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The Best Winter Hiking Backpacks

Side compression straps are good to attach snowshoes to a winter backpack
Side compression straps are good to attach snowshoes to a winter backpack

I get a lot of questions from readers and friends about what backpacks they should buy for winter hiking and backpacking and as usual, it all depends on the type of winter hiking you plan on doing and the conditions you expect to encounter.

While you can use a regular 3-season backpack for winter hiking, provided it has sufficient volume to carry extra gear and water, there are backpacks available that are better designed for winter hiking and backpacking that provide features that you wouldn’t normally need or use the rest of the year. Wearing a pack that is tailored for winter hiking and backpacking can make a huge difference in your comfort on a strenuous hike so I’d recommend you consider getting a pack that is more suited for winter use.

On strenuous winter day hikes, I carry a full overnight backpacking load
On strenuous winter day hikes, we usually carry overnight backpacking gear

Types of Winter Hiking Trips

When it comes to choosing which backpack to bring on a winter hike, I classify most winter hikes along the following three dimensions:

  • Winter Backpacking Trips, where we plan to spend the night camping out
  • Strenuous Winter Day Hikes, where we don’t plan to spend the night out, but there’s a real chance it could happen if we get lost or someone is injured
  • Moderate Winter Day Hikes, which are shorted duration hikes, where there is a small chance we won’t make it back to the trailhead as planned

Winter Backpacking Trips

On winter backpacking trips where we plan to sleep out overnight, I carry a lot of winter-specific gear that takes up more volume than my 3-season equivalents like a -25 below down zero sleeping bag, a freestanding winter tent, extra gloves, hats, puffy layers, snow goggles, a liquid fuel stove, an avalanche shovel, microspikes, snowshoes, crampons, ice axe and so on, including extra group safety gear that we share out. This requires a backpack with extra volume and external gear attachment points.

Strenuous Winter Day Hikes

On strenuous winter days hikes where we hike all day and into the night, I bring  extra backpacking gear in case we’re forced to spend the night out, although I hedge  on the weight and volume by bringing a lighter weight sleeping bag, a bivy instead of a tent, and leave the avalanche shovel at home. I still carry all of my traction devices and we  like to bring at least 2 liquid fuel stoves for redundancy, shared in the group. This still requires a backpack with more than a 3 season volume and external attachment points.

Moderate Winter Day Hikes

On moderate day hikes, I’m usually out for less than 4 hours and hike in less dangerous and remote conditions than on my more strenuous day hikes. While I still carry lots of layers, extra gloves, and hats, I usually don’t bring a sleeping bag, shelter, stove or as many of the traction devices I bring on longer hikes.

External attachment points make it easy to carry bulky gear outside your backpack
External attachment points make it easy to carry bulky gear outside your backpack

Recommended Winter Backpack Features

Backpacks tailored for winter use have a different feature set than most 3 season packs. What follows are the features that I’ve found most useful for the types of trips I describe above. While I think these translate fairly broadly across winter locales, you need to be the judge on the features you believe are most relevant for your needs.

Volume and Weight

If you mostly plan on doing a combination of overnight winter backpacking trips or strenuous day hikes, you’ll probably want a pack that has 65-85 liters of internal capacity. While it is tempting to get a pack that is even larger, try to avoid buying a pack that is heavier than 4 or 5 pounds. Pack and gear weight is even more important in winter than the rest of the year, because you’ll be wearing and carrying a lot more of it.

External Attachment Points

Winter packs need to have a multitude of external attachment points to carry sharp, pointy, or bulky gear that won’t fit inside the main storage areas of a backpack. The most useful external attachment points include compression straps, daisy chains, hip belt webbing or gear loops, and ice axe loops with shaft holders.

Compression Straps

Compression straps serve two purposes: to help compress a puffy load and bring the weight closer to your core muscles where it can be carried more easily; and to attach sleeping pads, snowshoes, avalanche shovels, or skis to the sides of your pack instead of the front so that the load doesn’t pull you backwards and off-balance.

