Alpine packs: Things to consider for your alpine day pack (update)
[This is an update to the article on alpine packs written awhile back by Nicholas Chee. The first provided a bare bone overview of the basics, while this covers a bit more detail and some other consideration when picking out a pack for your alpine climbs.]
This article is meant primarily for people new to alpine climbing, covering considerations and recommendations when picking a pack to use for their alpine climbs (NOT in any order of importance).
I had previously written that 30L is a minimum, though I have come to feel that such a strict rule isn’t necessary. It really depends on your objective, but assuming you are planning a single day climb, starting from town or a hut and returning thereafter, 30L is a good baseline. A leader pack on a harder climb or an easier objective requiring less gear could allow for a smaller pack (20L?), and a multiday climb may require extra volume (40-50L), but generally speaking, 30L is plenty. This would be good practice for cutting out bringing excess stuff too; it is too tempting to throw in that extra layer or cam you really don’t need when you have too much leftover volume. The extra volume also adds to the overall weight and dimensions of your pack, which will make it awkward to climb with. I made the mistake of using too big and heavy a pack at the start too, and have repeatedly seen others making the same mistake. Remember, you’re packing for an alpine climb, not a mountaineering expedition; you can’t go fast if you don’t pack light. If you are just starting out on beginner alpine climbs, 30L is plenty. By the time you move on to more demanding routes, you would have a better understanding of pack requirements and can adjust accordingly. No single pack can handle all situations, and over time, you will likely build up a quiver of alpine packs for different objectives.
Weight and Durability
There is absolutely no reason your 30L alpine pack should weight more than 1.5kg unloaded. Most modern 30L alpine packs should be under 1.2kg. It is possible to get packs under 1kg, but be mindful of durability issues. There is a tradeoff between durability and weight. Some packs use lighter fabrics on upper sections, with thicker fabrics on the bottom and other hard-wearing areas. Nice compromise that also saves weight. Problem is it introduces more seams, which water can seep through and are natural weak points that may eventual blow. Also, these upper sections are delicate and can wear out prematurely.
Most alpine packs are top loaders. This has the simplest construction, which minimizes number of seams, improving water resistance and durability, and reduces weight. The drawback is that this limits accessibility to whatever is at the bottom, and so requires good packing. Panel loaders with zips are rare, more common on ski packs, but the accessibility is nice. The zips add extra weight and introduce problems both in terms of water resistance and another possible point of failure though. Most top loaders have a floating lid, which may be removable; useful for storing small items here, or remove the whole thing for more weight-saving. Placing ropes over main compartment and securing it under the lid is a good way to carry ropes (most alpine packs nowadays have a rope retaining strap for this too). Roll-top packs are becoming pretty popular too. These provide good water resistance and rolling down the top allows for more compression, but open/closing gets annoying and storing small items can be troublesome. Find what works for you.
Attachment points for Ice Axe and Crampons
You'll need ice axe attachment points for carrying your ice axe/tools. The traditional ice axe attachment system is a simple loop that you pass the shaft of the ice axe through, then flip it upwards and strap it to the body of the pack (usually with a Velcro strap or bungee cord). This works for traditional ice axes and ice tools with hammer/adze, but they do not work with modern ice tools. These typically do not have a hammer/adze, and as such will slip off the loop.
Above: Traditional ice axe loop. Note that it requires both pick and adze/hammer to be secured properly, without which the strap would slip off the head of the axe.
For modern tools, most modern packs have either a central sheath that you slide the picks into and clips on the sides that secure the shaft (see Black Diamond Speed or Cilogear packs) or a peg that slides into the hole at the head of the tool (see Crux or Osprey Mutant packs). Other, more exotic attachment systems are out there. I personally like the sheath system for the picks, which I feel holds the tools more securely and protects the pick from swinging about. This sheath is a wear point though.
Left: Cilogear pack. Sheath style ice axe attachment points, which are compatible with modern ice tools. Also note crampon attachment system. Right: Crux pack. Peg-style ice axe attachment points.
Crampons can either be stowed inside your pack or strapped on outside. Xieheng has always carried his crampons inside his pack, which is more secure but takes up space. I generally prefer strapping mine outside. Many modern packs have bungee cords or straps on the front section of the pack specifically for this purpose, usually over a reinforced patch. Some packs may not come with the straps/bungee cords, but have daisy chains in place that you can utilize for this. Others have dedicated crampon pouches that fold flat when not in use. I am a personal fan of the D rings and heavy duty bungee cord system I first saw on HMG Ice Packs, and integrated it into my Alpine Luddites pack.
Pack Support: Main Suspension
With a large >60L pack for expedition climbing, having a heavy duty suspension system to effectively transfer weight to the hip belt is very important. However, on an alpine pack, which should rarely weight more than 15kg fully loaded, this is a lot less important. Most modern alpine packs with have just a foam pad, and some packs may have aluminum (or even titanium) stays or a pre-shaped plastic sheet, all of which are usually removable. These aren’t as supportive as systems on large packs, but they are enough for 15kg loads. It is quite common to even remove the support for day climbs, just pack properly so your gear doesn’t poke your kidneys on the approach. Some packs have a foam pad that unfolds and serves as a small bivy pad. Being able to remove the backing has the added benefit of making the pack collapsible, allowing it to fold up and be stored in a bigger pack, for approaches to huts/basecamps, or to carried by a second on particularly demanding leads.
