The summit pack is one of the most important pieces of gear you bring along on a serious hike or climb — ironic, then, that you only use it for the last leg of the excursion, often wearing your summit pack for only an hour or two during a journey that may have lasted days.
Broadly speaking, a summit pack is a lightweight backpack that’s compact enough to be tucked into your larger hiking pack (or the steamer trunk on your porter’s back). You break out the summit pack at your last campsite or rest area before a push to the summit of a mountain, or prior to any other arduous finale to an outdoor adventure (a summit pack could accompany you down into a cave or during a bit of rock climbing, for example).
A good summit pack can also serve as a daypack for shorter excursions where you don’t need to haul lots of extra food, water, warm weather clothing, and such. Many make good bags for skiing, cycling trips, or just for wandering around town. When looking for the right summit pack, first make sure to find one that can fit into your larger bag and that will only add marginal weight to your overall kit. After that, it’s up to you to find a bag with features and a design you love. Keep in mind that while you’ll likely only use this bag for a short section of the trip, it’s usually the most difficult, trying section; every ounce will count.
Marmot Kompressor Daypack
The Kompressor Daypack from Marmot can be folded up and tucked away into its own “lid” when not in use, occupying about the same amount of space as a pair of winter gloves. It also weighs in at less than 11 ounces. The bag has shoulder straps lined with mesh and a removable waist strap, so you can opt for support or larger range of motion. While it only has one large pocket, which can make organization a bit of a hassle, it does feature an exterior tool attachment loop and a port for a hydration pack’s tube. The bag’s ripstop nylon exterior should resist most pokes and punctures with ease, and the price, at less than fifty dollars, puts the Kompressor in range for most outdoorsman. (And women.)
Hyperlite Summit Pack
This summit pack from Hyperlite Mountain Gear weighs about fourteen ounces yet offers about thirty liters of carrying capacity. In case you were wondering, that’s an impressive ratio. The bag is made (in Maine) primarily of a proprietary Dyneema® Composite Fabric that is claimed to be “indestructible.” It has fully sealed seams to keep things dry and tacked reinforcements at all stress points to resist stretching and tearing. The bag has a roll top closure design that can be pulled tight with side straps. Note that its hip belt is a bit narrow for some people’s comfort, being just 3/4″ and made from webbing. At $180, this bag is not cheap, but it is designed to last indefinitely.
If you can find a backpack that packs down smaller than a Matador Daylite16, then it was probably designed for a hamster, not a human. This bag weighs 4.1 ounces and can be folded down so compactly that it fits into the palm of your hand. Seriously. And it’s tear resistant, features multiple waterproof pockets, and has side pockets for water bottles or a rolled shirt (and so forth). Its overall capacity is modest at 16 liters, but note again that, when compressed, it is palm sized. You won’t find a decent summit pack that’s smaller. You can’t load the bag up too much as it only has a pair of shoulder straps, but when you’re ascending past 14,000 feet, you won’t want to have much weight on your back anyway. The Daylite16 is a fine price at $50.
Columbia Trail Elite
The Columbia Trail Elite pack is something of an in between option in the backpack/summit pack categories. At more than two pounds, it’s heavier than you want in a true summit pack, but given its many features and its amazing adaptability of fit, you can use this pack for extended periods of your trek, potentially leaving most gear down at base camp and using the Trail Elite for most of the hike or climb. The pack’s aluminum frame means no rolling up, but it can be pressed rather flat and slid down into your larger pack. It can carry a three liter bladder of water, has side water bottle pockets, two external pockets for smaller sundries, and a mesh panel along the back that keeps the bag away from your person, allowing for excellent airflow and breathability. It also has a built in rain fly that totally covers the bag if inclement weather pops up. Get yours for around $130.
Low Apline Prism 22
This summit pack has everything you need and nothing you don’t. In other words, it’s a genuine summit pack. You can roll or fold it up and tuck it down into your larger pack, unencumbered by its mere 12 ounces of weight. It features an internal zippered compartment for a phone, medicine, keys, or other compact essentials, and its overall storage volume is a little over 21 liters. The straps are soft and breathable and have multiple adjustment points between the shoulders, sternum, and waist, and you can thread a hydration bladder’s tube down over a strap. Also enjoy the removable back panel that can be used as a seat pad when you need to take a breather there on the summit. All that is yours for about $60.