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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)
The North Face Cobra 60 L57 ozYYYY$250
Gregory Denali 75 L72 ozY-Y-$360
The North Face Phantom 50 L40 ozY-YY$190
Black Diamond Mission 75 L64 ozYYY-$240
Cold Cold World Chaos 66 L60 ozYYYY$245
Exped Lightning 60 L41 oz---Y$229
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
Sierra Designs Flex Capacitor 60-75L42 oz----$220

1. The North Face Cobra 60L

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 ax carry system. Weighing 57 oz, the pack can be stripped to bring the weight down to 30 oz for shorter trips or summit attempts. Read our review.

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

2. Cold Cold World Chaos 66L Backpack

Cold Cold World Chaos 60L

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 Chaos 60 is a frameless, top-loading backpack with a floating top lid, front crampon pocket, ski loops, gear loops on the hip belt, dual ice ax 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. Read our Chaos Review

Check for the latest price at:
Cold Cold World

3. Gregory Denali 75L

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, a 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 than any other weight pack. You might be surprised at the difference.

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 70L

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 removable 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 | Amazon

6. Osprey Mutant 52L Backpack

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. Read our review. 

Check for the latest price at:
Moosejaw | Amazon

7. The North Face Phantom 50L

The North Face Phantom 50

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! Read our review.

Check for the latest price at:
The North Face | Moosejaw

8. Black Diamond Mission 75L Backpack

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 | Moosejaw | Amazon

9. Exped Lightning 60L Backpack

Exped Lightning 60

The Exped Lightning 60 is a streamlined, roll-top backpack with an adjustable torso length than can be used year-round. The elaborate strap and compression system can be configured many different ways 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. Read our review

Check for the latest price at:
Moosejaw | Amazon

10. Sierra Designs Flex Capacitor 60-75L

Sierra Designs Flex Capacitor 60-75L Backpack
The Sierra Designs Flex Capacitor 60-75L is a lightweight 42 oz backpack with a unique frame system that can haul heavy winter loads when you need to carry a lot more gear, water, food, and stove fuel, and a unique top hatch lid which makes it easy to access gear quickly. The Flex Capacitor also has an external compression system that makes it easy to adjust the pack volume and doubles as an external attachment system for carrying bulky gear on the exterior of the backpack. For example, it’s easy to strap a bulky large tent body, snowshoes, or a sleeping pad to the exterior of the pack. The pack’s burly fabrics are of durable and the huge hip belt pockets are ideal for carrying spare gloves, hats, and snacks. Read our Flex Capacitor Review.

Check for the latest price at:
Sierra Designs

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 60 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 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 ax 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 backward 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 Ax 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 ax, look for a pack that has at least one ice ax 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 ax 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, suntan 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 backward to provide another pocket that can store spare gloves, hats, and food.

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12 comments

  1. I would love to see you review some of the Lowe Alpine packs. They appear to be well made and functional but its difficult to find any real reviews.

  2. So only one pack out of the “10 best winter backpacking packs” has a women’s version??? SAD

  3. OK, so I have had a Dana Terraplane for decades, literally. And at 75 liters it was BIG, and at 7.5 lbs. it was HEAVY. So I’m selling it because I got a DEUTER Air Contact Lite 65 +10 at 4 lbs. 6 oz.

    My -20 F. LL Bean down bg will “just” fit in the sleeping bag compartment in its compression stuff sack and my 16 oz. REI FLASH All Season air mattress (R 5.4) will easily fit inside the pack, as will my Eddie Bauer Peak XV -30 F. down parka and other heavier, bulkier winter gear. And that’s without extending the top sleeve for the “+10”.

    So I nominate the “DEUTER Air Contact Lite 65 +10” to go on your list.

  4. BTW, This “10 Best” review is very good because the reader can click the full pack review link. That feature greatly extends the review for the complete lowdown on each pack.

  5. I am wrestling with a purchase decision on three smaller versions/models of the packs on your list – Cold Cold World Chernobyl, North Face Cobra 52 and the Sierra Designs Flex Capacitor 40-60. I like the winter specific features of the Chernobyl and the Cobra. However, I have grown so used to having side water bottle pockets, which these packs lack. I understand they are lacking from most alpine style packs. Also, I just don’t think I would be comfortable hiking with a water bottle hanging and swinging from the pack belt via a biner. On the other hand, the Flex Capacitor has side pockets and pretty good exterior attachment and compression options, but no dedicated crampon pocket/straps… and I guess I would have to attach snow shoes to the front of the pack (not optimal) instead of the sides of the pack when using the side pockets for storing water bottles/bottle covers. I guess its a trade-off / compromise in deciding what is most important to you. In your review of the Cobra 60, I see you have a water bottle/bottle cover hanging from a gear loop sewn into the lower rear seam near the belt. This seems like an interesting idea that I may have to try out on the Cobra 52 to see if it works for me. It would allow me to keep snowshoes and water on the sides of the pack, closer to my body. Do you have any thoughts or concerns about long-term use of the noted gear loop on the Cobra to hold the weight of a 1L water bottle? Thank you and great reviews!

    • No – it works fine on the cobra 60. You will probably only want to have one external bottle on whatever pack you get to keep the others warm inside the pack. Attaching snowshoes to the sides of the Flex Cap. should be no problem, even if you are using the water bottle pockets.

  6. Personally prefer the Exped Thunder 70 over the Lightning 60, the 10L extra volume comes in very handy in the winter. I wasn’t sure about the zipper side entry on the Thunder but its proved very useful, makes burying a water bottle in the depths of the pack (for insulation) very simple, also gives easy access to insulating layers buried down there.

  7. Only one of those winter packs has got a dedicated avy gear compartment? While a lack of it in purely alpine packs is quite understandable, for a list of “general use” winter packs I find the omission of it somewhat strange? Nobody goes into extended backcountry trips on skis (or snowshoes, since these are even more likely to trigger a slab)? Or only on flat ground? I much prefer my ski pack that has it, if I could just fit the gear inside when not going hut to hut.

    • There’s no correlation between human triggers and whether people wear snowshoes or skis. I’ve looked into it. The best way to avoid avalanches is not to hike or ski in avalanche terrain and of course to be well trained/practiced in snowpack analysis. As far as packing, whatever floats your boat. I think it’s easy to stick a probe and shovel in just about any backpack.

      • Sure, the best prevention is awareness and tour planning. Avy gear is a last resort gear and should not induce a sense of false security :)
        Even so, having a easily accessible pocket for it is in in my opinion pretty helpful.

        1) Ever tried to get out a shovel and a probe out of fully loaded pack in anger, when you are totally psyched? It’s not that easy or fast when every minute counts, fumbling with cord-locks or inside of the full pack.
        2) It’s pretty easy to loose anything just strapped-on to the pack when tumbling down with tonnes of snow. It’s hard to dig out your colleagues when, even you end up on top or able to free yourself, you find your shovel is now buried somewhere.
        3) Just like a crampon pocket, it protects your other, usually fluffy and nylon, winter gear from sharp metal edges. I tend to keep a warm belay jacket in the top of my pack – if I have a shovel there as well, it will inevitably get some tears. While a puffy jacket with gaffer’s tape all over is a mark of the mountaineer, I prefer my gear without it :)

        Just my two cents…

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