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Gear Guy

The Backcountry Ski Packs We'd Recommend to Our Friends

We judged five contenders on user friendliness, comfort, and how well they carry a load

A quality pack is non-negotiable if you plan on skiing in the backcountry. (Sarah Jackson)
Photo: Sarah Jackson gear

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We judged five contenders on user friendliness, comfort, and how well they carry a load

Anyone who skis in the backcountry needs a pack to carry avalanche gear, skins, extra layers, and water. But the different packs out there offer unique advantages and demand various compromises. I tested five high-quality models, putting them through the paces to see how they stacked up.

The Test

To maximize the number of vertical feet skinning up and skiing down with these packs, I enlisted the help of friends from the outdoor program at Southern Oregon University, near my home in Ashland. Program chair Erik Sol, student Sean Gearheart, and I skinned up the back and front sides of Mount Ashland over three weeks, each logging a tour with every pack. Sol also tested these during a six-day Pro 1 Course at Mount Baker put on by the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education.

The Results

gear
(Sarah Jackson)

Dakine Poacher RAS 26 ($210)

Best For: Big Lines

Comfort: 5/5
User Friendliness: 4/5
Load Carrying: 4/5

The Poacher was the heaviest bag of the lot, but that wasn’t a deal breaker given how many features it offers. The most obvious design element is a back panel that zips open so you can easily access your gear. “It adds weight but is worth it to me,” Sol says. And we appreciated the beefy pocket in the hipbelt, which we used to store tools and lip balm. The separate avalanche tool pouch left the main compartment free for other essentials. The Poacher can also easily integrate a removable airbag system like this one from Mammut. Our biggest gripe was that the chest strap—which clips into slots on a daisy chain, making it adjustable up and down—popped off so many times that Sol ended up swapping it out for a Voile strap.

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(Sarah Jackson)

Mystery Ranch Saddle Peak 21 ($229)

Best For: Lift-Accessed Powder Stashes

Comfort: 4/5
User Friendliness: 4/5
Load Carrying: 5/5

The Saddle Peak impressively toed the line of being feature rich without stepping into overbuilt territory. The hardy pockets on the hipbelt didn’t puncture when stuffed with scrapers and multitools, while the deep, stretchy compartment on the top provided a secure spot for goggles. The pack has a low profile, with square edges instead of round ones, which made it perfect for riding chairlifts but did limit its carrying capacity. “It felt small for its size,” says Sol. Though it did live up to Mystery Ranch’s reputation for comfortable fit. The robust belt kept the load on our hips, where it belongs, and the Saddle Peak boasts A-frame and diagonal carry systems for skis.

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(Sarah Jackson)

Fjällräven Bergtagen 38 ($240)

Best For: Hut Trips

Comfort: 4/5
User Friendliness: 3.5/5
Load Carrying: 5/5

If I were to choose a pack for a winter worthy of Game of Thrones, this would be it. Copious ballistic nylon and metal hardware make the Bergtagen burly. It had the largest capacity of the models we tested but wasn’t the heaviest. I’m the type of skier who eschews counting grams in favor of bringing a Nalgene full of dirty martini on a long tour, so I don’t mind a heavy pack if it carries that weight well. Here the Bergtagen was a star, thanks to its generous hipbelt and removable birch stays in the back panel. I was dubious of those stays at first and assumed I would leave them at home, but they lent crucial support and structure and kept the fully loaded pack from sliding too far to one side as I skied down.

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(Sarah Jackson)

Patagonia Descensionist 32 ($179)

Best For: Minimalists

Comfort: 3/5
User Friendliness: 4/5
Load Carrying: 3/5

The Descensionist 32 is crafted for serious ski-mountaineering missions. It’s more than a pound lighter than the others in this test and has hardcore features, like straps to hold ice axes and loops on the hipbelt for climbing gear. “This thing will last forever,” Sol says, praising the simple, durable construction. “You can be the old-man grandpa telemarker in the woods eating pine cones 40 years from now, and this pack will probably still be around.” What the Descensionist lacks is comfort. Compared to the Bergtagen, there was less padding on the back panel and along the hip belt, which allowed the contents to poke and the straps to dig in when the pack was fully loaded. The upside is that there are fewer buckles to break and zippers to snag.

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(Sarah Jackson)

Thule Upslope 25 ($240)

Best For: Day Tripping

Comfort: 4/5
User Friendliness: 4/5
Load Carrying: 4/5

Being one of the smallest packs in this test, the Upslope was a bit outgunned on a six-hour ski tour but proved amazing for short outings. “I brought my avalanche tools, a first-aid kit, a puffy layer, a bottle of water, and various small items, such as a map and a snow scraper,” Gearheart says. “With such a minimal load, the bag proved easy to organize.” And the Upslope featured something no other pack here did: a mesh net to carry a helmet externally. Since all three of us ski with helmets (and you should, too), this was a huge plus. The mesh can be positioned to hold a helmet either on the front of the pack or hanging from the bottom, with the latter allowing for easy access to the avalanche tool pocket. We also loved the oversize pockets on the hipbelt. “I can get to my water and my snacks without taking my pack off, allowing me to take quicker breaks,” Gearheart says.

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Filed To: Skiing / Backpacks / Tools