Whether you’re headed to the resort or gearing up for a big backcountry outing, a pack is useful for carrying your essentials: extra layers, water, snacks, and—if you’re going out of bounds—avalanche equipment. Unique design features that set ski backpacks apart include dedicated pockets for goggles and avy gear, multiple access points, and external ski or snowboard carry straps. It’s also becoming more common to find deployable airbags built in for use in the event of a slide. Below are our top ski backpack picks for the 2023 season, including options for day touring and resort skiing, ski mountaineering missions, and those equipped with airbags. For more information, see our ski backpack comparison table and buying advice below the picks.
- Best Overall Ski Pack: Black Diamond Dawn Patrol 32
- Best Budget Ski Pack: Dakine Mission Pro 18L
- Best Resort Skiing Pack: Osprey Glade 12
- Best Avalanche Airbag Pack: Black Diamond JetForce Pro 25L
- Best Ski Mountaineering Pack: Black Diamond Cirque 45
Best Overall Ski Pack
Category: Day touring
Capacities: 15, 25, 32L
Weight: 2 lbs. 9 oz.
What we like: A refined feature set that leaves nothing lacking.
What we don’t: Black Diamond packs aren’t always top-notch quality (although we’ve been impressed by their ski lineup).
Black Diamond has become a big player in backcountry ski gear, and the Dawn Patrol 32 is their jack-of-all-trades touring pack. Freshly updated for the 2023 season, it boasts all the bells and whistles we look for in well-featured design, including zippered backpanel access, external helmet and ice tool attachments, extra-large hipbelt pockets, and a dedicated avy tool compartment. You also get an insulated shoulder pocket for electronics or hydration—a nice detail that few ski-specific packs include and crucial for cold-weather reservoir use—and metal hipbelt buckle that’s far more durable than most plastic designs. The net result is great versatility for all types of ski missions, from transition-heavy tours to schlepping big loads into the mountains.
The Black Diamond holds its own in other metrics too: Comfort-wise, we appreciate the extra padding on the backpanel, which isolates your body from the inevitable bulges of ski gear inside. Materials are decently durable, too (including burly 840D nylon reinforcements), and the Dawn Patrol has straps for both ski and snowboard carry. We’ll admit that we’ve found Black Diamond packs to be hit or miss in terms of durability, but their ski lineup stands out with thoughtful designs and great build quality (we also include their Cirque and JetForce packs below). The Dawn Patrol also comes in a resort-ready 15L and versatile 25L, but the 32L here is the best capacity for most day tours, whether you’re hitting yo-yo laps in the sidecountry or venturing deeper into the mountains.
See the Black Diamond Dawn Patrol 32
Best Budget Ski Pack
Category: Resort/day touring
Capacities: 18, 25L
Weight: 1 lb. 9.6 oz.
What we like: Streamlined and affordable design for inbounds use and light tours.
What we don’t: No backpanel access or compression straps.
For resort skiers, aspiring backcountry enthusiasts, and those on a budget, the Dakine Mission Pro checks all the boxes for an in-bounds/day-touring pack in an affordable $90 package. Similar to the Dawn Patrol above, the Mission Pro features a dedicated avalanche-gear pocket and padded hipbelt and shoulder straps, and tacks on a fleece-lined goggle pocket (the Dawn Patrol has a compartment for smaller items, but the fleece is a nice touch). Made with snowboarders in mind, the Mission Pro offers vertical board carry (skis are strapped in diagonally) and can easily double as a skateboard pack too.
What do you sacrifice by going cheaper? For starters, the Mission Pro isn’t as durable as the $89-pricier Patagonia SnowDrifter below, and you lose the convenience of a full backpanel zipper. Additionally, the lack of external straps means you can’t compress a half-full pack or carry skis in an A-frame configuration (although the streamlined exterior won’t get caught on the chairlift). Finally, the Mission Pro’s 18-liter capacity makes it serviceable for short missions, but the Dawn Patrol's 32 liters can better handle a full day’s worth of layers and food. But for those willing to pack light, the Mission Pro is a great value for what you get.
See the Dakine Mission Pro 18L See the Women's Dakine Mission Pro 18L
Best Resort Skiing Pack
Capacities: 5, 12L
Weight: 2 lb. 0.4 oz.
What we like: All you need for the resort and nothing that you don’t.
What we don’t: ‘Tweener capacity lacks versatility.
