To say that I have a few too many packs would be an understatement. Problem is, I just can’t seem to let go — each pack has some unique features that make it hard to pick just one. This post is as much a comparison and review as it is an attempt to downsize the collection and pick just one pack to keep and use. Ok, who am I kidding — two. Maybe three. Actually, four sounds reasonable. Wait, how many packs do I have again?
Arc’teryx Alpha AR 35 | Release date: Spring 2019 | Current model
The Alpha AR series are Arc’teryx’s alpine all-arounders. More featured and configurable than the climbing-dedicated Alpha FL packs, they utilize a tough Liquid Crystal Polymer reinforced fabric. They also feature innovative buckles and tool-attachment system.
Camp/Cassin Eghen 35 | Release date: Fall 2017 | Current model
The Eghen are Cassin’s dedicated climbing packs, made of tough fabrics with climbing-oriented features. The Eghen 35 has a dual-collar closure system, removable inside pocket/bag, multiple haul points and a simple tool carrying method.
Cassin is Camp’s dedicated ultra-light alpine line, and most of Camp’s more technical gear falls under the Cassin moniker. Therefore, Cassin for this pack henceforth.
Free Range Equipment Big Medicine 45 | Release date: unknown | Current model
If you’ve never heard of this company, fret not: this tiny operation from Bend, Oregon, is literally one guy making packs, with a few friends helping out. The Big Medicine is a solid pack with no crazy buckles or strange attachments: it’s simple and it works.
Gregory Alpinisto 38 LT | Release date: Spring 2020 | Current model
The LT variants of the Alpinisto are stripped-down, simpler, versions of that vaunted model. The LT packs retain the A-frame ski carry loops but shed the crampon pocket, side-zipper access and numerous external pockets to save weight without sacrificing durability.
NOTE: my pack is a pre-production sample and is therefore green like the non-LT packs, instead of the bright orange it should be.
Hyperlite Mountain Gear 2400 Ice Pack (40L) | Release date: unknown | Current model
HMG’s claim to fame are ultralight, minimally-featured packs made with a waterproof Dyneema Composite fabric. The Ice Pack is a top-loader with a multi-purpose bungee attachment system, simple tool carry and multi-position configurable strap system.
Lowe Alpine Uprise 30:40 | Release date: Fall 2019 | Current status unknown
The Uprise packs are sized with the climb in mind, but designed to function just as well on the approach. A unique closure system cinches down the load no matter the size, tool attachments work with all modern tool shapes, and the fabrics are durable, abrasion, and weather resistant.
Mountain Equipment Tupilak 37 | Release date (North America): Fall 2018 | Current model
Designed from the ground-up as alpine packs, the Tupilak series utilize tough fabrics, unique buckles and other thoughtful features that make them ideal companions on high alpine faces. Strippable components cut weight down even further.
Osprey Mutant 38 | Release date: Fall 2018 | Current model
A redesign of Osprey’s much loved Mutant, the ‘new’ Mutant is as comfortable as any other Osprey pack — which is to say very much so. Simple but functional in design, the packs have a great tool carry system, a clever dual-lid closure and strippable components for even lower weight.
Design, Features & Pockets
Arc’teryx Alpha AR 35
At it’s core, the Alpha AR 35 is a simple one-compartment pack-bag with a lid. There’s a dual drawcord top with large, quick-opening and glove-friendly pull-tabs, and a rope/compression strap across the top. There are two large haul/hang loops on the collar, with an additional loop in the more typical spot between the shoulder straps.
The two-pocket lid attaches via adjustable aluminum hooks so that even if massively overpacked to max capacity, the lid can still be positioned higher up the pack and cinched down.
The lid and the top compression/rope strap utilize unique to Arc’teryx ‘buckles’ that latch onto loops of cord. These are a bit finicky. Initially I wasn’t a fan, but as they break in it gets a little bit easier to latch the buckle onto the loop — still not as straightforward as ‘old-fashioned’ quick-release buckles but functional, and on the plus side they’re pretty much impossible to freeze up. There are two compression straps on either side, both with normal-style quick release buckles.
Aside from the main compartment, there’s a pocket in the lid big enough for two 1L Nalgene bottles, with a flat security pocket on the underside. Inside the main packbag, there’s a small(ish) zippered pocket towards the top of the backpanel. It’s great for some snacks but I find it too small to be truly useful, especially if the pack is used without the lid.
Cassin Eghen 35
The Eghen 35 is another single-compartment pack, though thanks to a massive, tucked-down, roll-top collar and a separate draw-string closure it can effectively be a two-compartment pack. The roll-top section has a partial velcro closure alongside the opposing buckle system so it can be either semi-closed for quick access or properly sealed against the elements.
There are two large haul/hang loops near the top, and a dual-position rope/compression strap, though it just barely reaches over the top if the pack is truly packed to the brim. Dual Z-pattern compression straps on either side secure extra gear.
Inside, there’s what is quite possibly the only removable purse to ever be fitted into a climbing pack. This little pouch has two zippered compartments, along with a velcro-secured slash pocket that holds the shoulder strap. It clips into the pack using two quick-release buckles. Just below and behind this floating pouch is a stretch-mesh compartment ideal for storing small essentials like snacks or a headlamp — provided, of course, that you don’t flip the pack upside down as this pocket doesn’t have a closure mechanism.
Free Range Equipment Big Medicine 45
The Big Medicine is also a single-compartment pack but has what I’d call a more traditional design: the top collar is recessed into the pack body but quite not as much as some of the other packs here. As a result, it functions more like your typical top-loader with the inside collar serving as a capacity extension rather than a floating separator.
