Backcountry skiing requires a serious amount of heavy gear: avalanche gear, skis, winter clothes, boots, poles, bindings, and skins, to name a few. You’ll need a quality backpack to keep all your gear plus clothes and other extras. However, what should you look out for in a backcountry ski backpack?
Backcountry-specific backpacks are critical for the sport. These packs have pockets designed to carry items your safety will depend on, such as avalanche safety gear, which you can access easily. It should also have straps for carrying your skis, enough space, and an airbag.
There are other considerations for choosing the best backcountry ski backpack. Read on below to learn more.
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What To Look For in Backcountry Skiing Backpacks
Backcountry skiing is one of the most thrilling snow sports adventures out there.
Having said that, it’s also one of the most physically demanding, given all the heavy and bulky ski equipment you have to haul uphill and downhill. Also known as touring, these trips usually take at least a few days to make the most of the fresh powder and winter season – so you’ll have to pack a considerable amount of gear in your backpack.
But what is the best backcountry skiing backpack out there? Below is a guide to help you find the right pack for your touring needs.
It might be tempting to take one of your regular travel or hiking backpacks. However, it can’t be emphasized enough how important it is to use a backcountry-specific backpack for this adventure.
That’s because ski packs have specific organization compartments that enable you to easily access avalanche safety gear when you need it. In addition, they also have technical features designed for backcountry skiing, such as a ski carry system, goggle pocket, deployable airbags, and a padded bottom to protect the bag from abrasion among others.
Additionally, ski and snowboard backpacks are different from climbing and hiking backpacks because of their closure systems. Ski backpacks are designed with several access points which can be a combination of zippers and drawstrings, as well as front and back panel zip enclosures. The very nature of skiing means that you will constantly be in transition, so your success depends on a backpack that you can easily open and close at various times to access your gear efficiently.
Ski Carry System
Backpacks provide different methods of carrying your skis along. The two primary ski-carrying systems are A-frame and diagonal. Some packs allow for just one ski carry system, while others are more versatile and allow for 2 or more, depending on the straps and buckles provided.
The A-frame ski is the traditional and perhaps most popular way of carrying skis in a backpack. It involves the use of compression straps on each side of the pack, then a Voile strap to join the tips on top. As a result, you get an A-frame.
The main benefit of using an A-frame ski carrying system is that it’s tight, closer to your body, and the center of gravity. The skis don’t dangle behind your legs, giving you more freedom off the ground, which is handy for climbing. It’s also a comfortable way to carry your skis.
However, setting up skis on an A-frame can take longer and it won’t work well with bulky or fat skis. You need good ski straps; without them, the skis tend to flop around. In addition, this carrying system will make it more challenging to access the lid and side panels of your backpack, so you may have to reconfigure your gear to ensure everything is easily accessible.
The diagonal ski carry is an efficient and quick method. It involves strapping the skis together using ski brakes or a Voile strap, which is then threaded using the loop located on the bottom of the pack, and another loop on the upper part of the pack.
This carry system is recommended for smaller and lighter loads. You won’t have any problem accessing the top, back, or side panels either. The disadvantage of using the diagonal ski carry is that the weight is further from the center of gravity, which can be tricky for maneuvering in certain situations.
One of the fastest and simplest ways to carry your skis is by using shoulder straps. Simply loosen the shoulder and sternum strap, then place the skis at a diagonal angle. Tighten the shoulder straps and you’re set.
Using shoulder straps doesn’t require you to remove your backpack. It can be slightly uncomfortable, though many skiers employ this technique during short hikes under 15 minutes.
While it’s rare for skiers to utilize the horizontal way of carrying skis, some still use it. The main advantage is that it takes almost no time. This involves strapping the skis together, and then holding them in place at the center of the pack.
Using the horizontal ski carry method is extremely handy in open terrain. Just be careful not to accidentally smack any of your companions with your skis.
At the end of the day, there’s no right or wrong answer. It will all depend on your personal preferences and skiing style.
