Alpine Pack Comparison: 20-35L Range

This is a quick comparison of a few packs in the 20-35L range. I’ll compare their relative size, tool attachment options, and weight. I have not had a chance to use the Alpha yet (it arrived yesterday) and I have only a few days under the Ascensionist: stay tuned for an update a bit later in the season once I can more accurately assess durability as well as carrying and climbing comfort.

For gear, I selected what would be a typical share of a mixed/alpine rack: 1x 70m 7.8mm half-rope, half a set of nuts, six cams, six alpine draws, personal kit (harness, crampons, station,, etc.), a 1L bottle, some gels, a pair of warm belay/rap gloves, two pairs of climbing gloves, small med/emergency kit, belay jacket and technical tools.

The packs in question are: Arc’Teryx NoZone 35, Alpha FL 30 & Cierzo 35; Patagonia Ascensionist 35; Black Diamond Speed 22 and The North Face Verto 26.

Arcteryx_NoZone_35-1The Arc’Teryx NoZone 35, with customized velcro-strap tool handle holders.

Relative Size & Major Features

The packs here are listed as being from 22 to 35 litres in size, though in my mind they’re all capable of the same all-day outing. BD’s Speed 22 is obviously the smallest, and the NoZone 35 and Ascensionist 35 contend for most capacious. Both the Verto 26 and the Alpha FL are surprisingly roomy. Neither the Alpha nor the Verto have side compression straps. The Cierzo seems to fit less than the other 35L packs. Interestingly, the Alpha FL is listed as being 23L on the Arc’Teryx website, with a maximum capacity of 30L, whereas other Arc’Teryx packs are typically ‘named’ by their non-stuffed size. It feels more like a 30 than a 23 — perhaps the 23 is its when the roll-top is fully closed (which renders the pack waterproof, but also takes up a lot of space).

Patagonia_Ascensionist_35-1Patagonia’s Ascensionist 35, note how the handle is looped under the top side-compression straps.

I removed the lids, where I could, leaving the Speed and NoZone without any further pockets. The Ascensionist and Cierzo each have a pocket in the attached lid, while the Verto has both a lid pocket and fixed internal pocket (that also doubles as a stuff-sack for the pack). The Alpha has a welded pocket on the front panel.

Arcteryx_Alpha_FL_30-1Arc’Teryx Alpha FL 30 is super-streamlined with no external features other than the bungee cord / tool attachment system and the zipper for its one pocket.

The Alpha has the largest spin-drift-cum-roll-top collar, followed closely by the NoZone, which in turn is almost matched by the Speed. Both the Cierzo and Verto have just enough collar to close up the pack, but will not accommodate a lot of overstuffing. The Ascensionist has a sizeable spindrift ‘flap,’ explained here.)

Tool Attachment Options

All of these packs will easily take straight-shafted mountaineering axes, but it is the more curvy modern tools that pose problems…

The Alpha FL has the simplest system to use: there are two aluminum tabs attached down low to the panel bungee, and two sewn pull-tabs higher up. Simply slide the aluminum tab through the hole in the tool’s head, pull the sewn-tab over any part of the handle you wish and cinch it all down. Takes seconds and works with any shape of tool. There is also enough stretch left in the bungee to strap in a pair of crampons, jacket, etc.

Arcteryx_Cierzo_35-1Arc’Teryx Cierzo 35 has long been a versatile, light-weight favourite.

Both the NoZone and the Ascensionist use a sleeve-style ‘pocket’ for the head and pick, and an infuriatingly annoying stick-the-handle-under-the-top-compression-strap method higher up. This is annoying because to properly attach the tool you have to first pass the handle under/through the compression strap (see the pic of the Ascensionist), and only then put the pick into the lower sleeve. Counter-intuitive enough that I’ve seen seasoned alpinists put the pick through first before the handle, and then have to remove the tool and reverse the process. (In the photos, you might notice that my NoZone has two velcro-straps attached to the micro-daisy for the tool handles. I’ll be doing the same thing to the Ascensionist before its first outing.)

Black_Diamond_Speed_22-1The Black Diamond Speed 22 is noticeably smaller and is the only pack into which I couldn’t fit the rope. 