Not everyone will wear a backpack at the resort, but it can be a nice solution if you like to stay hydrated or pack your own lunch. Osprey’s Glade 12 is our favorite pick in this category for a few key reasons. First, the pack comes with a quality 2.5-liter Hydrapak hydration reservoir that features an insulated hose, which is essential for keeping water from turning into ice. The low-profile shape and minimal straps make the pack unobtrusive on the chairlift, and tuck-away attachments deploy to secure your ski or snowboard for the occasional bootpack to access sidecountry terrain. And importantly, the Glade is versatile for all types of winter sports–from skiing to snowmobiling and snowshoeing–with features like a goggle pocket and glove-friendly zippers and buckles.
Many of the packs here could pull double duty for resort skiing or riding, but 30 liters (or more) is overkill unless you’re carrying skins, a helmet, and extra layers, too. In the end, those frequenting lift-access terrain will benefit from a more streamlined design like the Glade 12. On the other hand, if you’re just wanting to bring along some extra water, the 5-liter Glade might be a better bet and will save you $30. Regardless of the capacity, it’s hard to beat Osprey’s top-notch carrying comfort and fit, which ensures that the pack won’t get in the way while you’re bombing downhill.
See the Osprey Glade 12 Hydration Pack
Best Avalanche Airbag Pack
Capacities: 10, 25, 35L
Weight: 6 lbs. 8 oz.
What we like: The most cutting-edge electric airbag available; modular design allows for multiple capacities.
What we don’t: Expensive and not as simple as a canister-powered system.
There are ski backpacks, and then there are airbag-equipped ski backpacks. In short, an airbag is deployed in the event of a slide and helps you stay on the surface of the snow as it moves down the mountain. While certainly not a substitute for proper education, good judgement, and avalanche rescue gear (including a beacon, shovel, and probe), there’s growing evidence that airbags have a notable impact on survival rates. For 2023, Black Diamond’s top-of-the-line JetForce Pro is our favorite all-around design, featuring a proprietary battery-powered airbag that’s exceptionally lightweight and easy to recharge. Further, with its modular system (“boosters” can be purchased separately in 10, 25, and 35L sizes, as well as a 25L splitboard version), you can get just-right carrying capacity no matter if you’re skiing the sidecountry or on a multi-day tour.
Compared to canister airbags, an electric airbag is more convenient and doesn’t require you to refill your canister each time you pull the trigger (great for practice deployment). The fan also continues to spin once the airbag is deployed, keeping it inflated even if punctured by a rock or tree, and it’s suitable for air travel (compressed air/gas canisters are not permitted on airplanes). And with added Bluetooth capability, the Pro allows you to run diagnostic tests, update software, and customize settings, which is quite simply next level. It’ll cost you a pretty penny (and with an average lifespan of 5 years, you’ll have to ask yourself if it’s worth it), but electric airbag designs are the wave of the future, and Black Diamond’s JetForce Pro is far and away the best yet... Read in-depth review
See the Black Diamond JetForce Pro 25L
Best Ski Mountaineering Pack
Category: Ski mountaineering
Capacities: 30, 35, 45L
Weight: 2 lbs. 4 oz.
What we like: A streamlined pack that sports all the necessary features for big missions.
What we don’t: Doesn’t carry heavy loads well; no snowboard carry.
Ski mountaineering objectives often require big-mileage days and an assortment of technical gear. For that, you’ll need a pack that can carry everything you need without weighing you down, and the Black Diamond Cirque fits the bill nicely. The Cirque includes all the necessary trimmings for technical missions including two easily deployable ice-axe loops, diagonal or A-frame ski-carry straps, a helmet flap, and a rope strap under the top lid. It also features an internal sleeve for rescue gear that’s separated from the main compartment by a flap, saving weight and giving the exterior a sleek and streamlined look. At only 2 pounds 4 ounces for the 45-liter version, you get a generous amount of space for the weight, making the Cirque a great choice for fast-and-light missions.
The Cirque has earned its place as our top pick for ski mountaineering objectives, but it does have room for improvement. For starters, although the largest version can accommodate 45 liters of gear, the lack of load lifters and stiff suspension means it isn’t quite as comfortable as we’d like. Further, because the top load strap doubles as the diagonal ski carry strap, we’ve found it difficult to max out the capacity while carrying our skis diagonally (and there’s no option for carrying a snowboard). Finally, the Cirque’s side zipper is almost too short to be useful, making it primarily a top-loading pack (Patagonia's Descensionist below features much more functional side zips). We love the Cirque’s low weight and streamlined build, but those looking for more features or a plusher suspension will be better served by packs like the Deuter Freerider Pro or Gregory Targhee below.
See the Black Diamond Cirque 45
Best of the Rest
Category: Day touring
Capacity: 20, 30L
Weight: 2 lbs. 10 oz.
What we like: Very convenient organization for day tours.
