How To Choose the Right Backpack for Mont Blanc and Other Alpine Trips
by: Anna SzlaviCategory: Mountaineering, Mountaineering Equipment
For many mountaineers, picking the right backpack poses a dilemma as serious as picking the right partner.
It is no surprise of course. Your journey together can be both life-changing and disastrous. And you’ll remember it forever…
(And for sure you will remember if you left something relevant out of your pack. Don’t let that happen! Here’s an equipment checklist for you that you can download in pdf and print.)
I clearly remember my first real alpine backpack. I got it from my folks when I was 12. This blue-black-green backpack of 50L was bought in a Tesco nearby. I can recall the brand as well: Adventure -- Let's Go Ahead!
I loved it a lot because it was cozy and I could fit everything in it. Made of durable fabric and equipped with side pockets, this backpack was high-tech heaven at that time, at least compared to the pack I found in the basement back from the 70s.
But then, I remember, after a couple of trips in the Alps, I started to notice its shortcomings. It was rubbing against my skin here; it was tearing apart there; finally it completely wore out, becoming useless. I was sad of course but I needed to move on.
With all those lessons at hand, I started to make more conscious choices regarding my backpacks. Many years have passed since then and I have tried a good number of backpacks. Now I am very selective; the right pack has to meet a bunch of serious and systematic criteria to come home with me.
Jim Kille, Jr, from Jersey
If you are a beginner, it is crucial that you give this post a thorough read. If you are an advanced mountain dude, you can still find useful tips here, so read on.
In this post we will cover the main characteristics and the optimal size of your ideal backpack. In addition, you will get tips about what to watch out for to avoid the most frequent mistakes climbers make.
These Are the Main Features of The Ideal Backpack:
- 30-45L Volume
If you are preparing for a 1-5-day climb in the Alps, spending the nights in refuge houses, this volume should be well enough for your gear. Taking a bigger pack can easily tempt you to carry a bunch of stuff you don’t really need, which will only exhaust you and jeopardize your success.
In refuge houses and huts, at least in the Alps, you can count on being able to buy food and refill your bottles; hence, you don’t need to carry a good deal of food and drinks with you. Note, however, that out of season this may change.
- Comfortable Back System, Chest and Waist Straps
It doesn’t call for extensive explanation why it is crucial that your backpack has a comfortable back system.
The function of the waist strap is to distribute weight so it doesn’t fall entirely on your shoulders. With a proper waist strap, you won’t even notice that you are carrying 10-15 kg on your back.
Chest straps serve to stabilize the pack and to prevent it from sliding off your shoulders. Don’t keep it too tight though, because you’ll have trouble breathing.
- Durable Straps for Gear
It is very practical to be able to strap your ice axe and trekking poles on your backpack. In addition, you’ll be pleased if you realize you can securely fix even your snowshoes, skis, ropes or crampons.
When you are carrying less gear, you can tighten your pack with the side straps.
It might change from model to model, but we recommend that your backpack be equipped with 2 straps on each side, along with an ice axe belt.
It is an extra if you have additional straps, on the front for example. Some models are suitable even for carrying skis and ropes. It is definitely not a must but if you want to have a backpack that can go with you on each of your trips, be sure to think about this feature as well.
- Straps Open Easily Even With Gloves On
It is highly impractical if you have to waste time, over and over again, with removing and putting on your gloves, every time you need to use your pack. Unfortunately, though, not all models are designed to fit this criterion.
- Hydration System
If your backpack has a Camelback system, you won’t need to remove your backpack for water; hence, you will drink more frequently. Note that it is better to take smaller sips several times during your trip than drinking a whole bottle at the end. If you keep sipping water, you won’t get dehydrated and probably will need (to drink, thus, carry) less altogether. A disadvantage, however, is that the tube can freeze, or it might drip. If it breaks, that’s especially awful. But, for its obvious benefits, nowadays a hydration system is almost always included. You can place the container in the upper part of the backpack to keep safe and comfy.
- 1-2 Pockets, Additional Strap on Hip Belt for Gear
You wouldn’t believe but it is an awfully big help if you don’t need to take off your pack every time you want to have a bite. If your hip belt is equipped with a pocket, you can store your energy bars or a pack of seeds there. You’ll see, they might occasionally feel like life-savers.
On the sides you can secure technical gear (such as carabiners or ice bolts), your sunglass case, gloves you are not using, or GPS, etc.
Note, however, that it is a good idea to keep as many things you can inside the pack, so you don’t get stuck.
- Thin and Tall Pack Body
You better avoid packs with huge pockets which are sticking out because they hinder your motion. Not only will it be easier for you to pass through narrow spaces with a thinner and taller pack but you will be able to maintain your balance better.
(Oh, BTW, we’ve prepared a complete equipment checklist for your Mont Blanc climb – just download and print.)
4 Additional Tips You Should Think About – But Many Don’t
1. It’s useful if the rain cover in included.
But don’t worry if it’s not, because you can get rain covers in most outdoor stores. Also, make no mistake: they are not 100% waterproof. Your backpack will get soaked in heavy rain. The question is only: when? But don’t worry, there’s a solution for this. Just read on.