The Speed uses the same sleeve-style attachment for the pick, but with a more conventional cord-style handle loopy thingy higher up. Much, much easier to use than sticking the handle under the compression strap.

The_North_Face_Verto_26-1The North Face Verto 26 is surprisingly comfortable and spacious for such a lightweight pack (the only one here with no back padding).

The Verto and the Cierzo both have traditional-style ice-axe loops, which actually work quite well with modern tools: just put the head in and twist until all the slack’s been taken out. The Verto has velcro loops for the handle, while the Cierzo uses a compression-strap method that actually works well (because the clips are close to the tool handle, so you can affix the head first then compress the handle.


This is simple:

TNF Verto 26 (cannot be stripped, one size): 357g / 12.6oz
Arc’Teryx Cierzo 35 (back padding left in pack, one size): 564g / 19.9oz
Arc’Teryx Alpha FL 30 (cannot be stripped, one size): 578g / 20.4oz
BD Speed 22 (top lid removed, M/L): 580g / 20.5oz
Arc’Teryx NoZone 35, (top lid removed, stays removed, Regular): 786g / 27.7oz
Patagonia Ascensionist 35, (aluminum/mesh frame removed, L/XL): 794g / 28.0oz


I’ll be adding packs to this as I get them, most looking forward to the Grivel Zen, Mountainsmith’s Haze, BD’s redesigned Speed series, Gregory’s forthcoming Verte (pronounced Vert – ignore that trailing e), the new Osprey Mutants, Mammut’s Nordwand TL… ok, I am basically looking forward to trying every single pack out there. I’m a hopeless gearhead, I know.

26 thoughts on “Alpine Pack Comparison: 20-35L Range

  1. craig says:

    So, what about comfort? No pics of waistbelts and shoulder straps.
    I’ve had many a contemplation carrying my Cizero up 3 hour approaches – how much energy am I’m wasting, and how sore my shoulders get, is this light weight really worth it? Maybe I’m getting soft, but the webbing non-padded waist belt, the short torso length(doesn’t quite fit me)make me realize I should have sacrificed some low pack weight for something more comfortable.

    Once I get my new pack (waiting your further reviews hint hint) I’ll probably save my cizero for a summit pack on multiday stuff. But then again, I’ve got an old Serratus Genie pack for that.

    • Raf says:

      Comfort will have to wait until I’ve carried them all for hours on end… just wanted to get a quick comparison out there as I know a lot of people are curious about the Alpha and Ascensionist packs.

        • Raf says:

          You’d be surprised! What started as a personal interest in getting the best gear for myself has evolved into this ‘job’ of sorts.

    • Raf says:

      Simple: I don’t have either of those! And, they’re not easy to get here in Canada. Someday, maybe!

    • Raf says:

      I will, for sure, but it takes time to accumulate mileage in all these packs and evaluate them properly… I expect to have a full comparison done by mid-April, in time for some spring alpine!

  2. ED says:

    Is the fabric on the Alpha FL pack more durable than on the Cierzo? I had a Cierzo but returned it as it felt like it would rip very easily.

    • Raf says:

      For sure! The Cierzo series are designed to be ultra-light packable, more like a summit pack than a workhorse.

      The Alpha FL fabric feels like it’d be hard to put a knife through. Their new duffles are made of the same outer fabric, so they have a lot of faith in it.

    • craig says:

      Your fears were warranted ED, I put a big hole in the bottom of my Ciezro the first day out, up a chimney.

      Unfortunately the store I bought it from wouldn’t give my money back – saying I wasn’t using it for its intended purpose – huh? After much debate, they did get a local seamstress to put a heavy duty bottom layer on it. Now I worry about the seams busting loose, when I pack it tight and you can see them straining.

      It was my first foray into ultralight gear, against my best intuition which was right.

      • Raf says:

        The Cierzo packs were definitely not designed for that: their fabric is much too light. I’ve had a couple but never took them places where they’d get into contact with sharp rocks… I’m sorry you had that experience!

  3. Ed says:

    Between the Alpha pack and the Ascensionist, which would you say would work best for summer Alpine mountaineeering?

    Does the foam on the straps of the Ascensionist freeze up in the snow/wet?

    • Raf says:

      I haven’t had any issues with freezing or snow accumulation, though that said the Alpha packs do seem like they would be more resistant to taking on snow, ice, dirt, etc.