Inside, there’s a small mesh pocket for small items, and like every other pack here, dual side compression straps secure extra gear. The lid is one of the larger ones here, with enough space to easily swallow two 1L Nalgenes, but it has a somewhat awkward design that makes it hard to utilize all the space. On the plus side, the dual-slider zipper makes access more versatile, and the underside security pocket is good for stashing small rarely-used items.
Gregory Alpinisto 38 LT
The LT version of the Alpinisto is a bit of a departure for Gregory: unlike most Gregory packs, the LT has just one main compartment, with no side-zipper access or any external pockets. Similar to other Gregory packs, however, the pack body has a defined shape to it — great for climbing with heavy loads, but not ideal for packing awkwardly-shaped climbing gear. This is one of the few packs without any sort of extension collar, though the rope strap across the top is generous in length.
The top lid, like the main pack body, has a very clear pre-defined shape to it which, unfortunately, limits its usefulness and capacity. As is, the lid fits a single 1L Nalgene, though with room to spare: were it less triangular in shape, I’m certain two bottles would fit easily. Like the other packs, there’s a security pocket on the underside of the lid, however inside the packbag there’s solely a tiny zippered security pocket — just big enough for keys and maybe one energy bar — but it is positioned on the outside of the pack, exposing it to impacts and abrasion when climbing.
The Alpinisto LT is one of two packs here to have dedicated A-frame ski-carry loops.
Hyperlite Mountain Gear 2400 Ice Pack
Unlike the other packs, the Ice Pack doesn’t have a lid or any semblance of outside pockets: it’s just one big compartment with a roll-top collar and a single inside stash pocket. The roll-top collar doesn’t have any means of expansion, but it does have a clever closure design — depending on which set of straps you use, it is either a ‘typical’ roll-top or a side-compression closure.
Regardless of how you close it, the Ice Pack has a V-shaped top rope/compression strap with dual -adjust buckles. The V-shaped straps keep loads much more stable than a single strap, and the dual adjustment system also affords extra capacity. Dual side-compression straps keep loads managed, while the zippered inside stash pocket secures small essentials. The Ice Pack is one of the simplest designs here but, as is so often the case, simplicity is often much closer to perfection than grandiose design.
Lowe Alpine Uprise 30:40
The Uprise packs have one of the more unique designs I’ve come across. A hybrid of small and trim climbing pack and higher-capacity pack for the approach, the Uprise utilizes an oversize collar to achieve its large capacity while at the same time remaining small enough to comfortably climb with. To facilitate this, the roll-top collar has a daisy-chain running up one side, into which the rope/compression strap latches. It’s an ingenious design, and makes for a truly dual-purpose pack: one that climbs just as well as it lugs loads to the base.
When the pack isn’t loaded to max capacity, there’s a typical drawstring and strap closure for the top. Inside, there’s a small zippered pouch for valuables, and another, bigger and waterproof zipper-sealed, pocket for quick-access essentials on the outside. Dual side compression straps keep excess gear organized, and there’s a single grab loop between the shoulder straps, though the Uprise lacks proper haul loops.
Mountain Equipment Tupilak 37
The Tupilak is the other pack here without any sort of removable lid: instead, it has a floating roll-top collar, a dual-access floating pocket, and a flap-style top closure, among many other singular features. The main compartment is top-loading, with a large roll-top collar that can be either used to close the whole pack or be used as a separator to create two independent compartments. In addition to the roll-top, there is also a drawstring closure around the perimeter of the lid to cinch the pack tight.
Above the collar is a floating pocket, accessible via zipper either from the outside or inside, though it is hard to get into, especially from the outside, when the pack is fully loaded.
All the buckles are a unique aluminum design that ‘close’ around either a loop or a specially-folded-and-sewn piece of webbing. It’s an incredibly clever system that is very easy to use but also completely immune to freezing or contamination. Between the specialized buckles and the multi-functional roll-top, drawstring and flap closures, this is one of the most functional pack designs I’ve come across.
Osprey Mutant 38
Fusing a floating top lid with a lid-less flap closure, this latest generation of the mid-size Mutant pack melds proper alpine functionality with Osprey’s superbly comfortable suspension design. The main compartment is pocket-less, save for the water reservoir sleeve, and also lacks the expansion collar typical of the other ‘traditional’ packs here. Instead, a hide-away top flap replaces the top lid when it is removed and serves to keep out spindrift and also compress/secure the pack contents.
The top lid has two pockets, like most others here, however both of the Mutant’s compartments are on top of the lid. The main compartment, easily big enough for two 1L Nalgenes, is ‘on the bottom’ with a smaller, also zippered, pocket on top. An interesting configuration, it isn’t as functional as the under-lid security pocket, however, and really only serves as a storage spot for the included helmet mesh.
In a nod to its all-around intentions, the Mutant is the other pack here to feature A-frame ski-carry loops.
Materials, Fabric & Build Quality
Learning Opportunity / Now You KnowSource: lots of internet reading
Have you ever wonder just what that d in fabric names really means? The d is for denier, which is a measure of the mass of a fibre. It is expressed as the weight, in grams, of a single strand of the fibre that totals 9000 metres in length. The unit is based on the natural world: a single strand of silk, 9000 metres long (that’s 9km or 5.6 miles), weighs approximately one gram.