2. It’s practical if you can reach the contents of your backpack from the sides as well not just from the top.
Some models are equipped with double zippers in the side pockets, which allow you to reach your stuff also from the sides.
3. It’s important that you choose a pack which is made of durable fabric.
Manufacturers are getting better and better at adding some durability to packs of light and thin fabric. But it is no doubt that the thick CORDURA fabric is just invincible. You will need to make a decision here yourself: whether to choose lightweight or extra durability.
4. It’s best if your backpack can be stuffed easily.
If you fly a lot, it is practical to choose a backpack with removable bracing. Note, however, that some models might have bracing that would impede placing larger or unfoldable items in them, which is not ideal.
It Won’t Be Easy But Try to Pack with the Following Questions in Mind:
How likely do you think you will need that given thing? At which part of the trip will you need it?
Items that you won’t use very often (extra batteries for your headlamp, first aid kit, extra layers, extra gloves, etc.) or things you will need only in the refuge (clothing, sleeping bag, tooth brush, tooth paste, etc.) can go to the bottom of your backpack.
Whatever you think you will need to reach soon, fast, or frequently should go to a part of the pack that you can access easily. Pockets or the top of the backpack are ideal. Of course it is hard to anticipate what you will actually need on this specific trip, because it depends a lot on the given circumstances such as the weather.
With practice, you will get better and better at foreseeing and packing. You will find out what works for you and what doesn’t, so you will lose less and less time with each trip. Actually, the most frequent mistake beginners make exactly inefficient packing, resulting in an everlasting search for all their things and mind-wrecking time-wasting in unpleasant circumstances.
Just a hint: you will most certainly want to eat on the way, so you will need energy bombs like protein bars to be accessible. (Are you interested in Do’s and Don’t’s of Mountain Nutrition? You’ll get some tips here.)
How heavy is the given item?
It is a good idea not to pack the heaviest items last. The farther they are from your waist / back, the more uncomfortable they will be.
The weight distribution of your backpack matters. Heavy items make your backpack, thus, you, more unstable. Balance is crucial for your success (and as a matter of fact, survival).
Have you separated and packed everything in plastic/waterproof bags?
Every mountaineer has this epiphany at some point of their life. It is the point when they pull out that sweater or that sleeping bag or that sandwich completely soaked and useless from their high-tech backpack. You will also realize that no backpack is truly 100% waterproof in drenching rain, so you’d better put all your stuff in plastic bags.
It is practical also because it is a nice way to separate and group your things. You’ll see that it’s a lot easier to find that raincoat, that candybar, or those gaiters.
Have you stuff everything in your bag? Do you still need to strap something on your body?
Like it was said before, it is better not to keep a lot of things hanging from your backpack. It simply makes you unstable and it is hard to reach all your other things inside the bag. Not to mention that your bakcpack also has a raincoat which just doesn’t fit if you have an extra pair of shoes hanging from it.
Another danger is that you don’t fix it properly and it might slips off. There’s no point in carrying extra sneakers just to lose them in the Caucasus (oh yeah, it really happened!).
It is a typical mistake that during breaks climbers unload on the ground / in the snow / on a rock. Why is it a mistake? Because you tend to get causal for which you might pay a high price.
It can happen that due to an unfortunate choice of the camp ground, your helmet, your water bottle, or your backpack just decides to slide down to the valley, or in unattentive moment your gloves or shell jackets get on wings to be gone with the wind.
What can you do to prevent this? You can make a hole big enough for your backpack in the snow. In other situations you can fix your stuff with straps or carabiners, to a via ferrata cable or a pole.
You can also attach some small items like gloves or helmets to your harness. What's important is never to leave them on the ground. Trust me, a lost pair of gloves -- or the lack of a helmet -- can ruin your dreams to summit.
Specific Types We Can Recommend to You
Your guides and climbing buddies are using these packs, so you can’t make a mistake choosing one of the following.
Classic and durable, this backpack is considered to be one of the most practical and versatile medium-size packs that’s on the market. The price is relatively high but it will accompany you on many many climbs. It’s an evergreen.
Simond Sprint 30
Few people know that the French brand, now connected to Decathlon, is one of the pioneers of modern alpine gear manufacturing. The products are tested in Chamonix and our French guides would put their lives on this brand, so even mountain snobs can trust this choice. Sprint 30 is a fairly versatile backpack for a friendly price and with awesome warranty.
Nicely designed, neat and thoroughly put together, this backpack will suit you wherever you go (rock-climbing, alpine climbing, via ferrata, ski touring). You can trust this pack, as it is both light and durable. Subjective as most evaluations are, Osprey’s models are usually considered to be the best backpacks in the world.
Some Further Models to Consider: TNF Cobra, TNF Shadow, Arcterix Alpha, Black Diamond Speed, Patagonia Ascensionist
Of course there are other very fine backpacks besides these. If you are uncertain about your choice or you want to ask for advice, feel free to leave a comment below.
…and, to save you some time, we’ve put together a complete equipment checklist for you for your Mont Blanc climb – just download and print.)
Oh, and we also recommend this handy buyer’s guide for hiking or climbing backpacks from the folks at The Hammock Expert.