An Expert Guide to Choosing the Best Ski Backpack
Ski Expert Hunter R. details the features that set ski backpacks apart from other backpacks and gives a few recommendations for the best ski backpacks on the market!
Table of Contents
tl;dr: Depending on the exact backpack, there are a variety of features and components that make ski backpacks specifically suited for use on the slopes. These features range from specific pocket structure and design to the ability to attach and carry skis, and for some packs, even a built-in airbag system to use in the case of an avalanche.
Having been a lifelong skier and having worked in the outdoor industry for the last 6+ years, I have seen and tested a lot of different backpacks. Though backpacks might seem like a simple, one-pack-can-do-it-all thing to many, there are a lot of reasons to invest in a specific pack geared toward a particular activity. This is especially the case for a sport such as skiing, which can be dangerous. Not only does having the right gear for the right activity make your life easier but having the right gear can help keep you and your ski partners safe in an emergency!
There are a ton of options out there for backpacks, and it’s hard to know which ones are better for certain activities, which is why I’m passionate about helping people find the exact right gear for their specific needs!
What Is a Ski Backpack?
Backpacks are awesome for carrying your gear, and these days, there are specific packs for rock climbing, running, hiking, fishing, you name it! Each of these specialized packs has features that make them great for a specific activity, including skiing. So, what makes a ski backpack different from a regular backpack? Great question!
Usually, there are three main things that make a ski backpack different from other backpacks. These are:
- Pocket design and structure: This allows for the accommodation of ski-specific gear such as goggles and avalanche safety gear. These pockets also have larger zipper pulls that make them easier to use with bulky winter gloves.
- The capacity for carrying skis on the outside of the pack: This can happen in a few different ways, depending on the pack, but we will delve into this more later on.
- A built-in airbag system: A safety system that, in the event of an avalanche, deploys, inflates, and helps keep a skier on top of the avalanche in the instance that they are caught and carried.
There is a bit of variability with other backpack features, and some of them are more niche designs made to cater to a particular type of skiing style, but in general, the three listed above are the typical features that make a backpack specific to, and useful for, the sport of skiing.
What to Consider When Buying a Ski Backpack
Do you need one?
The first question to consider when thinking about purchasing a ski backpack is if you, in fact, need a ski backpack. If you are resort skiing, not going out of bounds, and don’t intend on carrying your lunch, extra layers, water, or any avalanche rescue tools (avalanche shovel and probe) - the chances are that you do not need a ski backpack.
What kind of skiing are you doing?
If you have decided a ski backpack does make sense for you, ask what kind of skiing you are doing.
- If all of your ski days are at a resort and you are looking for something to use for water, a sandwich, and maybe an extra layer - you’ll want a small pack that isn’t too bulky to use on the chairlift.
- If you are skiing at a resort, with the occasional side-country run - you’ll want something that isn’t too large, but can still accommodate some snow safety gear (such as an avalanche probe and shovel).
- If you are a backcountry skier, you’ll want something slightly larger that can accommodate your avalanche safety gear, some extra layers, water and snacks, and your ski skins on the way down.
- If you are doing multi-day trips in the backcountry or ski mountaineering- you will need a large backpack that has room for your rope or any overnight gear, but still has some pockets that are easily accessible for your avalanche safety gear.
- If you are looking to get into skimo racing, and weight is a top priority - you will want to look for a minimalist pack that is ultralight, has a safety pocket for your crampons (so they don’t rip through your bag), and can accommodate a hydration bladder and hose.
What features are you looking for your pack to have?
After honing in on what type of skiing adventures you intend to be using your backpack for, the next thing to focus on is what kind of features you are looking for in particular. A few questions to consider are:
- Are you someone who often reaches for water during exercise? Then you might need a pack that easily fits a hydration bladder and provides insulation for the hose so your water doesn’t freeze on cold days.
- Are you someone who is into backcountry skiing and sometimes carries your helmet for part of the trek? You might need a backpack with helmet carry loops for attaching your helmet.
