Packs keep getting lighter, smarter, and easier to use. We ran 18 new models through the wringer, and almost every one made the final round. But while it’s easy to find a great pack, choosing the perfect one still requires careful consideration. For starters, standard or airbag equipped? If you spend more than ten days a year in avalanche-prone terrain, consider an airbag. Next there’s size. As a general rule, opt for 15 liters or smaller if you’re riding lifts, 15 to 25 for sidecountry adventures, 25 to 45 for day trips, and 45 or more for multi-day missions. Finally, do you want lots of pockets or a sleek top-loader? Your answers will lead you to a bag you’ll love—and use.
The North Face Snomad 34
Gear of the Year
We knew we’d found the winner when our most demanding tester came back with nothing but compliments. Here are a few: “A plethora of well-placed pockets,” referring to the fleecy goggle holder and tool and hip storage. “The back-entry zippers are the cat’s meow”—they open the body wide, so the contents are easy to see. Full, the pack sits lightly, with soft padding throughout, compression straps to reduce jostling, and rigid stays to distribute the load. He loved the climbing-specific details, too: lots of clearance for looking up a route with a helmet on and room for a harness and crampons. “The perfect day-tripper,” he concluded. 2.8 lbs
Price $159 Carry Comfort 4 Function 5
Mountain Hardwear SnoJo 20
Best For: Playing close to the lifts.
The Test: The SnoJo falls into that small class of packs that feel just fine on chairlifts but have enough hauling capacity for sidecountry laps. Testers loved the big handle on the back, which made it easy to carry onto chairs, as well as the wide and comfortable shoulder straps. A back zip opens the pack for easy sorting of essentials, the tool pocket holds large shovel blades, and retention loops check dangling straps. Smart: the ski- and board-carry system can also be used to compress the bag when hauling smaller loads.
The Verdict: A clean carrier for missions just outside the resort gates. 1.9 lbs
Price $100 Carry Comfort 4 Function 4.5
Deuter Rise Tour 45+
Best For: Long weekend tours.
The Test: Pack right and a 45-liter rucksack is an ideal weekender. But snow camping? That’s where the “+” comes in. With all your avy gear in a dedicated pocket, goggles and other essentials stashed in the brain, and skins in the zippered side sleeves, the Rise Tour’s cavernous main compartment is left open for a whole lotta love. “It swallows an amazing amount of gear while remaining comfortable to carry,” said one tester. Props go to the floating lid and extendable skirt, which make space for at least five extra liters’ worth of gear.
The Verdict: A well-balanced and comfortable pack that plays big. 4 lbs
Price $195 Carry Comfort 5 Function 4
Jones Minimalist 35
Best For: Splitboard touring.
The Test: The Minimalist was built to the only-if-I-really-need-it specifications of company founder and backcountry-snowboarding icon Jeremy Jones. At 2.4 pounds, this top loader is the lightest pack by volume (35 liters) that we tested this season. But despite the bare minimum of appointments, testers didn’t find it lacking. “It’s somehow also packed with smart little features,” said one. Examples: two pockets on the hips, a split top pocket, and a mesh helmet holder that works well even if you’re postholing with a board strapped vertically or A-frame style.
The Verdict: No frills, no problem. 2.4 lbs
Price $149 Carry Comfort 4 Function 4
K2 BackSide Float 8
Best For: Downhill junkies.
The Test: Don’t plan to go far with the Float 8. Though it looks like a 20-liter pack, with airbag and cylinder in place there’s barely room for a shovel, a probe, water, and a layer. It worked perfectly while boot-packing Terminator Ridge at British Columbia’s Kicking Horse, where we strapped our skis vertically and still managed to secure a helmet in the sling. (It can also carry skis diagonally, or a board vertically, and poles, too.) But this bag is made for hot laps from a chair, helicopter, or snowcat. When they aren’t needed, the straps stash clean out of sight.
The Verdict: Safety in a tight, streamlined package—and at a great price. 6.2 lbs
Price $500 Carry Comfort 3 Function 4
Dakine ABS Vario Cover Heli Pro DLX 26L
Best For: Tricking out your avy-airbag base unit.
The Test: Before you get too excited about the price tag, know that this is just the storage part. It zips onto an ABS Vario Base Unit, which is sold separately and includes the airbag system ($950; abs-airbag.com). Why go with a two-part setup? Because it enables you to change pack size depending on how much you need to take with you. The feature-rich Heli Pro is our favorite Vario-compatible pack, with vertical and horizontal ski- and board-carry options, lots of pockets for keeping organized, and plenty of gear room for most day trips.
The Verdict: The best pack in the Vario ecosystem, and a damn fine daypack on its own. 1.4 lbs (6.6 lbs with base unit attached)
Price $120 Carry Comfort 3 Function 4.5
Backcountry Access Float 32
Best For: Pack-size versatility.
The Test: No matter where we went with the Float 32, it had our back. On a frigid tour in Alberta, there was enough room to bring all our avy essentials, an extra layer, and a thermos of coffee. The two ice-ax holders, diagonal ski-carry setup (vertical for snowboards), and helmet hammock all came in handy when climbing for turns in the Cascades. But testers’ favorite feature was the 2.4 inches of vertical torso adjustment in the hipbelt, which allowed for a perfectly dialed fit.
The Verdict: A solid day-tripper that holds you close. 5.6 lbs
Price $550 Carry Comfort 3.5 Function 4.5