In the outdoor world, we see a lot of different deniers: 7d for ultra-light shells, 40d or so for lightweight hard shells, 100d for heavy-duty hard shells and lightweight packs, 300d in alpine packs, 900d or 1000d in duffel bags, and so on. What this translates into is that a single strand of 7d fabric, 9000 metres in length, would weigh 7 grams. This can be contrasted with a 900d fabric, of which a single strand of the same length would weigh in at 900 grams. This is why ‘higher-denier’ fabrics are thicker, less pliable, and more durable: there’s physically a lot more fabric fibre present in the material.
Arc’teryx Alpha AR 35 – arrived November 2018
Fabrics: N315r HT (translation: Nylon 315(denier) ripstop High-Tenacity)
Liquid Crystal Polymer might sound extremely high-tech but it is really just the lay-person’s name for a variety of synthetic products, some of which you might already know by their trademarked names, the best known of which is probably Kevlar. Highly stable and extremely strong, LCP’s are often used to reinforce other fabrics. In the Alpha AR, the LCP reinforcement looks like a white grid embedded within the nylon fabric, giving the packs a retro look (mine have been mistaken for 20+ year old MEC packs countless times!).
The fabric has proven to be incredibly abrasion resistant, and none of my packs shows any material wear (I have had the Alpha AR 35 the longest — around 18 months — but nowadays the 55 is my go-to size). Somewhat discordant with what I’m used to from Arc’teryx, my 35 has a few sections of stitching around the waistbelt that have torn free but I’m going to attribute this to the fact my pack is a pre-production sample, whereas I haven’t had any issues with the 20 or 55, which are regular production-line items.
Cassin Eghen 35 – arrived February 2018
There are no fancy names to any of the Eghen’s materials that I know of, but the plain-grey fabric has taken all the abuse I’ve thrown at it without any obvious damage. It sheds snow easily, dirt somehow doesn’t seem to stick, and resists regular-use abrasion as well as any of the fancy high-tech stuff I’ve seen.
Construction is first rate, with no creaking or pulling from any of the stitches, and I really appreciate that all the buckles are simple quick-release models. The top rope/compression strap utilizes an aluminum hook for quick and easy access to the main compartment.
Free Range Equipment Big Medicine 45 – arrived February 2016
Another pack without big-name trademarks sprayed all over the website, the Big Medicine is made from solid fabrics and functional buckles. The main fabric is a ripstop-reinforced nylon, with a bright white interior. All the buckles are simple quick-release models, and the zippers have large, glove-friendly, cord pulls. It’s about as simple and functional as you can make a pack.
Stitching is quality throughout, and even though I’ve loaded this pack up full of camera gear, it’s never so much as given out a squeak. Durability hasn’t been an issue, though I haven’t used it as much as I’d like to — I like everything about it except the colour! Somewhat uniquely these days, all Free Range Equipment gear is made in the USA.
Gregory Alpinisto 38 LT – arrived July 2019
Fabrics: 100D, 210D
The Alpinisto LT swaps most of the regular packs’ ultra-high denier fabrics (210d, 630d) for slightly less-durable lower-denier (100d, 210d) versions in a move to shed some weight. This doesn’t mean it’s not durable, with the burlier fabric placed over the front and bottom where the potential exposure to abrasion is higher. The fabric feels like it’s DWR coated, as well, and readily sheds snow and rain.
Gregory’s quality has always been standout, and the Alpinisto LT doesn’t stray from their proven formula. Gregory packs are typically a little heavier than similarly-sized competitors but thanks to the excellent construction they seem to last forever. I’ve had my sample for over six months and haven’t had any issues.
Hyperlite Mountain Gear 2400 Ice Pack – arrived January 2016
Fabrics: 100% Waterproof Dyneema Composite
HMG packs immediately stand out from the crowd thanks to their use of a brilliant white Dyneema Composite Fabric. Fully waterproof, the pack material is initially quite loud and crinkly but thankfully this goes away with use (though it also loses its brilliant white shade and starts taking on the colour of whatever dirt you throw the pack onto). Other than being waterproof, HMG’s fabric is also extremely abrasion resistant and very light: this is one of the lightest packs here. After four years of regular use my pack still looks great and has no holes or even major abrasion marks.
Unlike the unique fabric, all the buckles are of the common quick-release variety which are both easy to use and easy to replace in case you ever break or lose one. The one element of the pack that I questioned initially is the bungee cord affixed to the front — I was worried it would lose elasticity over time — but it hasn’t presented any problems. Construction is first-rate, and this is one of two packs here made in the USA.
Lowe Alpine Uprise 30:40 – arrived January 2019
The Uprise is made almost entirely of a mid-weight ripstop fabric, and is additionally coated with something called a HydroShield Dura coating which enhances the fabric’s water and abrasion resistance. It certainly feels quite burly, and almost wax-like: water literally beads up on the surface, simply sluicing off.
The expandable collar is made of a much lighter and more pliable fabric, but then again it is meant to be exposed to the elements only on the approach, tucking inside the pack for the climb. Buckles are your standard glove-friendly quick-release type, with the only odd one out being the top rope/compression strap which uses an aluminum hook-buckle to secure around webbing. Uniquely, the Uprise’s buckle has an additional ‘arm’ that doubles-back over the webbing to truly secure the hook in place — it’s hard to explain, so check out the photos of how it works.
I cannot comment extensively on some of the materials and construction, as my pre-production pack uses several 3D-printed components instead of the all-aluminum production versions. That said, I haven’t had any problems and the main fabric shows only minor wear in high-use areas, such as the bottom of the pack.
