Choose the Right Pack
Before choosing a pack, you need to decide exactly how you'll be using it. All of these packs are cragging packs, intended for carrying a rope, a rack, a harness, a helmet, shoes, some food and extra clothing to the crags (in a few cases, the packs seemed more appropriate for boulderers or sport climbers simply because they wouldn't easily accommodate all that gear). That said, there are two general categories of cragging packs: some people want a pack they can load up with gear, traipse from parking lot to cliffside and chuck down in the dirt for the rest of the day while they work routes. Others want a pack for carrying up a route. Many climbers want a little of both. Once you've decided how you'll be using the pack, it's easier to sort through all the features and functions. Start with the basics, making sure to get the right suspension system and general design. Then pick what, if any, add-ons you'd like. Once you've narrowed the field to a couple of options, hit the stores to try on the packs. Load each one up with appropriate weight, ask the salespeople to help you fit the packs properly and walk around the store to your heart's content. If it's a close call between two bags, go with the one that fits you better. Six months down the road, a comfortable fit will be much more important than any one trick feature.
THE BASICS general design. Most of the packs reviewed come in the traditional, knapsack-on-my-back, top-loading style. This tube design helps to ensure that nothing comes tumbling out of the pack inadvertently, but can make accessing items at the bottom of the pack difficult. Several packs are panel-loaders, with a zipper that encircles the entire pack, which makes packing and accessing the rain jacket you optimistically stowed at the bottom of the pack easy. Bear in mind, though, that if the zipper blows out on your panel-loader, your pack's next journey will be to the warranty department. If you go with a panel-loading pack, make sure the zippers are bomber YKK #10 is a good standard.
Suspension sytems. Choose a pack that properly fits your back or it'll carry like an aquarium. A few of the packs in this review come in two or three sizes, which makes it easier to get a good fit for your torso length. The Mountainsmith Boundary even has a fully adjustable suspension system for custom-fitting the pack. Along with the added comfort, you can expect some extra weight.
A beefy suspension system is great for carrying hefty loads in comfort and for climbers who tend toward longer approaches. Look for padded, contoured shoulder straps, waist belts and aluminum or composite stays. If, however, you'll be doing much climbing with the pack, or hauling it, minimal suspension is preferable. Choose the lightest, smallest pack that will serve your needs, because it sucks to get crushed by gravity while trying to crank a strenuous pitch with an unwieldy hog on your back. Stow-away shoulder straps and waist belt are a rare feature in this class of pack, but consider them if you'll be dragging your pack up a route often. Finally, no matter whether you choose a burly suspension system or a featherweight one, look for a mesh covered back panel (unless you will be doing a lot of hauling) without the mesh, which adds ventilation, the pack may feel like a giant, slimy fish on your back.
Straps. Compression straps are handy for crunching a partially loaded pack or for lashing extra gear on the sides of a fully stuffed pack. I prefer compression straps with quick-release buckles for optimal convenience. Make sure the straps are long enough for lashing, should the occasion arise. The fewer the straps, the less versatile the pack will be, though the simple design will make it better for hauling and climbing.
Lids. A lid pocket is great for stashing items you'll need handy, such as a first aid kit, a hat or a guidebook. Some lids also have a smaller security pocket for stowing important items like your keys and wallet. A few of the packs even have clips inside the security pocket for keeping your keys or wedding ring (provided you haven't lost that from being late for dinner too many times). Most of the lids on these packs are fixed in position, but a couple packs have floating lids, meaning they can be positioned higher or lower depending on how much you're carrying. This is a good feature for expanding the capacity of a pack, without throwing off your balance too much.
Fabrics. Fabric durability and the quality of stitching play a big role in how long your pack will last. For simple cragging, the nylon packcloth and heavyweight nylon ripstop fabrics used in most packs should suffice. If you plan to thrash the pack, choose ballistics or cordura nylon. Need more? The Souvenir and Rock Sac incorporate nylon-reinforced urethane or vinyl, the rugged fabric used in medium-duty haulbags.
Compression back panel. Many packs now offer compression panels for stabilizing a partially loaded pack or stashing extra gear. These panels are convenient for storing light gear, like a shovel or jacket, but attaching a heavy item like a rope or tent can throw off your center of gravity. For the best carry, stick to packing heavy items inside the pack, close to your body. If you must strap a heavy item in the back panel, put it on top of the pack.
Daisy chains. These are great for lashing extra gear onto over-stuffed packs. Bear in mind that a pack will carry best if the gear is loaded inside, and a sure sign of a novice is a pack with junk lashed all over the outside. Nonetheless, in situations where you need to max the pack out, the ability to lash on extra gear can be invaluable.
Shock cords. These elastic cords provide yet another means of lashing on lightweight gear.
Removable foam pad. Hopefully you won't have too many forced bivies while cragging, but if you do, a removable foam back pad can feel like a Serta mattress compared with the bare ground. Most climbers will never need this feature.
Hydration bladder. I used to think hydration bladders were for foo-foo yuppy climbers. Then I used one on a half-day ascent of Half Dome's Northwest Face. The ability to constantly hydrate sold me on the benefits of bladders. A pack equipped for a hydration bladder should include an exit hole for the bladder's tube and mouthpiece.
Ski slots and ice axe loops. If you're a backcountry all-arounder, and you don't want to own a different pack for every sport, choose one with all the features for your most high-end use. For cragging, a few extraneous features won't be a problem.
Color. Unlike alpine and expedition packs, where bright colors are a must for safety, the color of your crag pack makes little difference. Choose a bright-colored pack if you're a hot climber, like a peacock strutting through cragsville. If you're a dyed-in-the-wool Sierra Clubber, by all means stick with earth tones. Remember, though, dark packs make it harder to find gear deep inside.
Craig Luebben, an AMGA-certified rock guide, would like to thank his amigos who traveled to Cuba and helped him test these packs: Paul Tickner, BLM River Ranger; Fred Zacherer, boulderer extraordinaire and engineering student and Cameron Cross, teenage new-route motivator and Spanish translator. Sources: