Summit or Bust
Small and stuffable packs are a key piece of gear for long-route climbers looking to take water, food, and layers on lengthy outings without hauling. With the growth of fast-and-light mountaineering, these lightweight sacks are more in demand than ever. Thankfully for you, the climbing consumer, that means new innovations, more customizable options, and lower prices in the category. Our psyched tester crew traveled from Utah to California and Colorado to Oregon, with a few other stops around the country. Whether you’re stuffing a five-ounce model into a larger pack or you’re leaving the car with one pack on your back, we’ve got a choice to suit your needs.
REI Flash 22
This ergonomic wonder thrives when stuffed to the gills on all-day backcountry adventures. “It carried up to 20 pounds with aplomb on late-season missions to Mt. Evans in Colorado,” one tester said of this one-pound pack. “My worries about the minimalist frame were for naught. My shoulders and back were comfortable throughout the 12-hour day.” Plus, the minimal frame system and flexible backpanel padding allowed it to hug the body for the awkward movements necessary for chimneys and corners. The already-bare suspension system comes with a hidden surprise that rocketed this pack to the top. The internal foam framesheet is removable and doubles as a small sit pad—perfect for emergency bivvies (which our testers thankfully didn’t have to endure) or sitting on cold, wet rock while waiting out a storm (which they did). Storage organization is simple but brilliant: A zipper pocket on the lid and on the inside of the body hold small necessities while extra-large mesh pockets on the outside are wide and stretchy enough to fit a guidebook. Sweet REI extra: If anything breaks within one year, return it.
Sternum strap was difficult for some testers to adjust—particularly for women. At one pound, it’s hefty compared to others, and it didn’t pack down very small when stuffing into a larger hauler.
Affordable and awesome for alpine when you’re carrying slightly heavier loads. Thoughtful features plus a surprisingly effective minimal frame system make this much more than just a cinchable sack.
Bottom Line: Alpine Assistant
“A diminutive pack that fully lives up to its name with a wispy weight and a barely-there feel,” said one traveling tester who took it from California to Utah to Colorado. Weighing in at only 5.3 ounces, this was the lightest model in the test, and it stuffs down into its own iPhone-size pocket. The Ghost carries about 15 liters internally, which is just enough for water, food, and approach shoes, but the bungee cord on the outside can expand to carry a helmet or pull tight to securely hold an extra layer. Additional bungees can house trekking poles. Elastic incorporated into the side of the waistbelt allowed testers to tighten this baby all the way down and still twist and step a foot through with complete freedom. “The tapered design that’s narrow on top, plus the snug fit, made it ideal for tight squeezes like the chimney on the first pitch of Royal Arches (5.10-) in Yosemite,” one tester said. “You’re already swinging gear and big cams around, and you don’t want to wrestle with your summit pack, too.” The burly ripstop nylon stood up to abuse for four months of scraping and abrading against ragged stone.
It isn’t much more than a nylon body and webbing straps, so if you want more padding, support, or organization, look elsewhere.
This pack may be simple but it’s designed to hug the body while also allowing full freedom of movement. Sweetness: It’s the lightest and most packable in the test.
Bottom Line: Mighty Minimalist
Mountain Hardwear SummitRocket VestPack 20
Swiss climber Ueli Steck—part ultra-trail-runner, part mountaineer, part speed climber, all badass—designed this innovative pack with his own zippy blend of alpine adventure in mind. With the size, shape, and targeted features of other bullet packs, this model adds a close-fitting snugness that runners require to prevent the pack from bouncing. The designers achieved this by giving the pack wide and contoured shoulder straps that are sewn into the middle of the pack body rather than at the base like most packs and by adding a second sternum strap instead of a waistbelt. Don’t worry female friends, the straps’ respective placements are adjustable to make plenty of room up or down. Testers loved this double-strap design on Prince of Darkness (5.10c), Red Rock, Nevada, because, “There was no waistbelt to interfere with my harness, but the pack still felt super secure on my body.” The wider shoulder straps have four mesh pockets that offer easy access to food, camera, lip balm, etc. “No more swinging my pack around on route to take a picture; it was as easy as reaching into the chest pocket of my shirt—
With no waistbelt and shoulder straps that don’t reach the bottom, this pack can feel loose on your body if you’re on anything overhanging or even just leaning back while looking up at a belay. Pricey.