What we don’t: Doesn’t fare well when overloaded; no women's-specific version.
There’s no shortage of ski packs to choose from, but for backcountry riders who prioritize convenient organization and a high-end fit and finish, Patagonia’s SnowDrifter 30L is a real standout. This is one of the most user-friendly designs we’ve tested with full-zip backpanel access to the main compartment, a dedicated goggle/accessory pocket that doesn’t get pinched down when the pack is full, and generously sized hipbelt pockets. You also get an avy tool compartment with helpful sleeves for separating safety gear, a wide U-shaped zipper at the top for secondary main compartment access, and external helmet carry. Importantly, the pack also holds its shape well when empty, which is a nice bonus for staying organized during transitions.
The SnowDrifter goes head to head with our top-ranked Black Diamond Dawn Patrol, but we give the edge to the Dawn Patrol for a few reasons. First and foremost, the Patagonia lacks the insulated hydration sleeve, oversized hipbelt pockets, and durable metal waist buckle of the Black Diamond—all features that we love and part of what makes the Dawn Patrol such a functional pack. Second, the SnowDrifter is only available in two capacities (the Dawn Patrol is offered in three), and stock issues are common. But for over $20 less, the Patagonia features a more durable build (420D throughout vs. the BD's 210D with 840D reinforcements), which could be enough to tip the scales for some. For top-notch organization and convenience for casual day tours, the SnowDrifter 30L is a great alternative to have on your radar.
See the Patagonia SnowDrifter
Category: Ski mountaineering/day touring
Capacity: 34 + 10L
Weight: 2 lbs. 13 oz.
What we like: A well-integrated roll-top expands to fit 10L of extra space.
What we don’t: A few minor design flaws.
Germany-based Deuter is best known for their hiking and backpacking designs, but their Freerider series of ski packs shouldn’t be overlooked. The Pro 34+ in particular stands out for its all-around nature, and it received a noteworthy update this season that gives it 10 liters of expandable capacity via a roll-top closure. We’ve found this redesign to be very well-integrated (it doesn’t get in the way when you don’t need it), and the added versatility is significant: the Freerider Pro stays compact and streamlined for casual day tours yet is still able to accommodate a rope, harness, and hardware for more technical missions.
After testing the Freerider Pro all winter, we have just a few minor nitpicks: The front pocket is a bit of a squeeze for a pair of skins (especially a bulky nylon model like BD’s Ascension), and you have to unbuckle the shoulder straps to fully unzip the backpanel, which is an extra step compared to other designs here. And while it’s true that the Pro 34+ is a bit heavy for a lightweight ski mountaineering pack, the extra ounces could be worth it for the expandable design and Deuter’s reliable comfort and fit. What’s more, for $40 less than the Black Diamond Cirque above you get more durable fabrics, significantly more organization (including backpanel access and a fleece-lined goggle pocket), and the choice between men’s and women’s sizes. It all adds up to an attractive quiver-of-one design from a dependable backpack company, and one of our go-to packs of the year.
See the Deuter Freerider Pro 34+ See the Deuter Freerider Pro 32+ SL
Capacities: 22, 30, 40L
Weight: 5 lbs. 8.5 oz.
What we like: A premium airbag pack for significantly less than the BD JetForce Pro above.
What we don’t: Canister airbags are less convenient than battery designs.
Electric fan airbags (like the Black Diamond JetForce Pro above) are the wave of the future, but you can save a lot of money with a canister-powered design. Ortovox’s Ascent 30 Avabag is an undisputed leader in this category for its mix of performance, capacity, and features. The highlight here is the Avabag’s unique practice deployment capability, which makes it easy to familiarize yourself with the process without churning through canisters. Additionally, the Ascent’s 5.5-pound weight is very competitive among canister-powered airbags and a full pound lighter than the JetForce Pro. And finally, Ortovox’s proprietary airbag is removable and compatible with their full lineup of packs, meaning you can purchase one Avabag and swap it between models depending on your objective.
However, there are a number of downsides to consider with canister-powered airbags. Namely, canisters are difficult to travel with, require refilling after each use, and typically can only be deployed once per fill. But there’s no denying the savings (the Ortovox is almost $600 cheaper than the JetForce Pro above), and many will appreciate the simple mechanical system that doesn’t use complex wiring or technology, especially for long-term use in the cold. All in all, if you’re looking to save with a canister airbag, the Avabag collection is a great place to land, and the removable airbag is the cherry on top (Ortovox also offers Ascent packs without the airbag compatibility). Keep in mind that you’ll need to purchase the air canister separately ($190) and get it filled at your local ski or dive shop.