When choosing a backpack, try to find ones that have two or three tiers of compression straps that run horizontally across the sides of the packs. The compression straps should be adjustable and easy to undo while wearing gloves so you can slide snowshoes under them . Avoid packs that have compression straps that zig zag back and forth on the backpack using one strap to save weight. These are very difficult to use as external attachments.

Steep winter hikes may require an ice axe
Steep winter hikes may require an ice axe

Ice Axe Loops

There are two kinds of ice axes in this world – straight walking axes and curved climbing axes. If you need to carry a walking axe, look for a pack that has at least one ice axe loop at the base of the pack and a shaft holder, both off-center along the back of the pack. The shaft holder can be a simple cord lock like those found on many Osprey packs, or a more robust buckle. If you plan on carrying two climbing axes, look for packs with two ice axe loops and shaft keepers.

Daisy Chains

Daisy chains are often sewn onto winter packs and can be used to lash extra gear to the back or sides of the pack using canvas or velcro straps. They usually have many loops sewn into them that run the length of your pack from top to bottom. Shorter daisy chains are often located on the front of your shoulder straps for attaching pockets, or on the outside of a top lid.

Hip Belt Webbing and Gear Loops

Some climbing oriented packs have canvas or plastic gear loops on the outside of the hip belt to clip climbing carabiners to. While not a substitute for a proper sit harness, these loops can be quite convenient to rack gear. Alternatively,  you can clip insulated water bottle holders to them so you can drink when you are on the move and don’t want to stop.  Extra hip belt webbing serves the same purpose and is often better than having belt pockets that are too small for winter use.

Closeup of External Crampon Pocket (center)
Closeup of External Crampon Pocket (center)

Crampon Pockets

Crampon pockets are a very convenient and safe place to store crampons when you’re not wearing them. Located on the side of the pack farthest away from you, they keep the crampon points away from your arms and legs, your head, and your gear where they can do real damage.  These pockets are usually open on top so you can easily slip your crampons into them and come with drain holes.

Floating Pocket on an overstuffed Winter Backpack
Floating Pocket on an overstuffed Winter Backpack

Floating Lid and Spindrift Collar

It can be very helpful in winter to have a backpack that can expand in volume to carry more gear. One way to do this is to buy a pack with a floating lid, usually a top pocket that can detach from the main body of the pack but is still held down by 4 straps. Extra gear, say a coil of rope, can be sandwiched between the pocket and the top of your pack in this manner.

Alternatively, your pack may have what is called an extension or spindrift collar which extends the capacity of the main compartment upward and keeps your gear dry. It’s convenient to hold his extra capacity in place with a floating lid.

Backpack Pockets

Backpack pockets can be a two-way street in winter. While they can be useful for organization, they can also add a lot of unnecessary weight to a backpack. For example, having a backpack with a separate sleeping bag pocket is pretty useless, because your sleeping bag can just as easily be stored in one large main compartment without needing the extra fabric weight and zipper required for the additional pocket.

Personally, I prefer backpacks with one large main compartment and a floating lid that has one or two externally pockets in it so you rarely have to open your pack. These external pockets are good for storing items that you will want to access quickly including food, maps, a compass, extra gloves and hats.

Accessory Pockets

Most of the hip belt pockets provided by manufacturers are simply too small to be of much use in winter, and there aren’t enough of them to carry everything you might need for a winter hike, such as a camera, sun tan lotion, lip balm, headlamp, compass, map, altimeter, and a pencil or pen.

Therefore, many hikers add accessory pockets to their packs to provide more external storage or they wear an additional fanny pack backwards to provide another pocket that can store spare gloves, hats, and food. For example, I’ve added two shoulder strap pockets and two hip belt pockets to my winter pack, so I seldom have to stop and open my backpack for supplies.

Recommended Winter Packs

If you are shopping for a winter backpack with some of the winter-specific features I’ve list above, you’ll find that they’re often listed as climbing or ski mountaineering backpacks by manufacturers. Don’t let that deter you since there is a high degree of overlap between those sports and winter hiking and backpacking.