- Are you an avid backcountry skier who wants something with extra safety components such as an avalanche airbag?
Thinking about what you’ll be using your pack for on the day to day and what features in a backpack will make that day to day easier for you will be a huge help in narrowing down the type of pack you need!
What is your budget?
Another thing to consider is how much money you are looking to spend on a ski backpack. While it’s important to find the backpack that suits the type of skiing you plan to do, it is equally important that the purchase is a good fit for your budget. Many factors can influence the pricing of a ski backpack, but a few that you might want to consider are:
Features: As with most things, the more you pay, the more features and better quality you typically get. For example, avalanche airbag packs are often the most expensive packs and come with a heftier price tag that is closer to $800. On the other hand, a day-pack for backcountry skiing is usually much less pricey, at around $170, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be sacrificing room for the essential safety equipment. A simple day pack can still accommodate your avalanche shovel and probe without all the bells and whistles.
Materials: Most ski backpacks are made with nylon, but this material comes in varying degrees of durability. Nylon durability is measured in denier (D), which is a measurement that refers to the thickness of individual yarns that are used in the makeup of fabrics. The numbers indicate the amount of yarns within each thread, for example, 40 denier contains 40 yarns within each thread.
The higher denier counts, like 200D and 600D, are found in heavy-duty and long-lasting materials used for the outdoors. 600 denier packs are tougher and more abrasion-resistant than 200 denier packs, but 200 denier packs will be less expensive than 600 denier packs. With this cheaper price, you lose a little bit of that durability as 200 denier packs will not last as long.
Skis and snowboards both have sharp edges and can easily tear softer materials. Added to that, they will likely be tossed in the back of your car with all your wet ski gear, or be bouncing around on a chairlift all season. So, when looking for a pack that you will carry with this equipment, it’s generally worth it to spend the extra money on a backpack with higher denier fabric to avoid ripping or scratching.
Weight: Packs in the ultralight category will also come with a big price bump. Ultralight packs are typically made with Dyneema, which is a super light fabric that its manufacturer Avient claims is stronger than steel. Packs made with this material will mainly be ski-mo packs, multi-day ski tour packs, or mountaineering packs, made for skiers who want to maximize durability while minimizing weight. The denier of Dyneema is only 375, so while these are typically not as abrasion-resistant as other, heavier ski packs, they serve their purpose to those who are really focusing on weight.
What Are the Different Types of Ski Backpacks?
Usually 20 liters or smaller, these small packs are generally pretty minimalist but still have glove-accessible zipper pulls, and insulated sleeves for hydration bladder hoses (so your water doesn’t freeze). Most ski backpacks have both a hip belt and a sternum strap—but resort packs typically only have the sternum strap since they aren’t intended to carry heavy loads.
- Great for carrying some snacks, an extra layer, and water
- Not bulky, easy to sit on the chairlift with
- Usually too small to fit avalanche gear
- Generally does not have a load-bearing hip belt so the weight is more on your shoulders as opposed to being carried on your hips (not as comfortable for longer treks or heavier loads)
Meant for backcountry ski touring, features in these types of packs can vary greatly but generally all of them have specific pockets for safety gear and one or more methods of carrying skis.
- Specific pockets for avalanche safety gear
- Hands-free method of carrying skis
- Features vary greatly from touring pack to touring pack
Built-in airbag systems in these packs can be deployed by the pull of a handle on a shoulder strap. When deployed, the pack will inflate to a large balloon-like structure that helps keep a skier on top of snow and debris when being carried by an avalanche
- Added layer of safety for those who frequently head into the backcountry
- Heavier than other types of packs
- More expensive than other types of packs
- Airbag systems should be checked yearly and maintained properly to ensure proper function
Geared for skiers who are looking to be ultra-efficient weight-wise (generally for backcountry skiing to make the uphill trek more efficient).
- Lightweight options and increased efficiency on the hike uphill during tours
- Not a ton of room for gear
- Don’t have all the bells and whistles that other ski backpacks have
- Usually not the most comfortable
Great for those going on backcountry yurt trips, winter camping, or trips that require more gear than would be needed for just a day of touring.
