Climbing Packs: Doing More With Less

Technical climbing packs—those lightweight, stripped-down bags that allow climbers to make quick alpine-style summit assaults—aren't just for mountaineering. In fact, they should be viewed as efficient daypacks that feature all the typical bells and whistles but are purposely built for fast, efficient movement in rugged places. That means they're "clean," stripping away gratuitous features that would otherwise invite us to bring more than we need.

Mountains, after all, teach us to keep it simple. What isn't there, can't break. I take comfort in that and find these climbing packs perfectly suit my needs, as well as those of many other active people. Here's what makes them so great:

Top-Loading. I don't like a lot of compartments; a few are fine, but not so many that I have to check five or more pockets to locate a pocketknife or lip balm. Top loaders force their users to pack efficiently, to be creative when organizing the pack and its environs, and to always consider what to bring and what to leave behind. Oftentimes, that top lid is removable, allowing the user to leave it home and simplify all the more.

• Telescopic. The telescopic expandability also allows you to greatly increase or decrease the total volume of a pack, depending on what's necessary for a day's given objective.

• Minimalist. Technical packs show off just how few materials you need to produce a fully functional bag. Without sacrificing comfort, shoulder straps are trimmed down, waist belts go low-profile, gear loops are minimized—all of which produce a svelte, durable pack that doesn't waste a lot on excess material and weight. Yes, these packs can accommodate the tools for technical climbs in the mountains, but also do just fine if you never leave the trail.

• Climbing Tough. Because they're designed to be abrasion-resistant when rubbing against rock walls, they're built to last.

We've chosen five packs in the 30- to 40-liter range that exemplify the discerning packer's wants and needs. All packs are hydration compatible, with a comfortable carrying range between 20 and 40 lbs. Whether you're bagging a technical peak or hiking to the top of the nearest tree-free knoll, these packs keep it simple.

Osprey Mutant 38
This pack has an ultra-clean design with full technical features, a thermoformed contoured back panel for enhanced, day-long comfort, and a removable bivy pad that doubles for a lunch seat. $159;

First Ascent Arclite 40
This traditional top-loader, with a side panel zipper to more easily retrieve gear from its depths, hasn't been released to the public yet. We've already beat it up pretty good, though (not this model version, of course), and are looking forward to seeing it hit store shelves in Spring '13. $169;

Mountain Hardwear SummitRocket 30
The clamshell top-loader, made of lightweight, abrasion-resistant materials, is a no brainer. Its sleek compression straps and low-profile harnessing help users maintain a comfy, stable fit, even under a full load. $150;

Black Diamond Speed 30
With its roll-top closure under a removable top lid, the Speed can accommodate a wide variety of loads and still fit comfortably. BD's proprietary "reACTIV" suspension system links the shoulder straps via cable, allowing the pack to stay more upright and the weight to be distributed more evenly, even as you negotiate arduous terrain. $140;

CiloGear Alpine Day Pack
Stripped down and simple, CiloGear packs come made to order from Portland, OR. These 30-liter top-loaders come with six straps for customization, a removable bivy pad, hip and sternum straps. $150;

Mammut Taranaki
Offering year-round versatility, the svelte Taranaki can accommodate skis, axes and technical gear. The adjustable V-frame carries significant weight for potentially bigger objectives that still require a trim pack. $180;