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Cold Cold World Chaos Backpack Review

Cold Cold World Chaos Backpack atop Mt Garfield, NH

Cold Cold World is a small cottage manufacturer in New Hampshire’s White Mountains that specializes in making climbing and mountaineering backpacks. They’re world-famous in climbing circles for making high-function, durable backpacks. The 66L Cold Cold World Chaos is a frameless alpine backpack, weighing 3 lbs 12 oz (3 lb 8 oz, reviewed here) but well sized for overnight or multi-day winter trips (inquire about custom fabrics). I’ve owned the one pictured above for going on 10 years now and we’ve been on many adventures together.  I still use the Chaos and haven’t yet found a pack that its equal for hauling heavy gear and traction on winter backpacking trips. If a 66L pack is more than you need for winter backpacks or day hikes, check out the Cold Cold World Chernobyl Backpack. It has most of the features detailed below in a 50L size pack.

Cold Cold World Chaos Backpack


Highly Recommended

The Cold Cold World Chaos is a lightweight frameless alpine backpack sized for multi-day winter trips. It has an external crampon pocket and numerous external attachment points, making it ideal for use when you need to haul a lot of additional gear on the outside of your pack.

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Specs at a Glance

  • Volume:
    • 70L (size large) 4300 ci.
    • 66L (size medium) 4000 ci
  • Weight: 3 lbs 12 oz (factory); 3 lb 8 reviewed (custom colored fabric)
    • Removable lid (9.4 oz)
  • Frame type: Frameless (internal foam sleeping pad pocket)
  • Torso Sizes:
    • Medium: 16″-19″
    • Large: 18″-22″
  • Materials: 420d packcloth/500d Cordura
  • Price: $245

Organization and Internal Storage

The Chaos is an alpine-style backpack with a floating top lid, a large main compartment, an internal sleeping pad pocket, and an external crampon pocket. It doesn’t have an internal hydration pocket, no hydration reservoir hang loops or hydration ports.

If you look closely you can see the dimpled surface of a Therm-a-Rest Zlite sleeping pad (stowed in the internal sleeping bag pocket) showing on the surface of the back panel.
If you look closely you can see the dimpled surface of a Therm-a-Rest Zlite sleeping pad (stowed in the internal sleeping bag pocket) showing on the surface of the back panel.

The floating top lid has three pockets, two on top and one underneath. The top pocket is perfectly sized for carrying a compass, gps, satellite tracker, or snacks. The bigger pocket below it is well sized for carrying extra gloves, a balaclava, or facemask. The pocket on the underside of the lid is good for carrying a small first aid kit, headlamp, and toilet supplies. The lid is attached to the main pack bag by a strip of velcro and 4 webbing straps, making it easy to raise or lower when used as a floating lid (more below). The main compartment also has a long extension collar to protect your gear if you need to pack more and make use of the floating lid.

The main compartment is just a big bag with an internal sleeping pad pocket. The factory pack comes with a foam bivy pad, but I prefer using an 8 segment accordion-style Therm-a-Rest Zlite pad as a framesheet because it makes a better secondary sleeping pad (higher R-value) for winter backpacking trips. I also use the same pad to sit on when melting water and cooking on winter nights outside of my tent. When I bought the Chaos, the multi-function use of a sleeping pad as a framesheet appealed to me because it cut down the amount of weight I needed to carry. It also eliminates the need to carry a foam pad on the outside of my pack which is a PITA because it’s easily shredded by vegetation and can compromise your ability to scramble on rock ledge.

The Cold Cold World Chaos has an external crampon pocket that's good for keeping bulky, sharp crampons away from the rest of your gear.
The Cold Cold World Chaos has a rear external crampon pocket that’s good for keeping bulky, sharp crampons away from the rest of your gear.

The Chaos also has an external crampon pocket, which is a handy feature you don’t find on many backpacks because it keeps your sharp points away from the rest of the gear. This is doubly beneficial when your crampons are caked with ice and soaking wet and you don’t want them anywhere near your dry warm gear. When I’m not carrying crampons, I use the crampon pocket like I would a rear mesh pocket on an ultralight backpack, for storing extra layers like mitten shells, wind shirt, hat, and snacks so I don’t have to stop and open the main pack. This helps keep my transition times very short, which is a real benefit above treeline in crappy conditions. I’ve even used that crampon pocket to carry my winter tent (Black Diamond FirstLight) when I’ve been short on space in the main compartment.