If you’re interested at looking at some winter specific packs, here are the packs that I recommend for winter hiking and backpacking.

Winter Backpacking Trips

Strenuous Winter Day Hikes
Moderate Winter Day Hikes

If you’d like to suggest other winter packs that you’ve had good luck with, please leave a comment below.

Written 2012. Updated 2014.

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  1. I was a big fan of my older model Golite Pinnacle, 70L @ 1.6lb (they now call it the Jam 70L and it’s 0.4lb heavier). It doesn’t have a specific crampon pocket, but it’s more than easy to strap one on to the back.

    I personally don’t like top lid pockets as they top weight the bag and when you try to get into the main compartment generally cause the bag to tip over.

  2. Thanks for all the info. I now begin to understand what some of those straps are for! I’m a sucker for maximum flexibility, so this is the sort of rucksack I favour all year round.

    • These packs are all surprisingly lightweight for their size and many are also frameless, so using them for 4 season use is not entirely out of the question. For example, the cold cold world chaos is a bomber pack, tough enough for backpacking and bush whacking, and weighs just over 3 pounds. It also uses a foam sleeping pad as a back pad so you get dual use.

      • I am considering getting a Chaos for winter backpacking but then also considering using it as a 3 season pack as well. It seems like it could work well in that regard as you have said. Typically my load for a 2-3 day 3 season trip is about 35 lbs so this pack would handle that nicely it seems, what do you think? It would be nice to be able to use a $245 item more thank just in winter. I currently have a Granite Gear Nimbus Ozone that I like a lot but this pack is a bit larger and has some added features and is winter friendly. Just wondering what your thoughts were on that?

        I am also a little confused about the back pad doubling as a sleeping pad. How large does it actually get as a sleeping pad? Would it replace your “normal” sleeping pad? Just wasn’t sure about that.

        Thanks as always for you awesome site. I am heading up to the whites in feb for some winter backpacking and a mountaineering class :)


      • The Chaos is an alpine style pack like many made today by companies such as Gregory, Osprey, and Deuter – and can certainly be used for 3 or 4 season backpacking. I have been thinking along the same lines myself when I have to carry heavy in non-winter conditions. The crampon pocket folds down flat, so you can easily lash stuff to the back if your want, no worries.

        one caveat to that – it has no side pockets or a hydration port, which could be an issue.

        It has an internal pad pocket inside the main compartment. Mine came with a thin foam pad folded over a few times which is more than adequate as a backpanel or as a 2nd base winter pad under a much warmer insulated pad. After a few years, this pad became very compressed, so I replaced it with a Therm-a-rest Z-Lite pad which works just as well and can be used as a single pad for 3 season, or one of 2 pads in winter. I like a combined r-value of 5 for winter, and r=2.5 for 3-season.

  3. Now that Mammut has jumped the shark on packs (the Extreme 35 and 45 were among the most beautiful pieces of kit ever designed) I feel that Black Diamond’s Epic and Speed packs are now the front runners for winter. Little things like the over-long side straps (so you can easily attach snowshoes, etc) betray the depth of thought and testing that have gone into them.

  4. Since I live where a three-season pack is basically a four-season pack, I’m not too worried about crampons etc (do you treat these with vitamin I? ;-) ).

    What really impressed me with these was that the pack weights were comparable and usually much better than those sold by various main-line vendors. The cold cold world ones looked especially well engineered (but that’s just looking at the web-pages).

    These look like packs that would survive “scout use”, but wouldn’t break either the scouts’ backs or be out of the affordable range. I get sick of seeing scouts show up with 6lb internal frame packs, when they need to be watching their weights.

    • Rob, the Cold Cold World packs are absolutely bomber. Lightweight and very durable. I know people who have been using theirs for over a decade or more. I think Randy’s packs are among the finest made today and I am not alone.

  5. +1 on the CCW Chaos for heavy duty winter hiking or serious mountaineering.

    For moderate winter day hikes, I would also suggest the Deuter SpeedLite 30. Specifications and info at http://www.deuter.com/en_US/backpack-details.php?category=118&artnr=47041

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