Compartments & Attachments
Backcountry skiing backpacks come with several compartments and organizational features that are specific to the sport. These may include:
- Ski gear compartments are important so that you can neatly pack your poles and skis when they aren’t in use. Several backpacks also come with padded or fleece-lined goggle bags to ensure that your goggles are safe;
- Helmet carry, where you can securely store your helmet whenever it isn’t in use. It’s best that the helmet carry doesn’t bounce;
- Hip belt pockets for smaller items that you’ll need in the mountains. These include calorie-heavy snacks, an avalanche transceiver, hats, a headlamp, knives, gloves, an inclinometer, and navigation tools;
- Ice axe carry loops, which are usually a front exterior or bottom pack. These loops enable you to attach ice tools which you will need for backcountry skiing;
- Side and back zippers, which help you access tools and gear at the bottom of the backpack and save you valuable time;
- Daisy chain gear loops, which you can use to attach crampons and other hardware to your backpack;
Be sure that you can make use of all the pockets and attachment points before you buy a touring pack. Otherwise, they’ll feel burdensome once you use the pack.
Choose a backcountry skiing backpack size based on the length and type of your trip. Both these factors will influence how much gear you will need to carry with you.
Generally speaking, 30 to 40 liters is just right for backcountry skiing. If you prefer going on half-day backcountry tours, a 20-30L pack will be just right for the essentials such as layers, a probe, a shovel, and food. If you will be going on longer day tours, a pack with 35 to 40L of storage will do for the extra gear and snacks you’ll need.
For multi-day and overnight touring, you may need as much as 55L. Last but not least, long mountain trips where you will need to pack cooking equipment, tents, and other tech gear will require a capacity of around for 60 to 70L.
When choosing the capacity of your skiing backpack, remember that heavier loads will certainly impact your ride downhill.
Carry Comfort and Suspension System
A pack’s suspension system, such as the shoulder straps, waist or hip belt, and frame sheet, all play a vital role in distributing weight evenly. The heavier the load you intend to carry, the more supportive the suspension system must be for a comfortable carry.
Look for a backpack with tough yet robust shoulder straps. The cushioning and foam in the straps will protect your back and shoulders even when hiking with heavy loads. Meanwhile, padded hip belts are recommended for backpacks carrying more than 20 pounds, since they help transfer some of the weight to your hips.
Measure your torso length before buying a backpack. Most packs can fit the average torso length, which ranges from 15 (extra small) to 20 inches (large). Those with shorter or taller torsos should opt for small or extra-large backpack sizes, though if the difference is only a matter of under 5 inches, adjusting the shoulder straps will usually ensure a proper fit.
Female skiers may also want to look into women-specific backpack designs. While most backcountry skiing backpacks are unisex or for men, keep in mind that everyone’s bodies are unique. Women with a smaller frame may benefit from the shorter and narrower designs of a woman-specific backpack.
Always follow the manufacturer’s fit chart before buying a pack.
Many of the best backcountry skiing backpacks these days already come equipped with an airbag safety system. Packs with an airbag tend to cost more, but it’s worth the investment if your life depends on it. They’re also heavier and will leave you with less storage space for your other gear, though it’s worth considering since it will increase your chances of survival.
They will keep you afloat, acting similarly to a life jacket but in the snow as it helps take you to the surface of the tumble. Airbags also come in handy by protecting you from trees, sharp rocks, and other obstacles.
Airbag safety systems come in one of two designs: compressed air and battery-operated fans. Compressed air in a canister will inflate the airbag once deployed, though the canister requires refilling after each deployment. Keep in mind that airlines don’t allow passengers to travel with a full canister, so you may want to take this into consideration for your trip.
On the other hand, fan systems need to be charged to inflate, though they are safe to travel with. They weigh more than canisters, but newer, more advanced models are lightweight. Some backcountry skiing backpacks have removable airbag systems, which are also a good option.
Hydration is critical when going on any intensive activity, including skiing. It will make a big difference to use a backpack with a hydration sleeve or pack that has been designed especially for the snow, because regular hydration packs will cause the water to freeze.
Be sure that the hydration bladder you plan to use is compatible with your backpack. Packs come with a variety of hydration systems which include a bladder or reservoir. On the other hand, you can also purchase a bladder that’s compatible with your pack.
