An Expert Guide to Ski Backpacks
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!
Ski backpacks: Do you need them? What should you look for while shopping for a ski-specific pack? Which one is the best for you? If these sound like any questions you’ve been asking yourself, keep reading!
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!
Ski backpacks have a few key features that make them stand out from other packs. The first one you might notice is the pockets. Usually, ski backpacks have a goggle pocket and, in touring packs, a specific pocket for your probe and/or shovel. They also usually have an internal, insulated hydration sleeve for your hydration bladder and an insulated area in the shoulder strap to run the hydration hose through so your water doesn’t freeze in cold weather.
The second feature that really makes ski backpacks stand out is their ability to carry skis and sometimes a helmet. There are two ways you can carry skis on backpacks, pictured below.
Ski backpacks should always be able to accommodate at least one of these methods in case you ever find yourself boot packing. (For more on how to attach your skis to your backpack, watch this video with pro skier Drew Petersen). The helmet-carry feature is basically a little mesh covering that buckles your helmet to the front of your pack so it doesn’t bounce around, take up too much room in your pack, or make you too warm on the hike up during ski tours. It's usually stowable, and while not all ski packs have this feature, many of them do, and you’ll be glad to have it if you ever plan on touring with a helmet!
The third feature, which you might not notice until you’re fumbling with the zipper with gloved hands, is that the zipper pulls on ski backpacks vary a little bit. They are typically large loops or bigger plastic pulls so that you don’t have to take your gloves all the way off and you need something from your pack.
Those are the main differences, but below we will look at the best ski backpacks for each type of skiing you might find yourself doing, and which key features those packs have that make them the best in their category.
Osprey has really thought of it all. Though maybe a little bulky for resorts, this pack is great if you want it mainly for backcountry skiing. The Soeldon 32 has full back-panel access, a fleece-lined goggle pocket, a sternum buckle whistle, a secure ice-tool carry, diagonal and A-frame ski carry options, two shoulder-strap sleeves (one for a radio and one for a hydration hose), and a buckle inside the pack to hold up your hydration reservoir. It also has a helmet carry with options to store the helmet on the front or top of the pack.
What really makes this pack stand out is the pocket design. Inside the main compartment, there is a sleeve for a thermos and room for some snacks, layers, or whatever else. The probe and shovel have an easily accessible separate compartment on the front of the pack, so that if you stow them and they have snow on them, they won't get the rest of your gear wet. The hip belt uses EVA foam that offers comfort without adding weight and has a pocket and a gear loop. This 32-liter pack is lightweight for its size and features, and it comes in both women’s and men’s specific fits. If this one doesn’t stand out, the Patagonia Snowdrifter 30L is a close runner-up.
- Weight: 2.54lb
- Other size options: 22L
- Load Range: 15-30lb
Best for Budget
The Mission Pro is a great smaller option for those who mostly stick to resorts, but might take an occasional sidecountry or shorter backcountry ski and don't need all the fancy features that some other packs have. This 18-liter daypack can carry skis diagonally, but not in the A-frame style. While there aren’t a ton of pockets, it has room for all the essentials. There's a fleece-lined goggle pocket on top and a probe pocket and space for a hydration reservoir in the main compartment. The hip straps are padded to add some comfort, and there's a safety whistle on the sternum buckle. The main complaints this bag gets are that it’s not super water resistant, there is no helmet carry, and the internal organization is nonexistent due to the lack of pockets. But if you’re looking for something simple, and don’t want to spend too much, this is it!
- Weight: 1.6lb
- Other Size Options: 25L
Best Women’s Pack
Though it’s not necessary to get a women’s-specific pack, sometimes it can be nice especially for those of us who are shorter and have a hard time finding a pack with a hip belt that sits comfortably. This 20-liter pack has a thermoformed back panel with a zipper that lets it open fully for quick access to the contents inside. It has insulated hydration storage, a front pocket with easy access for a probe and shovel, a lined goggle pocket, a stowable helmet carry, and allows for A-frame or diagonal ski carry. It also has a spot for a backcountry radio on the shoulder strap. Like all Osprey packs and like the Mission 18L, it has a safety whistle on the front sternum buckle. The hip belt on the 20L is pretty thick, has two pockets, and sits a bit higher for a women’s fit.
The functionality of the pocket designs and carry loops paired with the comfort of the back panel and hip belt make this pack an awesome option for women on backcountry or sidecountry missions who normally find backpacks to be uncomfortable and hard to fit.
