The Alpine Start

Haffner Creek by Veronica Wajda

My full name is Rafal Andronowski; most people just call me Raf.

I’m based out of Calgary, Alberta, about an hour from the Canadian Rocky Mountains. I’m a complete gear head so the more involved I got with climbing, the more backpacks I accumulated. I currently have about twenty backpacks ranging in size from 10L to 100L and around ten duffel bags sized from 45L to 120L. Oh, and around half a dozen various camera bags.

Besides reviewing backpacks, I test out and review various climbing and outdoor gear. I’m a photographer and writer, again mostly focusing on alpine and outdoors subjects.

Temple by Matt Westlake

What kind of bags do you review?

I mostly review climbing-focused backpacks as they are the most relevant to the sports and activities I participate in. I’ve been reviewing gear since 2013 and have in that time gone through around 50 different backpacks and duffel bags, not all of which have impressed me enough to actually review and write about. Though I do buy some gear, these days I mostly receive review samples from the various brands I have relationships with. To learn about what new gear is coming down the pipeline, I attend the semi-annual Outdoor Retailer trade show on a regular basis.

How do you review the bags?

I don’t have any specific procedures I follow for my reviews: basically I just go climbing, taking along whichever newest backpack I’m currently reviewing. My initial reviews and impressions are based on several climbing outings, all of which involve at least a couple hours of approaching (walking) with a fully-loaded pack and climbing with the backpack loaded with essential on-route gear (warm parka, water, camera, various random bit of gear). Long-term reviews often take me over a year and see the bags subjected to weeks of use across varying conditions during all four seasons, often getting dragged up sharp rocks on alpine routes and soaked with cold water and snow during ice climbing outings.

The most important aspect for a climbing backpack for me is ease of use, especially with gloves as a lot of my climbing takes place in cold and snowy conditions. Comfort, both during approaches and while climbing, is also incredibly important as sometimes you can be on route for multiple days with a heavily loaded pack and go from starting in just a t-shirt to wearing multiple layers later on. I appreciate a simple, easy-to-use design but there are also some features that are absolutely essential to a climbing pack, such as ice tool attachment options, a secure closure to keep out snow and other debris, and low weight to minimize the amount of total weight you’re climbing with.

I love simplicity of design and absolutely detest bags that have unnecessary, overly complicated features (such as hard to access pockets) or overly heavy elements (redundant padding or overcomplicated lids).

China by Alik Berg

What are your favorite bags?

My favourite backpacks are in the 30-50 litre range as that is the most versatile size for ice and alpine climbing. They have a simple but focused design, durable materials, lightweight construction, and are very comfortable given their minimalism. In no particular order, the list includes the Camp Eghen 22 and 35, Arc’teryx Alpha FL 45, Arc’teryx NoZone 35 & 55 (discontinued unfortunately), Bergan of Norway Helium Pro 55 (not available in North America), CiloGear 30L Worksack, Hyperlite Mountain Gear 2400 Ice Pack, Crux AK47, and Mountain Equipment Tupilak 37 — though I’m sure I’ll add a few others to this list as time goes on!

I rotate through various backpacks on each outing, often getting my climbing partner to bring a different one along so we can compare comfort and features side-by-side. Which pack I bring depends on the destination, how much gear I’m bringing but often just boils down to whichever one is the latest to arrive. That said, my collection of favourite bags is always on stand-by if I just want to get out climbing and don’t want to think about my gear too much.

The typical load includes a rack of climbing gear (a dozen quickdraws, ten or so ice screws, rock pro, personal climbing gear like harness, helmet, a few carabiners, usually ice tools and crampons as I tend to climb in winter or high alpine terrain, and a 60- or 70-meter rope depending on the objective) along with water, first-aid kit, extra layers, some food/snack, and a camera (sometimes two). Typical pack weight is 15-20kg (32-44lbs).

Gibraltar Wall by Veronica Wajda

How do people use your reviews?

My readers are often shopping for their next backpack, either to replace a worn out model, to add a different size, or for a more specific-usage bag, and use my reviews to gain more insight into backpack design and in-use feedback that is often not found on manufacturers’ websites. I’ve received many positive comments about the thorough, in-depth descriptions and images found in my reviews both from readers and the companies whose bags I’m reviewing. I’ve yet to receive any negative feedback, save maybe for not being able to publish reviews as often as readers would like!

Featured The Alpine Start Reviews

The Alpine Start people

The North Face Ice Project

Review posted 7 December 2015 by Raf - Read full review

The Alpine Start people

Gregory Denali

Review posted 13 April 2015 by Raf Andronowski - Read full review

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The North Face Cinder

Review posted 25 August 2014 by Raf - Read full review

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Deuter Pace

Review posted 18 August 2014 by Raf - Read full review

The Alpine Start people

Patagonia Ascensionist

Review posted 1 April 2014 by Raf - Read full review

The Alpine Start people

Arcteryx Alpha

Review posted 28 March 2014 by Raf - Read full review

The Alpine Start people

Black Diamond Speed

Review posted 13 March 2014 by Raf - Read full review

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