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10 Best Winter Backpacking Packs

10 Best Winter Backpacking Backpacks

Winter backpacking backpacks are more specialized than regular three season backpacks, with a stronger emphasis on heavier weight loads, external attachment points, and durability for carrying bulky gear with sharp points like snowshoes, skis, ice axes, and crampons. They also favor more pockets and the ability to access and put away gear quickly, so you can avoid standing around between gear transitions and getting cold. Pack volumes can vary anywhere from a minimum of 50L to 100L, with 70L usually being the sweet spot for a comfortable weekend length trip.

Here are our picks for the top 10 best winter backpacking packs:

Make / ModelWeightFloating LidCrampon PocketHip Belt LoopsSki CarryPrice (USD)
Alpine Luddites Alpine Machine 70 L48 ozY-YOption$650
Black Diamond Mission 75 L64 ozYYY-$240
Cold Cold World Chaos 66 L60 ozYYYY$245
Exped Lightning 60 L41 oz---Y$229
Gregory Denali 75 L72 ozY-Y-$360
Hyperlite Mountain Gear Ice Pack 70 L37 oz-YYOption$380
Mountain Hardwear South Col 70 L59 ozYYY-$300
Osprey Mutant 52 L55 ozY-YY$200
The North Face Cobra 60 L57 ozYYYY$250
The North Face Phantom 50 L40 ozY-YY$190

1. The North Face Cobra 60 L

The North Face Cobra 60 is a modular winter pack ideal for winter backpacking and mountaineering. It has a reinforced front stuff pocket that can be used to store crampons or layers, a floating lid, hip belt gear, rope carry, wand pockets, and a dual ice axe carry system. Weighing 57 oz, the pack can be stripped to bring the weight down to 30 oz for short trips or summit attempts. The Cobra is also a available in a lower volume 52L size.

Check for the latest price at:
REI | Moosejaw | Amazon

2. Cold Cold World Chaos 66 L

Chances are you’ve never heard of Cold Cold World Backpacks before, but their packs are famous in the mountaineering and search and rescue communities. The Choas is a frameless, top-loading backpack with a floating top lid, front crampon pocket, ski loops, gear loops on the hip belt, dual ice axe loops w/ shaft holders, and multiple daisy chains so you can lash gear to the outside of the pack.  It has an internal sleeping pad pocket so you can use a foam pad as a frame. Custom fabrics and colors are also available on request. A stock Chaos weighs in at just 3 lbs 12 oz, which is quite respectable for a pack that’s this technical and durable.

Check for the latest price at:
Cold Cold World

3. Gregory Denali 75 L

Gregory Denali 75

The Gregory Denali 75 has a top loading design with side zipper access. Daisy chains and expandable side pockets make it easy to carry bulky gear, while the hip belt has tubular gear loops, ice clipper slots, and sled pull loops. Strippable aluminum stays, a bivy pad, floating lid, and hip belt padding can all be removed. The fit is excellent and highly adjustable with an auto-cant hip belt. Weighing 6 lbs, the Denali 75 is a beefy winter pack, but provides a lot more comfort and adjustability. You might be surprised at the difference. A larger Denali 100 L is also available for expedition use.

Check for the latest price at:
REI | Moosejaw | Amazon

4. Hyperlite Mountain Gear 4400 Ice Pack (70 L)

HMG 4400 Ice Pack

The Hyperlite Mountain Gear 4400 Ice Pack is a winter backpacking and mountaineering pack made with ultralight Dyneema DCF fabric, which doesn’t absorb water and is very durable. It gracefully combines a minimalist sensibility with a roll top and has an integrated crampon pocket, hip belt gear loops, numerous external attachment points,  and daisy chains. A reinforced back panel is provided to haul heavier loads. A ski mod option is also available. HMG also sells this pack in 3400 (55L) and 2400 (40L) volumes.

Check for the latest price at:
Hyperlite Mountain Gear 

5. Mountain Hardwear SouthCol OutDry 70 L

Mountain Hardwear South Col 70 Outdry

The Mountain Hardwear South Dry Col 70 OutDry is a waterproof backpack that’s loaded with features including a crampon pocket, wand pocket, ice tool holders, reversible compression straps and ski loops. Many of its components are strippable including the floating lid, hip belt (with gear loops) and even the aluminum stays. Due to its waterproof construction, the pack does not have hydration ports, something to consider if you want to use the pack in warmer weather.

Check for the latest price at:
Mountain Hardwear | Moosejaw | Amazon

6. Osprey Mutant 52 L

Osprey Mutant 52 Backpack

The Osprey Mutant 52 packs a wealth of great features into a smaller volume winter and climbing backpack. It has a floating lid, wand and picket pockets, a ski haul system, hip belt with gear loops, daisy chains, ice tool and shaft holders, and a helmet attachment option. The top lid and hip belt are also completely removable to save weight or for use with a climbing harness. Priced at $200, the 55 oz Osprey Mutant 52 is a great winter backpack for fast-and-light or hut-to-hut trips where you can streamline your gear list.

