items for a short hike to basecamp, where light weight on the climb is a top priority. It is perfect for car-to-car alpinism, and manageable for 1-3 night trips in the summer if you have a very light bivy kit. This pack is a dream on technical climbs. The fabric is extremely durable—it can even stand up to some light hauling. This is the mountaineering backpack of choice in our review for alpinists who want to do more with less; in fact, it's the model our testers consistently pulled out of the pile when gearing up for difficult routes.
Read review: Arc'teryx Alpha FL 45
Top Pick for Expeditions
Gregory Denali 100
Snow and expedition specific features
Comfortable when full or empty
Well designed frame and supports
Some quirky features
With only two expedition packs in this review, it was a close call, but we give the Gregory Denali 100
our Top Pick for Expeditions Award. It narrowly edged ahead of the Osprey Xenith 105 for its superior comfort and versatility, which came down to only a few things. Notably, the Denali sits much more comfortably on your back, and where it rises above your head, it does not impinge upon your view or range of motion. We liked the snow-specific features on the Denali since most packs of this size are likely to be used in the snow at some point during an expedition. And when packed well it felt secure and streamlined, while still allowing easy access to items with large zippered sleeves and pockets. It's worth noting that comfort and versatility may mean different things to different climbers, so check out our full reviews to help you sift through the details.
Read review: Gregory Denali 100
Notable for Inclement Weather
Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Ice Pack
Lightweight and entirely waterproof
Bivy pad is not removable
Could be more durable and easier to open
If you are going to be spending a lot of time in inclement weather (especially rain) and will be spending minimal time on rock, the somewhat fragile but highly water resistant Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400
might be a good match for you. It's one of the best packs in terms of comfort and weight to volume ratio and is an excellent lightweight option with a few more climbing features than the Arc'teryx FL 45, and a proper padded hip belt. That said, it falls behind for some of its accessibility issues, which make it less versatile. This pack is not abrasion resistant at all and acquired numerous little holes after a trip on alpine rock. If you keep this pack away from rock, however, it is one of the few fully waterproof backpacks out there. It's a bit of a niche product, but if it's your niche, you'll be psyched!
Read review: Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400
Analysis and Test Results
Max Neale approaching Mt. Katahdin, Maine with the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Ice Pack.
Mountaineering Backpacks: What's The Deal?
The packs reviewed here are "alpine" climbing packs. They are designed for technical mountain climbing (and mountaineering). They are often more compact and streamlined than backpacking packs, and larger than a small climbing daypack for multi-pitch rock. an excellent alpine climbing pack should be easily overstuffed and carry heavy loads with some comfort. Then, it must also be comfortable and streamlined enough for the summit bid, able to carry the essentials and not get in the way of your movement when the climbing gets technical. If you can't live without lots of pockets, access points, straps, and a beefy suspension, check out our Best Backpacking Backpack Review
A Note on Our Mountaineering Backpack Selection:
Fast and light alpinism on Mt. Baker's North Ridge.
We selected an extensive range of alpine climbing and mountaineering packs in this review to discuss the pros and cons, and various attributes, of a wider variety of packs. We recognize that alpine climbs come in all shapes and sizes, so we hope to offer a glimpse into some of the best packs we could find for everything from in-a-day alpine missions to weeks-long expeditions. Most of the packs in this review are in the 30-50 liter range, which is a great all-rounder size. But you'll find a few outliers, notably our two expedition packs. We hope that our look at these two will help anyone venturing off on an ambitious expedition to weigh their options. All this is to say, there are a lot of caveats and tradeoffs to each pack, so be sure you're applying the right tool for the task. Each review discusses thoroughly the applications of each pack and can help to point you in the right direction for your climbing enthusiasms.
Each mountaineering backpack is scored on the following criteria using a standard scale of 10. For a thorough discussion on a pack's specific scores, navigate to the individual product reviews.
