How to Choose a Winter Mountaineering Pack
Over the years packs have replaced my desire to buy purses. These things happen when you’re outside all of the time. When you first start out with gear, you make things work, but as your outdoor prowess grows, your need for specialized gear takes over. At first, I would resist, claiming I’d never be that person, but nowadays I know better. You want the right tool for the job. Choosing a pack for winter mountaineering is no different.
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What Kind of Winter Mountaineering?
Your needs for a pack are highly dependent on what you are doing. This is tricky because when you start out winter mountaineering chances are you aren’t going to be using ropes, placing pro (protection like snow pickets, snow fences, ice screws, etc) or going on multi-day epics. That simply isn’t realistic because unlike travel in summer, winter travel takes much more strength, skill, knowledge, and practice. But you don’t want to buy something you’ll likely outgrow either. Ask yourself the following questions before you make your decision.
- Am I going to be traveling on skis or a splitboard? If yes then you are going to want a winter touring specific pack. I’ll dive into that later.
- Will I predominantly be ice climbing? If so then rope, double axe and pro carry will be something you will want to consider. You also want to have a bag that isn’t going to be too bulky in order to keep your center of gravity normal on a climbing route. Your pack will likely be larger than what I’m describing here. I won’t touch too heavily on ice climbing, as I don’t have the expertise to do so.
- But I want something that will do it all! Well, I hate to break it to you, but that’s a pack unicorn. If you don’t know what you are getting into or where you want to end up, choose a generic winter pack or basic backcountry touring pack that will sustain you while you learn to travel on snow, then pick up specialized packs later.
Winter Pack Capacity
When selecting your winter pack, you need to keep in mind the gear you will be carrying. Chances are you may have a lot of extra gear such as crampons, ice axe, climbing harness, helmet, trekking poles, snowshoes, shovel, probe, even approach shoes. Not to mention you will likely be carrying several extra layers that you don’t carry in summer.
As you know, I’m a huge proponent of safety in the mountains. In winter, the chances of something going wrong and being stuck in inclement weather are much higher, so I take more gear and come prepared. If I’m out for a really long day, I may even bring a stove so I can melt snow for water.
My winter pack is a 38L Dakine Blade and my boyfriend uses the Osprey Kode 32L. Both packs designed for backcountry touring, but we use them throughout the year. At a minimum, I’d recommend at least carrying a 32L pack. This will give you ample room for a day out in winter.
Winter Mountaineering Pack Features
There are several different features worth considering when choosing a winter mountaineering pack. Keep in mind when you are in a couloir or a steep snow slope, the last thing you want to do is take off your pack and dig through your bag. So, having a few extra bells and whistles will help out tremendously.
Ice Axe Loops
This is a standard feature on most packs, even on tiny 18L Camelbacks. However, if you plan on using multiple tools, double ice axe loops are handy. You can always carry two with one loop, but make sure the loop will fit two axes before committing to this.
This is an area where backcountry touring packs excel. Being out in the snow and ice all day can make things sopping wet. The last think you want is soaking your extra layers in balls of melting ice. Try to find a pack with a dedicated wet or waterproof storage.
Ski/Board/and Snowshoe carry
If you plan on alpine touring, or even using cross-country skis for your approach, make sure your bag can carry them. Sure, you could stash your skis, but then you can’t ski down. And let’s face it, that’s half the fun! If you do plan on backcountry skiing, always wear a beacon and carry a shovel and probe INSIDE your pack. NEVER strap avalanche safety gear to the outside of your pack. It can fall and then you’re screwed if you have to perform an avalanche rescue.
Touring packs have special pouches (usually waterproof) for avalanche safety gear as well as skins. As a bonus, you can also stash your crampons in the dedicated wet pouch too. The benefit of having a ski/snowboard carry system is that it can easily be rigged to carry your snowshoes, trekking poles, or even a rope.
Hip pockets and Gear Loops
Although it can be tedious and unsafe to have gear swinging around to and fro while climbing a mountain, it’s always nice to have a few gear loops just in case. A hip pocket is an excellent place to stash a snack, gloves, or your phone for those alpen-glow, photo-worthy moments.
Once I was out with the Colorado Mountain Club learning snow climbing techniques. I arrived with my touring pack in tow ready for a day of self-arrests, glissades, and front pointing. Everyone immediately oh-ed and awed at the helmet carry feature on my pack. It’s an essential item if you plan on backcountry touring, and a great bonus if you climb couloirs or ice. It keeps your helmet from bouncing around and throwing you off balance.
Rope and pro carry
This is where larger packs with a top, or brain, excel. You can stash your rope between the pack’s main body and the brain for easy, secure rope carry. Rope carry with a touring bag is a bit of a pain, as it usually needs to be stashed in one of the ski or board carry options, which isn’t always ideal.
Hydration Bladder Insulation or Easy Water Bottle Access
Hydration pack insulation is the single most useless feature I’ve ever seen on a piece of gear. Pack manufacturer’s: If you’re reading this, please don’t bother. They are a pain to use and they don’t do squat. Instead, make sure your pack has an easy-grab water bottle pouch or holster.
One of the number one features to look for with a winter mountaineering pack is durability over weight. Pack weight, although essential in the ultra-light world, comes second to durability in winter mountaineering. Your pack will undergo a beating. Between an axe, crampons, shovel, snowshoe teeth and skis there are plenty of winter items that will poke and prod your pack. Make sure your pack has extra re-enforcement and is built of durable material. It’s well worth the extra weight and cash.
How to Fit a Backpack
We all know comfort is king so it’s essential your pack fits correctly. If at all possible, get professionally fitted at an outdoor store. However, if that isn’t an option for you, you can easily figure out your size by reading the specs on the manufacturer’s website. Packs are sized based on torso height, so your size may surprise you. Essentially, you want to make sure the pack conforms to your back and there isn’t a gap between the shoulder straps and your pack. Keep heavy items closest to you, towards the middle of your pack, instead of smashed on the top.
What do I Use for a Winter Mountaineering Pack?
I have two packs that I use for winter mountaineering. My go-to pack is my Dakine Blade 38L. It’s a backcountry touring specific pack that works fantastically for a single-day summit. When I first got the pack, I didn’t really care for it. It was tough to access and annoying to pack. I wish the hip pockets were larger and more useful and the water bladder system wasn’t such a pain. Overtime, my pack has grown on me and I love it. In fact, I use it for summer mountaineering too. While I was in Nepal, I used Squirrel’s Kode 32L Osprey pack and loved it as well.
I love using backcountry touring packs for winter outings. They have fantastic features that are specifically designed to make snow travel more comfortable. My touring pack gets the most use out of all of my packs. They are durable and virtually indestructible, making the added weight and cost worth it.
Multi-Day Mountaineering Trip Pack
For longer epics and multi-days I rely on my Osprey Aura 65L AG. The Aura also doubles as my backpacking pack. Osprey’s Zero-Gravity hip belt system makes it feel as if I’m carrying a (heavier) feather when I’ve got 40lbs on my back. It takes a minute to properly weight and adjust the pack, but once adjusted, it works like a charm. This pack is great if I’m backpacking to a snow climb, or carrying a ton of pro. My only knock is that the smaller front pocket is separated down the middle, making it impossible to carry a shovel, so I stow my shovel in the more open mesh pocket. This certainly isn’t ideal, but it works.
Overall, I would look into a basic backcountry touring pack for your first winter mountaineering daypack. Make sure it’s a good fit and you’ll be all set for an epic day in the snow, no matter what your winter activity is.