It's only natural for backpack manufacturers to want you to buy another pack just for snow season, but it's also only natural for the rest of us to wonder: won't any old pack do in winter?
That depends on your futzing-around tolerance. If you go out twice a season and don't mind figuring out how to strap on your backcountry skis, stow your avalanche shovel, and thaw out your hydration hose, then sure, your summer pack can pull snow duty.
But if you spend much time on the snow, the key components of winter packs start to become tempting:
- Straps designed specifically for snowboards, cross-country skis, and snowshoes.
- Panels that let you open the pack with skis still attached.
- Compartments for your goggles, snow shovel, avalanche probe, and beacon.
We've gathered the facts on some of the most notable winter backpacks hitting the store shelves in 2009/10. Note these are all daypacks: some are big enough to handle your lunch and extra layers of clothing, but they're too small for a full overnight snow-camping kit (though they might be just the ticket if you haul with a sled).
We start with the latest models, then close with tweaks to existing product lines. Note there are many more brands and packs out there; our examples illustrate the most sought-after features in winter packs.
All new for 2009/10
OK, so CamelBak's latest "wearable hydration" experiment isn't a backpack. It's a 70-ounce hydration reservoir fitted into a soft-shell vest with a smaller compression vest that holds the water bladder snug against the back.
The ShredBak lacks the sexy backcountry features of dedicated winter packs, but it has practical applications for the most common snow-play sports: cross-country skiing on groomed tracks and lift-enabled skiing and snowboarding. Wearing a two-liter hydration bladder against your back promises a certain Quasimodo vibe, minus the worries about squeezing a pack onto a skinny chairlift seat.
- Liquid volume: 72 oz. (2.1L)
- Weight: Medium vest — 14.5 oz. (410g) men’s; 13 oz. (370g) women’s
- Insert: 1.2 oz. (33g)
- Complete reservoir: 5.1 oz. (145g)
- Complete ShredBak with water: 5.5 lbs. (2,510g) men’s; 5.4 lbs. (2,470g) women’s
The Backcountry Betty from Columbia Sportswear reflects the industry's growing attention to women-specific packs. While Columbia succumbs to the urge to get a little girly with the graphics, this pack has most of the features outlined above: room for avy tools, a goggle sleeve, ski/board lash points and a peel-away design for opening it with skis attached.
The Betty, part of Columbia's high-performance Titanium line, uses the company's Omni-Shield water-repellent coating, but shouldn't be considered waterproof.
- Weight: 2 lbs. 7 oz.
- Volume: 1,495 ci (24.5L)
Columbia Storm Patrol Ski Pack
The Storm Patrol is the Backcountry Betty's beefier big brother, with dedicated interior pockets for an avalanche shovel and probe kit and ample space for clothing layers. Like most of the bigger, more feature-rich packs on the market, it keeps wet snow tools in their own compartment so they won't soak everything else, and includes drain ports to let snowmelt escape.
The Storm Patrol also features full suspension and load-lifter straps, requirements on packs that carry larger loads. Like the Betty, its fabrics are Omni-Shield coated.
- Weight: 3 lbs. 4 oz.
- Volume: 2,227 ci (36.5L)
Main differences between the two packs: The Ropeline has zippered top-panel access, while the Wayback has a rear-panel zipper. The Wayback has 230 more cubic inches of cargo capacity with no weight penalty, but extra space can encourage carrying more stuff.
It's also nice to see you can buy into MH's reputation for tough, technical gear without ponying up premium dollars. While not cheap by any means, both models fall in the middle of the winter pack price range.
- Weight: 2 lbs. 12 oz. (1,200g)
- Volume: 1,600 ci (26.2L)
- Weight: 2 lbs. 11 oz. (1210g)
- Volume: 1,830 ci (30L)
Mountainsmith's favorite story for 2010 is that all its packs are sewn with fabric made from recycled plastic water bottles, but it also found time to reconfigures its entire line of "All Terrain" backpacks, half of which include snow-specific features for attaching boards and skis. (The new packs are to be released in January 2010).