Mountain Equipment Tupilak 37 – arrived December 2018
Fabrics: PACT 300 & 100 R2
Constructed entirely of a DWR-coated fabric that is additionally treated on the inside with a water impermeable coating, the Tupilak 37 is practically a drybag. The internal roll-top collar functions as both an extendable collar and a pack separator, but it doesn’t seal fully air-tight: the design is functionally-based around easier packing rather than creating a waterproof bag.
All the buckles are aluminum ‘Grappler’ buckles which secure to either a loop of webbing or a specifically-sewn webbing ‘tab.’ They work flawlessly, are simple to use with or without gloves, have no chance of freezing up or getting contaminated and are practically indestructible. This is, in my opinion, the gold-standard in buckle design now.
Construction and durability are outstanding, though I think through a combination of coated fabrics and tight seams, my pack tends to creak when walking with it fully loaded. I’ve never noticed it while climbing, but it sure can be annoying when walking!
Osprey Mutant 38 – arrived January 2018
Fabrics: 210D & 420D
In keeping with its more all-around intentions than some of the more specialized packs here, the Mutant utilizes a mid-weight mid-performance fabric. Like every other Osprey product I’ve used, it is functional first and does everything you’d expect of a mountaineering pack: it sheds light precipitation, resists abrasion and wards off sharp crampons and ice picks.
All the buckles are glove-friendly quick-release types, and every zipper tab is Osprey’s glove-friendly moulded-plastic loop that is super easy to grab. Stitching and construction is superb and I’ve yet to hear a creak from what is one of our most often used packs.
Tool Carry System
The Two Main Styles, and The Outliers
In the last few years, the industry seems to have settled on two primary styles of tool attachment method for the head: the pass-through aluminum tab and the wrap-around webbing loop. Similarly, there are two versions of shaft fastening: the-loop-around-the-shaft, be it stretch-cord or velcro, and the pass-the-handle-under-compression-strap versions.
Of course, the are also the outliers: the innovators, the idealists, the too-specialized-ones, the can’t-figure-it-out and the what-the-actual-fuck ones. This applies to both head and shaft attachment methods, and unfortunately some of these packs fall into this third, oftentimes unsuccessful, category.
Before we get there, let’s look at the two main head attachment methods in more detail (as these are arguably the more important ones to get absolutely right).
The Pass-Through Aluminum (or other) Tab
This is by far my favourite method of tool attachment at the head. It works with every shape, style, and size of ice tool or axe, regardless of hammer or adze, and, if properly implemented, keeps the head pulled tight against the pack body. It is often used in conjunction with a pick-pocket or pick-keeper flap to secure the sharp point end from jabbing into vehicle seats or expensive Gore-Tex jackets. If used in a mountaineering scenario, this style also allows for easy one-handed removal of a straight-shafted ice axe from the pack while on the move.
The Wrap-Around Webbing Loop
Another very effective method, this style typically requires a more prominent pick pocket and usually works better with an ice axe/tool that has an adze or hammer affixed. Depending on the implementation, there is either a singular strap for both tools, or one per side — the individual strap method is better for mountaineering scenarios where you may have only one axe, or be using just one tool of the pair for certain sections of a route. This is by far the more secure method, and never loosens up due to cord stretch.
Arc’teryx Alpha AR 35
I’ve been trying to find a solid way to attach aggressive ice tools (Nomics, Ergonomics, X-Dreams, Reactors, Tech Machines, etc.) to the Alpha AR packs for well over a year and have yet to come up with anything great. Either the head/shaft is held decently, or the pick, but the two together is a near-impossible fit — especially when the pack is fully stuffed. The pick ‘sleeves’ are a tight fit for tools with pick weights and/or aggressive head teeth on drytooling picks. Not slotting the picks through the sleeves results in a better fit but a much less secure attachment. Absolutely inexcusable and so incredibly disappointing, even more so as Arc’teryx also have one of the best and simplest tool-attachments systems on the Alpha FL packs, one that works with every tool out there.
Cassin Eghen 35
The Eghen’s system utilizes a large pick-pocket and a single, extra-long, web loop with a quick release buckle. The system works especially well with Cassin’s own X-Dreams as the buckle is small enough to pass through the tools’ oversized head slot. It also works really well with tools fitted with prominent hammers and adzes but where it falls short is clean, rounded-off, heads which have a tendency to slip through the loop; the tools don’t fall out, but the attachment isn’t as secure as I’d like to see.
The velcro straps to secure the shaft/handle work well but are a little flimsy and the stitching on mine has ripped, separating the two sections. The strap is still usable but now requires a bit more attention in use to make sure it’s not going to fall off the pack.
Free Range Equipment Big Medicine 45
Here is an excellent example of a unique but simple and effective system: twin stretch-cord loops secure the shaft near the handle and by the head, while dual-position pick slots manage the sharp pointy ends. The stretch cord is generic and easily replaced if needed, and the tension buckles are simple and near-unbreakable. The system works great with both straight mountaineering axes and aggressive ice tools: awesome.
Gregory Alpinisto 38 LT
The LT has tuck-away aluminum tabs and a deep pick pocket that fully encapsulates the picks for complete protection of all your other gear. The pocket is deep enough that it works equally well with aggressive tools as it does with straight-shafted axes.
The upper attachment is with a length of stretch cord, which functions somewhat better with technical tools as the cord can wrap around the upper pommel, whereas straight axes need to be passed through a loop: bit more work when attaching, but very easy to deploy one-handed.