The Chaos external attachment system is top notch
The Chaos external attachment system is top-notch: shown here – crampon pocket lashed to daisy chain on top lid, shovel clipped into shaft holder/ice axe loop, ice axe clipped to shaft holder and ice axe loop, tent stuffed into crampon pocket, pair of snowshoes lashed to side of the pack under compression straps, microspikes ‘binered to rear daisy chains.

External Attachment and Compression System

The external attachment system on the Chaos is top-notch. You can haul an amazing amount of gear on the outside of the pack, which is particularly important when you can’t anticipate what conditions will be on your route.

  • Dual daisy chains down the sides of the pack w/ haul loops
  • Dual daisy chains down the back of the pack
  • Dual shaft holders and ice axe loops
  • Two tier of compression straps
  • Ski loops
  • Dual gear loops on hip belt
  • Daisy chains on the shoulder straps
  • Daisy chains on the top of the top lid
  • Rope strap running over the main compartment

On most winter overnight trips, I lash my snowshoes under the side compression straps, secure an ice axe in one of the shaft holders and a shovel handle in the other (secured with the bottom ice axe loops), I attach an insulated water bottle (see Insulated Water Bottle Jackets) to one of the hip belt gear loops with a carabiner and put a pair of crampons in the crampon pocket. If I bring microspikes, I’ll clip them to one of the rear daisy chains with another carabiner. In addition, I add a whistle and an external camera pocket to the two daisy chains on the front of the shoulder straps, and possibly a map holder as well, if we expect challenging, low visibility weather, or plan to hike off-trail.

Snowshoes lashed under the compression straps
Snowshoes lashed under the compression straps.

That’s a typical winter load out for me, but there’s really no limit to the ways you can use these external attachment points by themselves or with a few added Volie ski straps, which won’t freeze if they get damp or wet.

Backpack Frame and Suspension System

The Chaos is a frameless backpack, but can still carry a remarkable amount of gear, water, and food quite comfortably. I rate the maximum comfortable carrying capacity at 30-35 pounds, but you have to know how to pack it to get that kind of performance out of it.

The Chaos uses a sleeping pad for a frame to give the pack some stiffness and prevent items from poking into your back. The sleeping pad pocket extends to the base of the hip belt and into the area behind, much like a pack with an internal framesheet. When packing the pack, you want to load your bulkiest and heaviest items at the bottom as you normally would. If packing a sleeping bag at the bottom of your main compartment, I’d recommend packing it in a stuff sack rather than loose in order to prevent the sleeping pad from collapsing inward. The same holds for the rest of your gear. Pack it all as tightly as possible and be aggressive in your use of the compression straps, so that your “load becomes the frame.” This same technique works quite well for most frameless backpacks.

The top lid is removable so you can use the Chaos like a high volume day pack
The top lid is removable so you can use the Chaos like a high volume day pack. This drops 9.4 oz of gear weight.

The hip belt is sewn directly to the back of the pack which always provides better load-to-hip transfer than hip belts that are attached with velcro. While the hip belt is padded, it’s not overly padded, so you get a good hip bone wrap that conforms to your body shape. There are also adjustable load control straps connecting the hip belt to the pack body to help minimize uncontrolled “load swings” when scrambling or climbing. The hip belt closes with a large buckle and wide pull-back webbing straps. The 2″ width of the webbing has several benefits. The first is that it doesn’t fold onto itself and won’t get jammed in the buckle. It’s also wide enough that it doesn’t slip down over slippery hard shells or wind shirts, which can be a real problem when winter hiking.

The Chaos has gear loops on the hip belt instead of pockets, although it is possible to attach the latter with clips
The Chaos has gear loops on the hip belt instead of pockets, although it is possible to attach the latter with clips

Instead of pockets, the hip belt has gear loops for hanging climbing gear or ‘biners, which is pretty typical on a winter backpack. However, is still possible to attach an accessory pocket over the hip belt winds and clip it in place using a quick attach tri-glide or mini-biner. Most of the time, I just hang an insulated water bottle or a snack bottle from the gear loops.