See the Ortovox Ascent 30 Avabag See the Ortovox Ascent 28 S Avabag
Category: Ski mountaineering
Weight: 2 lbs. 9.6 oz.
What we like: Dyneema construction is highly durable, waterproof, and lightweight.
What we don’t: Expensive and not great for day touring.
If you’re looking for a durable, waterproof ultralight backpack for ski mountaineering missions, it’s hard to top Hyperlite’s Headwall 55. The Headwall is made with Dyneema, which is known for its class-leading strength-to-weight ratio in addition to being highly water-resistant. What’s more, Hyperlite designed the pack with a roll-top closure (for even greater waterproofing) and no external zippers, meaning there are very few breakable parts that can malfunction in the field. And in addition to the cavernous main compartment, the Headwall features a generously sized internal zip pocket, stretchy front pouch for avy gear (and more), and hipbelt pockets that are large enough to accommodate a large smartphone and snacks.
We’ve put a lot of use into the Headwall this season, and overall we really like the design for overnight or gear-heavy ski missions. That said, it’s not the ideal pack for day touring—there’s a lot of fabric at the top you’ll need to roll down to compress a less-than-full load, and it’s not the most convenient pack for transition-heavy yo-yo laps (unlike the BD Cirque above and Patagonia Descensionist below, the Headwall does not feature a side zipper). And while we’ve found it fairly comfortable to carry, it’s very tall and skinny when loaded down, and the lack of load lifters at the top of the shoulder straps means the pack can feel a little wobbly. Minor gripes aside, the Headwall is a cut above the rest in terms of technical prowess. If you’re willing to fork over the $449, it’s a wonderful option for serious ski mountaineers.
See the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Headwall 55
Category: Day touring
Weight: 3 lbs. 3.4 oz.
What we like: Durable, comfortable, and unique organization via expandable side pockets.
What we don’t: Pricey; disappointing access to the main compartment.
Last year, Mountain Hardwear returned to the backcountry ski world with two new packs: the ski mountaineering-ready Snoskiwoski 40 and Powabunga 32 here. Designed to offer convenience and comfort for both resort and backcountry riding, the Powabunga competes with designs like the Patagonia SnowDrifter and Black Diamond Dawn Patrol above. Like those models, the Mountain Hardwear is primed for day use with a dedicated avy tool compartment and handy backpanel access to the main compartment. It also has a supportive suspension system–a steel frame helps distribute the load, while the pivoting hipbelt moves with your body–and durable construction with 500-denier Cordura nylon throughout. Finally, those who appreciate generous organization will love the zippered side pockets, which expand to accommodate bulkier items like skins, gloves, or a thermos.
That said, we do have a few gripes with the Powabunga. The first is price: $200 is a lot to pay for a relatively unproven design (you can pick up BD’s Dawn Patrol for the same price or save $21 with the SnowDrifter), which is an immediate demerit for the new pack. Second, front entry to the main compartment is limited—you can access it via a small zipper inside the fleece-lined goggle pocket, but we strongly prefer packs with large top-access zippers. Finally, the Powabunga lacks an ice axe slot and can’t accommodate a snowboard (it can carry a splitboard, but only when separated). These complaints aside, we applaud Mountain Hardwear for creating such a supportive and durable pack, which is enough to earn it a spot on our list for the 2023 season.
See the Mountain Hardwear Powabunga 32
Category: Ski mountaineering/day touring
Capacities: 32, 40L
Weight: 2 lbs. 13 oz.
What we like: Durable, fully featured, and versatile ski/snowboard carry.
What we don’t: No backpanel access to the main compartment and heavier than the Cirque above.
Like the Black Diamond Cirque above, the Patagonia Descensionist is built for long days in the mountains when fast and light is the name of the game. Available in both 32- and 40-liter options, it boasts a breathable harness and backpanel that keep you cool on the skin track, and the innovative strap system allows you to carry skis or a snowboard in several configurations. Additionally, the roll-top closure streamlines weight and accommodates varying loads (Patagonia also includes a helmet-carry attachment), and the full side zip and hipbelt pockets keep gear easily accessible. Finally, the Descensionist comes fully equipped to handle all your technical tools: It includes rope straps, internal and external ice tool attachments, and a dedicated safety tool pocket that keeps your avy gear organized and close at hand.