This innovative summit pack combines the best of a trail-running pack with mountaineering; plus, it offers immediate access to sundries and has a body-hugging carry.
Bottom Line: Fast and Light
Outdoor Research Levitator Pack
With as many bells and whistles as a full-size pack, the Levitator does it all in an airy 14-ounce package. “After a month wearing this pack, I was still discovering useful features,” one Rockies-based tester said. An outer daisy chain paired with a crashpad-style open-hook buckle makes it easy to lash gear to the outside of the pack, even a rope, which was a godsend when doing a tricky scrambling descent from Pear Buttress (5.8) in Lumpy Ridge, Colorado. A cinchable inner nylon sleeve secures gear when unzipping the lid and allows about two more liters of extra space, and a mesh pocket on the inside of the lid provides sundry-specific storage. “It’s the first pack I’ve worn that I didn’t give a second thought to while climbing. Most other packs restrict movement or make me feel top-heavy,” a tester said. The lightly padded waistbelt is not removable, but testers wrapped it backward around the outside to keep it out of the way. If you prefer to wear the waistbelt while climbing, small zippered pockets gave testers access to necessary sundries: lip balms, paper topos, and energy bars.
Though it’s designed to carry a lot of gear both on the inside and outside, testers found this pack’s comfort limited to loads that were 15 pounds or less.
Great for overpackers. Although the Levitator looks petite, it’s buffed out with enough smart, climbing-specific features that you can carry everything you need for many rock and snow climbs.
Bottom Line: Lightweight Carry-All
Vaude Minimalist 15
Comfort is king with the Minimalist. “Simple, no pressure points when weighted, versatile, and the perfect size for shoulder-season day missions,” said one tester who rocked it for three months from Devils Tower, Wyoming, to Mt. Rushmore, South Dakota. Despite a utilitarian design (no external side pockets, just bungee cords for compression and extra storage), the Minimalist has the most teched-out suspension system (called VFlex). The backpanel is comprised of thick, stiff padding shaped like a V—narrow at the bottom and wide at the top—and perforated to allow for some flex and movement. “It’s stiff enough to carry heavy loads well but pliable enough that I could climb, twist, and reach without feeling restricted,” said another tester. Two ice axe or trekking pole attachments on the outside, zippered inner and outer pockets on the lid, and a simple webbing strap round out the few features. Burly, siliconized 70-denier polyester withstood a full day of scumming, offwidthing, and chimneying on the Durrance Route (5.7), Devils Tower, and three full months of abuse with no major signs of wear.
It’s the heaviest in the review at just over a pound, and the beefier suspension system means it’s more difficult to stuff into a larger backpack because it doesn’t squash down as small.
Forgoing extra doodads and features for a more supportive suspension system, the Minimalist is top of the line when it comes to carrying heavy loads or wearing it all day.
Bottom Line: Simple comfort
REPAIR IT RIGHT
Extreme packability and light weight often come with a caveat: thin body fabric that may not stand up to the violent abuse of repeated offwidths, squeeze chimneys, and scumfests. But you can learn a handful of simple repairs to make your summit pack last a few more years. For small holes/tears in nylon or polyester: Clean the area with alcohol. Hold tape or paper on the inside of the pack and smear Seam Grip ($7, mcnett.com) over the rip. Let dry for about eight hours, and then remove the tape or paper. If the hole is larger, use Seam Grip on the outside and Tear-Aid ($20 for 5 feet, tear-aid.com) or Tenacious Tape ($5, mcnett.com) on the inside. Trim fraying threads, and cut a piece of Tear-Aid or Tenacious Tape that extends at least 1/4” beyond the tear. Stick the tape to the inside of the hole and smooth out air bubbles starting from the center; apply Seam Grip on the outside, extending it at least 1/4” past the tear. Let dry for eight hours. For more advanced repair techniques, check out the Complete Guide to Outdoor Gear Maintenance and Repair, by Kristin Hostetter ($20, falcon.com).