Hiking deep into the North Cascades. Photo by Marc Simonpietri.
Long gone are the days of heavy canvas and external frame packs with more tie-down points outside than space on the inside. While these packs were used for decades on on early ascents around the world, backpack technology has progressed at a steady clip. Nowadays, when looking for something to haul all of your gear into the mountains, there are myriad light, comfortable, an durable options to choose from. Packs today offer a multitude of sizing options from basic small/medium/large options to custom sizing through the hips and shoulders with heat-moldable waist belts.
With all of these choices, picking the right pack for the right objective can be challenging. Which pack is too small? Which pack will feel overloaded and uncomfortable with all my gear in it? What if it doesn’t have the technical features that I need? Do I even need technical features? Below, we run through a few factors to consider when deciding on a pack.
Get a pack that fits.
A pack that fits is critical to the comfort and enjoyment of any outdoor adventure. This is especially true in mountaineering, where you will often carry a significant amount of weight. Remember that different brands will fit different people. Your buddy’s Black Diamond pack may fit them perfectly, but it could be horribly uncomfortable for you. So. When looking to purchase a new backpack, try it on beforehand (with some weight in it!) and have an expert help you with fit adjustments.
Technical features can make your life much easier.
Are you planning to take an ice axe with you? Or crampons? Perhaps skis? Many backpacking packs don’t have good attachment points for specific mountaineering equipment. Therefore, having a pack with an ice axe attachment point (either a loop or clip at the bottom) can make carrying that ice axe much easier. Similarly, if you plan to do some carrying of skis or a splitboard, a backpack with ski carry loops (either vertical or diagonal) can make a huge difference in the balance and comfort of your backpack. When researching, keep in mind what kind of trips you want to use this backpack for. Primarily mountaineering? Look for packs with ice axe attachments, crampon pockets, and a minimalist design. Primarily backpacking? You may want more external pockets for organization, trekking pole attachments, water bottle pockets, a rain cover, and more.
Backpacks range in size from a couple liters of capacity to over one hundred. How do you pick the right size? Practice and experience make perfect. As you transition from single day adventures to weekends, multiday, and months-long expeditions you’ll learn the gear you need for each and how much space it takes up. As a general rule, ~30 liters or less capacity works for summer day trips. About 50 liters or more will do well for a weekend. 60-80 liters can be great for multiple days. Generally, a 100+ liter bag will be the biggest you need and can serve you well for week long climbs, or months-long expeditions. You don’t want only a 100 liter pack in your inventory though, as they can be burdensome, heavy, awkward, and uncomfortable if what you really need for your trip is a smaller pack. And remember, going from a three day trip to a seven day trip doesn’t always mean bringing a significantly bigger backpack. You may be packing the exact same gear for both trips, but will just need to include extra food and fuel for the longer version. Lastly, practice packing. A well packed backpack will hold far more than a lackadaisical toss-and-go method. By packing well, you may also be able to bring a smaller pack than expected and save some weight.
Versatility is always an option.
You don’t always need to purchase a new backpack for a new activity. Are you going backpacking instead of mountaineering? That technical pack you bought last year will probably still work quite well on a backpacking trip. Likewise, many backpacks nowadays are designed to work well in different terrain. Some that we especially like are the Osprey Xena 85 or the Osprey Aether AG 60. With some external pockets, ice axe loops, and comfortable straps, these packs work very well for both non-technical and technical objectives in the outdoors.
By Marc Simonpietri