Winter backpacking and hiking can be really tough on a backpack. You need to carry much more gear and a lot of it has very sharp edges, like crampons and ice axes, that can tear through a 3 season backpack like paper.
What you need is a backpack that can stand a lot of abuse, is designed to carry 4000-6000 cubic inches of gear, and has a lot of external attachments for carrying sharp edged technical gear or rope. If you’re shopping for a pack like this, your probably already familiar with the expedition size packs made by Gregory, Lowe, and Arc’Teryx. These tend to be monstrously heavy backpacks weighing 7-8 lbs with 5000+ cubic inch volumes.
I was recently on a guided mountaineering trip where I borrowed a 7+ lb. pack and carried a 65 lb load for 3 days (about three times the weight of my 3 season kit.) It didn’t feel right. So when I got home, I resolved to apply lightweight backpacking principles to winter backpacking, with an initial target of 50 lbs for a 2 night trip, including gear, food, water, and fuel. Carrying a really heavy pack is not my aim in life.
Cold Cold World Backpacks
If you’ve been following my blog this season, you know I’ve been assembling a winter backpacking kit, bit by bit. The last missing element I’ve needed has been a lightweight winter backpack and I finally ordered one from Cold Cold World Backpacks. Cold Cold World is a small manufacturer of ultralight mountaineering backpacks with a worldwide reputation in alpine climbing and mountaineering circles. They are located in Jackson NH, at the foot of Mt. Washington.
The Cold Cold World pack I ordered is called the Chaos and weighs 4 lbs. in a size medium (torso length 16″-19″). It has a capacity of 4000 cubic inches, includes a 16″ extension collar, and is made using heavy duty 420 denier Packcloth and 500 denier Cordura.
Cold Cold World’s backpacks are all completely handmade and it shows. The quality and robustness of the sewing job is just incredible, and it has to be, since these packs are designed to withstand being hauled up mountains and not just worn. Cold Cold World packs are normally only available in an attractive royal blue color, but Cold Cold World’s owner Randy offered to sew a red Chaos for me from some extra cloth he had in the shop at no extra cost.
My Chaos arrived about two weeks later and since then I’ve been obsessed with it: packing it and unpacking it with gear and taking it out for hikes. For $245, this pack is an amazing deal and an extremely innovative piece of equipment. I’m thrilled with it.
The Chaos is tricked out for carrying a lot of technical gear. It has four daisy chain loops, one on each side and two in the back for lashing on extra gear like snowshoes. The pack also includes two ice axe holders which can be used to carry technical axes, hiking poles, or an avalanche shovel, and ski straps on the sides of the pack for securing backcountry skis.
In addition, the Chaos has a feature I’ve never seen on any other backpack: a crampon pocket. This is a heavy pack cloth pocket that projects from the rear of the pack and makes it easy for you to store your crampons away from the rest of your delicate gear. In the photo above, my crampons are peaking out of the pocket, but completely disappear from view when they are pushed down. Holes at the bottom of the pocket let water drain out if ice or snow sticking to the crampons starts to melt.
The hip belt on the Chaos sports another unique feature: plastic loops that you can use as holsters to hang climbing tools for easy access on the move. The padding on the hip belts is just right for a 40-50 lb load and is comfortable without being bulky. The light grey straps above, let you adjust the distance between the back of the pack the hip belt and are a good place to hang an insulated water bottle holder so it’s easily accessible, but not in the way.
The shoulder harness on the Chaos is fixed to the back of the pack. The shoulder pads both have webbing on top of them for attaching extra gear or external pockets. Load lifters and a sternum strap are also provided, giving you a ton of adjustment flexibility.
Floating Backpack Lid
The Chaos is similar to a lot of heavier expedition packs in that it comes with a detachable, floating top collar, which can be completely removed or raised if you want to store more gear in the extension collar, or wedge climbing rope, a tent, or sleeping pad between the top of the pack and the collar. The collar has three zippered pockets built into it: a bottom inner pocket, and two external top pockets, a large one and a smaller one for storing stuff you need to get at during the day like ski goggles, sun tan lotion or extra food. The collar also has two daisy chain loops on top of it, so you can lash additional items to the top of the pack.
The collar is floating slightly above the main compartment in the photo below. For scale, the person wearing the pack is about 5’6″ and the pack contains 33 lbs. of gear.
If you’ve been following this gear review closely, you’ll have noticed that I have not spent much time talking about the Chaos’s frame. That’s because there is none. Instead, the Chaos borrows a page from other ultralight backs like the Gossamer Gear Mariposa and uses a removable foam pad as its frame sheet. This slips into a yellow pocket in the main compartment of the pack and can be removed at night for extra insulation under your sleeping pad or even replaced. This is the reason why this pack only weighs 4 lbs (3 pounds 8 ounces, without the pad).
The lack of a frame has no negative impact in my opinion. The comfort level all along the back and in the lumbar region is very good and load transfer to the hips is excellent. The shoulder harness is very adjustable and I’ve found it easy to get a really custom fit.
2015 Update: I’m still using this backpack after 6 winter hiking seasons and think it’s still one of the top three winter packs available.
Disclosure: The author owns this product and purchased it using their own funds.
Written 2009. Updated 2015.
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