Another type of hydration system found in some ski backpacks is the insulated sleeve. Since not all skiing backpacks have a hydration system, this is one aspect of your trip that you should think about very well. Dehydration on the mountains is extremely dangerous and can be fatal.
There is a debate within the skiing community about the benefits (or lack thereof) of an AvaLung. This breathing apparatus is a safety tool that can help save lives in the event of an avalanche provided that it’s used correctly. The AvaLung works by enabling you to breathe oxygen through the tube, then exhale the carbon dioxide into an exhaust port.
Compared to an airbag, it’s more lightweight and portable. Most skiers find airbags more useful, while others believe that carrying an AvaLung too can’t hurt. These are usually purchased separately, though it’s necessary to have a backpack that is compatible with your AvaLung.
Our Recommendations for the Best Backcountry Skiing Backpacks
With all the many technical features to look out for in a backcountry ski backpack, shopping for the right one can be daunting.
Check out the guide below for some recommendations that are popular among skiers:
Black Diamond Dawn Patrol 25 Backpack: Black Diamond is a trusted name when it comes to backcountry skiing. The Dawn Patrol 25 Backpack is perfect for half-day tours, resort tours, spring skiing, and other single-day trips. Weighing just 2 pounds and 5 ounces, this lightweight pack is highly contoured for a comfortable, body-hugging fit.
It comes with a retractable diagonal ski carrying system as well as an A-frame carry, so you have two options for carrying your skis. The Black Diamond trademark Pick Pockets are designed to safely and securely keep your ice tools, while the Hi Lo helmet carry and tool organizer pocket make it easy to look for your small yet necessary items.
The Black Diamond Dawn Patrol 25 Backpack is compatible with the brand’s AvaLung, which is purchased separately.
Black Diamond Cirque 45 Backpack: It’s easy to see why the Black Diamond Cirque 45 is the pack of choice for technical skiers. This backpack was designed to help you succeed as you navigate complex ski lines anywhere in the world thanks to its simple, streamlined design.
Featuring a minimalist design and active suspension, this form-fitting backpack has ample storage for overnight missions. Easily open or close the main compartment with just one pull for maximum efficiency. Keep all your avy tools handy in one pocket, while ice tools and rope can be kept in another.
The Black Diamond Cirque 45 also comes equipped with a quick-deploy piolet which is compatible with a variety of piolets and other gear you will need for technical skiing. Stow your skis using either the A-frame carry or the tuck-away diagonal ski carry. This pack makes it comfortable to carry everything thanks to the SwingArm shoulder straps and the stretch-woven hip belt pocket.
The dedicated internal avalanche pocket is spacious enough to hold a shovel, snow saw, probe, and other belongings. The side compression straps come in handy to compress the backpack down to a much more compact size, which adds to its versatility. The Cirque 45 is built to last: made from 210 denier Dynex, this material is extremely soft but it also has a reinforced bottom.
Fjallraven Keb 52L Backpack: Take it from Swedish outdoor equipment specialist Fjallraven to come up with a unique and highly functional backcountry skiing backpack. Upon first glance, the Keb 52 is certainly a beautiful pack, but it’s loaded with useful features and made of one-of-a-kind materials.
The pack’s sides and bottom are constructed with Fjallraven’s new Bergshell fabric, which is made from durable, waterproof recycled nylon. For many fans of the pack, the main highlight is the superior-quality wood frame which is eco-friendly: its production has helped reduce CO2 emissions by as much as 90%.
Fjallraven’s Keb 52L can accommodate skiers of different heights thanks to the adjustable back system. Women-specific models are available as well. It comes with generous amounts of padding and ventilation too.
In addition, the pack has terrific compartments: side pockets for water bottles and other gear, zippered pockets on the hip belt, a large U-shaped pocket on the front exterior, overlid and underlid pockets – all in a slim, great-looking bag.
All these come at a higher price compared to most other ski backpacks. It also weighs 2260 grams, making it heavier than other ski backpacks but they have somehow managed to design a pack that feels light despite the heavy load. Given the great attention to detail and the superior quality of materials used, the Fjallraven Keb 52L is well worth the cost.
Patagonia Descensionist 40L Pack: Big missions require backpacks that are up for the challenge. The Patagonia Descensionist 40L is built for serious skiers who need superior functionality without cutting corners on comfort.