The Cold Cold World Chaos is a 66-70 liter lightweight winter backpack that’s ideal for overnight or multi-day winter hiking, mountaineering, and climbing. Frameless, it has an internal sleeping pad pocket like many ultralight backpacks, but can carry much heavier loads up to 30-35 pounds with relative ease. But the thing at distinguishes the Chaos from all other higher volume winter backpacks is its outstanding external attachment capabilities. If winter conditions require you to carry lots of tools or traction, the Chaos’s ability to haul gear is unparalleled.

Cold Cold World Chaos on a long approach hike.
Cold Cold World Chaos on a long approach hike.

As a gear tester specializing in backpack reviews, I end up with new cutting edge backpacks in my gear closet every year. The parade of new specialty fabrics, features, and frame systems is never-ending. While I get rid of most of the backpacks that come my way, I doubt I’ll ever get rid of the Chaos. I’ve owned it coming on 10 years and still rate it as one of the best backpacks I’ve ever used. If there was a Backpack Hall of Fame, the Cold Cold World Chaos would be my first nomination.

Disclosure: The author purchased this product with his own funds.

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  1. Philip, I couldn’t agree more with your review. I have had my chaos for roughly 8 years-ish and I love every feature it has. It is probably one of the most utilitarian packs I have ever shouldered and it just feels tough and right.
    I find that it maxes out pretty hard above 45lbs and it’s sweet spot is between 30-35lbs (as you said) if you pack it thoughtfully.
    It is one of the only pieces of gear I have ever paid full price for but at $245, I call it a bargain. I should probably just order another one before the prices go up after the world reads your review ;-)

    • Exactly. :-) I’m eyeing a Valdez at the moment. Inexpensive, really.

    • Just wanted to tack on a recent experience with the Chaos for those interested.
      I returned from a summit attempt of Mt. Whitney in the Sierra’s 2 weeks ago and I used my Chaos. However, due to some unpredictable conditions my climbing partner and I brought extra gear that pushed our packs weights upwards of 50 lbs.
      Needless to say, it was BRUTAL.
      The Chaos is an amazing pack when you hit its sweet spot (sub-40lbs). I mean, I am surprised that the it held up as well as it did under the kind of load I subjected it to. But it was painful. The shoulder straps and hip belt are just not built to support that sort of weight, even though the construction of the pack itself is plenty durable to endure some tremendous abuse. I’ve lost count of how many times that pack has been pressed hard against rock while navigating a scramble or has been subjected to thorns, bushes or broken branches. The pack still looks new.

      But please, for the love of your shoulders, keep that thing sub-40!

  2. How is the waterproofing capabilities with this bag? i ask this since since in the spring you could have winter conditions in the alpine region while it’s raining down low. Also, could a bear canister fit underneath the top flap like other backpacks? This backpack definitely seems like what my wife and I need. I always thought more space was better ,but my Gregory Denali is just too heavy and bulky. Then my wife has the Sierra App 75L and it has too many pockets as well as being always uncomfortable. After browsing a lot of the information y’all put out, we definitely want to replace our backpack with something that works year round, is comfortable and lightweight. This one seems good because we enjoy a challenging winter trip every once and awhile. Thank you!

  3. I just picked up a superbly made, customized Chaos designed for climbing and winter activities, such as mountaineering, hiking, and cross-country skiing.

    Thank you, Philip, for highlighting equipment that I probably wouldn’t have discovered on my own.

    I urge buyers to pick up their pack in Jackson, as Randy is a storehouse of information. His observations improved my hiking practices; and that in itself was worth the drive.

    • Plus those packs are just awesome.

    • I have 5 CCW packs, some for many years. Randy is great on the phone, call him and talk things out. If you know what you want, he can most often do it, 3 of my 5 are custom. Been climbing for 48 years, designed the logos for a couple of very large gear makers. Cold Cold World is my pick!

  4. The Chaos is the best pack I’ve ever had. Bought mine around 94 and it had been used a ridiculous amount and still holds together. I’ve used it plenty for ice, alpine, rock, and even for back country running in summer for planned light weight bivys. It is very simple with no extra gizmos to add weight but I’ve never seen another company even try to seriously pursue this market. Every part is there for a reason, and nothing else.

  5. Philip, How would you compare the Chaos with a similar volume HMG Ice Pack? I understand the design differences, but am just curious about how you’d assess one vs the other. Thx

  6. Does Randy have a public side at his shop such that you can come in, see these packs in person, try them on, and discuss whatever customizations might be right for you?

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