Winter Backpacks: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

Winter Backpacks: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

If you’re gearing up for winter hiking and backpacking, it’s worth asking yourself if you want a backpack that’s designed for winter use, or whether you can get by using the backpack you use the rest of the year. Personally, I prefer using a winter pack or a three-season pack that has similar capabilities. It’s a lot easier to use and more comfortable.

It’s easy to attach bulky gear to the outside of a good winter backpack
It’s easy to attach bulky gear to the outside of a good winter backpack (Cold Cold World Valdez 40)

What Makes a Good Winter Backpack?

A good winter backpack:

  1. Can be used while wearing gloves. That means it has big buckles on the hip belt or compression straps or that are easily opened and closed and don’t fill up with snow or freeze up.
  2. You can get clothing, gear, food, or water out of them fast without a lot of effort unpacking and then repacking them. Winter hiking requires a lot of micro-stops and it’s important to get moving again quickly so you or your companions can stay warm.
  3. Makes it easy to carry heavy awkwardly shaped gear like snowshoes, skis, climbing rope, microspikes, sharp crampons, or ice axes.
  4. Is modular, so you can remove components like a lid or hip belt or attach others, like pockets, electronics, insulated sleeves, etc to the outside.
  5. Lies close to the back for better balance and back insulation.
  6. Has enough volume and is designed to carry all the clothing, gear, food, water, and fuel you need for your trip in reasonable comfort.
You have to carry bulky gear on the outside of a backpack in winter.
You have to carry bulky gear on the outside of a backpack in winter.

Best Backpacks for Winter Hiking

The best backpacks for winter use are climbing backpacks, mountaineering packs, and skiing packs that are set up with 2-3 tiers of side compression webbing straps to let you carry bulky gear that doesn’t fit easily inside a backpack, like snowshoes, skis, or crampons. Some multi-day backpacks with top lids also work well because you can access frequently used gear and clothing, like hats, gloves, or lightweight jackets from the lid quickly without having to stop, open up the main compartment and dig around inside your backpack. A top lid also protects your extra clothing or gear from moisture unlike open side pockets or front mesh pockets.

Volume-wise, I find that 35L-40L works well for winter day hiking and peakbagging, while 60L-70L works best for winter backpacking. You’ll want to go even bigger for expedition-style trips.

Here are two examples of good winter backpacks, one for day hiking and one for overnight trips:

Osprey Mutant 38

Osprey Mutant 38

The new Osprey Mutant 38 has enough storage for winter-day hiking or ice climbing. It has big buckles that can be used while wearing gloves and that won’t clog up with snow. There are horizontal compression straps that make it easy to lash snowshoes to the side of the pack and horizontal straps, anchored on daisy chains to lash a pair of crampons to the front of the pack. The floating top lid provides closed storage for hats, gloves, and snacks and you can drape a rope over the main compartment and hold it in place with the top lid.

The hip belt can be folded back for use with a climbing harness, while the pack’s back panel sits flush against your back to provide insulation. There are gear loops on the outside of the hip belt to clip carabiners and extra gear to, as well as daisy chains on the shoulder straps. The list of features goes on: dual aluminum frame stays, removable top lid, dual ice axe holders, and so forth. Weight: 40.25 oz /1141g.  Available from Osprey.

Granite Gear Blaze 60

Granite Gear Blaze 60

The Granite Gear Blaze 60 is a great example of a 60L backpack that makes a superb winter backpacking pack. It’s available in men’s and women’s models with an adjustable torso length. It has three tiers of side and front compression straps, a removable floating top lid, and a front zipper so you can access gear inside the pack without having to unbuckle the top lid and reach into the main compartment from the top. The pack can easily haul 40-50 lbs, making it good for trips where you need to carry snowshoes, traction aids, extra water, and fuel for snow melting, in addition to winter camping gear. Weight: 48 oz / 1361g. Available from REI.

Here are other backpacks that are good for winter day-hiking and backpacking:

Worst Backpacks for Winter Hiking

The worst backpacks for winter hiking are:

  • Low-volume day packs because they don’t have enough internal storage and it’s hard to attach gear to their exterior.
  • Many ultralight backpacks fail because they use cord and cord locks for side compression instead of webbing straps and large buckles. Cordlocks and the cord also tend to freeze up in winter. Plus it’s difficult to slip a pair of snowshoes under a zigzagged cord on the side of the pack, let alone doing it while wearing gloves.
  • Frameless backpacks often lack the load transfer required to carry heavier winter gear, especially when winter backpacking.
  • Roll-top backpacks can also be problematic because they don’t have much accessible closed storage. This means you have to stop frequently and open them every time you need a layer change, a snack, or water. This just slows you down and makes you cold. It’s a good way to piss off your hiking partners, too.
  • Ventilated backpacks with mesh back panels can chill you easily because they don’t provide any back insulation.
  • Hydration packs are also usually a fail because they don’t have enough volume and its simply too difficult to keep a hydration hose from freezing up in winter. You’re really much better off carrying bottles, insulated inside your backpack.

Gregory Nano 18 H2O

Gregory Nano H20 22

Hydration packs like the Gregory Nano 18 H2O are usually too low volume to make suitable winter backpacks, even for day hiking. It is also very difficult to keep a hydration hose or valve from freezing shut if you’re out for any amount of time in cold weather. You really need more space for extra layers, hot water bottles stored inside a pack in wide mouth or insulated bottles, and lots of food to keep you going on a multi-hour winter hike. That adds up in terms of weight, so a real hip belt and rigid frame are required and will provide much more comfort. A large top lid is also preferable with lots of storage for hats and gloves, since you’re likely to sweat through several pairs on a winter hike. While the Nano 18 does have gear loops in the front where you could clip a pair of microspikes with a carabiner, you wouldn’t be able to haul a 4-5 lb pair of snowshoes with this pack. It’s just too small and lacks the rigidity to carry a heavy external load like that.

Gossamer Gear Mariposa 60

Gossamer Gear Mariposa 60

I happen to like the Gossamer Gear Mariposa 60 for 3-season use, but it doesn’t make a very good winter backpack because it doesn’t have any side compression straps to lash gear to the pack with. The sides of the pack are NOT mirror images of one another which makes it harder to carry snowshoes strapped to the sides, and the fold-over lid is time-consuming to open and close (forget doing it with gloves on). There aren’t daisy chains to hang sharp winter traction aids from or clip an insulated water bottle sleeve, and there’s no place to carry crampons except deep inside the pack. It’d just be ungainly to use for winter backpacking, compared to other options.

The Ugly

Don’t be this guy! Get a bigger backpack with better external attachment points.
Don’t be this guy! Get a bigger backpack with better external attachment points.

The ugly occurs when people try to use their tiny or ill-featured backpacks to carry all the extra clothing, gear, food, and fuel required for winter hiking or backpacking. The volume of winter gear and consumables is much higher than what you probably carry the rest of the year on hiking trips, so you really do need to size up to carry it all.

See also:

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