Hyperlite Mountain Gear 2400 Ice Pack
The Ice Pack has a massive pick pocket for the head with independent quick-release buckles for each tool. It is a superb attachment system, and the extra-strength flap holds every shape and style of tool securely, regardless of hammer or adze presence.
The shaft is held in place with loops of stretch cord, which are simple to use and easy to replace if needed. Due to the streamlined nature of the pack, I found myself lifting it by the attached tools, which stretched the cord out excessively: I replaced the cord with a couple of velcro straps which are more secure and have substantially less movement.
Lowe Alpine Uprise 30:40
Another proponent of the aluminum tab with pick pocket system, the Uprise opts for an under-the-compression-strap method for securing the tool handle/shaft. Maybe this is a muscle memory thing but I always secure the picks first, then attach the head, then worry about the handle — the compression strap system requires a reversal of these actions. While it functions perfectly well, and I really like how tightly the straps hold the shaft down, I am not a fan of having to remember to pass the tool handle/shaft under the strap first before securing the head.
Mountain Equipment Tupilak 37
The Tupilak also uses an aluminum tab and pick pocket system for the head, but instead of a cinch-under stretch-cord method, Mountain Equipment opted for a small plastic tab with a hook that grabs onto the stretch cord. It’s a simple system but a little bit more fiddly than some of the others, and with no clear advantage. But, it works well and can be easily replaced if anything ever breaks.
Osprey Mutant 38
Osprey has been using oversize aluminum tabs and stretch-cord toggles for years so they’ve had a lot of time to perfect the system, and this is one of the best, if not the best, tool attachments on the market. The large aluminum tabs work with all shapes and sizes of tool heads, while the plastic grab toggle on the stretch cord is really effective at cinching down the shafts. Absolutely superb.
Stripability & Weight
Arc’teryx Alpha AR 35 – total weight 1214 grams
Top lid: 110 grams
Backpanel foam: 48 grams
Backpanel plastic framesheet: 278 grams
Aluminum stay: 52 grams
Stripped down: 726 grams
Cassin Eghen 35 – 1038 grams
Pouch: 104 grams
Backpanel foam: could not remove, though it seems like it isn’t attached in place
Stripped down: 934 grams
Free Range Equipment Big Medicine 45 – 872 grams
Top lid: 136 grams
Hipbelt: 64 grams
Backpanel foam: 80 grams
Stripped down: 592 grams
Gregory Alpinisto 38 LT – 1068 grams
Top lid: 108 grams
Backpanel framesheet: 166 grams
Hipbelt pods: 48 grams (24 each)
Hipbelt webbing: 58 grams
Top strap: 22 grams
Stripped down: 666 grams
Hyperlite Mountain Gear 2400 Ice Pack – 1014 grams
Hipbelt: 184 grams
Aluminum stays: 120 grams (60 grams each)
Stripped down: 710 grams
Lowe Alpine Uprise 30:40 – 922 grams
Wire frame: 96 grams (don’t think this is meant to be removed as it took a lot of effort to put back in!)
Stripped down: 826 grams
Mountain Equipment Tupilak 37 – 830 grams
Compression straps: 40 grams (10 grams each x4)
Hipbelt pods: 66 grams (33 grams each)
Stripped down: 724 grams
Osprey Mutant 38 – 1252 grams
Top lid: 154 grams
Helmet holder: 44 grams
Backpanel framesheet: 156 grams
Aluminum stays: 80 grams (40 grams each)
Stripped down: 818 grams
Capacity & Packability
Pack capacity can be a controversial topic: manufacturers measure pack capacities differently, and at differing levels of ‘load.’ Ideally, all packs would be labelled by their comfortably-packed capacity, with lids cinched down and collars tucked away, as well as max-overflow capacity with collars fully extended, all straps stretched to their limit. This isn’t realistic, however, as various packs also pack differently based on the shape of the pack body, external compartments, etc. I would love to be able to measure all pack volumes independently, but I have yet to come up with an effective method of doing so and as a result I use rough estimates and gut-feeling to judge pack capacity.
Arc’teryx Alpha AR 35 – feels true to size
The AR 35 actually feels like a 35-litre pack, unlike some previous Arc’teryx packs I’ve reviewed. The main pack body tapers downwards for easier packing, and the expansion collar is a bit wider still, endowing the pack with about 45-litres when fully loaded. The top lid will fit up to two 1L Nalgenes, and has a neat aluminum-hook and webbing extension system that is surprisingly secure and easy to use. The expansion collar has two drawstring closures with quick-open tabs that cinch down neatly when not fully extended. The bright orange (or light grey) makes the Alpha AR easy to pack and find things in.
Cassin Eghen 35 – feels like a much bigger pack
Whereas the Eghen 22 feels like a 22-litre pack, the Eghen 35 feels like it’s at least 45-litres in size, but is probably closer to 55-litres. It’s absolutely massive, especially with the collar fully extended. In addition to the roll-top expansion collar, there’s a short drawstring-closure for when the pack is not completely overstuffed. The pack tapers down for easier packing and load management, but with the collar fully extended the pack is well over a metre tall which makes it a bit difficult to pack, especially when you’re as particular about packing things as I am (on the other side of that, however, you can just toss things into the massive main compartment and not worry about packing too precisely). As well, the inside of the pack retains the same medium-grey colour as the outside of the pack making the inside somewhat dark and hard to see in.
