Bringing all the essential gear on a climbing or mountaineering expedition is critical to successfully making it to the summit of any rock formation, wall or peak.
While expeditions to 3,000 and 8,000-metre peaks may require different clothing and technical equipment, climbers headed to any elevation will need a proper mountaineering or climbing backpack to store everything.
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Picking the right one is important. From finding the appropriate size and style to all the straps and accessories, mountaineers must take many factors into consideration when purchasing a backpack.
While every expedition is different, the rule of thumb in terms of sizing tends to be less than 30 litres for single-day expeditions, 60 to 80 litres for multi-day expeditions and more than 100 litres for an expedition lasting a month or more, along with a smaller day pack.
Depending on the type of expedition and needs of the climber expect to spend anywhere between $100 (USD) and $400.
A quick history of mountaineering backpacks
Humans have been carrying loads on their backs for thousands of years. However, the invention of the backpack is fairly modern.
From the 1870s to the 1920s various versions of metal or wooden frames that loop around the shoulders and feature places to attach gear and hold items came and went.
In 1924, the first mass-produced external frame packs were manufactured. They featured a canvas bag attached to a wooden frame and remained popular through the 1930s.
As the years passed, these types of packs became more sophisticated. Zippers were added to the bags in 1938. In 1950, frames that distributed weight higher up on the back were also built.
However, the real revolution came with the invention of the internal frame backpack in 1967, a design that is emulated by almost all modern backpacks. From there, waist belts were added and the packs became more sophisticated, morphing into their most modern conception.
External and internal frame backpacks
Until the mid-20th century, most mountaineers used external frame packs to carry their gear. These were usually made with aluminum or another type of lightweight metal allow. The frames were reinforced with synthetic polymer or plastic and equipped with straps and netting to protect the user’s back from the frame.
This type of construction allowed for air to flow between the pack and back while also distributing the weight of the pack across the user’s back. The main downside of this type of construction was the lack of ability for the pack to move with the climber when in precarious situations, such as on steep rock or ice pitches.
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In 1967, Greg Lowe, the founder of a backpack manufacturer, invented the internal frame. This type of backpack included a frame composed of strips of either aluminum, titanium or plastic, sometimes with additional metal stays to reinforce the frame. The frame was then surrounded by a large fabric section to cushion the back and separate it from the internal compartments.
Straps on the outside allowed the user to redistribute the weight across the waist and pack, and hold the pack in place.
One of the many benefits of this type of construction is to keep the pack closer to the wearer’s back and minimise the movement of the load while skiing or scrambling over uneven surfaces. However, this tight fit reduces ventilation.
Internal frame backpacks are almost exclusively used nowadays and usually comprise one large storage compartment and lash points, including webbing loops and straps, for storage of large items, such as sleeping bags.
Fitting a mountaineering backpack
Outdoor gear experts agree that it is critical to have a backpack that has the same range of motions as the user during a climb. This helps the user to maintain their balance on steep and precarious surfaces, such as an icefall or loose scree.
Therefore, fitting a backpack is one of the most important parts of buying one. It is important that the backpack is correct torso length as this will determine how closely it fits the user.
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To determine the appropriate torso length of a backpack measure from the C7 vertebrae – that bony protrusion on the back of the neck – to the iliac crest, which is at the top of the hips.
However, backpacks fit everyone differently so even if you find one with the correct measurements, be sure to try it with some added weight inside before making a final decision.
Finding the right accessories and features for a mountaineering backpack
Along with finding a mountaineering backpack with the right fit, you also want to make the most precise adjustments possible depending on what you are carrying.
Keep an eye out for anatomically shaped shoulder straps, which copy the shape of the body and are often reinforced with padding to prevent potentially painful friction on the shoulders.
Adjustable chest straps also help stabilize the shoulder straps and prevent the backpack from slipping off the shoulders. The back belt is located closer to the hips and helps take some of the strain off the shoulders by redistributing some of the weight to the hips.
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However, it is important to make sure the chest and hip straps are adjustable to accommodate harnesses and ropes when rock climbing.
Away from the fit and weight load management, there are plenty of other features you should keep an eye out for in a mountaineering pack. Among these is an integrated rain cover to keep the pack – and everything inside of it – dry.
