Review: Arc’teryx Rescue Pack 50

It’s big, it’s red, it has that ‘old-school’ gridded-fabric look, and other than a small Arc’teryx logo on the lid, the pack has no identifying features. Internally, its product designation is 23735, but on the website you’ll find it listed as ‘Rescue Pack 50,’ hidden away under the Arc’teryx Professional Program. It is also quite possibly the best and most comfortable pack I’ve ever used, and yes that includes the few very generously padded 100L packs out there that I’ve tried.

It’s fantastic, but it is not a 50-litre pack…

That very comfortable suspension is based around the grid-lock style as found on the (now discontinued) Bora backpacking series of packs. This design allows for individual height and width spacing of the shoulder straps with moulded plastic hooks snapping into a ‘grid’ of sorts. Velcro strips along the bottom of the straps keep them in place. The well-padded pre-curved hipbelt and a solid internal frame, utilizing a heavy-duty backpanel and two very robust aluminum stays, help the Rescue Pack shrug off 70-lb loads without a creak.

The shoulder straps are contoured and padded all the way down the back, sitting very comfortably on my shoulders and upper back. Load-lifter straps help secure and pull the load close to your body while side-tensioner straps on the hipbelt adjust side-to-side sway. It’s basically an all-out backpacking/mountaineering suspension system to which a relatively stripped-down pack is attached.

One of the biggest grab-handles I’ve ever seen!

The entire pack body is made of Arc’teryx’s proprietary N315r-LCP, which is the same stuff as found on the Alpha AR series of packs. Translated from Arc’teryx-speak, that is Nylon, 315-denier, ripstop, with Liquid Crystal Polymer grid reinforcements. It’s a heavy-duty fabric and one that I’ve found puts up very well with typical mountain abuse. I have yet to damage either my Alpha AR 20 or 55, though the Rescue Pack has probably seen more abuse: tossed on the side of railroad tracks, rolled around in the backs of pickups, hauled up cranes, thrown into boats. All without a scratch.

Currently the pack comes in only one colour, red, which suits me fine: it’s not too bright but is clearly distinguishable in low-visibility conditions.

Design-wise, this is an interesting pack. Primary access is via a drawcord-closed top-opening, similar to most other alpine packs. However, this main compartment can also be accessed through a large right-side (as you’re wearing the pack) dual-slider zipper, or through the full-size zip-open panel found underneath/within the front-accessed zip-open compartment. This front-accessed panel zips open completely via two full-length zippers, then the panel underneath zips open via a full-length U-zip. Inside the first level of zippers are dual sleeves, suitable for a shovel handle or avalanche probe, two full-length daisy chains and a large central Velcro patch for easy attachment of so-outfitted pouches (typically used for medical care equipment and supplies).

Inside, unlike most alpine packs, there are no additional ‘security’ pockets or even a water-bladder sleeve. It is just one large bag, albeit one that is very easy to access and see all the contents thanks to that large zip-open front flap. On top of the main drawstring closure is a single strap that cinches the front panel closed. I find this strap to be a bit too short: when the pack is fully loaded, it just barely reaches the attachment loop. I’d like to see either a longer strap, or some means of extending it so I could more easily strap down a rope (or two).

The top lid, however, is one of the best designed I have come across. On the underside is a zippered compartment, sized just-right for a map (of the old-school variety that comes on paper and folds up). On the top of the top lid are two zippered pockets, each protected by Arc’teryx’s WaterTight zippers. This doesn’t really make sense, however, as the fabric is not even close to being fully waterproof (as a three-hour hike in rain/wet snow proved when all the pack contents got soaked). The two lid pockets are large and similarly-sized, though the outer pocket is a bit larger. Either one easily fits a 1L Nalgene, and either is wide enough for a 1.5L bottle, however neither will fit two 1L Nalgenes side-by-side. Thanks to the zipper positioning at the top of the pack, either pocket is easily accessible when the pack is fully loaded.

The pack itself is huge, and nowhere close to being a 50L — fully loaded, it dwarfs the Alpha AR 55. I would estimate it closer to a 70L fully stuffed, though it doesn’t have the typical dual-drawstring closures of alpine packs to extend capacity. That said, even with the collar fully extended, the Alpha AR 55 is less capacious than the Rescue Pack ’50.’

The Rescue Pack “50” dwarfs the Alpha AR “55”. I loaded both packs to top-drawcord cinch-level.

While I really appreciate the overbuilt nature of the Rescue Pack, and the robust build is in keeping with its intended heavy-duty professional use, there is a weight penalty — 2080 grams of it to be exact. Compare that with 1345 grams for a size-Regular Alpha AR 55 and it gives you an idea of how much more the robust suspension and all those zippers weigh. But, when you’ve got 70lbs of gear loaded into it and the pack still carries well and none of the stitching makes worrying squeaks, those extra grams seem well worth it.

Rescue Pack – 2080 g total
Top lid – 198 g
Aluminum stay (each) – 74 g
Accessory straps (each) – 18 g

Stripped weight – 1698 grams
Alpha AR 55 – 1345 g total
Top lid – 122 g
Aluminum stay – 52 g
Foam back panel – 52 g
Plastic framesheet – 258 g

Stripped weight – 861 grams

One of the standout features of this pack is the ice tool attachment system. Unlike the Alpha AR packs, there is no guesswork needed here to figure out how to attach your tools, be it a straight-shafted mountaineering axe or a curved technical ice tool. Underneath the large, dual-layer, pick sleeve are two aluminum tabs, identical to those found on the Alpha FL packs. Simply slot your tool into the pick sleeve — which, by the way, covers the whole pick to keep it from making holes in all your other expensive Arc’teryx gear — push the aluminum tab through the tool’s head, and pull the cinch cord tight through the small opening at the bottom of the sleeve. The shaft can be secured either via one of the side compression straps, or one of the two included front-mounted accessory straps. Or you can attach Velcro straps or bungee cords or whatever other means of shaft attachment you prefer to the daisy chain sewn along the pack’s front. Superb, and for the life of me I can’t figure out why this system isn’t present on other Arc’teryx packs (looking at you, Alpha ARs…)

The tuck-away cinch-cord for the tool tabs. Why doesn’t every pack have this?

