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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

While you can use a regular 3-season backpack for winter hiking, provided it has sufficient volume, winter backpacks exist that are specifically designed for mountaineering, climbing, and multi-day trips with features that you wouldn’t normally need the rest of the year.

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 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 the weather closes in or someone is injured
  • Moderate Winter Day Hikes, which are shorter duration hike, where there is a smaller 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 cold weather 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 listed above, you’ll find that they’re often listed as climbing 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.

Here are the packs that I recommend for winter hiking and backpacking.

Best Backpacks for Winter Backpacking Trips

Best Backpacks for Strenuous Winter Day Hikes

Best Backpacks for Moderate Winter Day Hikes

Editor's note: Help support this site by making your next gear purchase through one of the links above. Click a link, buy what you need, and the seller will contribute a portion of the purchase price to support SectionHiker's unsponsored gear reviews, articles, and hiking guides.

Written 2013. Updated 2017.

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  1. 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.

  2. +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

  3. 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.

  4. Thinking back to your prior reviews, what do you consider the down sides to be to the Seek Outside’s Divide or their 4800? The suspension, especially the hip belt, seemto be incredible for the weight of the pack, its volume and the waterproof xpac material.

    • They’re a bit awkward to use with winter hiking/mountaineering gear – snowshoes, crampons, ice axe. Good for hauling stuff and I use mine occasionally in winter, but a true winter pack is more convenient.
      BTW, while XPac is waterproof, the seams still leak….

  5. Any alternatives to the Deuter Speed lite 30? Looks like they’re no longer made. Looks like it would hold my snowshoes and almost just enough for a winter day hike.

  6. As always Phil, you do a great job. Thanks for the Cold Cold World information. I never knew they existed and had never seen them in the field.

  7. Thank you for this article, it helped me understand the rationale behind some of the design features of an alpine pack that was handed down to me … a The North Face Thin Air Alpine Guide Pack. I could not understand why it didn’t have water bottle pockets, or hipbelt pockets. I just listed it for sale, but you’ve almost persuaded me it’s worth keeping!

  8. Thanks a lot for the reviews Phil. What day-pack would you recommend for a summer and winter use with around 8-10 miles of snowshoeing in the winter and 10-15 miles of hiking in the summer? Would MLD Core 28 be good pack of choice for all these activities?

  9. My “winter” pack is a 75 L. Dana Designs Terraplane. Yeah, that company no longer exists and now Dana has Mystery Ranch as his company.

    My Terraplane is really too heavy (7.5 lbs.) but that sucker is a great pack otherwise. It’s a classic upper tier internal frame pack from the days when few understood what UL backpacking was.

    • timely comment – look for my post tomorrow. You’ll understand.

    • UPDATE:
      Going to sell “MY PRECIOUS” 7.5 lb. Terraplane W/ two extra Dana side pockets and buy a much lighter winter pack.

      I think I’m getting an Osprey VOLT 75 at 4.55 lbs. Big enough and has my “must have” sleeping bag compartment.

      I have an LL Bean 750 fill -20 F. down bag and REI All Season FLASH Insulated air mattress.
      My other big item is a new Eddie Bauer PEAK XV down expedition parka. It packs down to basket ball size. UGH! But it is a necessity for camp use and extreme weather. Also my MSR Whisperlite Universal stove in white gas mode. Mittens and spare love liners. That mostly completes the winter-specific stuff.

      Pretty much all other gear is 3 season stuff like Moment DW solo tent (“winterized” W/X-ing pole) and
      cook set.

      So you se the need for a larger pack than my Osprey EXOS 58 3 season pack.

  10. ?? Do none of you ever carry your snowshoes on your pack? This past winter has been on-again, off-again all day, at least while hiking in the Adirondacks. My current pack is an ArcTeryx Quintic backpack, 28l, that I have worn on every winter hike since late Fall 2014.

    What I like about that pack is that it is easy to attach both snowshoes, together, to the back of the pack (rather than one on each of the sides). Winter hiking in the ADKs can entail a significant amount of bushwhacking and it is good to keep both snowshoes in one location especially when breaking trail through spruce.

    However, after 5 years of winter hiking, a buddy has finally convinced me that I need something a bit bigger (maybe 37 liter) and with a real waistbelt that actually supports the pack and takes some of the weight off my shoulders such as my three season Osprey Stratos 24 pack does.

    Yesterday, I tried the Osprey Variant 37 Pack — knowing that the only place to attach my snowshoes were, one each, to each side panel. On yesterday’s 13 mi (RT), 8hr+, 3000 ft elv gain, hike, that was a bit awkward. Conditions were such that I used microspikes for the first 3.5 miles and put on the snowshoes for the summit, keeping them on for half of the return trip from the summit, then switched back to Microspikes for the final 90 min, 3.5mi, of the hike.

    That pack just does NOT love snowshoes. I will be returning it tomorrow, thankful for Osprey’s satisfaction guaranteed policy.

    Can any of you recommend a pack that does love snowshoes? Easy on and off with the pack. Preferably one with the ability to stack both shoes together in the center of the pack without needing to take them off the pack each time I stop for food or water or new gloves?


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