The 7 Best Backcountry Packs of 2013
Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.
Arc’teryx Quintic 38 Backpack
GEAR OF THE YEAR: We needed to consult the manual to figure out how to make the most of the 38-liter Quintic’s unique triangular design. But it was worth the effort. The pack is cleverly divided into five large zippered pockets: two wing out along the hip belt, and the others hold the weight low, to prevent jostling. Boards rack into just about any configuration (skis vertical, A-frame, or diagonal; a snow-board horizontal or vertical), leaving the main pocket accessible—a rare engineering feat. We usually prefer something simpler and more streamlined, but every now and then a pack comes along that blows our boots off. This year the Quintic is that pack. 3.2 lbs
REI Side Country 19 Backpack
BEST FOR: Slackcountry hot laps.
THE TEST: Like a crusty old ski bum, the 19-liter, single-pocket Side Country slid easily from job to job. Avalanche tools and a hydration bladder slipped neatly into dedicated sleeves, and insulated shoulder routing kept water flowing. Fully loaded, its slim profile disappeared during chair travel, making it ideal for resort riders looking for something to stow lunch and a spare layer. When it’s time to lash ’em, straps emerge to affix skis diagonally and boards vertically with just a couple of quick snaps.
THE VERDICT: Versatility in a small package—and a killer price. Ideal for lift-accessed backcountry. 1.9 lbs
KNOW HOW TO HOLD ‘EM: Strapping your skis to your pack makes sense whenever a boot-pack will take at least 15 minutes or there’s technical terrain ahead (icy steps, rocky ridges). Here are the three most common techniques and the pros and cons of each. 1. A-Frame: Strapped to the sides, cinched at the top. Upside: Stable. Downside: Setup is time-consuming. Best for: Long hauls and tricky climbs. 2. Diagonal: Angles across the back using built-in loops. Upside: Fast. Downside: Uneven load, awkward in tight spaces. Best for: Short, mellow hikes. 3. Vertical: Straight up the back. Upside: Fast and balanced. Downside: Less head and leg clearance. Best for: Snowboards.
Millet Steep 27 Backpack
BEST FOR: Staying organized.
THE TEST: Often, packs with a lot of pockets (the Steep has five) compromise usable space. Not here. On a frigid day tour in British Columbia’s Coast Range, the 27-liter Steep swallowed all of one tester’s essentials, plus down pants and a second jacket. The oversize zipper pulls are mitten friendly, and a tandem zip on the back panel splays the main pocket for quick interior access. Our only gripes: Big shovel blades won’t fit in the tool pocket. And the hipbelt is a bit wimpy, especially when schlepping a full load.
THE VERDICT: A great deal for a feature-rich pack. 2.4 lbs
Mount Hardwear Chuter 28 Backpack
BEST FOR: Long days in the backcountry.
THE TEST: Talk about quick access to your safety gear: a flap covering the back of the 28-liter Chuter lifts to reveal a “wet locker” with drain ports and racks for probe and shovel—no more rummaging around. It’s a smart idea made possible by a combination of straps and clips that pull triple-duty: closing the flap securely, holding skis or a snowboard vertically (A-frame carry is also possible), and compressing the pack. Our only gripe with the design is that some bigger shovel blades don’t fit.
THE VERDICT: Careful where you leave the main pocket zippers—they sometimes irritated our back. Otherwise, this is a refreshing, functional new take on how to organize a winter pack. 1.9 lbs
The Mountain Hardwear and REI packs are equipped to carry a snowboard vertically. Rather go horizontal? The Gear of the Year-winning Arc’teryx does both.
Check to make sure your shovel fits. Those with larger blades or longer shafts sometimes don’t, especially in smaller packs like the Millet and Mountain Hardwear.
Black Diamond Revelation Backpack
BEST FOR: Backcountry devotees not ready for an airbag pack.
THE TEST: The 35-liter Revelation is Black Diamond’s first ski pack built on its proprietary suspension system, with a rotating hipbelt and swinging shoulder straps. Testers loved it. “This might be the most comfortable pack I’ve ever worn touring,” said one. Black Diamond also tweaked the position of the AvaLung (a snorkel-like device proven to prolong avalanche survival by venting exhaled carbon dioxide) to sit more comfortably on the shoulder strap. Everything we loved about earlier models—insulated hydration sleeve, well-placed tool pockets—remains the same.
THE VERDICT: Great update to a classic. 4.4 lbs
The Revelation has a secret weapon: Black Diamond’s AvaLung snow-safety breathing device is built into the pack.
Gregory Alpinisto 50 Backpack
BEST FOR: Winter mountaineering.
THE TEST: The Alpinisto is loaded with ice-climbing and ski-mountaineering features, including a helmet recess, a crampon pocket, and ice-screw loops on the hipbelt. But you don’t need to scale technical peaks to appreciate this 50-liter pack’s oversize A-frame ski loops and burly aluminum buckles. And like the Dynafit Baltoro, the Alpinisto is a transformer: remove the hipbelt, foam pad, and suspension stay to shed 1.5 pounds and turn this load hauler into a minimalist summit sack.
THE VERDICT: Next in line for Gear of the Year. One tester summed it up best: “The ability to be all or nothing with little compromise. This could be your one-pack quiver.” 3.8 lbs
Dynafit Baltoro 42 Backpack
BEST FOR: Extended missions.
THE TEST: We loaded the Baltoro to the max for a four-day hut trip in the Canadian Rockies. At the hut, we ditched the bottom pocket (just big enough for a sleeping bag) and unclipped the lid, dropping the volume from 42 liters to 28 in seconds. And when it came time to switch from skinning to boot-packing, the randonnée-racing-style loop-and-clasp ski carry allowed us to attach our boards without removing the pack.
THE VERDICT: Some testers wished that the U-shaped back zip was a bit larger, to make it easier to access the bottom of the pack, but we’re really nitpicking here. The Baltoro is an exceptionally well-designed pack from top to bottom. 3.7 lbs