- Weight: 2.2lb
- Other Size Options: 30L
- Load Range: 15-20lb
Best Resort Pack
While it’s not necessary to have a resort pack, sometimes it's nice to have somewhere to toss snacks, and an extra layer if it warms up throughout the day. It’s best to have a pack that’s 20 liters or smaller for the resort or it’ll be too bulky on the chairlift. This 12-liter pack can also fit a shovel and probe, making it a good companion for those who want to go beyond the gates (though if you’re planning on doing a lot of out-of-bounds skiing, you might want to consider a larger, touring-specific pack or choose from the list of “sidecountry packs” at the end of this guide). This pack is pretty bare-bones but has an insulated sleeve, a goggle stash pocket, a spot for 2.5L of water, and a stowable diagonal ski carry. The pack has a durable water repellent which allows it to shed moisture well, and it's a pretty streamlined shape for comfort while riding the lifts.
- Weight: 2.1lb
- Other size options: 5L
Best Ultralight Pack
Ultralight packs are an attractive option for anyone doing skimo (ski-mountaineering) racing or shorter tours while trying to keep things light. If that’s the case, this is a great minimalist pack! The back panel and shoulder straps are made of super-breathable mesh, and there's an insulated pocket and waterproof safety box for storing crampons without fear of them ripping or soaking the pack. It has a hip buckle, though it’s relatively thin compared to others, won’t carry much weight, and will get uncomfortable if it’s overloaded, which shouldn't be a problem for ultralight travelers. It has an ice-axe attachment, a ski-carry attachment, a removable bottle holder, and a spot for two soft flasks. This pack features a few extra-fancy bells and whistles that other ultralight packs don’t usually have, and they are all removable if you don’t want to use them. This pack also scores points in the comfort department due to the anatomical design of the back panel.
- Weight: 0.5lbs
Best Avalanche Airbag Pack
An airbag pack isn't totally necessary for backcountry touring but it's a nice tool to have. How it works is that there is an 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.) The Jetforce stands out from the rest for a few reasons. It has an electric fan design instead of a canister, it has Bluetooth® capabilities that allow you to run diagnostics and updates right from your phone, and it’s rechargeable and easy to travel with.
However, the top feature that makes this one the best is that if the airbag is deployed, it automatically deflates after three minutes, so in the event that you are buried, it gives you an air pocket as you await rescue. In addition to those features, it has an avalanche tool pocket, a ski carry, an ice-axe attachment, a helmet holder, and a leg strap. Avalanche packs are heavier and more expensive, and there are mixed reviews on if they actually help that much (read more about that here), but personally, I’d recommend them just in case.
Note: Carrying an avalanche pack is not a substitute for formal avalanche education.
- Weight: 6.5lb
- Other Size Options: 10L, 35L
Best Overnight/Multi-day Backcountry Ski Packs
If one day of backcountry skiing isn't enough and you’re looking to do either overnight winter camping trips or multi-day hut trips, you're going to need room for a bit more gear. Beyond avalanche gear, snacks, and an extra layer, you’ll need something that can accommodate extra clothes, more food, a sleeping bag, a tent, and maybe even a bear canister, which the 52-liter Mutant is capable of holding.
With a large main compartment, a top lid with two easily accessible pockets, an A-frame ski carry, a stowaway helmet carry, and an attachment for poles or ice axes, this pack is a great option for those with heavier loads who still need technical features. This back panel is mesh and allows airflow so it won't get too hot lugging your gear up the mountain and frame design transfers most of the load off the back to the hips. The hip belt is padded, lightweight, and allows airflow as well. The lid pockets are awesome for smaller things that you might need access to during the day, and the hydration reservoir fits up to 3L water.
- Weight: 3.6lb
- Other size options: 22L, 28L, 38L
Best Mountaineering Pack
Backcountry skiers looking to step into more challenging terrain by getting into mountaineering are going to need a really specific pack, something lightweight and durable that can carry a heavier load to accommodate extra gear, like a rope and ice tools. The Cirque 45 is the pack for that, with two internal compartments, one for gear, layers, food, etc, and one for avalanche-safety gear, such as a shovel and probe. It also has a rope strap under the lid and a diagonal ski carry.
Aside from that, this 45-liter pack is pretty minimalist and streamlined, which saves weight on a pack that you’ll be carrying for quite a ways further than you would a daypack. If you are looking for something a bit more robust, the Deuter Freerider Pro is a great second option that has more features and compartments, but does weigh a bit more.
- Weight: 2.2lb
- Other size options: 30L, 35L
Lastly, I want to note that while I listed alternative sizes available in the packs above, some features mentioned change as the capacity changes, so if there’s something specific that you’re looking for in a pack, make sure to double-check if you decide to go with another size. If you have any questions about a specific pack, are not sure which one is best for you, or want more options, reach out to a Ski Expert on Curated and we can get you squared away and hitting the slopes with your perfect new backpack in no time!