When the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Prism Pack arrived I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing: a tool attachment system so specific that it is, through its very design, simultaneously the pack’s best and worst feature. It is, undeniably, excellent, and wonderfully minimalist — as long as you’re using Grivel ice tools. The shape of the bottom tool head/pick pocket is such that it is incredibly secure when using tools that fit its shape (that would be Grivel tools) but when Petzl and Cassin tools are slotted in, neither feels as secure. The minimalist design omits the shaft strap or head tab commonly found on similar designs, so you can’t secure them using another means. Add in that the upper handle attachment is stretch cord, and you end up with tools that feel insecure and seem at constant risk of falling out while bushwhacking (though it hasn’t happened to me, yet, but I have had the head of my Petzl Ergonomics slip out of the head slot). It’s frustrating to say the least, especially because the simple system used on HMG’s Ice Pack works flawlessly with any brand or shape of tool.
While the tool attachment is, in my eyes, the biggest failing of the Prism Pack, the design of the top lid is another step backwards from the Ice Pack. I absolutely love the Ice Pack and how versatile the design is: roll-top or just-close-it; side-straps or top-straps, or a combination thereof; expanded or compressed — the Ice Pack can be configured in so many ways that it never feels like the pack directs your packing choices. Not so with the Prism: the top lid is attached via both a Velcro strip and four aluminum buckles, but if you need to extend the lid the Velcro has to give way, and if you want to really cinch it down, the buckles tend to come loose. Going from a top strap design that has been (pretty much directly) copied by a major brand (ahem, Patagonia on the Ascensionist 55) to something that is awkward at best and frustrating most of the time is not progress. I hate to see brands ‘innovate’ or ‘change’ for the sake of making something new and different (talking about you, Arc’teryx, and those infuriating tool attachments on the Alpha AR packs) instead of sticking with the tried and tested.
But, this is meant to be a comparison (of sorts) so let’s bring in the other contender(s), the Mountain Hardwear Alpine Light 35. First, a little bit of background: if you’ve been following this site for a while then you probably know most equipment I write about has been sent by the brand/manufacturer for testing and review. It is no different with the MH AL 35 — I received a sample back in Fall 2020. But, shortly after the pack arrived a surprising thing happened: my girlfriend, who’s a one-pack-for-all-seasons kind of person (I know, I don’t know why we’re still together, either), fell in love with the Alpine Light 35. She basically stole my pack, but kept complaining that it was too long for her torso (I had gotten the M/L size). Then we (aka I) did the near-unthinkable: I bought another Alpine Light 35 in a S/M torso for her, and purchased a 50L version in M/L for myself. For reference, the last time I bought a pack, let alone two packs (for reasons other than switching around colours) was 2013. So the short answer is, yes, the Alpine Light packs are phenomenal. We have three of the things! (Fall 2021 update: it appears the MH has updated the AL packs, I don’t have any – yet – but I’ll update the below write-up based on changes visible in marketing images.)
So will this be an actual comparison, given we (I) clearly like the MH Alpine Light packs? I’d like to think so, if you follow my thought process: both packs (AL 35 and Prism) arrived around the same time, and both have been used regularly since then. Do I have a clear preference? Yes. Does that mean the runner up is a bad choice? No. But, given the already stated shortcomings of the Prism, I think it’s worthwhile to bring in the other HMG pack, too, the 2400 Ice Pack, to give the Alpine Light some extra competition.
Here goes… as I’m attempting to (objectively) compare these three packs I’m going to go ahead and start ranking them within each category (where it makes sense to, anyway). Let’s see how this plays out: I tend to write these articles without too much fore-thought so I’m not too sure what my conclusions will be until I finish writing this!
Ice Tool Attachment
1. HMG 2400 Ice Pack — the best, and by far. The pick/head attachment is one of the best I’ve ever come across, and though not quite as versatile as the simple tab-through-hole systems (exemplary design of this style on the Arc’teryx Alpha FL packs), the two large, and separate, sleeves with individual straps will securely hold down any kind of tool head shape and pick combination. The large sleeves also accommodate picks and attachments of any shape and size — they even fit my absurdly large and stupidly sharp Krukonogi competition tools without issue or obvious damage to the head sleeves.