Free Range Equipment Big Medicine 45 – feels a bit smaller
The 45-litre capacity feels about right when the pack is fully loaded, but packed to the top of the main compartment the Big Medicine feels more 35-ish. It’s a very packable pack, with a white interior, tapered expansion collar and floating top lid. There’s a drawstring-closure collar that cinches tight around the top of the main packbag, as well as the extension collar on the inside. It’s a simple and effective design. The floating top lid has a quasi-triangular shape to it, ideal for stuffing small items into the far reaches of the compartment. It’s big enough to fit a couple 1L Nalgene bottles, plus a few extra snacks.
Gregory Alpinisto 38 LT – feels a fair bit smaller
Whereas most of the packs here taper from a wide opening to narrow down at the hips, the Alpinisto reverses this design and is quite a bit wider at the bottom of the pack than at the top. I don’t like this for two reasons: it makes big bulky stuff, such as ropes, harder to pack down low, and the top of the pack is almost too tight to fit the usual stuff I cram up there (helmet, puffy, extra gloves, water bottle, etc.). It’s a bit of an awkward design, and due to the lack of expansion collar the 38 LT’s max capacity is about 38-litres, though I am counting the top lid in that. Without lid, the 38 LT feels like a small 35 — make it a 32 or 33. The lid itself is a bit awkward as well, very triangular and dome-shaped: it just fits one 1L Nalgene, but it’s a tight zip up.
Hyperlite Mountain Gear 2400 Ice Pack – feels true to size
The 2400 in the Ice Pack’s name refers to its size in cubic inches. In case you’re wondering — as I’m sure most non-US readers are — 2400 cubic inches is around 39-litres, and the Ice Pack feels spot-on for its size. The Ice Pack is basically one main compartment that tapers down towards the bottom with a hybrid roll-top or side-strap closure system/rope strap on top. Thanks to the white fabric the interior is bright and easy to find stuff in, and due to the single-compartment the HMG is a joy to pack. The large velcro strip across the lip makes it easy to secure the pack regardless of closure method, while the external bungee cord takes care of sharp things like crampons. Depending on which closure method you choose — roll-top or side-strap — the volume of the pack varies slightly as the roll-top closure does take up more material. There’s no top lid, but the speed and ease of the top closure more than makes up for this.
Lowe Alpine Uprise 30:40 – feels true to size
Featuring hybrid closure systems, the Uprise 30:40 feels spot on in terms of size: a small-ish 30 when packed down for climbing, and a full-size 40 for the gear haul. The Uprise has a massive expansion collar with a roll-top and a webbing daisy chain for closure, and a demi-lid when in 30-litre mode. It’s a unique closure/expansion system that is perfectly tailored for alpine routes: massive capacity for the approach, and a trim, nimble, pack for the actual climb.
In case you’re worried that 40-litres isn’t quite enough for all your alpine gear, the Uprise has a unique solution for carrying your rope: extra-long load-lifter straps with quick-release buckles that are actually purpose designed for rope carry. It works but isn’t the most comfortable way to carry a rope I can think of.One of the most unique and thoughtfully designed packs I’ve ever seen.
Mountain Equipment Tupilak 37 – feels true to size
Another pack with a large roll-top expansion collar, the Tupilak feels around 37-litres in size but expands up to 45-litres or so. It has never left me wanting for more space, though when fully packed the floating inside/outside pocket does become rather hard to access. The pack also doesn’t have a typical top lid, making do instead with a hybridized dual-compartment system thanks to the roll-top expansion collar and top drawstring closure, which effectively create two separate spaces inside the main pack bag. The orange-red fabric creates a bright, airy, interior and the pack, like most others here, tapers down from a wide mouth to a narrow waist for better balance and easier packing.
Osprey Mutant 38 – feels a bit bigger
Osprey packs have always seemed more capacious to me than their volume statements, and the Mutant 38 is no different — though it doesn’t appear that much bigger than the other 37-litre packs here, it does feel more spacious. Though it doesn’t seem much taller than the other packs, the top of the Mutant’s pack bag is a lot wider and deeper, which is where the extra volume seems to come from. The top lid is also quite big, and easily fits two 1L Nalgenes with room to spare. Uniquely, the Mutant also has a removable helmet mesh, which I don’t use all the time but does help with saving some interior space. This pack doesn’t have an expansion lid, so it’s size is pretty much it’s size.
Fit, Comfort & Carrying
Arc’teryx Alpha AR 35
Arc’teryx packs always seem to fit my body and the AR 35 is no exception. The lightly curved back panel, the shape of the shoulder straps, the lightly padded hip belt — everything just seems to fit, making the AR a very comfortable pack to hike with. The minimalist hip belt hugs my waist and sits equally comfortably over layers as it does over just a light t-shirt. However, when climbing the pack rides a bit low and I wish I could strip off the hip belt instead of wrapping it around the pack: given the padding is fixed, it doesn’t quite fit over a harness with ice clippers and full of gear. Hiking comfort: 8/10. Climbing performance: 7/10.
Cassin Eghen 35
The Eghen is one of the few packs of this size that I’ve ever encountered without an aluminum stay or plastic/stiffening back panel, though that doesn’t keep it from comfortably hauling heavy loads. The shoulder straps are fixed in a u-shape, which works for me but someone with either a narrower or wider shoulders/neck may find uncomfortable as they don’t adjust/float as well as independently attached straps. The straps are affixed high on the sides of the pack, which stabilizes the load while climbing. The fixed hip belt is quite wide and well padded, and flips completely out of the way for climbing. Hiking comfort: 9/10. Climbing performance: 7/10.
