If you’re gearing up for winter hiking and backpacking, it’s worth asking yourself if you want a backpack that’s designed for winter use, or whether you can get by using the backpack you use the rest of the year. Personally, I prefer using a winter pack or a three-season pack that has similar capabilities. It’s a lot easier to use and more comfortable.
What Makes a Good Winter Backpack?
A good winter backpack:
- Can be used while wearing gloves. That means it has big buckles on the hip belt or compression straps or that are easily opened and closed and don’t fill up with snow or freeze up.
- You can get clothing, gear, food, or water out of them fast without a lot of effort unpacking and then repacking them. Winter hiking requires a lot of micro-stops and it’s important to get moving again quickly so you or your companions can stay warm.
- Makes it easy to carry heavy awkwardly shaped gear like snowshoes, skis, climbing rope, microspikes, sharp crampons, or ice axes.
- Is modular, so you can remove components like a lid or hip belt or attach others, like pockets, electronics, insulated sleeves, etc to the outside.
- Lies close to the back for better balance and back insulation.
- Has enough volume and is designed to carry all the clothing, gear, food, water, and fuel you need for your trip in reasonable comfort.
Best Backpacks for Winter Hiking
The best backpacks for winter use are climbing backpacks, mountaineering packs, and skiing packs that are set up with 2-3 tiers of side compression webbing straps to let you carry bulky gear that doesn’t fit easily inside a backpack, like snowshoes, skis, or crampons. Some multi-day backpacks with top lids also work well because you can access frequently used gear and clothing, like hats, gloves, or lightweight jackets from the lid quickly without having to stop, open up the main compartment and dig around inside your backpack. A top lid also protects your extra clothing or gear from moisture unlike open side pockets or front mesh pockets.
Volume-wise, I find that 35L-40L works well for winter day hiking and peakbagging, while 60L-70L works best for winter backpacking. You’ll want to go even bigger for expedition-style trips.
Here are two examples of good winter backpacks, one for day hiking and one for overnight trips:
Osprey Mutant 38
The Osprey Mutant 38 has enough storage for winter-day hiking or ice climbing. It has big buckles that can be used while wearing gloves and that won’t clog up with snow. There are horizontal compression straps that make it easy to lash snowshoes to the side of the pack and horizontal straps, anchored on daisy chains to lash a pair of crampons to the front of the pack. The floating top lid provides closed storage for hats, gloves, and snacks and you can drape a rope over the main compartment and hold it in place with the top lid.
The hip belt can be folded back for use with a climbing harness, while the pack’s back panel sits flush against your back to provide insulation. There are gear loops on the outside of the hip belt to clip carabiners and extra gear to, as well as daisy chains on the shoulder straps. The list of features goes on: dual aluminum frame stays, removable top lid, dual ice axe holders, and so forth. Weight: 40.25 oz /1141g.
Granite Gear Blaze 60
The Granite Gear Blaze 60 is a great example of a 60L backpack that makes a superb winter backpacking pack. It’s available in men’s and women’s models with an adjustable torso length. It has three tiers of side and front compression straps, a removable floating top lid, and a front zipper so you can access gear inside the pack without having to unbuckle the top lid and reach into the main compartment from the top. The pack can easily haul 40-50 lbs, making it good for trips where you need to carry snowshoes, traction aids, extra water, and fuel for snow melting, in addition to winter camping gear. Weight: 48 oz / 1361g.
Here are other daypacks and overnight backpacks that we recommend for winter day-hiking and backpacking:
Suboptimal Features for Winter Hiking
Daypacks and multi-day backpacks with the following features often make poor winter packs.
- Low-volume day packs because they don’t have enough internal storage and it’s hard to attach gear to their exterior.
- Many ultralight backpacks fail because they use cord and cord locks for side compression instead of webbing straps and large buckles. Cordlocks and the cord freeze up in winter. Plus it’s difficult to slip a pair of snowshoes under a zigzagged cord on the side of the pack, let alone doing it while wearing gloves.
- Frameless backpacks often lack the load transfer required to carry heavier winter gear, especially when winter backpacking.
- Roll-top backpacks can also be problematic because they don’t have much accessible closed storage. This means you have to stop frequently and open them every time you need a layer change, a snack, or water. This just slows you down and makes you cold. It’s a good way to piss off your hiking partners, too.
- Ventilated backpacks with mesh back panels can chill you easily because they don’t provide any back insulation.
- Hydration packs are also usually a fail because they don’t have enough volume and its simply too difficult to keep a hydration hose from freezing up in winter. You’re really much better off carrying bottles, insulated inside your backpack.
Winter day hiking and backpack involves carrying a lot more gear, clothing and food and it is worthwhile buying a higher volume backpack that make it easy to attach bulky gear to the pack’s exterior. In addition, you want a backpack that makes it easy to find access the items you need quickly but provides covered storage so they stay warm and dry until needed. Winter day hiking and backpacking is very different from 3 season hiking and while there is some crossover, it requires a lot of different equipment and skills.
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