The original handle attachment was of the bungee-cord and cinch-tether variety (see the Prism pack) which while versatile and easy to use just didn’t have the stability I wanted — so I replaced them with a Velcro strap thingy from an old Arc’teryx pack. Obviously not a necessary mod, but as a nod to the Ice Pack’s versatility, the Velcro straps readily mounted to one of the many webbing lash points on the front of the pack. I’d say this is an 11/10 on the tool attachment system scale, especially the head/pick attachment. Without my Velcro-strap modification I’d still give it a 10/10 as you could use the side compression straps to lash down the shafts instead of the bungee toggles.
2. MH AL 35 — good but not great. The pick/head attachment on this pack is so close to being great but, as I see it, two things went sideways: the athlete(s) who helped develop this pack use BD tools and/or modern technical tools (aka Petzl Nomic, Cassin X-Dream) were ignored in favour of general alpine axes (Petzl Quark, BD Cobra). Why do I say this? Two reasons: the pick/head sleeves/slots are sewn in very close to the body and a such do not allow extra room for a thicker tool/pick weight combination. They also do not fit aggressive tools very well, and the single strap isn’t long enough or positioned properly to securely attach these more curved tools.
The handle attachment is of the same variety as that originally found on the HMG Ice Pack but instead of being stretch cord appears to be some kind of very thin Dyneema cord, however the functionality is the same: pass under/over the handle, cinch it tight with the plastic grabby thing. It works well and and because it doesn’t stretch I haven’t felt the need to replace it (I often lift my packs by my ice tools, so perhaps this is where my aversion to stretchy tool attachments comes from). Overall, this is around 8/10: it works well, but the head/pick slots could be improved. (The Alpine Light’s tool system has been updated for Fall 2021 with a single pick strap and dual hole tabs. I will get a hold of a pack and update this as soon as I can.)
3. HMG Prism — great with Grivel tools, not so great with others. It fits (modern) Grivel tools well, but doesn’t play nice with Petzl or Cassin tools, especially with pick weights on. Actually has an old-school webbing loop for a mountaineering axe because those won’t stay securely fastened otherwise (I’ve tried).
The handle attachment is the same bungee cord scenario as that originally found on the Ice Packs. It’s great, my only complaint being that it stretches and I’d rather have something that’s more solid. This is what was on the Ice Pack and I replaced it with that Velcro strap thingy. Honestly, this is personal preference and the handle attachment system included with the Prism pack works great. I’d give this about a 4/10 due to insufficient security of the head/pick when using Petzl or Cassin tools. Make it a 9/10 if you climb with modern Grivel tools.
1. MH AL 35 — supremely comfortable. The back panel of the Alpine Light packs is pre-curved and shaped in such a way that it feels more like wearing a vest than carrying a pack. I’ve actually had friends refuse to try these packs on because they just look so damn comfortable (which they are) and they don’t want the temptation of buying a $400 pack. I wish I understood just what makes these packs so comfortable. Is it the back panel curvature? The shape of the straps? A combination thereof? Some Dyneema magic? I honestly don’t know because the components don’t look like anything special but both Veronica and I think these are the most comfortable packs we’ve ever used.
The backpanel of the AL is made of a single pre-curved aluminum stay that runs along the outside perimeter, and a thin foam panel. Both of these are removable, as is the webbing hip belt.
2/3. HMG — amazing, but not quite the MH. It’s hard to quantify what makes the MH pack more comfortable than the HMG. All the packs have similarly minimalist construction with rather simple shoulder straps and minimally padded back panels, and relatively simple waist belts all around. Both the HMG packs appear to have the exact same back and strap construction so I’m clumping them together. The HMG Ice Pack was one of the most comfortable packs I have used until the Alpine Light showed up. This isn’t really a loss for the HMG, rather a runaway win for MH.
Both packs have a lightly padded backpanel with removable hipbelts. The Ice Pack has dual removable aluminum stays, while the Prism has just one running down the centre.
All these packs are in the 40 litre range, and feel true to size. The Ice Pack feels the biggest and most capacious thanks to its tall collar, whereas the AL feels the smallest and is the most constrictive to pack. The Prism falls somewhere in between the two, with a decent-sized expansion collar but the top lid is small and awkward to pack, and I pretty much never use the external crampon pocket.
