Backpacks are backpacks, right? You might feel differently the next time you try strapping a pair of skis to your summer pack. Winter sports, in particular, demand season-specific features, from insulated hydration sleeves to avalanche airbags and ski attachments. Over the past ten years, I’ve tested more than 100 packs, and for this review I’ve written about seven of my all-time favorites.
My choice for all-around ski touring is the Ortovox Haute Route 40. It’s big enough for anything short of actual winter camping, stable and comfortable whether full or empty, and has most of the features I want. You can read about the Haute Route 40 below, as well as six others made for even more specialized activities.
Best All-Around Winter Pack
Ortovox Haute Route 40 ($190)
The Haute Route 40 is named for the classic European ski-touring route, and it’s perfectly designed for alpine adventures. It’s a top-loading pack with a weather- and scuff-resistant outer made of polyurethane-coated Cordura and 420-denier nylon, and it works well for anything from multi-day hut trips to sidecountry laps outside the resort. The Haute Route also comes in a 38-liter women’s-specific version, which is identical except for a narrower and shorter back and thinner and more curved shoulder straps. If I could have only one winter pack, this would be it.
Like many other winter packs designed for skiing and climbing, it has a back-panel zipper for finding things buried in the pack’s bottom when your skis are strapped to the pack, a dedicated pocket for goggles in the lid, and an avalanche-tool compartment that opens via bright-orange toggles. The body has lash points for ice axes and poles and accommodates both snowboards and skis in either an A-frame or diagonal configuration.
There’s also a rope or jacket strap hidden in the top of the pack and generous padding in the shoulder and hip-belt straps. Combined with those comfortable pads, an O-shaped suspension system helps transfer weight onto the hip belt and keeps heavy loads from crushing the pack.
This feature set isn’t revolutionary so much as thoughtful and refined, more so than any other pack we tested. Despite all those sport-specific components, the Haute Route 40 looks and feels clean and simple, with few straps to flap in the wind or catch on chairlifts. And the narrow profile kept it from feeling ungainly, even when fully loaded.
“I could chuck the pack down in the snow, open the zip wide, and see everything right there. No digging required,” noted one tester. He also appreciated the white interior fabric, which helped highlight whatever he was looking for.
I think the 40-liter size is well suited to the demands of long tours, skiing big glacier routes, or the hut-to-town-to-hut style of ski touring that’s common in Europe. (If none of these are on your agenda, you might want to size down to a pack in the 30-liter range.) After a winter of use, including riding in helicopter baskets, plane-cargo holds, snowmobile trailers, and pickup-truck beds, it still looks almost pristine, a credit to its burly outer construction. If you mix up your ski-touring adventures, we don’t think there’s a better pack out there.
Best Resort and Sidecountry Skiing Pack
(Courtesy Helly Hansen)
Helly Hansen Ullr Backpack 25 ($160)
The Ullr Backpack 25 has a classic layout, with back-panel access to the main pocket, a separate avalanche-tool compartment, and a compact fleece-lined pocket for goggles. It reminded me of Dakine’s tried-and-true ski packs, with their simple designs and burly materials.
Helly Hansen has been making ski apparel for years, and its experience is evident in this design. The Ullr 25 comes with zippered pockets on each side of the pack, sized perfectly and placed in the right spot for reaching a water bottle or climbing skins. Slinging the pack off one shoulder, I was able to grab a sip of water in less time than it took my ski partner to set a kick turn. I also liked the helmet holder, which unfolds from a small zip pocket at the bottom of the pack and hooks onto the pack body. It never got in the way when I was carrying skis or a board. Likewise, the rear-entry zipper is out of the way of the compression straps, letting me open the pack wide without unclipping anything.
Comfort is another highlight. A plastic sheet in the back padding kept the Ullr 25 from turning into a basketball when overloaded, and the wide hip belts had enough cushioning to support a heavy load. Packs in this size range often fail to include these features.
The Ullr doesn’t look like anything fancy, but the more I used it, the more I liked it. For a company making one of its first winter packs, Helly Hansen did a great job. If you primarily ski in-bounds or in the sidecountry, this is the best choice I can think of.
Best Day-Trip Pack
Arc’teryx Alpha SK 32 ($325)
Skiers have been hacking Arc’teryx’s mountaineering-focused Alpha FL pack since it launched, and the Arc’teryx Alpha SK 32, a ski-specific version of the Alpha FL, is the pack many of us have been dreaming of.
Like the Alpha FL, the Alpha SK 32 is a top-loading pack that is weather resistant, minimalist, and light. It’s constructed from the same waterproof ripstop nylon as its predecessor and uses the same foam back panel and padding-free waist strap.
