Winter can be cruel. Fingers go numb. Water bottles freeze. Having the right pack is essential. For short outings, daypacks such as Gregory’s Verte, with glove-friendly straps and closures, are perfect. On longer adventures, a pack with an insulated bladder and hose, like CamelBak’s Phantom 20LR, means you won’t have to slow down to hydrate. And if you’re looking for a new skiing pack, how difficult it is to affix your skis (or board) can be a deal breaker. Whatever we did, the following seven packs never slowed us down.
Deuter Pace 36 Pack
The top-loading Pace ($129) struck the perfect balance between light and rugged. Clever nips and tucks—compression straps that also carry a snowboard, no back framesheet or side access via zippers—cut weight to a paltry two pounds for a bag that, at 36 liters, is just big enough to load up for a weekend at a hut. Tightly woven ripstop nylon stood up to a month of bushwhacking, and despite the pack’s minimalist appearance, the back foam is cushy in all the right places.
THE VERDICT: As one tester summed it up, “Deuter dialed it all in beautifully.” 2.1 lbs.
CARRY COMFORT: 4.5
Dakine Blade 38L
BEST FOR: Highly organized snowboarders and skiers.
THE TEST: Name a feature and the Blade’s ($180) probably got it. Ice-ax sleeve, helmet holder, goggle pocket: check. Back and top entry to the main storage: roger. Dedicated avalanche-tool pocket: yup. Every possible way to carry a board or sticks: of course. (There’s even a pole strap for splitboarders, and it’s the only pack here that allows you to strap on a snowboard horizontally.) The dizzying array of webbing and buckles makes it a bit strappy—and heavy for its size—but it allowed us to overload the pack and schlep just about everything we needed for a weekend hut trip. Our only complaint was having to wrestle the hydration hose into the insulated sleeve.
THE VERDICT: A bit hefty, but well appointed and sturdily built. 3.5 lbs.
CARRY COMFORT: 3.5
Gregory Verte 15
BEST FOR: Snowshoeing, nordic skiing, and just about any other short jaunt.
THE TEST: If all you need to carry is a warm layer, a hot drink, and some snacks, the Verte 15 ($69) is ideal. Although there are no dedicated pockets for avy gear, the fastest and lightest backcountry skiers and ice climbers will find just enough room for the essentials. Whatever you do, you can do it with your gloves on, as the pack’s main hook closure and the oversize pull loop on the drawstring are both mitt friendly. The Verte is also great for travel—pull out the foam back padding and it rolls down to the size of a burrito. The only odd thing: the top lid is wasted space. A zippered compartment here would be perfect for small items.
THE VERDICT: The best combo of winterized and minimalist we’ve seen. 1 lb.
CARRY COMFORT: 3
CamelBak Phantom 20LR
BEST FOR: Slackcountry to day tours.
THE TEST: The 17-liter Phantom ($130) is a shape-shifter. Cinched down, it all but disappears when you’re riding lifts or ducking outside the gate. But it also punches above its weight, taking on everything we needed for a day tour without blowing the two zip-access main pockets. Our favorite feature is the 100-ounce lumbar hydration bladder. Sitting horizontally instead of vertically at the bottom of the pack, it keeps the water weight low and close to the hips for better stability and less sloshing. Also smart: you can access the bladder from outside the back of the pack, no rummaging around or rearranging required. Our only gripe: the Phantom is a touch overweight for its size.
THE VERDICT: Though optimized for crushing quick laps, it’s ready when you are on bigger days. 3 lbs.
CARRY COMFORT: 4
Osprey Mutant 38
BEST FOR: Ski mountaineering.
THE TEST: At first glance, the 38-liter Mutant ($160) (it’s also available in a 28-liter version, pictured) looks like a bare-bones pack. There’s no side access to the main compartment and few obvious bells and whistles. But dig a little deeper and a bunch of vertically inspired features appear, like the zigzag webbing that pulls double-duty as both compression and ski-carry straps. With adjustment points in three spots, “it’s quick to open, close, and fine-tune,” said our most experienced tester, a mountain guide in British Columbia. It also downsizes nicely for shorter missions. The top lid is removable but doesn’t leave the pack exposed: Osprey sewed in a flap that covers the opening and can be used to cradle a rope.
THE VERDICT: Likes to go fast. 2.7 lbs.
CARRY COMFORT: 4
Mountain Hardwear South Col 70
BEST FOR: Multi-day traverses; base-camp touring.
THE TEST: When heading to base camp, the question often becomes: Take a second, small pack for day missions or make do with your cinched-down load hauler? The South Col ($196) kills the quandry. Despite its slim cut, one tester fit everything he needed—including a bottle of bourbon—for a weeklong hut trip. For day trips, he ditched some of the straps, the suspension, and the padded waist belt (cutting weight by more than a pound), then cinched up the compression system to create a surprisingly comfortable scaled-down bundle. Smart: a reinforced crampon sleeve and always-accessible exterior zip pocket store skins and avalanche tools.
THE VERDICT: Best of both worlds. 3.9 lbs.
CARRY COMFORT: 4
Atomic Backland 18
BEST FOR: Light loads.
THE TEST: Upon initial inspection, the 18-liter Backland ($130) seems a bit chintzy—the neon orange and black color scheme and odd-looking waist straps do it no favors. But it’s tougher than it looks, especially considering that it weighs two pounds. And though there are just two pods of cushioning at either hip and no real suspension system (only a relatively thin back panel), testers found it carried the essentials just fine. “Nothing fancy here,” said one, “just a simple, lightweight daypack.” Our only real quibbles were the fiddly ice-ax attachments, which often required bare hands to work. Snowboarders should look elsewhere: no carry options for you.
THE VERDICT: Streamlined, lightweight, and great for travel—it takes up very little space in your luggage. 2 lbs.
CARRY COMFORT: 4