Mountainsmith's biggest overnight/expedition packs will be winter-friendly, but I picked two of its smaller packs to better compare with the rest here. Both look much more like traditional overnight packs, and lack the separate wet/dry compartments typical of many winter packs (less of an issue if you don't camp in avalanche country).
The Willow 40 is built for women, and has a detachable top lid that converts into a daypack and a separate sleeping bag compartment. The smaller men's Mayhem 35 has an adjustable top lid. Both extend to offer considerably more storage.
Willow 40 specs:
- Weight: 4 lbs. 2 oz.
- Volume: 2,440 ci (40L); extended: 2,745 ci (45L)
Mayhem 35 specs:
- Weight: 3 lbs. 4 oz.
- Volume: 2,135ci (38L); extended: 2,440 ci (45L)
The Swiss gear giant's Nirvana 35 has all the standard winter pack features, and includes an insulated hydration sleeve to keep your hose from freezing.
Other nifty offerings: removable padded hipbelt, a holder for large free-ride helmets, and an SOS label with emergency instructions showing how to signal a helicopter for help, start a fire, and so on.
- Weight: 3 lbs. 6 oz. (1,550g)
- Volume: 2,136 ci (35L)
Osprey leaves little to chance with its new Kode series: all include insulated hydration sleeves along with the standard snow pack features, while three sizes cover the gamut of one-day winter outings.
The Kode 22 is a panel loader and the most lift-friendly of the trio. The larger Kode 30 adds panel entry to the wet section of the pack, and backpanel access to the dry section. The Kode 30 and 38 have a lightweight stretch-fabric helmet holder, and the 38 adds Osprey's LightWire frame to carry heavier loads.
Kode 38 specs:
- Weight: 3 lbs. 4 oz. (1,474g) to 3 lbs. 10 oz. (1,644g)
- Volume: 2,100 to 2,500 ci (35-41L)
Kode 30 specs:
- Weight: 3 lbs. (1360g) to 3 lbs. 6 oz. (1530g)
- Volume: 1,600 to 2,000 ci (27-33L)
Kode 22 specs:
- Weight: 2 lbs. 5 oz. (1,049g) to 2 lbs. 9 oz. (1,162g)
- Volume: 1,200 to 1,400 ci (20-24L)
Dakine's Heli Pro DLX upgrades the ski attachments to its Heli Pro line of winter packs, allowing adjustments to the cable to suit the size of individual skis. It also allows cross-lashing of a snowboard to suit riding a snowmobile. The Heli Pro DLX 20L is for men; the 18L is for women. (For an extra $5, the "Team" versions of these and other Dakine packs get you fancier graphics and colorful clips and zips).
Heli Pro DLX 20L specs:
- Weight: 3 lbs. (1,360g)
- Volume: 1,200 ci (20L)
Heli Pro DLX 18L specs:
- Weight: 2.9 lbs. (1,315g)
- Volume: 1,100 ci (18L)
Freerider Pro 28SL specs:
- Weight: 3 lbs. 13 oz. (1,729g)
- Volume: 1,700 ci (28L)
Freerider Pro 30 specs
- Weight: 3 lbs. 15 oz. (1,786g)
- Volume: 1,850 ci (30L)
Gregory strengthened the fabric and refined the zippers on its two winter packs, the Targhee and Drift. The Targhee, introduced three years ago, recently snagged Gear of the Year honors in Outside magazine's annual Gear Guide. The Drift is a smaller, lighter, scaled-down version.
- Weight: 3 lbs. 9 oz. (1,600g) to 3 lbs. 15 oz. (1,800g)
- Volume: 1,900 to 2,200 ci (31L to 35L)
- Weight: 3 lbs. (1,400g)
- Volume: 1,300 ci (20L)
The North Face adds a 22-liter pack to its Off Chute line of snow packs. The slim Off Chute 22 has one rare feature: its back panel converts to a backcountry chair, providing a perch off the snow.
- Weight: 3 lbs. 7 oz. (1,560g)
- Volume: 1,325 ci (22L)