A man snowboards down the slopes with a small pack on

How To Choose the Right Ski or Snowboard Pack

Whether you’re at a resort or touring the backcountry, the right pack can boost your comfort and safety.

Winter outings tend to be gear-intensive. Between the changeable weather, higher calorie needs, and greater objective risk, you just need a lot more stuff. This is doubly true if you’ll be skiing or snowboarding in avalanche terrain, in which case you’ll need a shovel, probe, and various electronics in addition to food, water, layers, and emergency gear. That’s a lot to fit in most day-packs

Winter packs can’t just be big; they also have to be meticulously organized. When it’s cold out, you want to minimize the time you spend standing around fishing for gear. That means you need a pack designed to keep all your stuff readily accessible. At the same time, your bag needs to be streamlined enough to shed snow and move with you while you’re skinning fast or carving turns. 

While your exact needs will vary depending on the outing and terrain, keep these key features in mind as you hunt for the perfect pack.   

Packs for Nordic Skiing

If you’re skiing at Nordic centers, you probably won’t need a large pack. After all, the lodge is usually close by in case of emergencies. Instead, look for a pack that’s lightweight and enables unrestricted movement. These are the two most common types of cross-country ski packs:  

Nordic backpacks

Since cross-country skiing rarely requires avalanche gear, Nordic packs tend to be lighter and more minimalist than backcountry ski packs. One of the main features Nordic skiers look for is compatibility with a water reservoir. Look for a pack that has an insulated hydration system, which will keep the bladder and hose from freezing. If you’re more of a bottle person, look for a pack with chest pockets or another easy-access water carrying system. Other features to look for:

  • At least 10 to 15 liters of capacity for essentials like layers, water, and snacks
  • Quick-drying materials like nylon or polyester
  • A durable water-repellent (DWR) coating to shed moisture
  • Compression straps that pull the load against your back and eliminate pack sway
  • Zippered hip-belt pockets for quick access to items like lip balm and sunscreen
  • Adjustable sternum straps and hip belt for dialing in fit
  • Thermoformed and/or hydrophobic back panels that enable airflow 

Nordic hip packs

Many Nordic skiers opt for hip/belt packs (also called lumbar packs), which eliminate the sweaty-back issue so common among traditional packs. Features to look for include:

  • Durable materials with a water-resistant coating
  • Compression straps that pull the load into your lower back
  • A waist belt that wraps securely around your hips
  • Sufficient storage capacity for your daily essentials
  • A compatible hydration bladder (hint: some packs offer a magnetic bite-valve attachment on the belt to improve hose management)
  • Zippered access to the main compartment 
  • External zippered pockets for small items like lip balm or sunscreen 

Packs for resort skiing and snowboarding 

Most people don’t ski with a backpack on at the resort. However, some do prefer having their layers or snacks with them, especially if they don’t want to shell out for pricey resort food.

Backpacks for resort skiing tend to be slightly smaller and more streamlined than their backcountry counterparts—usually 15 to 25 liters in volume. That way, they can slip off the shoulder easily on the chairlift and aren’t cumbersome on bumps or other demanding resort terrain. Look for snow-shedding materials and glove-friendly zippers. Some also have a quick-release mechanism that lets you free yourself from your bag if it gets caught in the lift. 

If you plan on skiing or riding sidecountry (i.e., out-of-bounds terrain accessed from the resort), you’ll want a more dedicated, backcountry-style pack. Look for an avalanche safety compartment, slightly more capacity, and durable ski-carry straps.

Backcountry ski packs 

Backcountry skiing is one of the more gear-intensive winter sports. And because it involves a lot of transitions and constant layer management, pack comfort and capacity are paramount. Here’s what to consider.


The size of pack you’ll need will depend on what kind of gear you expect to carry. Some general guidelines:

  • For short tours in pleasant weather, target 20 to 25 liters of capacity.
  • If you expect colder weather, higher winds, or more treacherous terrain that might necessitate crampons or other gear, look for a bigger pack—30 to 35 liters.
  • If you plan to winter camp or do a hut trip, you’ll need a pack that can accommodate all your food and overnight gear. Target 40 to 50 liters minimum. 