Pack Support: Waist Belt
Also part of your alpine pack support, the waist belt. It can be really nice to have a waist belt when approaching a climb with a heavier load, but it must achieve a delicate balance. Too thick and it will get in the way of your harness, too thin and it won't support the weight. Extra gear loops on the belt can be useful too. For day climbs, waist belts aren't really necessary, Xieheng usually removes the waist belt from his pack. Many modern packs have removable waist straps, which makes sense on short climbs without much of an approach. Once the climbing starts though, the waist belt isn’t really helpful, as it will restrict your movement. To keep it out of the way, you could remove it and store it in your pack (really troublesome) or just strap it backwards around the pack (much simpler).
This somewhat depends on where you are climbing, but facing some inclement weather is always a possibility with alpine climbing. Less important in the European alps or anywhere high and cold. Much more important for Scottish winter climbing. You could go for full waterproof pack, but that costs a premium; full dyneema or cuben fiber packs. A cheaper option would be to go for a decently water resistant pack. Crux is a good example; their packs can withstand anything but a full downpour. Water resistant canvas/cordura material works well too. Rain covers are an alternative, but can be inconvenient when climbing and susceptible to being blown away.
While I have covered the main important things to look for with an alpine pack, there are some other features that can be very useful.
First, some top loading packs, and also some roll-top packs, have an extension to the pack body, known as a bivy sleeve. Usually made of a lighter material, this provides some extra volume, which can be useful on the approach to the climb itself. The top-lid can be extended as well to fit over and secure this extended volume, but does make weight distribution somewhat awkward. This is best used on the approach, to fit the harness, rack and helmet in the pack, but should be stowed away for the climb itself.
Aside from the standard carry loop between the shoulder straps of the pack, a useful feature some alpine packs have are additional loops on the front, which together provide 2/3 point haul loops. This allows the pack to be securely tied to the rope and hauled up harder sections of a climb. Added bonus, they are handy extra grab points for maneuvering your pack through crowded airports/planes/buses/cable cars/anywhere else you’ll have to squeeze through en route to the climb.
Daisy chains and compression straps are also really useful features. Generally speaking, it is better to keep everything inside your pack rather than dangling outside, but on the approach, with a fully loaded pack, it is convenient to strap some gear outside. I usually tread my helmet through the shaft of my ice tool and clip the chin straps to a daisy chain loop. Once the climbing starts, and I’m wearing my harness, helmet and rack, any extra dangling bits go into the now mostly empty pack. Compression straps then come in handy to cinch down the pack. For big climbs where you are carrying a foam thermarest pad or winter approachs on skis, the compression straps will be needed to secure your pad/skis to the sides of your pack. I personally like having removable compression straps, for which I can also make different lengths. I may completely remove them for certain climbs, use a shorter length with light loads or use an extended length when I have to strap additional equipment to my pack.
Assuming you are just getting into alpine climbing, some reasonable packs to check out would include the Black Diamond Speed series, the Osprey Mutant 38L, the Mammut Trion Light 38L, the Cold Cold World Valdez, the Deuter Guide/Guide Lite series and the Patagonia Ascensionist series. This isn’t an exhaustive list, and there are other options out there. All hover around the US$150-200 mark. These are all purpose-built alpine packs, well-tested and proven. While there are cheaper packs, these are mostly designed for hiking/trekking and lack features useful on an alpine pack. That said, I did use a trekking pack that I modified for alpine climbing when I first started. Ultimately though, I found this jerry-rigged pack lacking in many ways and quickly moved on to a proper alpine pack.
If you have a bigger budget (US$200-350), you could consider checking out the Cilogear WorkSack series, the Crux AK series, the Arcteryx Alpha AR or FL Packs series and the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Ice Pack series. These are higher end, more expensive packs, but are extremely well-designed and built with better materials.
For the climber looking for the perfect pack, with just the right fit and combination of features they just can’t seem to find on any retail alpine pack out there, check out Alpine Luddites. Alpine Luddites can make a fully-customised, bespoke alpine pack, with the exact features and tailored fit you are looking for. Of course, expect to pay a very hefty price for this level of customization and quality.
Last, but most importantly, fit. Get something that fits your torso length obviously. While some brands, primarily Deuter, have packs with adjustable lengths, this adjustability adds a lot of unnecessary weight and space between the pack and your back. Most brands offer different sizes/lengths, and these work much better. You could even customize a pack to your exact torso length, obviously at a premium though. The pack should be comfortable, fitting snuggly against your back and doesn't swing about when you move. Where the shoulder straps connect to the main body of the bag should rest at your shoulder blades, so the straps wrap up over and around your shoulders. Again, as an alpine pack that shouldn’t be hauling a lot of weight, the padding on the shoulder straps should be minimal. At the end of the day, none of the features of the pack means anything if it's just uncomfortable to wear and climb in.