2011 Gear Guide: Packs
Four super-light climbing packs How should you carry your gear for a long rock climb with a big approach? Do you choose the behemoth backpack that swallows everything, and then leave it at the base? Or do you go with a teeny leader pack for climbing, and be forced to hike in and out with your harness on and gear jangling around the outside of the thing? Fortunately, a third option exists: the stuffable pack. These designs have been around in various forms for a while, but in recent years, more pack manufacturers seem to have gotten serious about them.
The idea is simple: a pack that stuffs into its own pocket, small enough to clip onto your harness when you don’t need it, yet large enough to swallow the day’s necessities when you do. During the approach, you carry your climbing gear inside. At the base, most everything inside goes on you—shoes, harness, rack—and the pack clips to your harness or straps around your waist. Whoever’s climbing second carries another pack with the water, snacks, jackets, and other essentials. The leader is almost completely unencumbered. Once you’ve topped out, unstow your pack, load all your non-descent gear into it, and off you go—without having the rack dangling around your feet as you downclimb, and without having to return to the base of the climb to retrieve anything.
There are other ways to use these packs, too. They’re so light that you might choose to throw one in your big alpine or backpacking rig for overnight approaches or ascending to a high camp. Then you can pull out the mini-pack for day climbs or summit bids. Or, if you prefer to lead with a pack, some of these climb great but weigh less than half as much as traditional leader packs. If all this sounds like a multiple personality disorder for backpacks, it is. Nonetheless, we found four such compact, multitasking machines.
VAUDE ROCK ULTRALIGHT COMFORT 15
$59.95, 14.1 oz.
With its tubular construction, this 15-liter pack bested the others reviewed for wearing while climbing. An external compression system snugs down around smaller loads, and an innovative clip on each side allows the compression cord to be easily strapped around a larger item, such as a picket or shovel handle. An internal slot holds the removable, foldable back pad, which doubles as a separate sit pad—the only pack in the review to have this feature. This pad helps provide structure without excessive weight or bulk; without the pad, the same slot works well as a hydration sleeve, albeit slightly too small for the largest bladders. The Vaude pack has an internal clip for keys or headlamp, and a spacious top pocket added extra stowage. The sewn-on waist belt and S-curve, mesh-backed shoulder straps, along with an air-channeling back-panel design, held the pack close to the back. During durability testing, two small holes appeared on the exterior.
$39.95, 9.2 oz.
The lightest, cheapest, most compressible pack in the review, the Phantom offers no illusions about its intended purpose: anything where speed, and thus light weight, is of paramount importance. In spite of its gossamer feel, the Phantom’s unexpectedly high durability won it grudging praise from testers. (As with other packs in the review, hauling or chimney climbing are not recommended.) With a wide-mouthed clamshell design, this 15-liter pack features internal hydration bladder straps, a hose-routing system, and well-thought-out external gear-stowing bungees. The pack stuffs into the quick-access top pocket and, when stuffed, includes a waist belt for wearing while climbing. With its Vshaped webbing-and-mesh waist harness, the Phantom carried better than others, making it a good choice for ski mountaineering and alpine speed-climbing as well as toting up rock routes.
PATAGONIA LIGHTWEIGHT TRAVEL PACK
$79, 11.5 oz.
Although this is clearly designed as a suitcasefriendly adventure-travel pack, we felt it would make an admirable summit pack, with a clean, streamlined design. The Lightweight Travel Pack’s (LWT) twin ice axe loops and daisy chains latched alpine tools to its back with panache. Mesh pockets on either side swallowed water bottles, a small camera case, or easy-access snacks. A clip-in loop inside the interior pocket makes this pack harness-portable when stuffed, though the pack hangs widthwise, taking up valuable racking space. (Not an issue stuffed inside another pack, of course.) Thin, stuffable padding arranged in a brick-wall pattern protects your back against hard objects inside. A voluminous zippered top pocket and one-inch fl at-webbing waist belt round out the feature set. The LWT’s dearth of compression straps meant that the pack needed to be close to full in order to stay stable on the back, and, as with the others, durability testing took its toll—this pack is not meant for exposure to coarse alpine granite or other abrasive surfaces. Near press time, Patagonia notified us that the 2011 version has been updated with a new, polyurethane-coated, double-ripstop nylon fabric that’s both lighter and more durable. That should make it even more useful as a super-light, stuffable mountaineering summit pack.
THE NORTH FACE VERTO
26 $69, 13.3 oz.
The 26-liter Verto wowed testers with its versatility and climbing prowess. An internal, hanging essentials pocket acts as a stuff pouch with clip-in loop; the stuffed pack hangs vertically and unobtrusively once on the harness. Under this pocket, a hydration bladder clip helps keep your water stable. Though some bladders were incompatible, carrying a bladder does add structure to the pack. On the outside, a series of refl ective webbing loops runs the length of the front of the pack. Used with the included reflective cord and barrel locks, these provide both compression and external gear lashing options for large items such as a foam pad or pickets. Two ice axe loops, combined with the removable Velcro shaft straps, function equally well for technical tools or a mountain axe. On the back panel, twin webbing straps run the length of the pack, adjustable via a ladderlock buckle and hidden behind a layer of nylon at the contact point with the wearer’s back. This allows you to use the pack as a compression stuff sack for your sleeping bag during approaches, and it found favor among testers for size and load customization—key for a pack of this size. A zippered lid pocket with an integrated key clip keeps snacks handy. The Verto’s simple, 5/8-inch-webbing waistbelt is removable—the only pack in the review with this feature. Shoulder straps consist of thinly padded nylon, adequate but not overly supportive. Still, with its funnel-shaped design and thoughtful feature set, this pack won confidence among the stuffable category for use during both approaches and descents, as well as climbing on rock or mountain routes. As with other packs in the review, durability testing revealed weaknesses—do not haul this pack.
Ultralight packs usually have minimalist suspension (shoulder straps, hip belt, back panel), which is not ideal when you choose to load one up for an approach. To create more structure inside a lightweight pack, use the load itself. A rope, coiled to fit against the pack’s back panel, can help stabilize the rest of the weight. So can a water bladder, sitting straight up and down in the center of the pack, with other items packed around it. Even a pair of stiff rock shoes, aligned similarly, can make the pack more comfortable and stable. Here’s another go-light pack option: Climb with a hydration pack. It’s the comfiest way to carry a lot of water, you can share the hose at belays, and most hydration packs have plenty of room to stuff in food and rain shells.