Check for the latest price at:
Moosejaw | Amazon

7. The North Face Phantom 50 L

The North Face Phantom 50 is an ultralight, alpine-style backpack weighing 40 oz (max) that can be configured for different types of trips ranging from winter backpacking to ski mountaineering or alpine climbing. It has a removable floating lid, ice tool holders, ski loops, hip belt loops, and numerous gear loops if you want to rig up your own attachment points. The pack can also be stripped of components including the lid, hip belt padding or framesheet bringing its weight down to 22.4 oz. That’s light for a winter pack!

Check for the latest price at:
Moosejaw

8. Black Diamond Mission 75 L

Black Diamond Mission 75L

The Back Diamond Mission is a top loading, four season backpack with a floating lid, front crampon pocket, hip belt loops, and a full length side zipper for easy gear access. It features a reactive suspension system with shoulder straps and a hip belt that move with your torso to keep your load stable. The Mission 75 is also fully strippable with a removable waist belt, lid, and framesheet. A lower volume Mission 55 Backpack is also available.

Check for the latest price at:
Black Diamond | Amazon

9. Exped Lightning 60 L

The Exped Lightning 60 is a streamlined, roll top backpack with an adjustable torso length than be used year-round. The elaborate strap and compression system can be configured many different way to secure gear to the outside of the pack from snowshoes and ice axes to skis and sleeping pads. The side pockets are large enough to hold insulated Nalgene bottles, while a map pocket in the pack bag can hold valuables and navigation instruments. A women’s version of the Lightning 60 is also available.

Check for the latest price at:
Moosejaw | Amazon

10. Alpine Luddites Alpine Machine 70 L

Alpine Luddites Alpine Machine 70

Alpine Luddite is a small pack manufacturer that has been making a big name for itself making its own designs and custom-made reproductions of classic backpacks. The Alpine Machine is a 70 liter pack with a removable floating lid pocket and hip belt, a rope strap, wand pockets, daisy chains, hip belt loops, ice axe loops, and haul loops. A 60 liter version is also available. The pack is made with ultralight and ultra durable Dimension Polyant DX 40 fabric which is combination of Dyneema, polyester, and X-Pac. Custom modifications and sizes are also available for an additional fee.  

Check for the latest price at:
Alpine Luddites

HOW TO CHOOSE A WINTER BACKPACK

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 overnight and multi-day winter trips in mountainous terrain. 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 overnight or weekend-length winter backpacking trips, you’ll probably want a pack that has 65-85 liters of internal capacity. The sweet spot is about 70 liters, but you might be able to shave that down as low as 50-55 liters if you carry less gear or need less insulation. Try to get a pack that has adequate compression so you can shrink its volume if not needed, while keeping the weight of an empty pack under 5 pounds. Pack and gear weight are 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Floating Lids

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.

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.

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. 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.

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6 comments

  1. I must admit to liking the Exped Thunder 70 for winter outings, the large volume helps easy packing, carries heavy loads comfortably & tougher fabric than the Lightening; @ ~1.6kg its still a reasonable weight.

  2. It’s only seen moderate use, but so far, i’m liking my Osprey Xenith 88. At about 5 pounds, 10 ounces for the large (i have about a 20.5-inch torso length), it’s toward the heavier end of the available options, but it’s very sturdy and holds what’s needed for overnight outings in the cold. Carries very comfortably, even when loaded up with full gear. I’m a fan of pockets, and this has a bunch. Only minor annoyance so far is that i’ve yet to find an elegant way to attach snowshoes. The existing straps don’t quite do, so i have to Rube Goldberg some bungies.

  3. Hi Philip! I was very close to buying a Seek Outside Unaweep as a family hauler due too your very very positive review (and that of so many others) and the fact that you actually bought as a winter pack after testing it. ….and now it is not even on the list. Would you mind sharing the reason for that? Much appreciated! Hendrik

    • It’s kind of in esoteric pack. While it can be used for winter trips, it’s really not optimal because it doesn’t have a lid or gear loops on the hip belt or a crampon pocket/fron t pocket. You can make it work – I do – but it’s more of a hauler than a winter backpack. I just came off a trip with it where I had to haul a lot of insulation up a lot of elevation in the cold and it worked fine for that, but my Cold Cold World is still a better pack than it for mountaineering/winter backpacking.

  4. john campbell/ Alpine luddites

    A few quick comments on my Alpine Machine 70. The front pocket is lined with 11 oz Cordura so it can work as a crampon pocket with the spike facing out. I have many customers who use it in this fashion.

    custom sizing of the pack, harness and belt are included in the price. There is no extra charge for that.

    JC

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