Speaking of daisy chains, there is a large flat-webbing one straight down the front of the pack, and two additional cord-style ones along either side. The central daisy is your typical multi-purpose design, while the side daises work in conjunction with the two included accessory straps for lashing down extra gear. These straps, and the top strap, use Arc’teryx’s cord-grabber plastic tab, first seen on the Alpha AR, then the (redesigned) Alpha FL. I still have a love/hate relationship with this closure system, but I appreciate the versatile application of it on this pack. Notably, the lid strap and side compression straps all use the time-tested nylon squeeze-buckles instead of this cord-grabber tab.

There are also gear loops on the hipbelt, which function as expected, as well as what appear to be sled-pull tabs, though these are sewn in such a way that any load placed on them from behind the pack would stress the stitching, so I am ultimately not sure what these are meant for.

Note how the sled-pull tabs (not sure what else they’d be for) are stitched towards the front, instead of behind.)

In use, this is a standout pack. Since I got mine earlier this year, it has come along on multiple rescue courses from the West Coast of BC to the boreal forests of Northern Ontario. I’ve taken it drytooling, and have even managed the afore-mentioned three-day backpacking trip/hike into the Purcell Mountains in southern BC.

For my rescue courses, the pack typically gets loaded with two 11mm x 30m ropes (a primary and a safety line), a variety of industrial rescue equipment, my full-body harness, a few pairs of gloves, water bottles, snacks, extra layers (typically a lightly-insulated mid-layer and a softshell or Gore-Tex jacket) and some other odds and ends. This stuff adds up quickly and often weighs in the 60-75lb range. The pack has so far never made a sound of protest and I am incredibly impressed with the construction, given the amount of abuse and rough handling the pack sees (not to mention all the air travel it has been through). The dual-slider side-zipper makes gear easy to access but the one downside of the front-opening panel is that the back and straps sit in the dirt — and industrial sites are rarely clean. In an industrial application, I’d like to see some kind of zip-on cover for the shoulder straps and hip belt.

Yeah, this thing tends to overflow a bit when completely stuffed with rope rescue gear.

Of course, where the pack really shines is in the mountains. Away from concrete dust and various industrial solvents and greases, I’m not as concerned about dumping it on the ground to access the front panel. Should you need to quickly access snow safety equipment, the two front panel zippers make getting at a shovel and probe quick and simple. The large dual-slider side-zipper makes it easy to get at pack contents buried deep inside. The large pockets in the lid stow water, snacks, gloves, and, in my case, lots of extra toques, for quick on-the-go access without opening the rest of the pack. The under-lid pocket stows my wallet and keys. The versatile daisy chains make short work of strapping on extra gear. Ice tool picks are covered and secured so I’m not worried about making holes in other gear. In the outdoors, it is, in my eyes, without fault.

The Arc’teryx Professional Program is, as you might guess by its name, intended for professionals in the fields of mountain rescue, snow safety, guiding, and various other industries associated with these activities. My position as a Rope Rescue Instructor qualified me for the program, which is how I managed to get a hold of this pack. I am honestly not sure how else you might get one as these appear to be sold exclusively on the Arc’teryx website. Check out the Pro Program details here to see if you might qualify.

At $675 Canadian / $450 USD this is one of the most expensive packs I’ve ever used, and by far the costliest one I’ve bought. (Compare that with $250 Canadian / $200 USD for an Alpha AR 55). However, examine the components in more detail, and consider that the last series of Bora backpacking packs retailed for even more (the Bora 63 at $549 USD), and given its versatility and robust construction (and intended audience) the Rescue Pack’s asking price doesn’t seem all that outlandish (especially as most professionals can expense the cost of their work equipment).

This is my go-to pack for bringing along my work rescue kit. Obviously, it is not the lightest pack out there, and the suspension and overall design are not meant for climbing use, but I would not hesitate to use this as my load-hauling pack for mountaineering trips. It’s definitely going to be my multi-day backpacking pack. And it’s quickly become my go-to pack for shoulder-season climbing (aka drytooling) and I suspect I’ll continue to use it for winter cragging. I am seriously considering buying another one — or two — just in case Arc’teryx decide to discontinue or change it. Absolutely love it.

Further, I’d love to see Arc’teryx take some of the design cues from this pack and incorporate them into the next-generation of Alpha AR packs. I’d love to see the Rescue Pack’s tool attachment propagate across other Arc’teryx packs. The side-zip of the AR 55 is great, but having dual sliders on it would be even better. The Rescue Pack’s top lid is a masterpiece of useful design. And I really appreciate the mixed-use of buckles, keeping with the more tested-and-true squeeze buckles for the main closures, while utilizing the newer, lighter and, arguably, more versatile, cord-loop style for accessories.

Addendum: Why I hate the Alpha AR tool attachment system. It’s frustrating, hard to figure out, harder to use. It is a step backwards from the Alpha FL packs. The Rescue Pack seems to be an evolution of the two. I modified my AR 55 to a head-tab version by stripping some attachments off of another pack (there are benefits to having a couple of dozen packs in the closet). Not perfect, but much better than what comes on the AR 55. Still prefer the Rescue Pack solution.

%d bloggers like this: