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Yeah, you can use a normal daypack or overnight pack on your winter mountain adventures. But if you’re planning on getting out to ski tour or snowshoe frequently, investing some money into a dedicated winter pack will make your trips a lot easier, safer, and more pleasant. Besides having dedicated pockets for avalanche safety gear and handy features like ski carries, winter packs are built to be balanced when you’re ascending and stable when you’re tackling the downhill.
To bring you the best packs of the winter, we collected every new pack we could find and spent last season’s snowiest months tackling everything from day hikes in the local woods to epic adventures in the alpine. These four picks carried everything we needed in comfort.
Read More: Editors’ Choice—The Best Winter Gear of 2022
What to Look for in a Winter Pack
Before you buy a winter pack, look honestly at your winter plans and decide what you’ll likely need to carry. If you’re mostly interested in daytime adventures, choose a smaller pack, big enough for an extra layer, some food, water, and your emergency gear. For bigger expeditions, you’ll want something with not just capacity, but a solid suspension and comfortable carry (winter weight adds up fast.)
Durability is key in winter packs, sometimes even more than in summer ones. From trekking poles to crampons to skis to ice axes, you’ll likely be carrying a lot of sharp objects on your fourth-season adventures. If the fabric on your new pack can’t stand up to a little bit of abuse, it will end up shredded no matter how careful you are.
Best Winter Packs of 2022
Best All-Around Winter Pack: Mystery Ranch Gallatin Peak 40
- Price: $249
- Weight: 3 lbs. (M/L)
- Capacity: 40 liters
- Best for: Whatever winter throws at you
- Sizes: Unisex S/M and M/L
- Buy Now
A sturdy suspension, smart organization, and generous capacity made the Gallatin Peak our favorite all-around pack for everything from long Alaskan ski traverses to winter hiking in variable conditions. We were able to carry over 40 pounds of gear thanks to a high-density framesheet and two vertical stays, which provided ample rigidity without sacrificing torsional flex. A strong feature set kept us organized: The Gallatin Peak boasts two zippered toplid pockets (one big enough to fit an extra midlayer and shell, one lined for scratch-free goggle storage), a dedicated pouch for avalanche gear, a burly diagonal ski-carry strap, and a stowable helmet sling. We also loved having dual access points to the main packbag: It opens via the top and two zippers on the back that allow backpanel access. “While skiing a 5,500-foot day on Turnagain Pass, Alaska, in single-digit temps, I was extremely happy to have ready access to my down jacket and puffy pants,” one tester says.
The Gallatin Peak 40 is a large pack, but stout compression straps let us pull loads close for technical descents. It also gets a gold star for durability: A broad stripe of 840-denier nylon across the back of the pack protects against sharp ski edges, and even our roughest testers had a hard time putting holes in the 320-denier ripstop nylon comprising the rest of the body.
Most Durable Winter Pack: Exped Couloir 30
- Price: $199
- Weight: 3 lbs. 4 oz. (m’s)
- Capacity: 30 liters
- Best for: Hard use
- Sizes: One size each, m’s and w’s
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Skiing can be about untouched snow and wide-open slopes. But it can also be about charging hard through heinous brush thickets, and if that’s more your style, then the Couloir 30 is the pack for you. “I do enjoy a good, tight Cascadian bushwhack,” admits one Washington tester who put over 200,000 vertical feet on the Couloir. “Every once in a while I bring the forest home with me, but this pack never showed it. Even after skiing through burnt trees and scraping charred branches, it still looks as pretty as the day it arrived.” Credit a mix of 600-denier, PU-coated polyester and 420-denier, PU-coated nylon carbonate—basically the most souped-up version of nylon out there. And though we tried to strain the suspension over 75 collective days of testing, while carrying up to 30 pounds, the stiff PE board—made of an especially tight-celled foam that repels water—and U-shape spring-steel arch frame never faltered.
Some beefy packs sacrifice cushion for functionality, but not the Couloir. One splitboarder tester praised the pack’s low-profile silhouette and close-fitting, curved shoulder straps for sway-free carry on fast turns. The Couloir sports a separate avy-tool pocket and offers both top access and a U-zip in the backpanel. Ding: Storage space feels small for a 30-liter pack.