The overall weight of a mountaineering backpack is of great importance. A lighter pack is likely more pleasant on the climb and may be more or less comfortable on the approach depending on the load you're hauling and the design of the pack. In general, a heavier pack makes everything a little more difficult—and probably less fun. A pack that feels only a little heavier at the trailhead parking lot can make a big difference when the miles, elevation, and days add up.
To improve your alpine climbing experience, start to whittle down the gear you throw into your alpine pack. This effort should begin with the "big 3": sleeping bag, shelter, and backpack. Sometimes you may consider the "stripped" weight of a pack. This is the weight of the pack minus any removable components like a lid (aka brain), hip belt, or frame sheet. This is decreasing in importance as more and more pack manufacturers are eliminating the lids entirely, minimizing hip belts, and sewing the frame sheet in place—that is to say, they're starting with the "stripped down" model.
Our ping pong ball volume test.
In our comparison table below, we list each pack's weight-to-volume ratio. But we didn't take the manufacturer's word for it. We measured the volume ourselves with the help of hundreds of ping-pong balls
to get an apples-to-apples (or pings-to-pongs) sense of what each pack could handle. We also measured the weights ourselves, with a digital scale, you can read more about this in our How We Tested article.
Because these packs do not all have the same volume, a smaller model of heavier materials could be lighter than a more substantial contender built from more lightweight materials. We use a weight-to-volume ratio for our scoring because it lets us compare the weights of packs of different sizes. We use weight-to-volume ratio numbers in grams (g) of weight per liter (L) of volume. We only measured the capacity of the main compartment, not the lid or any pockets, because loading pockets can throw off the balance of a pack—plus this helped normalize the measurement across all manufacturers, as some report volume including pockets, and others without. This score shakes out when we get to features, where packs with lots of pockets scored higher in an objective sense—so if you hate pockets, you can look with skepticism upon a highly featured pack.
To verify these volumes, we used our own volume measurements to compare the packs in this review better. We weighed each of the packs ourselves, then poured hundreds of ping pong balls into each pack—and poured them out into a pre-measured bucket to measure the volume in liters. Curious about all this? Find out more details about our elaborate ping-pong ball test
in our How We Test article
The HMG 3400 Ice Pack at it's "stripped" volume (left) and "max" volume (right). This pack claims a 55 liter volume but our testing found it actually holds 50 liters.
For a more realistic test, we also put together a sample kit for a weekend of summer alpine climbing. We then packed this gear into each of the packs and compared. While this was less useful for the expedition packs, which gobbled up all the equipment and then some, it provides a known quantity—and a visual aid for you to compare each one. It also allowed us to suss out the attachment systems for crampons, ice axes, helmets, poles, rope, etc.
The Alpha 45 couldn't easily fit our standard 2-3 day climbing kit, but if we thoughtfully trimmed things down and took only a small inflatable pad, it worked just fine.
Because weight is the first thing to consider when selecting gear for alpine climbing and mountaineering, it's the first of our scoring criteria and receives the highest percentage in the overall score. The Arc'teryx Alpha FL 45 ran away with the best ratio
in both calculations: with and without the extendable collar used to measure volume. But the Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Ice Pack was very close behind
. These two packs scored leaps and bounds above the rest.
There are two parts to comfort in an alpine or mountaineering backpack—comfort on the approach, and comfort on the climb. Smaller packs with flexible (or minimal) frame sheets tend to be much more comfortable than larger, beefier packs when climbing. Larger packs, however, tend to have more substantial suspension systems, frame sheets, stays, padding, etc. and are more comfortable on the approach than an overloaded fast-and-light pack.
But things are starting to shift in the prominent designs of alpine packs. We are beginning to see more and more models with flat back panels and simple suspension systems, often eliminating the lid and the load lifter straps on top of the shoulder straps. At first, we were skeptical, assuming this would make for excellent climbing performance at the expense of comfort on the approach. As we found out, this was not entirely true.
