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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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 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 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.
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
- Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Porter Pack
- Cold Cold World Chaos
- The North Face Cobra 60
- Cilogear Worksack (60+ liters)
Best Backpacks for Strenuous Winter Day Hikes
- Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Porter Pack
- Osprey Variant 52
- The North Face Cobra 60
- Cold Cold World Chernobyl
Best Backpacks for Moderate Winter Day Hikes
Written 2013. Updated 2017.
- Hyperlite Mountain Gear Backpacks: How to Choose
- Osprey Mutant 38 Backpack Review
- Osprey Variant 52 Backpack Review
- Cold Cold World Chaos Backpack Review
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