Seven packs to keep you adventuring, and safe, in the snow.
Mammut Ultralight Removable Airbag 3.0
Gear of the Year
Over the past few years, winter backpacks have undergone a design renaissance, getting lighter and more comfortable while offering new features. Much of the creative energy has come from a surge in the development of airbags—bladders that inflate in an avalanche and float you to safety. They are proven lifesavers, and many backcountry enthusiasts have smartly adopted them as a standard tool. The holdouts complain that they’re too heavy, complicated, and expensive, arguments that are largely destroyed by the Ultralight. The removable airbag and canister weigh a scant 1.5 pounds, and the whole setup comes in at just over four (slightly more than a standard backcountry pack). Inside there’s room for avalanche tools, skins, water, and an extra layer. Some people shy away from canisters because they deploy only once, but we like the reliability, and they’re easily refilled at any dive shop. The Ultralight isn’t cheap, but it’s half the price of other airbag packs of recent vintage. If you’re going cat skiing or heading out on a day tour, you won’t find a more capable pack. 4.1 lbs
Thule Upslope 20L
Best For: Fast access to your gear.
The Test: The main-compartment zipper goes around the outside but then extends onto the waist belt. The benefit: you can open it at your hip and reach back into the bottom of the pack to grab stuff while on the move. The pack also slings to the side if you want to dig deeper. All this on-body access saved one tester tons of time during a spring tour when the weather was constantly changing. “Everyone else had to take off their pack, but I could get my beanie and gloves in and out without stopping,” he said. We also like the diagonal ski carry (vertical or horizontal for snowboards) that adapts to planks of different sizes, plus the insulated hydration sleeve.
The Verdict: A unique design that really works. 1.7 lbs
SubQ Jackson Jacket
Best For: Lift-accessed backcountry.
The Test: The Jackson is a waterproof jacket outfitted with a small airbag pack, which is anchored to your back via a clever internal harness system. It’s a svelte, all-in-one solution that sits close to your body—perfect for riding the lift and then jumping out-of-bounds. The pack itself is tiny, holding only a shovel and probe, but skins stash in a front pocket, and your beacon lives in a dedicated pouch. We liked that we could attach our skis to the pack, racer style, without taking it off and could shed the jacket from the shoulders (with the harness still secure) while huffing up a skin track.
The Verdict: Perfect for spots like Silverton. It’s also a good value when you factor in the cost of the shell. 8.6 lbs
Arc’teryx Voltair 30
Best For: Saving your ass.
The Test: Arc’teryx spent five years developing its own airbag system, which uses a fan powered by a rechargeable 22-volt lithium-polymer battery to send the orange float shooting out. With enough juice to deploy at least eight times, the bag encourages buyers to practice and can be used at the first sign of trouble—a key factor in effective airbag usage. The pack itself is elegantly minimal. Two waterproof zippers access a large main pocket and tool area, and the burly outer fabric protects against the sharpest ski edges. Our only complaint: the valuables pocket is too small for storing much beyond keys.
The Verdict: The most robust and easy-to-use airbag pack available—if you can stomach the price. 7.6 lbs
Black Diamond Cirque 45
Best For: Whatever you need.
The Test: There’s nothing this pack can’t do. One tester used it for a multi-day backcountry cabin trip by cramming food, clothing, and gear into every inch of the 45 liters of main cargo space and the outside storage pockets. On ski tours, the light but cushy padding supported the load well, while swiveling back straps ensured the pack moved with wearers’ bodies and didn’t cause any chafing. It was equally adept for bootpacking couloirs with skis riding A-frame, a rope stashed on the roof, and an ice ax holstered in a hipbelt gear loop. But what really impressed testers was how the pack felt with nothing but avalanche gear. “I cinched it snug and it disappeared on my back,” one said. “No flopping, no flapping. Fantastic.”
The Verdict: Clean and streamlined, this no-lid top loader carries well no matter how you pack it. 2.3 lbs
Osprey Kamber 32
Best For: Backcountry speed missions.
The Test: Most 32-liter packs feel underengineered when loaded up for a big day. Not the Kamber, which carried solidly up a spicy line on a Vancouver Island exploratory mission while stuffed to the gills. The main pocket, accessed through the back panel, swallowed a harness, rope, layers, water, food, and goggles, while avalanche gear and skins hung out in the roomy toolshed. “Overloaded, it still hugged my back,” one tester reported. Smart: you can open all the pockets even with a snowboard or skis strapped on.
The Verdict: A super-comfortable bag that punches well above its weight. 3 lbs
The North Face Ice Project
Best For: Staying organized at the crag.
The Test: A plethora of smart features made this our go-to for ice climbing. On the outside it has waterproof zippers, which are less prone to freezing than standard zips because they shrug off water. Inside there are 45 liters of ridiculously well-organized storage, with dedicated spots for all your gear, from ice screws to crampons to files. “With everything stowed, there was nothing to get snagged when I was hiking in,” said a tester who took the pack on a climbing trip to northern British Columbia. A big zip splays for easy access, molded side panels keep the mouth open for loading, and a foam insert in the lid can be taken out and used as an insulated seat.
The Verdict: Your climbing kit has never been so well put together. 4.9 lbs