1. HMG Ice Pack — the most spacious and easiest to pack, mostly because it’s just one big space. The roll-top collar can be used either as a roll-top, though this uses a lot of fabric and reduces capacity a bit, or it can be cinched down to the side, which I find easier to accomplish, and lets me stuff more gear inside.
2. HMG Prism — even with the top lid removed, the Prism feels more spacious than the Alpine Light. I also find the more traditional-styled drawstring collar/top-closure easier to overstuff and cinch closed than the Alpine Light’s semi-lid-less design.
3. MH AL 35 — the stated capacity of the AL is 35L as compared to the HMG packs’ 40L and it does feel a little bit smaller. It also doesn’t have an expansion collar so if you overstuff it the top can be hard to cinch closed, especially as the plastic toggle doesn’t have enough strength and friction to keep the collar closed tight.
Pockets and Straps and Stuff
This is going to be a three-way tie as each pack has some unique features that the others don’t. I wish there was a pack that incorporates all these different features, but that will have to wait until I get around to designing a fully custom pack (at which point I will have John from Alpine Luddites build it).
The HMG Ice Pack has one of the best strap systems I’ve seen on a pack. The top strap is a three-point configuration with two buckles so that it can be unstrapped and cinched down from two different points. The three-way strap also holds down a rope more securely than just a single strap. If you’re closing the pack down as a roll-top and using the top strap to keep it secured, the two side-cinch straps can be used as an additional strap across the front of the pack. These side straps are also removable to really configure the pack as you want to use it.
There is also a fixed bungee cord on the front which can be used to secure crampons or a jacket or other random items. Due to the way this bungee is looped and attached, it isn’t removable, but I also haven’t felt the need to cut it off. I do like that it is more versatile than the crampon pocket on the Prism. Both the Ice Pack and the Prism have large and very usable daisy chains on the front.
The Prism swaps the Ice Pack’s awesome three-way top strap for a less-usable but much simpler single strap. I feel this is a step backwards, but what is a change in the right direction is the ability to use the side-compression straps as straps across the front of the pack, thanks to opposing buckles. Such a small design change that results in an awesome and infinitely useful feature.
The crampon pouch on the front is sizeable and made from the same fabric as the rest of the pack so should be plenty durable. It has a single strap near the top, presumably for lashing down crampons, or preventing smaller items from falling out. What I’d really like to see is a pair of these straps across the front, ideally with some kind of hook attachment on one side for easier lashing. There are also two fairly shallow and low-profile pockets on each side of the pack, perfect for wands or the tips of trekking poles.
One of the best features of the Alpine Light packs is that they are self-standing. Set it down on the ground, even partly loaded, and instead of falling over the AL pack just sits there, ready to be packed/unpacked and keeping the backpanel and straps off the ground. Plus it’s really easy to find stuff inside when you’re not struggling to keep a loaded pack from falling over. (Of course, this assumes you set the pack down on relatively flat and even ground.) There’s an extra-long top strap with two webbing loops for the hook attachment: one at the top of the backpanel for strapping down a rope, the other at the lip of the ‘lid’ to cinch the whole thing down. I’d like to see two buckles on this strap so I could cinch down the lid, and strap down a rope at the same time.
The AL also has one of the most innovative methods of attaching accessory straps — it uses, well, more straps. There’s a small daisy chain across the front with very tightly-sewn loops. The lashing strap is simply bar-tacked on the ends so it creates a little wedge of fabric that catches on the daisy chain webbing: simple, effective, light. Absolutely ingenious. (I wonder if MH has a patent on this? If not, I want to see every manufacturer adopt this method.) The waist belt is attached in the same way: bar tacks and a tight webbing loop make for an easily removable but very solid connection without any plastic parts to snap or break.
Finally, the AL’s party trick are two zippered pockets along the top sides of the pack. These are so low-profile as to be almost unnoticeable — Veronica had already used the pack a few times and didn’t realize these pockets existed. They are, oddly, not quite the same size: the left one will fit a 1L Nalgene, while the right one is a couple centimetres too shallow. (The left one is about 27cm deep, the right one 22cm.) What an odd decision to make two seemingly-identical pockets be slightly different sizes (I checked and it’s the same way on our other 35, as well as on the 50, so I presume this is a deliberate design decision).