Fit is the top factor that affects comfort on long tours. Before you buy a pack, check your torso length (usually small, medium, or large, though every manufacturer has different measurements that correspond to these sizes). Also measure your waist to get a feel for your hip-belt size, which also varies by manufacturer. If you have trouble finding packs that fit, look for one that has load-lifter straps as well as a cushioned, wrap-around hip belt, both of which can help alleviate discomfort and dial in fit.  

When you’ve found a pack that fits your dimensions, fill it with the weight you expect to carry. Then put on your touring outerwear and try it on. Walk around the store and make sure there’s no undue rubbing or bouncing around. Pay special attention to the shoulder straps, sternum strap, and waist belt. Make sure that:

  • Both hip fins comfortably wrap your iliac crests.
  • The sternum strap isn’t too tight, and your arms aren’t going numb. 
  • The shoulder straps aren’t too narrow or too wide for your shoulders.
  • Each strap has room to spare in case you need to add thicker layers. 


Although many ski packs are unisex and fit people of all genders, some companies offer backpacks designed especially for women. These tend to have shorter back panels and contoured shoulder straps that better fit women’s physiology. Some also have angled hip fins to accommodate wider hips. If you’re a curvier woman or have a smaller frame, a women-specific fit may work well for you. Men on the shorter side can also benefit from the smaller sizing on women’s packs. 


With a backcountry pack, it’s critical that you’re able to access your avalanche safety gear within seconds in case of emergency. To that end, most backcountry ski packs have dedicated avalanche safety compartments with pouches sized specifically for an avalanche probe and shovel. Make sure this compartment is easy to access from the outside of the pack and has glove-friendly zippers. 

Good backcountry packs also have external pockets that are easy to access on the go. Look for chest pockets that fit a radio or phone, and hip-belt pockets that accommodate snacks, sunscreen, and other essentials. 

Finally, consider access to the main pack space. Some packs have zip-open back panels, which allow you to flay open your pack and reach your gear without getting snow all over your back panel. Other bags have top-down access, which makes it easy to dig into the pack if you’re on a steep slope and need to balance it on your boots. Others still offer long side-zippers, which some skiers like because they can sling the pack around on one shoulder and access their gear without putting the bag down. All these systems work well; it’s just typically a matter of preference. 

Other features to look for:

  • Stowable elastic flap or helmet-carry system for climbing 
  • Ice-ax carry system (i.e., a loop at pack’s bottom with tabs/straps for securing ice tools)
  • Daisy chain loops for carrying or crampons and other gear
  • Compression straps along the sides to tighten/reduce bulk

Ski/Snowboard Carry Systems

Sometimes you’ll need to strap your backcountry skis or splitboard onto your pack, either because you’re having a repair issue, or because you want to hike up a steep slope to access better downhill terrain and need your hands free. The two main ski-carry systems are:

  • A-frame, in which each ski is strapped separately to the sides of the pack and often connected overhead via a strap around the tips.
  • Diagonal, in which both skis are pressed together and angled across the pack’s back. 

Snowboards can be carried vertically or horizontally on the back of the pack. Some packs even offer multiple ski/snowboard carrying configurations, giving you more options. 

Hydration Compatibility

Some ski packs have side water bottle pockets. But most new packs have hangers for hydration bladders and internal hydration compartments that keep a reservoir in place against your back. Some packs come with the reservoir and hose included, while others require you to add your own. Note: If you plan to carry a reservoir, make sure the hose fits easily through the pack’s hose port. Also be sure to get an insulated sleeve to keep your hose from freezing.

Back Panels

Most backcountry-oriented packs include ergonomic foam or mesh back panels that facilitate airflow and reduce heat when climbing. For backcountry use, opt for thermoformed foam over mesh (mesh sticks to snow like Velcro, which can leave your back soaked). If you plan to carry heavy loads, make sure the pack also includes a spring-steel or aluminum perimeter frame or a stay (a vertical rod that gives the pack rigidity and helps transfer weight to your hips. Many ski packs also feature moisture-wicking back panels to further keep you dry when climbing. If you tend to be a heavy sweater, consider looking for a pack that touts this feature.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.