Pack Mules


Finding a pack that is perfect for everything from trad cragging to backcountry pursuits can make you feel like a whiney Goldilocks. It should be comfortable and stable enough to haul a double rack, food, layers, and water five miles or more into the alpine, but light and trim enough to stay out of the way when leading a crux pitch 500 feet off the deck.

We spent a summer climbing season testing 12 packs, from the Tetons to Devils Tower to Rocky Mountain National Park, beating them up at local crags and on multi-pitch alpine climbs. Lighter and tougher materials, improvements on classic designs, and essential features make the five haulers in this review the best of the bunch. In other words, they're just right.

Deuter Guide Lite 32+ ($149,


Weight: 2 lbs, 10 oz.

Performance: Slim but boasting the suspension and support usually reserved for a mondo alpine pack, the compact Guide Lite was a hit with our day-tripping testers. The removable sitting mat and Delrin framestay keep the support strong but light, using just a single, pencil-thin rod bent into a horseshoe to provide structure. “I was surprised the suspension on this small pack carried weight so well,” our tester said when he carried a 20-pound load into Rocky Mountain National Park for an alpine climb. The Guide Lite is built for year-round use, with stout ski-carrying straps and foldaway ice tool holders. Robust construction included Deuter’s ripstop 210-denier nylon, which kept the pack tear-free for the duration of rugged testing in the high country. The waistbelt is simple—just enough padding and an easily adjustable single strap. It was comfortable for a long day hauling gear five miles with 2,500 feet elevation gain (only to bail after two pitches on a new route). The pack’s extendable collar and lid will increase the capacity to about 40 liters (that’s the “+”). A mesh helmet holder ($15, not included) lets you securely carry your brain protection on the outside of your pack to save pack space.

Cons: It lacks a strap under the lid for the rope, as well as a crampon patch. A tradeoff for the well-liked stiffer frame (great weight transfer) is that climbing with it is more difficult, as it inhibits upper body twisting.

Conclusions: If you pride yourself on packing light, it’s great for four-season alpine rock and mixed climbs, ski approaches, ski mountaineering, and ice cragging.

Gregory Alpinisto 35 ($200,


Weight: 3 lbs. 6 oz.

Performance: Gregory’s Alpinisto has 30 years of history as an ultra-customizable, all-around alpine pack, and a spiffy redesign immediately caught our testers' eyes. They were quick to praise a helmet cutout in the lid, side-zipper access to the main body, and a waistbelt that can be stripped down to just the webbing. It’s at the high end of the weight spectrum for a 35-liter bag, but its the result of generous use of ultra-burly 640- and 210-denier ripstop nylon and a beefy suspension comprised of a sturdy plastic framesheet and single aluminum stay. This Fusion Flex suspension was one of the most comfortable we tested. “The grippy material on the lumbar kept the pack in place and kept my jacket from riding up,” one tester said after humping a double rack, rope, and three liters of water two miles up to Lumpy Ridge, outside RMNP. For minimalists, the stay, waistbelt padding, and framesheet can be removed to knock the weight down to two pounds. The fold-out crampon pouch's thermoplastic polyurethane saved the pack from nicks (and is also the perfect size for beers). Ski mountaineers will love the ski-carry straps, wand pocket, and ice clipper slots and sled attachment points on the waistbelt.

Cons: Although it seems we’ve got every option to strip this pack down—removable waistbelt, framesheet, and bivy pad—we’d love to be able to take the lid off as well. It's extendible, but not easily removable.

Conclusions: If you’re buying one pack for everything, this is it. Big enough for a rope and rack, versatile enough for all your summer and winter tools, plus some winter-specific features.

Millet Axpel 42 ($199.95,


Weight: 3 lbs. 7 oz.