The AL also has a removable pouch inside, that’s spacious enough for two 1L Nalgenes and has two straps for clipping to a harness, etc.
Weight & Price
HMG 2400 Ice Pack – $325 USD / $405 CAD (converted, Oct 2021)
Complete pack sz L: 1005 grams
Ice tool velcro bits: 16g
Side straps: 14g each
Stays: 58g each
Hipbelt w/pockets sz L: 182g
Stripped weight, ie. without hipbelt or stays: 707g
HMG Prism – $395 USD / $490 CAD (converted, Oct 2021)
Complete pack sz M: 978g
Top lid: 114g
Hipbelt w/gear loops sz M: 148
Stripped weight, ie. without hipbelt, top lid or stay: 660g
MH Alpine Light 35 – $330 USD / $400 CAD (Fall 2021: $275 USD / $360 CAD)
Complete pack, sz M/L: 788g
Inside pocket: 34g
Foam back panel: 76g
Stripped weight, ie. without hipbelt, pocket, frame & back panel: 546g
Yes, if you’re buying these packs in Canada, the Alpine Light is cheaper than the HMG packs simply due to the fact that it’s available from Mountain Hardwear’s Canadian website and you’re not paying current exchange rates. And the MH is lightest, but as stated above, not quite as capacious as the HMG packs.
1/2. HMG packs — I’ve had the Ice Pack for years, and as you can probably tell from the photos it has long ago lost its bright white outer sheen. Through all that time, there hasn’t been a single creak or strain of protest from the seams: this is first-rate construction. The fabric has remained as weather-resistant as the first day I got it, and I haven’t even managed to put a hole in it. The Prism has the exact same construction and uses the same materials, so I’m expecting nothing less. None of the other components have ever given me any issues, so I’m giving the HMG packs a full 10/10 score for durability and reliability.
3. AL 35 — the fabrics of the MH pack leave nothing to be desired: full 150-denier Dyneema body with a reinforced front panel and bottom makes for a very robust pack. Other than some dirt spots, hard to avoid as the whole pack is white, we haven’t noticed any holes or abrasion marks on any of the three packs. For all appearances it seems very robust and gives me no reason to question its long-term robustness. I have managed to break the little plastic toggle on the collar, though it still functions, it just doesn’t have the easy-grab-to-open functionality anymore. As this is a relatively unproven pack I’m going to give it an 8/10 solely because I don’t have any previous history or experience with MH packs.
We have three Alpine Light packs, and we bought two of them. If that isn’t endorsement enough, I don’t know what is. The Mountain Hardwear pack is by far the most comfortable alpine pack I’ve ever used, and has some of the most innovative features I’ve come across. The tool attachment is good but could be improved, and the top closure is not as versatile as it could be. But even with these shortcomings this is overall one of the best packs I’ve ever used. It’s not exactly inexpensive but every time I load it up and throw it on my back, the price just doesn’t seem to matter. However, I find the 35 just a bit small for my preference: I like putting all my stuff inside the pack, and the AL 35 is just a little bit too small to fit all my regular gear and a rope and crampons inside. This is the main reason I bought the 50-litre version — the packs are almost identical in terms of design, the 50L just fits more stuff inside. If you don’t mind strapping the rope and crampons to the outside of your pack, the 35 is the more versatile choice as it’s more comfortable to climb with and compresses better when not fully packed.
Of the two HMG packs, I still prefer the Ice Pack. It has the superior tool attachment system, I prefer the roll-top closure, really love the versatile straps and, in my opinion it is just a better all-around and more versatile pack than the Prism. Still one of my absolute favourite packs with some standout design features and if it weren’t for how absurdly comfortable the MH is, the Ice Pack would have taken top honours in this comparison.
I love some of the features of the Prism, and some are definite improvements over the Ice Pack, but the tool attachment really lets me down, and I just can’t come to grips with the top lid. It might be the newer design but in most areas I don’t think it’s a step forward. Buy the 2400 Ice Pack, and with the cash you save, buy the Prism Ice Screw case — it’s expensive, but very highly recommend (review coming soon!).
Thanks to Hyperlite Mountain Gear for sending a Prism for testing, to Mountain Hardwear for the AL 35, and to Anton for lending me his Grivel tools for the photos.