- Larger and can accommodate more gear
- Generally still have a front or top lid pocket for avalanche safety gear to make it easily accessible.
- Heavier and larger than most skiers need
Similar to multi-day packs, but have more mountaineering-specific features such as an ice-ax carry and rope carry. A ski-mountaineering pack will also have external attachment points in order to haul the pack up easily with a rope if need be.
- Specific pockets and attachments that are helpful for carrying mountaineering-specific gear such as a rope or ice axes
- Usually ultralight, and a really durable material since they are intended for long backcountry missions where a ton of gear is required
- Larger than most skiers need
- More loops and features than most skiers need
Features to Look for in a Ski Backpack
One of the main indicators that a pack is a ski backpack is the pocket structure and design.
- Goggle Pocket: Generally fleece lined, these pockets are separate from the other pockets in a pack to avoid your goggles getting scratched up.
- Insulated Hydration Sleeve and Hydration Reservoir Pocket: The hydration bladder will have a specific section in the main compartment of the backpack, and a small hole where the hose can run through to one of the shoulder straps. The shoulder strap will have an insulated zipper for your hydration hose so the water doesn’t freeze.
- Avalanche Safety Gear Pocket: In many backpacks, this will be the outermost zipper to make sure avalanche safety gear is quickly accessible in an emergency situation. Most touring have a sleeve for an avalanche probe to slide in, and a sleeve for an avalanche shovel to slide in. This pocket is usually waterproof to avoid the rest of your gear getting wet if you use your shovel and probe to build a snow pit at the beginning of the tour, and then put your snow-covered gear back in your pack.
- Hip Belt Pocket: Many ski backpacks will have a hip belt pocket that can fit a cell phone, for easy access if there is an emergency, and so you can store your cell phone on the opposite side of your body to your avalanche beacon. These two things should not be stored in the same pocket as a cell phone can cause interference with your avalanche beacon, making it more difficult for your ski partners to find you in a burial situation, but with your phone on your waist belt, you can wear your avalanche beacon on your body without concern for interference.
- Helmet Carry: Touring packs will sometimes have a thin, mesh-like piece that can accommodate holding a helmet on the outside of the pocket. Most of the time this is stow-able when not in use. A nice feature to have which avoids a helmet from bouncing around and getting snow inside when on the outside of your pack.
- Crampon Carry: For anyone doing ski mountaineering, some packs have a box-like pocket that can safely store sharp crampons without worry that they will tear anything else inside your pack (or the pack itself!)
- Zipper Pulls: Zipper pulls on ski-specific packs are larger to make it easy to open and close the pockets with a gloved hand. Often times the zipper pull for the pocket where avalanche safety gear is stored (if applicable) will be bright orange to make it easy to see and use in an emergency.
Another differentiating factor is the ability to attach skis or a snowboard to the outside of the pack for an easy carry method while bootpacking.
- A-Frame Ski Carry: One ski on each side of the pack, connected at the top with a voile strap. The compression straps on the side of the pack hold the skis sideways in an A-shape. (For more on how to attach your skis to your backpack, watch this video with pro skier Drew Petersen)
- Sideways or Diagonal Ski Carry: Loops on the back of the pack that allow the skis to be carried diagonally. Backpacks with a sideways carry are great for snowboarders because most snowboards (excluding splitboards) cannot be attached via A-frame carry.
Backpacks with this feature have an internal airbag that you can deploy in the event of an avalanche that helps you stay on the surface as you’re carried down the mountain. (For more on airbags, check out this ultimate guide to avalanche airbags.) Avalanche packs are heavier and more expensive, but for anyone who intends on spending a lot of time in the backcountry, they can be life-saving so are worth the investment (read more about that here).
- Air Canister: Most avalanche airbag packs use an air canister. This is the original technology behind airbag packs and it’s slightly more reliable. The downside is the air canisters can get pricey, cannot be brought on an airplane, and should be tested yearly.