Managing storage space in a backpack is also key to bringing everything necessary for an expedition without overpacking.
Look for mountaineering backpacks with external clips and straps that provide easy access to crampons, ice axes and water during a climb. External pockets for items that will be used during the climb are also helpful.
However, on very technical climbs, avoid packs with too many straps as these tend to get in the way and could become a safety impediment.
For trekking, look for packs with plenty of external pockets for organising trekking poles, water bottles, snacks and a rain cover.
Top 5 mountaineering backpack brands on the market
Black Diamond – Blitz, Speed and Mission
Black Diamond has three popular and highly-rated types of mountaineering packs: the Blitz 28, Speed 40 and Mission 75.
At just 28-litres, the Blitz 28 is a lightweight pack with no side straps that work for short, steep ascents and rock climbing. The pack is easy to organise with a narrow waist belt and no padding. However, the lightweight material means the pack is not very durable and would not serve for longer mountaineering expeditions or ski touring.
On the other hand, the Mission 75 is large and comfortable with a removable waist belt and compartment for crampons on the front. The pack is well-suited for mountaineering expeditions lasting up to three weeks with a simplistic design and plenty of exterior pouches for gear. The waist belt can also be removed when using a harness.
In the middle is the 45-litre Speed 40, which is highly versatile and also pretty comfortable for carrying heavier loads due to the removable foam inserts for the frame and three plastic stays. It boasts simple but complete features capable of handling any necessary mountaineering tools, but they are not as easy to access as on the Misson 75.
Approximate Price: $100 to $220
Gregory – Alpinisto and Denali
Boasting the 50 Alpinisto and Denali 100, these two distinct packs from Gregory are excellent for all types of expeditions.
The 50-litre 50 Alpinisto is comfortable, lightweight and versatile, while also capable of carrying all the gear you need. Removable features, including straps, mean that you can reduce the weight of the pack up to 35 percent. The exterior of the pack features a crampon pouch, ice axe attachments and a removable bivy pad.
The 90-litre Denali 100 is a great pack for the tallest mountains, including its namesake, North America’s highest peak. The pack is versatile and comfortable, with side pouches and an easy access top pouch to quickly add and remove layers. While the pack is huge, it only weighs 3 kilograms and features a bivy pad to sleep on and a spare multi-use daisy chain for situations in which you need some spare webbing.
Approximate Price: $220 to $300
Hyperlite – Prism
The 50-litre Hyperlite Prism pack is one of the best on the market for cold and technical climbs. The single-stay frame boasts sewn-in foam which kelps make the pack one of the most comfortable large packs out there.
However, this makes it less than ideal for any warm-weather mountaineering as the back panel is non-breathable.
The pack is also extremely durable with a crampon pouch, simple side straps and other exterior pockets.
Approximate Price: $400
Lowe – Manaslu
Manufactured by the Lowe brothers (the same ones who invented the internal frame), the Manaslu pack is one of the best on the market in terms of organisation. The pack features numerous pockets all along the top, bottom and front, making it easy to access and organise all of your gear.
The pack also features extra padding in the straps, shoulders and hips for added comfort, while the integrated rain cover keeps water from seeping in through the zippers.
Approximate Price: $260 to $280
Osprey – Mutant
The Osprey Mutant is widely considered to be the perfect pack for most general mountaineering needs. It is considered to be both durable and comfortable with great versatility.
The pack comes in 38-litres, great for all types of mountaineering expeditions, or the larger 52-litre pack, which is perfect for long, cold climbs.
The 38-litre version has a framesheet with aluminum stays and is great for hauling gear on the mountain. It also can be compacted into the perfect summit pack. This version has a great suspension for redistributing the weight of heavier loads and fewer straps, which makes it better for steep climbs
The 52-litre version is built for comfort and back support. A plastic sheet in the back panel helps redistribute weight along the hips and lower back when fully packed and also can be removed. The waistbelt has plenty of gear loops as well, perfect for all types of climbing gear.
Approximate Price: $170 to $200
Packing all the necessary gear for an expedition is an essential step in the success of any mountaineering or climbing experience. Bringing the right backpack will help you comfortably carry and organise everything you need to get to the top of the next mountain.