Unlike the FL, the SK 32 comes with a flap on the top of the pack, making it easy to stash skins, a helmet, or a rope. There’s also a separate sleeve for avalanche tools and a side zipper that gives on-the-go access to the main compartment. Beyond that, Arc’teryx stuck with simplicity. Instead of side compression straps for carrying skis or boards, it sewed loops into the pack and added a couple plastic ski straps. It’s heavier than the FL but still light at 2.2 pounds.
The ski-attachment straps can be positioned for vertical, diagonal, A-frame, or snowboard carry, though I gravitated to a diagonal carry while booting up couloirs. The weight of my skis never pulled on my shoulders or threw me off balance. On the skin track, the narrow profile was comfortable and stayed out of my way, and as long as the pack was full, the Alpha SK felt stable despite the lack of compression straps or load lifters, even while skiing.
If you’re looking for a few more bells and whistles, a good alternative is the Black Diamond Cirque, which has compression straps and a more comfortable waist belt yet still weighs as much as the Alpha SK. Also, it costs $200 to the Alpha’s $325. The Cirque is a solid minimalist pack for touring, though its fabric and zippers aren’t waterproof, and it doesn’t feel as slick and refined as the Alpha. For these reasons, just as the Alpha FL has become a cult classic in the climbing world, I think the Alpha SK is destined for similar status among ski tourers looking for a simple and light daypack.
Best Airbag Pack
Scott Backcountry Patrol AP 30 ($1,100)
Avalanche airbag packs have been on a lightning-fast development track the last few years, and the Scott Backcountry Patrol AP 30 is the latest and most exciting evolution in that field. The Patrol AP 30 employs an electric fan to inflate its airbag—more on that in a second—but operates without the heavy and failure-prone batteries that turned many away from first-generation electric packs from Arc’teryx and Black Diamond.
All airbags have to get inflated somehow, and until now there were two options: compressed gas and battery-powered fans. Gas-inflated airbags are reliable and lightweight but can only be used once in the field and are sometimes a pain to refill. On the other hand, batteries can deploy multiple times on a single charge but are heavy and may not work in extremely cold temperatures. The Patrol AP 30, with its Alpride E1 system, meanwhile, is light, impervious to cold, and can be inflated repeatedly.
Rather than a battery, the Patrol AP 30 powers its fan with a supercapacitor, a complex device that is able to store energy via an electrostatic field and without a battery. (Technically, the Patrol AP uses two AA batteries to keep the supercapacitor topped up, but they’re much smaller than the lithium-ion bricks found in last-gen fan airbags. After a discharge, the AAs will need about half an hour to bring the capacitor back to ready.) Back home, recharging is quick and simple. This is more important than the pack’s ability to deploy more than once in the field: research and anecdotal evidence suggest that skiers are more likely to deploy their airbag successfully in an avalanche if they’ve practiced with it before.
The pack itself feels smaller than the advertised 30 liters, as a good bit of space is chewed up by the airbag itself. Still, it’s big enough for backcountry day trips. A zipper splits the pack open down the center. Inside is a general storage area, a shovel and probe sleeve, and a valuables pocket. Outside the pack, there’s a fleece pocket for goggles, plus ski, board, and snowshoe mounts. It’s simple design, comparable to the other airbag packs I’ve tried.
The Alpride E1 system appears to be the future of airbags. Scott was the first company to market a pack with this system, but Black Diamond recently began selling a 26-liter pack with the E1 system, too. For both packs, the biggest drawback is that they cost twice as much as most compressed-gas airbags and about the same as the other battery options. Let’s face it: $1,100 is a lot to stomach for a backpack.
Best for Ski Touring and Ice Climbing
Mammut Trion Nordwand ($200)
I’ve tested a lot of lightweight packs. They’re always wonderful to pick up, but they’re not always great to carry with a full load. Mammut’s Trion Nordwand is one of the rare few that weighs almost nothing but still manages to haul a substantial load with stability and comfort.
The difference is structure. Most superlight packs are just sacks of fabric with a little padding, but the Trion has two stabilizer bars: one tube-shaped bar that runs across the shoulders and a flat aluminum stay that runs vertically along the spine. Together they help hold the pack’s shape and transfer weight off the shoulders and onto the hips. (Both are removable for stripping weight.)
The pack itself is made from supertough, ripstop Dyneema, a fabric fiber that is 15 times as strong as steel. Otherwise it’s bare-bones, with just a main pocket and a small valuables pocket. Its cinch straps tuck away, and there aren’t many loops of webbing or straps to get hung up. Be aware: there is also no external ski carry. Twenty liters is just enough to carry water, food, extra layers, and some odds and ends. You’ll be strapping your rope, helmet, and harness to the top. It’s not necessarily pretty with all that hanging from the outside on the approach, but the pack carries the load without flopping or buckling. (If you want to carry more gear, or keep everything inside your pack, the redesigned Osprey Mutant 38 or 52 are better bets. They’re also built for technical winter climbing, but are more heavily padded and can carry heavier loads.)