Free Range Equipment Big Medicine 45
Like the rest of the pack, the Big Medicine is simple. There’s a foam back panel, practical shoulder straps and a removable webbing hip belt yet somehow this simplicity results in one of the most comfortable packs I’ve ever used. The pack just hugs my back and the shoulder straps remain comfortable no matter how much stuff I’ve got crammed inside. The plain webbing hip belt chafes a bit on hot summer days but throw on some winter or alpine layers and the lack of padding isn’t an issue. The pack sits quite high, which keeps it out of the way when climbing but might not fit everyone’s torso ideally. Hiking comfort: 8/10. Climbing performance: 8/10.
Gregory Alpinisto 38 LT
Gregory packs have a reputation for managing heavy loads well, and the LT continues on that tradition. The shoulder straps are heavily padded, the back panel has more padding than any other pack here, the hip belt pods are also well padded, and the back panel, though it doesn’t have an aluminum stay, provides a lot of support. It all adds up to a pack that carries heavy loads very well but isn’t as comfortable when climbing. Lightly loaded, the pack seems to ‘sit’ on top of my shoulders rather than feeling ’sucked’ onto my back like more climbing-focused packs do. Hiking comfort: 8/10. Climbing performance: 6/10.
Hyperlite Mountain Gear 2400 Ice Pack
Like other aspects of the pack, the Ice Pack’s suspension is very simple, with just two aluminum stays and straight, lightly padded, shoulder straps. Somehow, however, it carries extremely well and is incredibly comfortable. The hip belt is lightly padded and wraps around my waist, hugging the pack into my back and easily supports heavy loads. The pack’s smooth back slides easily over outer layers, letting your body move around without binding. My pack is a Large torso length which suits me fine when hiking, but it is a bit too long when climbing: I often find my helmet hitting the top of the pack when looking up. Hiking comfort: 9/10. Climbing performance: 8/10.
Lowe Alpine Uprise 30:40
With minimal padding on the shoulder straps and the hip belt, the Uprise seems better designed for the climb rather than the approach. The pre-curved and rigid back panel hugs my back like no other pack; it feels like it was custom-formed. When climbing, the pack sits up high and above a harness, and the relatively small size is perfect for a lead pack. Fully loaded, the massive extension collar is tall and slightly awkward, though the suspension and compression straps do an admirable job of managing the weight and keeping things balanced. Strapping a rope onto the shoulder straps doesn’t really improve things, but it’s a good option if you run out of room inside. Hiking comfort: 7/10. Climbing performance: 10/10.
Mountain Equipment Tupilak 37
The Tupilak carries, and climbs, very well with two caveats: wide shoulders and a non-slippery outer layer are almost pre-requisites for comfortable carry. The shoulder straps are positioned wide apart, and angled slightly outwards, which makes them slip off narrower shoulders — my girlfriend doesn’t like using this pack for this one reason. Similarly, I find that worn over hardshells, or similarly slippery outer layers, the pack’s shoulder straps have a tendency to slip outwards and shift in their positioning. However, if the pack fits you, it carries very well, both loaded for the approach and slimmed down when climbing. The webbing hip belt, with minimally padded pods, takes the load off your shoulders, and the firmly-padded shoulder straps absorb the load very well. Hiking comfort: 9/10. Climbing performance: 9/10.
Osprey Mutant 38
Like other Osprey packs, the Mutant is phenomenally comfortable. The suspension and padding are fairly robust (as evidenced by the pack’s total weight) which makes the Mutant one of the most comfortable packs to carry heavy loads in, ever. And even with the thick padding, the pack still climbs quite well, though it does move better when the frame sheet is removed. The hip belt is fixed, unfortunately, and the pre-curved padding doesn’t fold back as easily as other packs, making it a bit awkward to climb wth. Hiking comfort: 10/10. Climbing performance: 6/10.
The packs, ranked
NOTE 1: Prices are in USD as it is the only form of currency in which I could find all these packs for sale, so in my mind serves as the most even comparison.
NOTE 2: All of these are solid packs and I don’t really think you can go wrong with any of them. But, as this has been an exercise in paring down my collection and finding faults, I’ve been incredibly critical and have come up with the following ranking. Also, people always ask me to pick favourites, anyways, so here they are.
NOTE 3: In a similar vein, someone will ask why packs such as the very popular Arc’teryx Alpha FL or Black Diamond Speed series aren’t here. Simple, really: I don’t currently have any of those, nor did I want to buy/request samples – I’m trying to narrow down my collection, not expand it! (I hear there are new FL’s for FW20, however, which has me very excited. Oh, there are also the new Patagonia Ascensionist packs which just came out. And Camp has a redesign of their M-series packs. …and here we go again.)
The all-around packs
8. Gregory Alpinisto 38 LT – $170 USD
The Alpinisto LT is, I think, a significant improvement on the regular Alpinisto. The pack is lighter, more streamlined, with fewer bulky and unnecessary features but with the same build quality and load carrying capability that Gregory is known for. The tool attachment is simple and the pick pocket does a great job of protecting other equipment from sharp tools. It’s not the lightest or most strippable of packs, and the generous padding causes it to ride a bit high when actually climbing with it. However, at $170 USD, it is on the low end of the price spectrum present here and, being a Gregory, should be widely available. It’s a solid pack that would work especially well if you’re also into this skiing thing, thanks to those reinforced A-frame carry loops.