Most Comfortable Winter Pack: Mountain Hardwear Powabunga 32
- Price: $200
- Weight: 3 lbs. 1 oz. (S/M)
- Capacity: 32 liters
- Best for: Sidecountry tours
- Sizes: Unisex S/M and M/L
- Buy Now
Designed for sidecountry outings but supportive enough for true backcountry, the Powabunga 32 and its reliable suspension kept us comfortable while we were getting after it in any terrain: We loaded it with up to 40 pounds for training laps on Colorado’s Hayden Mountain, thanks to a sturdy spring-steel perimeter frame. Load-lifter straps attach to the top of the arch, and the feet of the arch anchor directly into the hipbelt, efficiently transferring weight to the wearer’s hips. The centralized attachment points mean the belt articulates both vertically and laterally, though you can lock it into place for technical descents. The rotational freedom allows our hips and shoulders to move independently, leaving them unencumbered for turns. “I always felt nimble and locked-in wearing it while going downhill—it flexed and articulated with me during sudden carves and bumps,” gushed one tester after a season in the San Juans.
A full backpanel zipper let us grab insulating layers without digging, and a huge U-zip on the outer pocket meant easy access to avalanche gear. A massive single hipbelt pocket fits sunscreen, lip balm, and snacks. The pack’s 500-denier Cordura exterior was strong enough to resist abrasive slot-canyoneering when we snuck it onto a Utah desert trip, and the Powabunga supports both A-frame and diagonal ski carry, as well as snowboard carry.
Best Winter Pack for Big Objectives: The North Face Cobra 52
- Price: $250
- Weight: 3 lbs. 5 oz. (S/M)
- Capacity: 52 liters
- Best for: Big trips and mountaineering
- Sizes: Unisex S/M and L/XL
- Buy Now
With its tough exterior, sleek profile, and no-nonsense organization, the Cobra 52 is ready for your wildest post-Covid expeditions. At just over 3 pounds, it clocks in at alpine fighting weight, but can hold enough for a gear-heavy outing. Even while we skied in freezing rain in Alaska, set a winter orienteering course in 30 inches of powder, and toured in 40-mph wind gusts, the Cobra kept its contents safe and dry thanks to a PFC-free DWR and a thick TPU coating on the boot. And during all those trips, the suspension kept up with the gear load: The rigid PE framesheet and its two aluminum stays floated up to 40 pounds, and light padding on the hipbelt wings kept weight comfortably distributed.
The Cobra gets its lightness, in part, from a slimmed-down framesheet: In lieu of thickness, the panel relies on curvature to both contour to the body and boost rigidity, which we appreciated while we sidehilled with 40-pound loads in Oregon’s Wallowas. High-end fabrics (210-denier nylon, in either a Spectra blend or TPU-coated) also keep the weight down, but deflect branches with ease. A football-size toplid fits first aid supplies, lunch, and other small essentials, and one zippered hipbelt pocket kept granola bars and sunscreen close at hand. We also appreciated the TPU-coated crampon pouch, which we more often used to hold an avalanche shovel and probe. Tradeoff: No dedicated avy tool pocket.
How to Buy the Perfect Winter Pack
Assuming you know your size, shopping online for a winter pack isn’t as tricky as buying boots or apparel. Consider the following options while you’re shopping to make sure you get a pack that’s right for you
It doesn’t matter how much of a minimalist you are in summer: Depending on what you plan on doing, some features should be non-negotiable in a winter pack. If you plan on heading into avalanche terrain, look for a pack with a dedicated tool pocket, which makes it faster and easier to access your shovel and probe in an emergency. Devoted skiers might want to consider an airbag-compatible pack as well. Other features may come in handy: What kind of ski carry does your pack have? A-frame carries tend to be more stable than diagonal carries, but aren’t as quick to set up. A goggle pocket can protect your precious optics from getting beat up on the skin in.
You can press a larger pack into service on a day trip, but it won’t be quite as stable or comfortable. For a single-day trip, look for a pack that can hold between about 18 and 40 liters, depending on what kind of weather you’ll be skiing in and how long you’re usually out. You’ll want more than that for overnights, sometimes a lot more: On expedition-level trips where you’re carrying not just camping but also climbing gear, you may need a pack that can hold 75 liters or more.
What a Backpacker Editor Looks for in a Winter Pack
Adam Roy, Senior Digital Editor
“I do a lot of backcountry skiing, from dawn patrol missions to multi-day basecamping where I’m hauling in lots of gear, and I’ve amassed a quiver of packs for almost every kind of trip. My strategy is to use the smallest pack I can get away with: For fast-and-light days in areas I know, I’ll carry an 12-liter pack with just a snack, water, avy gear, and maybe a crisis puffy stuffed in the bottom. If I’m basecamping for a few days, I’ll usually use a 75-liter pack with my empty ski pack crammed in the top, so I can carry luxuries like down booties. But for most long day trips, I reach for a pack that’s around 25 liters; I’ve found that to be the sweet spot between storage and balance.”