At the end of the day, a light and small pack means saving energy and time and lowers the risk of the pack throwing off a climber’s balance. “Once I got onto the ice, the pack just disappeared on my back,” wrote a tester. “It’s so light and stays out of the way, I mostly forgot I was wearing it.” The Trion Nordwand’s narrow and short footprint ensures that it doesn’t interfere with swinging ice tools or executing dynamic moves. And having fewer zippers, straps, or buckles also means there’s fewer things to break. Small and mighty, the Trion Nordwand is ready for just about any vertical task.
Best Ski-Mountaineering Pack
(Courtesy Ultimate Direction)
Ultimate Direction SkiMo 28 ($185)
It’s no surprise that ski-mountaineering racers love Ultimate Direction’s SkiMo 28. One of the fastest uphill ski racers in the U.S., Eric Carter, helped design it. What’s surprising is that ski tourers liked it, too.
The SkiMo 28 is bigger than other race-specific packs, which means it adapts easily to various race lengths and doubles as a solid pack for nonrace days. And its race-focused features help speed up transitions, whether you’re competing or not.
Most notable is the quick-attach diagonal ski-carry hook. It’s so easy to use that we found ourselves hooking skis to the pack rather than shouldering them, even on short boot-packs around the resort. Testers were also impressed by the triple ripstop that Ultimate Direction used in the carry straps, which will stand up to sharp ski edges for years to come. We also loved the zip pocket at the bottom of the pack (perfect for keeping skins or crampons separate from dry gear) and the abundance of straps and extra loops, which are easily removed when not needed.
The SkiMo 28 didn’t feel like a true 28-liter pack, so be prepared to pack light for regular tours. Likewise, the company makes better low-volume race options, as does Mammut, whose fan-favorite Spindrift 14 comes with a built-in jacket. But this is a pack that attempts—successfully, I think—to accommodate both racing and touring. For that it offers just the right amount of volume.
On a sunny tour out of Verbier, Switzerland, I found that it was easy to drink from a water bottle riding in a pocket on my chest, put a beanie in the hip-belt pocket, or stash my phone in a waterproof zip area, all without breaking stride. Another tester who wore it during an endurance day-skimo race noted that she could slip out of the shoulder straps, spin the pack around, and dig into the top-load main pocket, all without having to find a place to put the pack down.
For us, the SkiMo 28 makes touring faster and more efficient, which is something all of us can get behind.
Best Snowboard Pack
Jones Minimalist 35 ($170)
After almost 200 days of use, the Jones Minimalist 35 remains our favorite pack for snowboarding because it’s simple, lightweight, and well organized.
First off, there are six pockets: a side zip for accessing the bottom of the main storage area, a roomy avalanche-tool area that fits big shovel blades, two hip pockets, and two lid pockets for managing smaller items. Board carry is simple, with either an A-frame-style setup for a splitboard or a one-piece carry on the back. And overall, its claimed 35-liter capacity feels true.
Where most packs in the 35-liter range load up with features and bulky fabrics, the Minimalist uses a sailing-derived ripstop nylon made from recycled fabrics. It is perhaps not a surprise that the pack works well for touring, as it was designed by and named for legendary rider Jeremy Jones.
One tester has been using it as his only pack for the last three winters, riding Canada’s Revelstoke backcountry and on hill on Vancouver Island, hut-touring in Wyoming and Idaho, and on numerous day-touring missions in Alaska and British Columbia. The only signs of wear are two missing zipper pulls. “Great comfort and support, fits an amazing amount of gear, and the ski-pole-carrying straps are the best I’ve ever used,” he said.
How We Test Packs
I’ve been testing packs for about a decade, and each year I enlist a small army of testers who have been skiing and climbing for even longer. Once the snow starts flying in November, I start testing the next crop of touring packs. For the past several years, my team of testers and I have tested new packs while ski touring and mountaineering, for casual laps around resorts, and on hut trips. I ship ice-climbing packs off to a dedicated crew of knuckle bashers to run them through their paces. We push each pack in its respective niche and then expand our demands to other arenas, too.
We’re aiming to recommend packs that will last years. We believe the best product is not just the one that performs better than the rest, it’s the one that lasts the longest, too.
What to Look for in a Ski Pack
Backcountry skiing and its varying demands dominate the winter-pack landscape. These packs have a dedicated area for avalanche gear, are easy to operate with gloves on, come equipped with straps for carrying skis or a snowboard, and often have specific storage for goggles and helmets. They work great for backcountry riding and usually have enough additional straps and features that they can easily moonlight for ice climbing or snowshoeing. Still, ski packs come in many shades, with different features suited to different situations.
