ARTICLE: Packs for Winter Climbing – a CGR UK Buyer’s Guide

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Imagine that you could winter climb in complete freedom, always have complete vision of the way ahead, easily find and deploy gear and feel as free as if you were sport climbing in Spain…

For most of us the reality is somewhat different, slings get stuck, we fumble to find the exact piece of gear, stuff is swaying around our necks and getting in the way. The culprit? Quite often it’s your pack, there’s no denying that a pack can be a real pain when winter climbing, gloves, gear and the need for survival kit all impact on type of pack you need and how well you can be climbing. Kev prefers to climb with a tiny pack that he carries in his normal pack, with the second carrying it. I prefer a midsized, streamlined pack that compresses flat, it keeps my back warmer.

Hopefully by the end of the following guide, you will be better informed about what to look for and we will also offer some packs to make your research more informed.

Importantly, I would remind you of the maxim – ‘buy in haste, repent at leisure’. Your pack should perform in all the winter sports you engage in from climbing to winter walking. It’s definitely worth going to a specialist retailer and trying on many different packs. Take your climbing kit and clothing with you and load the pack with it; if not then use the shops stuff, they should have plenty!

Do not try it on empty or just full of clothing, the pack will not perform in the same way. And whatever you do, do not compromise just because a pack is on sale, if it’s not the perfect pack for you, have a rethink. I can’t tell you how many poorly performing packs I’ve bought just because they’re cheaper than the one I want and I want one now!

Choose your pack wisely and it will perform for all your winter activities.

Back Size

Firstly, let’s look at what you would look for in more detail: firstly and most importantly the pack will have to fit your back size, I’ve bought and reviewed many packs. Many manufacturers will offer technical packs in 2 or three back sizes, as well as women’s versions. You really should read the fitting guide (if there is one) and pay close attention to how far up your back it fits, too high and you’ll be putting too much load onto your shoulders, too low and the pack will move around and begin to rub your shoulders. So how the pack fit’s your back is crucial, the pack should sit neatly into your lumbar hollow and the weight be evenly distributed between the shoulders and hips. It should also feel ‘wrapped’ around you.

Back Support System

The back support system is another important feature, if a pack has one it should be removable. You may want that extra support for a multiday expedition, but for a day on the mountain it’s not worth the weight, an HDPE insert should be sufficient. If the support isn’t removable, check it doesn’t raise the pack too high. Wear a helmet and look up a lot with you arms raised, if the helmet is being tilted forward obstructing your view, it’s too high. Next look at the straps, they should have sufficient padding but not an excessive amount or the straps will roll over when you try to put the pack on again. Remember you are only carrying weight in it for short periods of your day and not backpacking!

A good sternum strap can take a lot of load off your shoulders.

Sternum Straps

A good, strong sternum strap is also helpful – the sternum strap helps to ease the load off the shoulders. It should be adjustable up and down and most modern ones come with a whistle. One neat little feature I look for on the sternum strap is the ability to secure my watch to it. I often climb with my watch on the strap otherwise it’s difficult to see under gloves.

Hip belts are very important and ice clipper slots allow a flexible way to carry extra kit.
Hip Belt
The hip belt is more important than you think, you definitely don’t want any major padding and it should be removable or have space to tuck away. At a push you can clip the belt around the back of the pack but this isn’t ideal, as it can catch when you are chimneying. Some belts have gear loops on them, this is fine if you’re crossing a glacier or ski touring, but can be a nuisance when technical climbing as it can interfere with your normal racking, ice clipper slots are better.

What Size Should I Go For?

The pack size is also a significant issue. If you are a beginner you may feel 45L is plenty, intermediate climbers should be OK with 40L and elite climbers could get away with 35L. Why? Well the elite climbers will have been climbing longer, will be fitter and will finish their day much earlier than a beginner. They will also know their limits and what they can get away without using and willing to take that risk.

The Lid

The lid is an often overlooked part of a pack, ideally it wants to be removable so that you can lighten and streamline the pack, it should also have a well sized pocket for several pairs of gloves, some food, a strong key clipper and oversized zip pulls. If the lid isn’t removable then it can always be tucked into the main body and the pack cinched up, this will streamline the pack. I often walk into the CIC Hut with the pack loaded, then strip it for the days that I’m climbing.