First, let's point out that the slightly more traditional approach of the Osprey Mutant 38 is still the most comfortable with heavy loads
. It has a minimal frame, but it carries up to 50 pounds with ease (as easy as carrying 50 pounds on your back can be, anyway).
Andra DeVoght, DPT of Insight Physio, examining the Mutant 38. It is quite comfortable, but the frame requires the use of this single metal stays, otherwise, it folds and crumples.
But let's look at the surprising performance of our other two comfort winners, the Arc'teryx Alpha FL 45
and the Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Ice Pack
. Both of these have relatively flat and flexible, but firm frame sheets. They rest flush on your back and therefore move fluidly with you through any terrain. This contact with your back distributes some of the load, rather than focusing it on your hips and shoulders, then adding straps to tilt the weight one way or another and get it balanced somehow. It's simple, and it works.
To better help us understand why this works, we consulted with a physical therapist and climber who explained why this makes sense. You can read more in our How We Test article.
To summarize, this simple design allows an athlete, like someone who already has a high level of strength and movement skills, to move more. Packs with lumbar support push your spine into extension, which is a strong structural position for those unaccustomed to carrying a backpack. For avid alpine climbers, however, this locks our bodies in one position, making it harder to flex (or curl) our spine. This flexion allows us to fully exhale, rotate our torso more fully, and tilt our pelvis backward (think of the way the bowl of your pelvis is tipping here) making high stepping much easier. All of this adds up to less pack-induced resistance to our motions and more endurance. Ice climbers are familiar with this concept in gloves: a set of climbing gloves with minimal, thin padding that is pre-curved as if already gripping the tool improve endurance because you don't have to resist the resting shape of the glove to grip your tool.
Another critical reason this simple pack design works is due to the increasing amount of ultralight, durable climbing equipment—particularly sleeping pads, sleeping bags, and shelters. There are more and more options for lightweight tents and bivies, durable sleeping pads the size of a water bottle, as well as quilts instead of sleeping bags which eliminate the portion of a sleeping bag that is flattened under your body, and therefore useless as insulation. Add all of this together, and we can go further with less.
On the summer approach to Mt. Baker in the North Cascades.
Offwidths and mixed chimneys, bushwhacking, careless crampon use, stuffing it to the gills - alpine climbing can subject a pack to all sorts of wear and tear. When our testers are in the mountains, they like to focus on the climbing and not spend time babying their equipment.
Fabric durability essential in a number "denier" rating. A higher number means thicker fabric, while a lower number will be thinner and typically lighter weight. However, this number rating does not tell the whole story in our field tests. The primary durability issue with a mountaineering backpack is the abrasion resistance of its fabric. Manufacturing and treatments can make this trickier to parse out and judge based on numbers alone.
In general, we find that most packs are using fabrics for adequate durability for alpine climbing. Some stand out above the rest, such as the impressively durable Arc'teryx Alpha FL 45
, and some fall behind the curve such as the Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Ice Pack
with its easily-scuffed Dyneema.
Climbing the NY Gully on the north side of Mt. Snoqualmie, Washington.
Dyneema is a fabric that's getting a lot of hype in the backpack world right now. Hyperlite Mountain Gear packs are made of Dyneema or Dyneema/polyester hybrid fabric models. Bare non-woven Dyneema (NWD, also known as Cuben fiber) is extremely lightweight, has tremendous tensile strength, and is waterproof. NWD's weakness is abrasion. For this reason, manufacturers using NWD often use it in a hybrid fabric, laminating it with a woven face fabric to improve abrasion resistance. The HMG Ice Pack is constructed out of a Cuben fiber/polyester hybrid fabric. Our tests found this to be less resistant to abrasion than the more traditional nylon fabrics in this review.
Many pack manufacturers will use fabrics with a lower denier on the sides and top of the pack to save weight, and then put more substantial weight, higher denier fabrics on the bottom, and on other areas like the front where you may stow your crampons. Our testers found that when climbing in typical alpine terrain, the sides of the pack would get scratched up. It might be that the only part of a pack that isn't abused is the part that's against your back.
Of more concern in the durability department is the strain put on specific areas of the packs, due to design and construction. We inspected each model for notable stress points, and any stitching that looked like it would give out over time. Will the compression straps tear out of seams under bulging loads? Does that initially cushy hip belt wimp out over time? Imagine a worst-case scenario: you arrive at the belay, clip your pack to the anchor by its haul loop, only to have that rip out, and your pack falls to the deck hundreds (or maybe thousands) of feet below.
The side straps of the Triton were too short for a 3/4 length foam pad.
One pack that stands out for its durability is the Mountain Hardwear Scrambler 30 Outdry
. Mountain Hardwear eliminated a lot of features and instead focused on durable fabrics. We were often frustrated by the too-tight side pockets and the lack of a key clipper, but this pack was still a top pick for our multi-pitch rock climbs
, and remained higher in our regard than we would have suspected for its small size and lack of features. This was in large part due to its excellent durability—we knew we could count on this pack, whether biking through town or hanging hundreds of feet off the deck.
Our testers asked a lot
of these packs. We wanted them to be comfortable hauling loads on the approach like a backpacking pack would be, and then be unnoticeable and not hinder our movement once on the route, like a climbing day pack would be. We scored the versatility of a pack based on its ability to adapt. Versatility is also important when considering if you need to buy three packs for all your adventuring needs, or if you can get away with one Jack- or Jill-of-all-Trades.
The chart below shows where each pack ranked in the versatility metric. The Osprey Mutant 38
ran away with top scores for versatility, due to its impressive comfort hauling heavy loads and its ability to shift effortlessly onto technical terrain
. The Black Diamond Speed 50
scored high in versatility for a different reason: The Speed 50 is an excellent single-quiver pack that can go from the crag to light basecamping expeditions in Alaska
Some packs allow you to remove the frame sheet to reduce weight or use as an emergency foam sleeping pad. This feature is less common in the current lineup of packs, mainly because contenders are increasingly in a stripped-down state, and engineering for comfort is changing and improving. But for larger models, this can be an excellent feature to know about. We especially liked the feature on the Gregory Denali 100
since you will want to take a foam pad with you on summit day on most high altitude expeditions; this is integrated into the pack already, and it means one less item to add to your summit pack.
Some manufacturers went overboard in the attempt to make their packs more versatile. The Mammut Trion
has four ways to attach two ice tools or axes. And while we like features that have more than one function, we did not like the ice axe velcro loops that secure the shaft of the axe, but also serve as one of the side compression straps.
Simplicity is a desirable feature in a good climbing pack. Well-designed alpine climbing packs are less featured overall when compared to backpacking packs.
An excess of features adds weight and complexity and means there are more things to break. For this reason, we gave points to packs that offered only the necessary features. Our favorite, for this reason, was the Black Diamond Speed 50
Enjoying some high-quality ice with the Arc'teryx Alpha FL 45, our Top Pick for Fast and Light adventures.
But so long as the abundance of features didn't detract from functionality, more features means more points in this metric—that's how we add up points overall to tell the story of each pack. As such, Osprey hits it out of the park with the Mutant 38. Osprey has a long history of making packs with lots of features—and as such, they have not, up to this point, designed an alpine climbing pack that our testers have really liked. But they trimmed things down with the Mutant
, and without adding too much weight, they designed a brilliantly featured alpine climbing pack.
Karen Bockel leads up the second ice pitch on the North Ridge of Mt. Baker.
Depending on the style of alpine climbing you enjoy and the mountain range you call home, your ideal pack may not be top of our charges. Considering the nature of alpine climbing, factors such as weight, volume, and durability are an important part of this decision. We hope to help you narrow down the wide selection on the market with the tests and observations in this review. Read through our Buying Advice
article for more information on what to keep in mind while making your purchase, and read the discussions in each of the individual reviews to figure out if it is a good match for your needs.