Avalanche airbag packs increase survival rates for people caught in an avalanche. (By exactly how much is unclear. Where you ski may limit an airbag’s utility. But studies are generally clear that they do help.) In an avalanche, bigger objects tend to settle near the surface of a slide. When deployed, airbags add about 150 liters of extra volume to a ski pack, expanding your total surface area to help keep you from getting buried. Some airbags also wrap around the head, potentially offering cushioning from trauma during a slide, although it’s hard to evaluate how much protection they offer. We think anyone who skis in the backcountry more than ten times per year should invest in an airbag pack. It represents your best chance of surviving a potentially deadly avalanche. But there are several competing technologies to consider.
The oldest technology uses a canister of compressed gas to inflate an airbag. Pulling the trigger releases the pressurized air, which sucks in more air to help it fill the airbag. The size and weight of canister systems continues to fall, but they remain bulky. Moreover, they can be tough to refill, which limits how often you can practice with one. They’re also often hard to travel with. On the plus side, compressed-gas systems, like those from Backcountry Access or Mammut, work in any temperature and are about half the cost of fan systems.
Other airbag packs use lithium-ion batteries to run small fans that inflate the airbag. Both Arc’teryx and Black Diamond use this kind of system, although Black Diamond is now also selling at least one supercapacitor-powered model (see below). Batteries allow multiple deployments on a charge, which is ideal for getting familiar with the system at home. But batteries are heavy, bulky, expensive, and lose charge quickly in cold temperatures.
This is the newest system, coming to stores this year aboard Scott’s Backcountry Patrol AP 30 pack and branded as the Alpride E1 system. It works similarly to the battery systems, but the energy source that powers the fan performs more consistently in cold temperatures. It can’t inflate an airbag multiple times in a row, but it recharges in less than an hour with two AA batteries or via USB. Plus, the system is the least bulky of the three options. Cost is similar to battery systems—that is to say, for many people, prohibitive.
What to Look for in an Ice-Climbing Pack
When adventures go vertical, weight becomes a more serious concern. At the same time, ice tools, crampons, and screws are all sharp, so materials need to be robust. Ice-climbing-focused packs often use high-end fabrics and minimalist designs.
What to Look for in a Ski-Mountaineering Pack
Skimo racing is growing in popularity, and racing packs are designed to make it faster and easier to manage transitions. They feature quick-connect ski-carry systems, easy access to pouches and pockets, lightweight builds, and integrated hydration options. Many, however, are too minimalist to use for anything but light and fast missions. And their trim stature may make it hard to fit larger shovels and probes.
What to Look for in a Snowboarding Pack
While most generalist winter packs can carry a snowboard, snowboarding-specific packs do have some advantages, including carry systems designed for a single board and dedicated stash points for ski poles. Most snowboarders we know appreciate both.
General Buying Tips
(Courtesy Ryan Stuart)
Once you know what kind of pack you need, the next variable to consider is volume. Keep in mind that you’ll be carrying more than you would on a summer hike: extra layers, more calories, climbing skins, and avalanche-safety gear. And maybe also crampons and ice axes, a rope, and a first-aid kit.
Our advice is to choose a pack between 30 and 45 liters, unless you know exactly how you’ll use the pack. Skimo racers will prefer packs in the 10-to-15-liter range, while 20 to 30 liters works best for short tours or easy backcountry adventures. If you’re winter camping, you’ll need at least 70 liters, though most summer backpacks of that size will work for winter.
In general, packs offer access to their main compartment through the top or back panel. Top loaders typically have one large main pocket and some kind of lid or zipper that seals and protects the body of the pack. Sometimes a side zip aids access to the bottom of the pack. They’re light and simple but require forethought while packing, otherwise there’s a lot of digging around to find things.
Back-panel packs, meanwhile, offer easier access to everything in the main compartment. (These packs usually have a regular top opening as well.) The deep zipper makes it easy to stay organized but adds weight. I opt for a top loader when I’m keeping weight down and a back-panel design if I’m trying to stay organized.
For packs over 30 liters, I recommend a foam suspension system and aluminum stays; without both, packs are at risk of crumpling or poorly distributing their weight.
The lightest winter packs, usually those designed for ice climbing, weigh just over a pound, while the heaviest airbags top seven pounds. It’s a huge range. Pounds on the back will slow you down going uphill. On the flip side, ditching weight usually means sacrificing features, durability, stability, safety, or comfort.
Helmet carriers, ice-ax straps, dedicated avalanche-tool pockets, and even crampon pouches are all worthwhile, with one caveat: make sure you need them. Otherwise those bits and pieces flap around and add weight. We think pockets for goggles, dedicated avalanche-tool areas, and side compression straps are all worth the weight. From there, it’s up to what you’ll use the pack for. Consider any features against the added weight. Most climbing-focused packs will make it easy to strip many features off. That’s a nice option if your needs vary, allowing you to outfit the pack for the day.