GearHiking

The Best Packs of 2019

(Photo: Charles Dustin Sammann)
buyer's guide

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Gear haulers slim down and grow up

buyer's guide
(Photo: Courtesy Ortovox)

Ortovox Haute Route 40 ($190)

The best packs sit comfortably on your back without a lot of organizational maneuvering beforehand. That’s the Haute Route in a nutshell. Named for the classic ski tour in France and Switzerland, it handles a heavy load without feeling bulky, lopsided, or misshapen. The 40-liter capacity was plenty for carting overnight gear on a hut trip—including the requisite bottle of Scotch. Gear enters the main compartment through the top or (our preference) a zippered back panel. “The rear entry and light-colored interior made it easy to grab what I needed, regardless of how poorly I packed,” said one tester, who also appreciated the dedicated front avalanche-tool pocket. “I love keeping that stuff separate from everything else.” Yet, while there’s a ton of capacity, the pack felt stable and comfortable while hiking up and riding down. That’s because it’s built like a much larger hauler, with generous padding on the hips, shoulders, and back, and an O-shaped suspension system to keep weight steady at the hips. It’s made tough, from Cordura and 420-denier nylon. And with just the essentials when it comes to add-ons (including carry straps for skis or a snowboard, plus ice tools), it’s light for its volume. Wherever we took the Haute Route 40, it seemed made for the task. 3.3 lbs

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backpacks
(Photo: Courtesy Mammut)

Mammut Trion Nordwand 20 ($200)

Best for Winter Climbing

Small and mighty sums up the Nordwand. Weighing just over a pound, it looks like little more than a tote, but whether the mission was ice climbing or mountaineering, it handled abuse and surprisingly heavy loads with aplomb. We credit two key specs. Mammut wove Dyneema—a fabric used in sails that’s 15 times stronger than steel—into 100-denier nylon for added burl without a weight penalty. And a pair of removable aluminum stays pro­vide structure: a flat one runs vertically down the center of the back panel, shifting the load to the hips, and a tubular one runs across the shoulders, keeping the Nordwand from frumping on your back. “I stuffed it to overflowing and strapped rope and ice axes to it, and still the Nordwand felt comfortable on the hike in,” said one tester after climbing in Canada’s Banff National Park, adding that the narrow profile made it small and light on his back. 1.3 lbs

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backpacks
(Photo: Courtesy Scott)

Scott Backcountry Patrol AP 30 ($1,100)

Best Airbag-Equipped

Airbag packs come in two varieties: those inflated by air canister, and those inflated by battery-powered fan. Air canisters need to be refilled after every discharge, usually at a dive shop, while the lithium-ion batteries in fan-inflated packs can struggle to hold a charge in frigid temperatures. Here’s where the Backcountry Patrol rises above the fray: its airbag system uses a fan powered by a supercapacitor battery, which discharges faster and refuses to slack off in icy conditions. Scott promises only a single inflation on a charge, but we were able to get two. As for the pack itself, the Backcountry Patrol’s main sleeve, avalanche-tool compartment, and lid pocket easily accommodated a day’s gear. Overall, it blends the ease of use of a battery-powered pack with the reliability of a canister system. If you’re an avy-bag holdout, it’s time to invest. 5.9 lbs

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backpacks
(Photo: Courtesy Helly)

Helly Hansen Ullr 25 ($160)

Best for Sidecountry Skiing

One of Helly’s first ski packs, the Ullr per­forms admirably when heading into gate-­accessed backcountry close to the resort. On a tour outside Whistler, we stuffed the main compartment—accessed through the back-panel zipper—with food and extra layers, stashed avalanche tools in the dedicated pocket, and tucked a water bottle in one of two side pouches. Before boot-­packing up a couloir near Revelstoke, we racked our skis A-frame style, tucked our lid into the mesh helmet carry, and still had access to the main compartment through the rear-entry zip. Back at the resort, the compression straps were svelte enough to avoid snag­ging on the lift. Bottom line: for those who spend equal time on the ski hill and just beyond, the Ullr’s the ticket. 2.6 lbs

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backpacks
(Photo: Courtesy Arc'teryx)

Arc’teryx Alpha SK 32 ($325)

Best for Backcountry Skiing

The Alpha SK proves that less is more—not the first time that’s been said about a piece of Arc’teryx gear. Nobody minded the lack of webbing and straps on the back. “I was surprised at how rarely I missed stuff I once considered essential,” said one tester. For instance, a helmet, rope, and skins fit under the top flap, no special zips, holders, or com­partments required. Rather than include a zip pocket for shovel and probe, there’s a sleeve in the main storage compartment. And most notably, Arc’teryx did away with side compression webbing in favor of integrated ski straps and well-chosen anchor points. Skis or a splitboard rack vertically, diagonally, or A-frame, and in keeping with the minimalist composition, there’s a basic foam back panel and low-profile waist strap. Fully loaded, the pack offered just enough padding to be comfortable and hold its shape. Said a tester, “They removed everything I didn’t need and kept only what was necessary for a great pack.” 2.2 lbs

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