Kev showing why a duffle bag is no substitute for a quality winter pack, oh how we laughed! Walking into The CIC Hut to enjoy the awesome conditions on Ben Nevis, April 2010
Other Straps and Features
Lastly straps, anyone who’s been in a raging gale on the top of The Ben will testify how lethal loose straps can become, once you’ve been whipped in the face for 2 hours you’ll be reaching for the knife! Look for innovative ways of reducing waste strapping, it will be the sign of other well thought out features. Compression straps and haul loop should be easy to locate and operate. Buckles should also be very strong but minimal in design. Then there’s axe security, sleeve or loop? Either way it needs to be beefy as do the elastic lashes as you don’t want to lose your £450 axes on the walk in. Oh, and call me old school, but I do like wand pockets, so that I can stow the poles for my tired old legs!

So, a lot to think about and try out, the following packs are some we feel fit the bill for a winter’s day out.

We’ve taken six of the major players and asked them what packs in this seasons range would be ideal for winter climbers.

Lowe Alpine Mountain Attack Pro 35+10L

Lowe Alpine Mountain Attack Pro

A durable, no-nonsense pack designed for alpine climbing, ski mountaineering and general mountain use. The alloy Load Locker buckle is designed to be tough and lightweight, easy to use with mitts and gloves, while the Web Catcher system on the side offers 2 positions for carrying skis – upright or raked forward.

Osprey Mutant 38L

Osprey Mutant 38

A clean, lightweight and highly functional pack for all aspects of mountain use. It has a stowable hip-belt with racking system for quick and easy access to gear, an easy insert/remove bivi pad, and removable floating lid with spindrift collar. With a stripped weight of 0.95kg, the Mutant is a highly versatile and lightweight climbing pack. Target User – Year round Rock and Alpine Climbers looking for simple lightweight, minimalist design that uses modern tough construction and has useful climbing specific features.

Haglofs Roc Ice

Haglofs Roc Ice

Roc Ice is a winter pack ideal for mountaineering and ice climbing. It is large enough to hold extra equipment required for winter climbing and ice axes and crampons can be stowed easily accessible on the outside of the pack.

Features – Thermoformed back pad, removable hip belt, expandable crampon pouch on front panel, ice axe attatchment, floating/detachable lid with water repellent zip opening, double pockets and key holder, rope carrying under lid.

  • RRP for the Haglofs Roc Ice is £110

Arc’teryx Cierzo 35

Arc’teryx Cierzo 35

Designed as a lightweight summit pack, the Cierzo 35 is a highly packable bag that compresses small and stores in its own lid. Compact and nearly weightless, this pack is ideal as a secondary pack on alpine expeditions, backcountry treks, or kayaking adventures.   Technical Features: lightweight (580g), highly compressible, removable foam back pad, removable sternum strap, ultra-light shoulder straps, stows in top lid, removable front compression sling with four straps, one removable ice axe keeper, two ice axe loops.

  • RRP for the Arc’teryx Cierzo 35 is  £70.00

The North Face Spire 40L

TNF Spire 40

A removable 6061 custom-extended aluminium stay; very light, yet burly automobile airbag fabric; welded abrasion-resistant fabric reinforcements; padded, removable, tuckable hipbelt; Reinforced three-point haul loops; Moulded E-VAP back panel; zippered front side stash pocket; beefy elastic ice axe lash points; reinforced side ski loops for A-frame carry; reinforced tool loops on hipbelt.

  • RRP for The North Face Spire 40L is £109.00

Black Diamond Sphynx 32L

Black Diamond Sphynx 32

A ready-for-anything top-loader with a low-profile design and clean lines, the Sphynx has plenty of room for your winter mountain gear yet is versatile enough for all-season use. It has: a removable 20 mm aluminum stay and framesheet; dual-density shoulder straps and hipbelt; top-load access; ice tool PickPockets™; ice clipper slots;  crampon patch and 3-point haul system; side compression straps and ski slots and is hydration compatible.

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