- Battery: Battery pack airbags are a bit of a newer technology. Though they don’t deploy as reliably, they often have an app which allows you to run diagnostics from your smartphone. Some airbag packs with batteries also have other features, such as the Black Diamond Jetforce, which has a timer after deploying that deflates the airbag after three minutes. In the instance of being buried under snow, this allows the skier to have an air pocket to breathe, which has been shown to extend survival times in avalanche burial situations.
Women’s Specific Fit
Some ski backpacks are made specifically to be more comfortable for lady skiers. For some shorter women, myself included, it can be a pain to find a pack that fits my torso well and doesn’t bounce around when I’m skiing or skiing up a ski hill.
- Sizing: The back panel is generally a bit shorter, and narrower since women tend to have shorter torsos and narrower shoulders to accommodate smaller individuals.
- Hip Belt: Generally the hip belt is a bit more padded and sits a bit higher to be anatomically more comfortable for women, who tend to have wider hips than men. Though most all backpack hip belts are adjustable, the adjustable hip belt on womens packs have the ability to accommodate smaller frames.
How to Choose the Right Ski Backpack
With all these options and considerations, Choosing the right ski backpack can be a tricky task. Now that you’ve got a better understanding of some of the features available, it’s time to consider your own needs and wants. Below I’ve described three skiers who I’ve helped on Curated who represent three primary “skier personas” when it comes to shopping for ski backpacks. I’ve highlighted what they should look for based on their skiing type and goals!
Todd: Resort Skier with Young Kids
Todd is a regular at his local resort. He has two kiddos who he usually takes to the slopes with him. He doesn’t need to carry safety gear, but he’d love to avoid taking a trip to the truck every time one of his little guys has wet gloves, wants another layer, or is hungry for some Swedish Fish.
Features Todd should look for:
- Non-bulky design that is easy to get on and off a chairlift with
- Not too large or technical
- Can carry the essentials
- Insulated hydration sleeve
- Large zipper pulls that are easy to use with gloves
Backpack Examples: Osprey Glade 12L, CamelBak PowderHound 12L Hydration Pack
Danielle: Casual Sidecountry and Backcountry Skier
Danielle sometimes goes out of bounds at her local resort, and sometimes does short backcountry tours that are never longer than a day. She wants a touring backpack that prioritizes comfort and can carry her safety gear, water, and an extra layer.
Features Danielle should look for:
- Probe and shovel specific pockets
- Ski carry option
- Helmet carry
- Insulated hydration sleeve
- Comfortable hip belt with hip belt pocket
- Fleece-lined goggle pocket
Backpack Examples: CamekBak SnoBlast 22 Hydration Pack, Dakine Mission Pro 25L, Osprey Kresta 20L (women’s specific), Mammut Nirvana 35L, Deuter Freerider Pro 22L
Jeremy: Expert Splitboarder Who Does Intense Backcountry Tours
Jeremy is an expert backcountry splitboarder. He does long backcountry tours and sometimes does overnight trips or tours that require a harness and a rope. He is looking for top of the line safety, and all the bells and whistles to make his life easier if there’s an emergency situation. He also wants something a bit bigger, since he occasionally does an overnight trip.
Features Jeremy should look for:
- Internal airbag
- Probe and shovel specific pockets
- Vertical snowboard carrying option
- Outside attachment for storing poles on the ride down
- Larger capacity to carry more gear
- A pack that priorities comfort when carrying a heavy loads
Backpack Examples: Black Diamond Jetforce 35 L, Black Diamond Cirque 45L, BCA Float 42L 2.0
When it comes to ski packs, there is no shortage of options! Which luckily means that there is a pack out there that will fit your exact needs and specifications, but also means there are a ton of different backpacks to sort through when hunting for options. If you have any questions about a specific pack, are still not sure about which ones are the best ski backpacks for your adventures, or want more options, reach out to a Skiing Expert on Curated and we can get you squared away and hitting the slopes with your perfect new backpack in no time!