7. Free Range Equipment Big Medicine 45 – $250 USD
There is so much to like about this pack, from the super simple tool carry system to the comfortable carry to just how incredibly light it is for the capacity, that I had to spend a long time thinking about why it didn’t score higher. At the end of the day it came down to one main reason why I keep picking up other packs instead of this one, and I can’t quite believe I’m going to say this, but here it it: colour. That’s right, I am, apparently, a colour snob. I love the Big Medicine, I really do, but I just can’t stand that it’s pretty much all black. It seems I like bright, colourful, things and for that reason this pack scores quite a bit lower than it would have otherwise as it truly is an excellent all-arounder. At $250 USD it’s not the cheapest pack out there but as I mentioned before it is, literally, hand-made by one dude in Oregon, and that’s pretty damn cool.
6. Arc’teryx Alpha AR 35 – $220 USD
This result also had me scratching my head for a while. The Alpha AR 35 is comfortable, spacious, uses some cool tech, and has similar negatives as some of the other packs, yet it still isn’t one of my absolute favourite go-to’s. I even like the retro-styled orange-grid fabric. So why so low down the list? Turns out I just can’t forgive the fiddly tool attachment and the fixed waist-belt. And I’m still on the fence about those new-fangled loop ‘buckles’ though as time goes on and I use the other AR packs more and more they’re less and less frustrating to use. Those three things combined make it so that I don’t go for the Alpha AR 35 as often as I would otherwise. At $220 it sits middle of the pack in pricing but doesn’t really offer anything substantially better than the $170-ish packs from other major brands.
Arc’teryx: please replace the tool attachments with those from the Alpha FL packs, use some normal buckles, and make the waist-belt removable (aka come back to form akin to the NoZone series). Those changes and this pack would be near the top.
The massive load hauler
5. Cassin Eghen 35 – $180 USD
If your idea of a climbing adventure involves multiple days in the mountains, huge amounts of gear and several days spent on-route, the Eghen 35 is for you. This thing just swallows gear: so if you’re one of those people that just dumps stuff into a pack instead of neatly sorting and packing each piece for minimum space usage and maximum efficiency, this could also be the pack. However, if you are of a small stature, you might find the Eghen somewhat uncomfortable: the shoulder straps are sewn in a large U-loop which works for me but isn’t as comfortable for those with narrower – or massively wider – shoulders/neck. Otherwise, I love the features of the Eghen and it shows that this is a pack designed by climbers, for climbing. For me, however, it is just a little bit too big for the types of climbing adventures that I am able to do. At $180 USD I consider this pack to be a steal.
If I can have a couple…
4. Osprey Mutant 38 – $170 USD
Osprey deserve praise for having one of the best, easiest to use, and least fiddly tool attachment systems in existence — and not fucking around with it. Additionally, the Mutant is also one of the most comfortable packs I’ve ever used, plus it has some really unique and useful features, such as the included mesh helmet holder and the FlapJacket lid system when using the pack without the main lid. It is, unsurprisingly, the heaviest pack here and doesn’t strip down quite as well as the others, and I hate the dark blue colour but when I just want to go cragging with a pack that I know will be comfortable to carry and simple to use, the Mutant 38 is it. And at $170 USD it’s in line with the other major brand packs here: if you’re looking for a solid, dependable, pack that you can also go hiking with and not look completely out of place, this is it. Love it (except the colour).
3. Lowe Alpine Uprise 30:40 – $170 USD
Designed to be the ultimate on-route pack, the Uprise certainly delivers: it practically melds onto my back, virtually disappearing when you transition from the approach to the climb. The low-profile shoulder straps and hip belt are comfortable without being bulky, and the heavily pre-curved back panel is a thing of beauty. And I absolutely love the innovative expansion collar and it’s unique double-back buckle. The fabric is ultra-tough and the whole thing just screams “purpose!” It’s not the most comfortable pack to carry heavily-loaded, but it’ll get you there — like any proper alpine climb, there’s a bit of slogging to get through before you get to the good parts. At $170 USD this is a proper bargain and the pack I’d recommend if you already have a solid all-around pack and are looking for something that will be more comfortable to climb with.
2. Mountain Equipment Tupilak 37 – $285 USD
The Tupilak is a superb example of doing things differently — but doing them right. There’s not a single ‘normal-style’ plastic buckle anywhere on it, replaced instead by unique, but highly functional, metal tabs. These are used in two different ways, for main closure and compression/lash straps, but work equally well in either configuration. Similarly, the hip belt is not removable but is mostly strippable so that it does slim down enough to stay out of the way when climbing. Even the floating inside pocket has two access options, and the tool attachment, though not the best, is solid and easily user-fixable. This is a pack that feels like every single detail was scrutinized several times over for ways to make it better. The only caveat I have is fit: the shoulder straps are quite wide apart and have a tendency to slip off my shoulders when wearing a hardshell, but that is literally the only complaint I can think of. At $285 USD it’s a an expensive piece of kit but thankfully the performance is there to back it up.
If I could only have one…
1. Hyperlite Mountain Gear 2400 Ice Pack – $325 USD
There is only one issue I have with the Ice Pack: if I tilt my head way back when climbing, the back of my helmet hits the top of the pack. That’s it. I cannot think of any other qualms I have with the HMG. It’s comfortable, easy to pack, has a great tool attachment system, it’s stupidly durable, the closure and attachment straps are incredibly versatile: I just simply love it. I do, sometimes, wish that it was a different colour but I’m ok with the white: it makes packing easy, and I know that this fabric is incredibly hard, if not near impossible, to dye. $325 USD is a lot of money for one pack but if I had to pick just one pack to have, this would be it. Outstanding.