Choosing a pack for any outdoor adventure

 Every outdoor sport—whether it's rock climbing, backcountry skiing, trail running or a day hike—requires a unique set of equipment, clothing, and supplies. Naturally, there are also unique packs for every outdoor activity, constructed with specialized technical features and nuanced design elements that allow you to carry all of your necessary gear efficiently. It can be hard to navigate the sea of packs available today in order to find the one that has the features you need, this guide will narrow the field and help you find the perfect pack for your favorite outdoor adventure!


Trips to the Bugaboos, Tetons, Patagonia, winter ascents in the Rockies

Alpine packs for climbing and mountaineering are unique, both for the specialized technical attributes that they feature, as well as the superfluous elements that they lack in order to trim unnecessary straps and pockets that could get in the way while climbing. Alpine packs have no-frills, cylinder shaped bodies without any organizational pockets or external points of entry. The packing idea behind an alpine pack is that everything goes inside the pack, so these packs won't have water bottle holders and mesh or stretchy mesh pockets on the outside. The only external lashing points on an alpine pack are specifically designed to safely hold sharp gear like technical ice tools and crampons. You can remove the waist belt, "brain" pocket and other features on many alpine climbing packs to reduce weight and bulk for ascents. Some Alpine packs are also water resistant or waterproof.

Features to look for in Alpine Climbing packs:

Attachment points for technical ice tools and an integrated or removable crampon holder:

close up tools

Removable top "brain" pocket:


Removable or stowable waist belt:


No external pockets, bottle holders or alternate points of entry into the body of the pack:

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Rope Carry strap or attachment system:


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Crag Climbing

Trips to the Gunks, Rumney, Joshua Tree, the Red River Gorge, Smith Rock

For climbing trips to a sport climbing area where an alpine pack is unnecessary, and where you will repeatedly pack-up your gear and rope in order to jump onto another route, a crag pack is a perfect way to carry everything you need. Like Alpine packs, crag bags are intended to carry everything inside and feature specific design elements for climbing, yet crag bag are usually even less technical. These packs have organizational features for carrying your rope and gear, but also carry your shoes, harness, chalk bag and some snacks. Many Crag bags also feature a design that allows you to access items in the bottom or middle of the pack easily—usually through a full-length external zipper, a lay-flat zip open construction, or zip open panels. Many crag packs also have a built-in tarp to keep your rope dry and out of the dirt.

If you are climbing with a group and each of you has a personal crag bag or alpine pack for your harness and gear, a simple rope bag is all that you need to carry your rope. Most rope bags, like crag bags have a built-in tarp to protect your rope that also allows you to roll the rope up and into the bag easily.

Features to look for in crag packs and rope bags:

Access points on the outside of the pack to make finding gear and unpacking easy:


Internal racking features, rope carry systems and organizational pockets:


Built-in rope tarp:


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Skiing and Snowboarding

Touring in the Western United States, New England, Alaska, or the Alps

Skiing and Snowboarding packs are similar to Alpine packs in that they have specialized feature-sets and construction without any unnecessary elements. Ski/Snowboard packs are streamlined so that they are easy to use when riding lifts, feature a system to carry your skis or board, and have a dedicated pocket for avalanche safety gear. On average, these packs allow you to bring along an extra layer, food and water, and an extra set of gloves. If you are primarily embarking on longer, multi-day tours, opt for a larger ski pack in the 30 to 50 liter range so that you can bring camping equipment and overnight gear. Some ski and snowboard packs also feature an avalanche safety device, like an airbag that can inflate to allow a skier to stay above the snow during a slide. If you are backcountry skiing out west or in an area with a high risk of avalanches, these packs could save your life.

Features to look for in Ski and Snowboard packs:

Diagonal and/or A-Frame Ski carry system:


Snowboard/Snowshoe carry system:


Dedicated pockets to hold a beacon, probe, and shovel:


Insulated hydration sleeve:


In high avalanche risk areas:



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Trips to the Adirondack High Peaks, The Green Mts., Yosemite, NOLS courses, thru-hiking

Backpacking and hiking is a broad category that covers anything from a hike up a small peak to a firetower in the Adirondacks to multi-day treks and extended backcountry excursions in national parks or on connected mountain ranges. However, the primary differences between hiking and backpacking packs are carrying capacity and the ability to carry heavier loads. Generally, the feature-sets of most backpacking and hiking packs are similar and it's easy to identify packs in this category. For day hikes, you only need to bring essential items. Water, food, a map, a waterproof shell, and (maybe) a summit beer are all that you really need for some shorter hikes, while a lightweight sleeping bag, pad and stove can stretch your trip into a light overnight. Packs in the 20-45 liter range are perfect for day hikes or short overnight trips. On multi-day trips, NOLS courses, and other extended backpacking trips, you will need to bring along a tent or bivy, larger quantities of food and water, more clothing, and likely more shared camping gear. Depending on how packable and lightweight your gear is, you will need a pack between 45 and 85 liters.

Features to look for in hiking/backpacking packs:

External water bottle pockets:


Separate external storage pocket for stashing a shell, hat or gloves (mesh or zippered):


Compartments for easy packing and gear access:


Zippered openings for easy access to main compartment without opening the top:


Shop Backpacking packs (45-85 L)


Shop Day Hiking/Light Overnight packs (>45 L)

Trail Running/Fast & Light Hiking

The smallest pack category is intended for fast moving, lightweight adventures. These packs are typically under 20 liters and are made to hold only the essentials: a shell or windbreaker, some gels, a bar or two, and your phone. This category of packs is almost entirely hydration compatible, and features a variety of design innovations to ensure that your pack does not constrict movement.

Features to look for in Trail Running/Fast & Light hiking packs:

Minimalist harness design:


Strap pockets for food, bottles, or a phone/music player:


Integrated hydration or optimized hydration compatibility:


Bungee or stretch mesh back for on-the-fly storage:


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Once you've found the best pack for your favorite activity, check out our great article on How to Size a Pack or contact us if you have any additional questions!