Load them up, kick them through the snow—these haulers will serve you well no matter what.
Mystery Ranch Saddle Peak ($229)
We demand a lot from our packs: they need to accommodate a variety of loads, move with us, and carry comfortably on our backs. Until pack makers design the one that can do it all, we’re left weighing pros and cons. Of all the packs we tested this year, the Saddle Peak demanded the fewest compromises. Mystery Ranch—based in Bozeman, Montana—designed it to tame the local Bridger Bowl Ski Area. There are runs right off the lifts, but the best terrain requires a boot-pack, and there’s plenty of backcountry to explore. Thus, this 21-liter bag is too small for gear-heavy excursions but just right for sidecountry day trips. The straps and hipbelt are fully padded, and the two-pocket panel design is compact, for riding the lifts and staying tight on moguls. The diagonal ski-carry system is sewn into the back panel, better distributing weight on the hips. And the adjustable torso length is one of the best we’ve seen on a pack this small. Made for Bridger, worthy everywhere. 3.6 lbs
Burton AK Taft 24 ($160)
Best For: Short snowboarding excursions into the sidecountry.
The Test: Don’t judge a book by its cover—or rather, a pack by its listed capacity. “When I rst picked the Taft up, I thought it was too small, but I was blown away with how much it actually fit,” said a tester who spends most of his time exploring the Whistler backcountry. Everything we needed on sidecountry missions fit in the main pocket, accessed easily through the back panel, and there was still room to spare. Two side pockets help keep the weight centered and balanced for stable riding. Take your pick when lashing your board to the Taft: straps accommodate both vertical solid boards and A-frame splitboards. A top goggle pocket, helmet hammock, attachment points for poles, and ax loop are icing on the proverbial cake.
The Verdict: A good choice for entry-level backcountry riders doing mostly short trips. 2.7 lbs
Arva R-15 Ultralight ($650)
Best For: Avy insurance without the excess weight.
The Test: Arva flipped avalanche-airbag construction on its head with the R-15, proving that safety doesn’t have to slow you down. It shed weight from its airbag system—the entire R-15 weighs less than five pounds—while still making the bag bigger to boost flotation. And the handle itself is ergonomically shaped, making it easy to grab even with mitts on. As for the pack, the torso length adjusts, both for comfort and to position the trigger handle at just the right height. While 15 liters of storage may not sound like much, it was just enough for us on dawn patrol at Silver Fork, in Utah’s Big Cottonwood Canyon. As one tester put it, “It’s like not wearing a pack at all and still having an airbag on your back.”
The Verdict: Given its single zipper-accessed compartment, you have to be OK with minimalism. 4.9 lbs
Ultimate Direction SkiMo 28 ($200)
Best For: Going fast in the mountains.
The Test: We expected randonnée die-hards to love this race-designed pack. What was surprising: everyone else liked it, too, in large part because everything is accessible without having to take the bag off. On a sunny tour out of Verbier, Switzerland, we drank from a water bottle riding shotgun in the shoulder-strap pocket, stashed a beanie in the hipbelt, and grabbed a phone from the water-resistant main compartment. During a dicey midrace transition, a tester slipped out of the shoulder straps, spun the SkiMo around, and stashed skins in a separate pocket at the bottom of the pack. And while it comes loaded with a tow bungee for giving slower partners a pull and straps for attaching boards, poles, and a helmet, most are easily stripped away, shedding ounces from an already featherweight carrier.
The Verdict: Optimized for racing or even just bagging peaks. 1.9 lbs
Ortovox Ascent Avabag 30 ($720)
Best For: Both the risk averse and the organization obsessed.
The Test: This year, Ortovox ditched the airbag system it had been using and developed its own, Avabag. It’s simpler (20 pieces go into making it, versus 70), less expensive ($300 less), and lighter (tipping the scales at nearly half as heavy as the old system). It’s also safer, in three ways: the mechanical trigger can be dry-fired, so you can get familiar with what deploying it feels like without actually using up the precious—not to mention pricey—compressed air in your canister; the handle is bigger, for easier grabbing during tense situations; and the 160-liter balloon is larger, increasing float in an avalanche, where bigger items sift to the top. All that and the pack is also laid out nicely, with the 30-liter capacity dispersed across three pockets.
The Verdict: The best of both worlds: safety and storage. 5.6 lbs
Deuter Rise SL 32+ ($169)
Best For: All manner of touring missions.
The Test: Goldilocks would approve. Not only did our testers say the Rise was just right in many ways, but it was also the best women-specfic winter pack we tested. Credit Deuter’s effort to home in on the ideal pack shape for the female anatomy: the torso is shorter, the hipbelt is shaped to fit wider and taller pelvises, and the narrower shoulder and sternum straps better fit women’s contours. Plus, there’s plenty of room to bring along extra layers—in fact, the “+” in the name refers to the Rise’s ability to extend, adding up to five liters of capacity. “There are just enough compartments to have a place for everything, but not so many that you lose anything,” said a tester. Yet the Rise also compresses down small when carrying less. “It always seemed to be just the right size,” said another.
The Verdict: A versatile touring pack that can moonlight in all four seasons. 3.4 lbs
Gregory Alpinisto 50 ($219)
Best For: Any time your alpine daypack isn’t going to cut it.
The Test: Gregory updated its already peerless Alpinisto for only the second time in a decade. The consensus: it’s even better. The brand cut weight while adding durability by using a higher-density nylon for the body, added comfort with a beefier suspension system, and updated the alpine-specific climbing features. Among them are a separate crampon pocket for keeping snow and ice out of the main storage area, pick sleeves compatible with any ice or mountaineering tool, and (our favorite) an extra-long side zip that opens the pack like a taco. “I could quickly see everything,” said a tester. “On a snowy ledge belay, I didn’t have to unpack everything to find what I was looking for.” The Alpinisto handles weekend peak-bagging missions without breaking a sweat.
The Verdict: The new standard in alpine packs. 3.7 lbs