      It’s a hard call. I really like both. For summer alpine I think I’d go with the Ascensionist for the simple fact that it has compression straps so it can be shrunk down over the contents. The Alpha is almost like a dry-bag with strap: comfortable to carry, but retains a lot of its bulk when empty.

      • Ed says:

        Thanks for the information. Do you know how much the removable back panel on the Ascensionist weighs?

        • Raf says:

          The ‘frame’ of the 35L weighs 143 grams. It is the only part of the back that is removable (the foam is fixed behind a layer of fabric).

          The only other strippable bits are the hipbelt ‘pods’ (55 grams for both) and the webbing hipbelt itself (65 grams).

      • ED says:

        After the 2 more extensive reviews, would you still say that the Ascensionist would be better for summer alpine? I ordered one (35) and I quite like it, but it seems very similar to my Marmot Centaur. I am considering going with the Arc instead as it seems to add something different. I am finding the internal spindrift cover thing to be a little annoying when packing too.

        In terms of load carrying, is either more effective? Do you find that the webbing hip belt is comfortable? In terms of size does the Alpha 45 compare with the Patagonia 35?

        I have to say the white/blue colour is very nice, although I am starting to think I will end up with a brown pack.

        • Raf says:

          I still think that for summer alpine I will prefer the Ascensionist. The fabric is just more compressible and the pack is easier to compress when not fully loaded. I’m not familiar with the Marmot Centaur so can’t speak to that, sorry.

          The Alpha FL packs carry extremely well for such a simple set-up. I think having some padding on the webbing hipbelt would make them carry even better, especially for more than a couple hours with a heavy load.

          The Alpha FL 45 and Ascnesionist 35L are very similar in size. At maximum capacity, the Alpha FL will accommodate a bit more.

          With the Ascensionist packs, I prefer the orange, just as with the Alpha FL packs I prefer the red. But, I like my stuff to be high-contrast for better visibility should it ever be needed.

          • ED says:

            Thanks for the information, I might order an Alpha to compare, I have to say I am leaning towards it slightly more it just seems to be a little more streamlined.

            Have you had any issues with the Alpha filling with water if you put wet items in, as it won’t be able to drain like a normal pack would?

            Is the fabric on the Alpha as flexibile as on the ascensionist, or is it more stiff like more standard ruberised dry bags?

          • Raf says:

            Good question! I haven’t had a lot of wet items in it, maybe a few pairs of gloves and snow- and ice- crusted screws, rack, rope and crampons, but these don’t seem to have let that much water go inside the pack. It’s been a bit cold around here so I honestly can’t recall a time when the snow and ice would’ve melted into the bottom of the pack.

            The fabric is similar to a dry-bag, but not as stiff or thick. However, the packs keep most of their shape when empty (unlike the Ascensionists).

  4. craig says:

    Hey Raf, I tried out a new BD speed 30 here in Nelson at Valhalla Pure. I had high hopes for this pack but it is defintley off my list now.

    Why? The shoulder straps are joined by a horsehoe type yoke – rather than connecting to be pack individually. The circumference of the yoke is too narrow for my neck. Now I’m not a huge guy, 6′ – 185 lb, and it was too small for my ‘burly neck’. It squeezed my neck when I put it on, and couldn’t get used to it after 10 minutes of wearing it loaded in the shop.

    The guy that helped me in the shop is a skinny tall type, 6′ 2″ with 28 in waist. He had no problems with the shoulder yoke/neck squeeze. But he couldn’t get the waist belt to tighten on his skinny waist.

    I really wonder WTF is up with the BD guys, seems like they really missed the boat on the speed pack re-design.

    • Raf says:

      Interesting observations, thanks!

      I haven’t had a chance to play with the new packs yet, though I should be able to get a hold of a Speed and Epic soon, so I’ll post some comments then.

    • Wojtek says:

      I have exactly the same problem!
      I ordered Speed 30 some time ago (the newest version, different from the one described here) and I see that the shoulder strap has not been modified in any way 🙁

  5. Frank Clark says:

    How about Randy Rackliff at Cold Cold World, in Jackson NH? Amazing packs and he will even customize from his four models. I have four and have used them for years, it is true love!

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