Retro mountain chic is in these days, and it seems everyone is jumping on the bandwagon with painted axes, faux alpinist boots and beard balm. The thing is, most of the gear won’t ever see wilderness beyond concrete canyons. That’s probably for the best. Retro gear is retro for a reason: modern outdoor gear design performs better than its forebears in almost all respects. But we still have a soft spot for the leather, wool, canvas alpine designs of the 1950s and ‘60s — you know, before things got all sleek and neon. After seeing two Gear Patrol favorite brands, Topo Designs and Howler Brothers, collaborate to design a classic climbing pack, the Klettersack ($189), we decided to go all Reinhold Messner and take it to the mountains to see how a retro style pack works in the environment that inspired it.
The name “Klettersack”, German for “climbing bag”, refers to a specific style of backpack designed for vertical endeavors. The narrow, top-loading pack was invented, according to most accounts, by the Austrians, who pioneered the “Alpine-style” of mountaineering that uses minimal gear for a single light and fast push up a peak. The pack is designed to sit close to the back so as not to affect balance, have few external pockets to reduce snagging risk and afford numerous lash points for securing ice tools and other climbing gear with quick access. Topo Designs and Howler Brothers stayed faithful to these design requirements but updated the Klettersack with durable materials and a dash of style.
Those upgraded materials are 1000-denier Cordura for the pack body, which is then lined with a nylon pack cloth for durability and water resistance. Four leather lash tabs can be threaded with webbing straps for hauling a sleeping pad or a climbing rope, and there’s a small ice axe loop at the bottom of the pack (though we found it too narrow to accept a modern axe shaft, so you’d better be going retro with your tools if you intend to carry it this way). Besides the green and orange livery, the Howler Brothers’ version of the Klettersack differs from Topo Designs’ standard pack by adding two side pockets and a reinforced bottom that prevents premature seam blowout and keeps the inside drier than the Cordura would alone.
While the back of the pack looks positively vintage, the backpad and straps are a welcome modern amenity. The pad is a thickly cushioned nylon mesh that wears comfortably, if a bit sweatily, against your spine; the shoulder straps are — blessedly — not thin leather but thickly padded nylon with an adjustable sternum strap. Staying with the minimalist design brief, there is no hip belt, which allows for easier use of a climbing harness. This isn’t a pack designed for hauling heavy loads, so a hip belt isn’t necessary, anyway.
We took the Klettersack on both a three-day heli-hiking trip to the Bugaboos and a four-day visit to the Swiss Alps. Before hitting the trails, it served as a capable carry-on bag thanks to the easy-access zipped lid pocket, which was a great place to stash a passport, small camera, and snacks, and the internal sleeve which was big enough for a 17-inch laptop. Once we got into the mountains, we wore the pack for day hikes, some peak bagging and a 1,000-foot via ferrata climb. Its 22-liter compartment easily swallowed up extra layers, a trail lunch and camera gear, including a full-sized Manfrotto tripod, which we lashed to the side of the pack.
The Klettersack was comfortable for full days of hiking windswept ridgelines and was well balanced while climbing and boot-skiing down steep scree slopes. Other hikers with modern daypacks both admired and snickered at this retro-styled bag, but by day’s end, people were asking where to get it. With the Klettersack, Topo Designs x Howler Brothers proved that with some tweaks to design and materials, retro style can still perform well in the mountains.