I’m appalled by the profusion of overly complicated backpacks these days. Smothered as they are with straps, pockets, zippers, buckles, bungees, and other impedimenta, these souped-up packs might make you forget that a backpack is simply meant—and I know it’s not sexy—to carry stuff.
Some of the best packs ever made are little more than a thin sack with minimal shoulder straps and a waistbelt. Black Diamond’s Mission packs have a little more going on than that, but honestly not much, because only a few things really matter when it comes to backpacks. We’ll start with size. I tested the Mission 55 which has a—surprise, surprise—55-liter volume. The Mission also comes in 35- ($200), 45- ($210), and 75-liter ($240) sizes depending on your… well, mission.
Let’s face it: Nobody wants so much pack that you feel like you’re driving a double-wide to the grocery store. But you also don’t want an overloaded scooter—a pack so tiny all your stuff is strapped to the outside (a strangely popular phenomenon among Euro alpinists). That’s where the 55, hitting the sweet spot for volume, comes in.
The 55 is the most diverse of the Mission set in my opinion, because it’s perfectly suited for ice climbing, chilly rock climbing (when warm clothes take up half the pack), and lightweight overnights. The Mission 55 supported me on several two-day trips up the Diamond of Longs Peak in Colorado. I carried a full overnight kit plus climbing gear to a high camp one day, then pared it down and used it as a day pack the second day. I also found it perfect for Front Range cragging, where approaches often push 60 minutes while toting a rope, rack, and lots more clothes than just the shirt on my back. At 5’10” with an average-length torso, I fit the larger of two sizes (S/M and M/L).
Weight versus durability also matters, and in this equation one is always at the expense of the other. Out of the box, my pack weighed 4.05 pounds (Black Diamond’s website lists the average weight as 3.88 pounds). Either way, that’s comparatively light for a pack this size made of thick, durable (420 denier) nylon with easy-to-use ice-tool and crampon-pouch attachments, plus a vertically oriented side zipper (for easy access anywhere inside the pack, running about two-thirds of the way down the body).
Meanwhile, stripped down, with the waistbelt, lid, and framesheet removed (now weighing 2.47 pounds), it’s also an excellent pack for lightweight alpine ascents. In June, the north face of Longs Peak, which I was climbing to summit the peak and access the top of the Diamond, is coated with thin ice, and while this pack can handle much grander adventures, I at least got a taste of what it can do on alpine terrain. The zipper sliders and buckles proved large enough to operate with gloves on, while the beefy zipper teeth resisted freezing, which I suspect will be the case under all but Scottish conditions.
Being the weight-conscious tweaker I am, I usually prefer removable crampon attachments. After all, the majority of my climbing days are spent rock climbing, so who needs those? That said, I quite like the sewn-on crampon pouch on the Mission 55, as it makes a convenient slot for a guidebook or water bottle. And when you do tote crampons, the rugged and voluminous pouch is among the most user-friendly I’ve seen. Also, unless my pack is full, I usually remove the top lid and carry it inside the main body—another comfy feature of the Mission. Even with the lid tucked inside, the Mission is easy to overstuff thanks to the “rope strap” that buckles over the main compartment. With or without a lid, or a rope, this strap helps compress and stabilize every load.
The final, and most important factor in any pack, is comfort. And comfort is probably what the Mission 55 does best, thanks to the ingenious reACTIV hip belt and SwingArm shoulder straps. This “active suspension” system took me a second to get used to. In fact, each time I wore this pack after using a different one I thought something was amiss. The lack of resistance and synchronized swagger with my movements made me realize I’m so used to fighting the load on my back that when the load works with you, as it does with the Mission, it feels weirdly comfortable.
The Mission 55 meets all my criteria for the ultimate pack: versatile, lightweight, durable, and comfortable. Above all, it’s a relatively simple design that simply works. What else could you possibly need for the unsexy job of carrying stuff?