Looking at the features of this pack, it’s clear that they have struck gold when it comes to all the big factors: features, comfort, and weight – all of which are crucial for long ski days. Yet, there are none of the excessive bells and whistles that will only end up burdensome.
The durable plastic frame sheet and metal stay provide superior load carrying. Meanwhile, the padded and breathable shoulder straps, hip belt, and back panel ensure you’re comfortable. The roll-top closure is convenient for packing small loads but also expands for days when you go on bigger trips.
Ice tools can be carried both internally and externally. It also has a dynamic and removable carrying system so you can choose to carry your skis vertically, in A-frame, or even in cross position.
The Patagonia Descensionist 40L is constructed out of long-wearing Cordura nylon, which is one of the toughest materials out there. After all, with all the sharp and heavy gear you’ll be packing into it, you definitely will need a backcountry ski backpack that’s abrasion and puncture-resistant.
Hyperlite Prism Pack: Hyperlite is well-known among snow and ice sport enthusiasts for its impressive, functional ultralight gear. The Prism Pack is no exception: this is a must-have for all winter adventures.
With a generous load capacity of up to 50 pounds, the Prism will enable you to traverse with heavy loads feeling like there is nothing on your back. Its streamlined features include external pockets for axe heads, while the side sleeve pockets are perfect for pickets and other gear. The hip belt is constructed out of ultra-light Dyneema fabric, fortified with closed cell rigid foam and mesh.
The Hyperlite Prism also comes with a removable and contoured aluminum stay, top compression straps, sternum straps, buckles, A-frame ski carry, and side compression straps. The shoulder straps are generously padded, and come with an ergonomic S-curve for added comfort. Its bar-tacked reinforcements, which are placed on all stress points in the bag, give you peace of mind when it comes to durability.
Osprey Kamber 42 Ski Backpack: The Osprey Kamber 42 Ski Backpack has such a versatile design that it can accommodate numerous ski and snowboarding styles. Who wouldn’t appreciate a dual closure option? With top-loading and back panel main compartment access plus a divider for wet and dry gear, this is a pack you’ll want to take with you to the mountains, time and again.
This bag comes with an A-frame ski carry, and many other useful compartments. These include a helmet carry, horizontal back panel carry, two ice tool loops, detachable top pocket, an under-lid rope carry system, and a scratch-free goggle pocket, among others. The buckles and zippers are designed to be glove-friendly too.
That’s not all: the already feature-rich Osprey Kamber 42 is equipped with zippered fabric hip belt pockets, and an easy access avalanche safety system with sleeves. The internal reservoir also has an insulated harness sleeve, plus the shoulder harness is equipped with an insulated hydration tube sleeve. Sturdy construction is guaranteed with 420HD nylon material, sure to withstand years of snowy adventures.
Compression straps located on the upper and lower parts of the backpack come in handy to cinch the pack down when it’s time for descent. The pack is lightweight too: it’s constructed with Osprey’s LightWire, so it weighs a mere 4 pounds given all its excellent features.
Granite Gear Virga 2 Backpack: Ultralight skiers appreciate the minimalist features of the Granite Gear Virga 2 Backpack. This model is newly improved and is even lighter than ever! Weighing just 1 pound and 2 ounces, it can carry an impressive amount of gear!
Unlike other bags that weigh you down, this pack lets you focus on the adventure. It even comes with an extension collar so that you can add more equipment past its 54-pound capacity if needed.
Another major benefit of this pack is that it’s completely frameless, though foam padding is designed within the pack to create a barrel-like structure. Compared to other backcountry ski backpacks on the market, the Granite Gear Virga 2 is certainly simpler – but that’s a huge draw for minimalist types. It’s available in three torso sizes as well to accommodate skiers of all heights.
The bag is constructed with heavy-duty Cordura fabric in heavy-wearing parts of the pack, so don’t let the light weight fool you. This pack will last you a long time. It’s also on the more affordable side of the spectrum – certainly great value for money.
The kind of backpack you choose for backcountry skiing can make or break your trip. This helpful guide provides all the information you need for selecting the best backcountry skiing backpack.