Mountain Hardwear launched the JMT series of backpacks this year and editor Vince Hempsall has shouldered the responsibility of testing one of them. This is his honest review.

Mountain Hardwear has been based in Richmond, California near San Francisco since its founding in 1993 so it makes sense that one of the staff’s main testing grounds is the John Muir Trail, located a half-day’s drive from their headquarters. The JMT is a 345-kilometre trail that follows the High Sierra mountains through three national parks from Yosemite at its northern end to the summit of Mount Whitney in the south. The total elevation gain of the route is about 14,000 metres so it’s the perfect terrain to test and perfect a backpack design: there are long swaths of sub-alpine hiking, optional fourth- and fifth-class climbing routes, and all kinds of high mountain weather. Mountain Hardwear’s latest series of backpacks is named for the trail and the company claims they stand up to the rigours of JMT and about anything else you can throw at it. We’ll see.

Snapshot: Mountain Hardwear JMT Backpack

    1. Pros: It’s many features make it one of the best cragging packs we’ve ever used.
    2. Cons: The copious mesh on the side and front pockets is prone to any kind of abrasion.
    3. Price: $210.00 Cdn
    4. Who Should Buy: Rock climbers headed to the crag and alpine day hikers.
    5. Who Shouldn’t Buy: Hardcore mountaineers.
    6. Helpful Hack: The front mesh panel can be unclipped and stored in a hidden pouch near the base of the pack.
    7. Author’s overall rating: 8.5/10

The Test

I received the 35-litre version of the JMT backpack but there’s also a 25-litre model and female-specific ones as well. It arrived at the beginning of the summer and so I had the entire season to take it into the alpine of the Valhalla Mountains and the Bugaboos as well as to the crags near my mountain home of Nelson, British Columbia. I also brought it along on a road trip that had me sport climbing in Ten Sleep, Wyoming for two weeks and multi-pitch trad climbing at the iconic Devil’s Tower, also in Wyoming. Besides hiking and climbing with it, I took it on regular daily outings with my toddler and four year old and stuffed it full of diapers, snacks, toys, and snot rags.

The Verdict

I’ve been lucky enough to rock climb on cliffs across North and South America, Europe, and Australasia for the past 32 years and during that time I’ve owned dozens of crag packs from duffles to one-pocket bucket-style set-ups. In most instances I found the bags lacking: uncomfortable shoulder straps; not enough pockets to shove extraneous stuff in that I’d want to grab easily; too many accessories that added to the weight of the pack; or not enough space to accommodate everything. I justified it all, though, because I was “only cragging” and the approaches were an hour long at most. Then I received the Mountain Hardwear JMT backpack and my entire attitude changed. I now realize there are crag packs out there that can do it all.

My favourite part about the 35-litre version of the JMT backpack is its top-down, clam-shell opening that’s like a Moray’s maw: giant-sized and ready to consume everything including an entire trad rack, rope, food, water, helmet, chalk bag, harness, and shoes. On our day-long multi-pitch forays to Devil’s Tower, I also had it stuffed with extra clothes, crack gloves, first-aid kit, extra water, and food. I then put my helmet in the stretchable mesh pocket on the front of the bag and draped our rope over the top of the pack and cinched it at the sides with the compression straps. Not only was I impressed by how much the pack could hold and how comfortable it was to carry, I was also amazed by how easy it was to get at everything. Two mesh side pockets carried my water water, the first aid kit, sunscreen and other essentials went in the top zippered pocket and anything inside the pack was easy to reach because of the huge top opening.

My favourite part about the 35-litre version of the JMT backpack is its top-down, clam-shell opening that’s like a Moray’s maw: giant-sized and ready to consume everything including an entire trad rack, rope, food, water, helmet, chalk bag, harness, and shoes.

Part of what makes the Mountain Hardwear JMT backpack so comfortable is the mesh and padding on the back panel and shoulder straps: they’re cushioned and yet allow for lots of airflow so at no point did I feel like I was excessively sweating into the fabric. You can also tell a lot of engineering has gone into the details of the pack. The Cordura base is robust but there’s also some padding in there so you don’t have to worry about damaging cams if they’re shuffled to the bottom of your pack. The front mesh pocket can easily be unhooked and stuffed into a recessed pocket near the base. The front and rear grab handles are extremely sturdy and the top zippered pocket has a key holder clip inside. There’s also a water bladder envelope inside the main pocket with a top clip (see image below) but interestingly there isn’t a hole for tube and nozzle. Not that I ever used it, preferring an old-school Nalgene shoved into one of the side pockets. Speaking of these, while I loved having them for hikes and approaches, I will say they did not hold up very well on multi-pitch climbs. At belay stations I’d take off the pack and hook it to the anchor, not heeding the fact it was banging and scraping against granite (in the case of the Bugaboos) and along the igneous columns of Devil’s Tower. At the end of September I noticed small tears in the mesh fabric, which isn’t surprising given it’s not made to withstand abrasion. That’s the reason why I strongly recommend this pack for cragging but not necessarily for long multi-pitch climbs.

In short, though, the Mountain Hardwear JMT backpack is the best cragging pack I’ve ever owned and I’m looking forward to doing many more short approaches with it.

Mountain Hardwear JMT Backpack – The Deets

  • MSRP: $210.00 Cdn
  • Weight: 1,176 grams (2lb 9.5oz)
  • Sizes: S/M, M/L (It’s also available in a 25L version and female-specific versions)
  • Recycled 210D ripstop shell and 500D Cordura base
  • Inner spring steel frame
  • Mesh back panel provides ample ventilation
  • Clamshell-style zippered top opening with zippered pocket
  • Fully padded shoulder straps and hipbelt
  • Front and rear grab handles
  • Side compression straps
  • Trekking pole/ice axe attachment loop
  • Colour: Black Spruce
  • More info:

Author’s Note: Mountain Culture Group is not paid for these reviews. They are honest expressions of our opinions. In some instances we are given the product to keep but that does not sway our assessment. If we dislike a product and feel it would score a rating of less than 5/10, we simply won’t review it.