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:
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
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.