Performance: “The new Mobility Back System is the real deal,” said one of our back-injury-hampered testers of Millet’s new support system, which puts the pivot point for the waistbelt a bit higher than other brands—in the mid-back instead of at the waist. “This is the only medium-sized pack that doesn’t bother my back or hips under a 35-pound load. It moved with me on the five-mile trek to Rocky Mountain's Petit Grepon.” The higher swivel point provided greater pack stability (and resulted in less strain on her back) because it more closely matched upper body movements on the 3rd class scramble to the route. The cavernous 42-liter capacity fit a full alpine day’s gear—rack, water, food, layers, summit pack, and helmet—with the rope securely stowed beneath the lid. All that gear stayed in its proper place thanks to Millet’s new Load Directed Construction, a strong X of tightly woven fabric spanning the outside of the pack. When you tighten straps at the shoulder or waist, it tightens up throughout the X and the body of the pack. The exterior 210-denier nylon has a light water-resistant coating, which kept everything inside bone dry even after a twohour downpour.

Cons: The waistbelt, which sports sizable cutouts, turned out to be a bit flimsy under loads of more than about 40 pounds. Packs with pivot points do take some getting used to, especially for off-trail adventures.

Conclusions: Big enough for a full day out, and it rocks for a stout approach to an alpine climb when you leave your pack at the base of the route. Great for third- and fourth-class approaches.

Montane Torque 40 ($189,


Weight: 2 lbs. 15 oz.

Performance: “Strippability” is the name of the game with this solid contender from the United Kingdom’s Montane. Although the company just launched its first line of packs in 2012, Montane hit the nail on the head by making the waistbelt, framesheet, and bivy pad removable. The sleek Torque comfortably hauled a double rack, rope, layers, and food for several summer outings to multi-pitch climbs on Colorado’s Front Range. The removable waistbelt meant our testers weren’t dealing with the ongoing struggle of a climbing harness and burly belt vying for the same position, and when our tester kept it on during a climb, two large gear loops on the waistbelt racked gear. With an efficient overall design, the Torque 40 has a light, strong framesheet and no clutter on the outside. Although it’s a bit large to wear on multipitch climbs, our tester found it comfortable even when he pulled over a strenuous roof: “It stayed out of my way, and I barely even noticed it was there.” The zipper on the pack lid is on the front of the pack (opposite most packs), which was great for belays when our tester didn’t want to take his pack off and risk dropping it a few hundred feet; instead, it was easy-access for his partner.

Cons: The lid cinches down awkwardly over a rope. The aluminum hooks that attach the waistbelt to the pack came unhooked from time to time, even though they weren't necessary to keep the belt in place.

Conclusions: This pack has the suspension and features of a pimped-out pack, but it can be stripped down to be a basic hauler, making it a solid option for just about any alpine pursuit.

Vaude Optimator 38 ($155,


Weight: 2 lbs. 10 oz.

Performance: The epitome of minimalist, the Optimator had testers a little skeptical at first—barely there frame, plain straps, and almost no features on the outside of the pack. But it worked—really well. Touting only compression straps and tool loops on the outside, with a single strap for the lid and no adjustments for the waistbelt or shoulder straps beyond basic tightening and loosening, the Optimator carried a rack and a rope inside comfortably, then cinched down to almost nothing for one tester’s evening ascent of the Third Flatiron in Boulder. This pack forgoes a typical aluminum frame for a light, removable back panel, which increases flexibility and makes it easier to climb with, specifically for awkward roofs, chimneys, and cracks. “There is absolutely nothing you don’t need on this pack. If you’re the type of person who likes to cut off superfluous straps, you won’t find anything here; it's mimimalist done near perfectly,” our tester said. We liked the extra small pocket inside the main compartment, perfect for a wallet, phone, headlamp and car keys, as well as the zip side pocket for a camera or gloves—out of the way for climbing, but within reach without unclipping the lid.

Cons: Gear loops on the waistbelt are vertically-oriented, making them tough to clip while climbing. Waistbelt is a little thin and no load-lifter straps make heavy loads uncomfortable to carry.

Conclusions: Super light and comfortable to wear while rock climbing, this simple pack cinches down tight and small for summit bids or general fast-and-light climbing activities.