Before you opt for such a minimalist design, keep in mind that the Descensionist gives up the convenience of full backpanel access, which many skiers and riders really appreciate for transitions. The Patagonia does offer easier access to the snow tools pocket than BD’s Cirque—and includes the aforementioned side-zip entry to the main compartment—but it’s no replacement for a large backpanel opening. And among trimmed-down designs, the Descensionist loses out to the Cirque in weight by more than half a pound (while offering 5 fewer liters of capacity), although it does get the edge in durability and has more ski and snowboard carry options. Added up, the Cirque gets our overall vote due to its more convenient design and time-tested performance, but the Descensionist is a worthy alternative for weight-conscious skiers and riders... Read in-depth review
See the Patagonia Descensionist 40L
Category: Ski mountaineering
Capacities: 32, 45L
Weight: 3 lbs. 10.6 oz.
What we like: Fully featured and comfortable.
What we don’t: Does not ski especially well; straps and pockets add significant weight.
We’ve lauded many of the packs above for shaving weight and bulk, but in reality, not all skiers are laser-focused on traveling fast and light. If you’re willing to shoulder a bit more weight, the Gregory Targhee is one of the most comfortable and fully featured options on this list. The Targhee sports a whopping six external pockets, as well as an insulated hydration sleeve, helmet-carry system, and convenient backpanel access to the main compartment. The 45-liter capacity with removable lid also gives you a bit more room for customization, making it a versatile choice for those looking for a quiver-of-one pack. Further, the Targhee’s beefy build and thick fabrics are confidence-inspiring and made to last.
As we’ve come to expect fro Gregory, the Targhee carries loads quite comfortably thanks to an alloy frame, adjustable suspension, and compression-molded backpanel. In fact, it’s our in-house photographer’s pack of choice when hauling heavy cameras and lenses into the backcountry. Size-wise, 45 liters is great for technical days or short overnights, but it can feel a bit unwieldy when skiing downhill (day trippers will likely prefer the 32L model). And forsaking just a few liters of capacity, we’ve found that packs like the Patagonia Descensionist and Deuter Freerider Pro offer a closer and less ungainly fit. But for the ultimate in comfort and convenience when you need to carry more than an average day’s worth of supplies, the Gregory Targhee 45 should be on your short list. And for a pared-down design with Gregory's FastTrack carry system (which allows you to stow and remove your skis without taking off your pack), check out the Targhee FastTrack 45.
See the Gregory Targhee 45
Weight: 6 lbs. 6.5 oz.
What we like: A backpack and airbag unit from two companies at the top of their game.
What we don’t: Backpack design needs improvement; limited versatility with no compatible boosters.
On our list above, we feature airbag packs that are powered by battery and air canister (the BD JetForce Pro and Ortovox Avabag, respectively), but there’s a third airbag technology that’s made a lot of waves in recent years: the supercapacitor. We won’t go too deep into the nitty gritty of supercapacitors, but the long and short is that they’re quick to charge, relatively small and lightweight, and don’t pose any travel issues. And the Alpride E2—featured in the Soelden Pro 32 here—is the best iteration yet: It’s significantly more streamlined than the outgoing E1 (40% smaller and 4.9 oz. lighter), features an LCD screen to display battery levels, and offers faster charging via USB-C. For winter 2023, we’re seeing this technology used in packs from Scott, BCA, and Deuter as well—but the second-gen Osprey is the most refined design of the bunch.
Osprey is a pack specialist, and the name behind some of our favorite models for hiking and backpacking. Like the majority of their designs, the Soelden (and women’s Sopris) is high on comfort with a supportive suspension system (including a wire frame), well-designed hipbelt and backpanel, and gender-specific shaping (the pack is also available without the airbag for $175). However, we do have some gripes about the pack’s organization: Notably, it lacks an external pocket for small accessories, and you have to undo the compression straps to access the avy tool compartment. And unlike the JetForce Pro above, the Soelden is not offered with a fleet of boosters (that said, the Alpride E2 is removable and can be swapped between compatible packs). Added up, the Osprey Soelden Pro 32 is a competitive alternative to the Black Diamond above for $100 less, and arguably features the more advanced airbag technology.
See the Osprey Soelden Pro 32 See the Osprey Sopris Pro 30
Category: Resort/day touring
Capacities: 18, 25, 30, 35L
Weight: 2 lbs. 3.3 oz.
What we like: A just-right size for sidecountry-bound resort skiers.
What we don’t: Not as performance-oriented as the Ortovox Free Rider below.
Year after year, Mammut churns out some of the ski industry’s best packs, including a complete lineup of airbag designs and their standard Nirvana series here. Perfectly sized for resort laps or days when you let the sno-cat or helicopter do the work, the Nirvana 18 packs a serious punch into a diminuitive package. Similar to feature-rich designs like the Dawn Patrol and SnowDrifter above, the Nirvana offers access to the main compartment via a full-zip backpanel, and a dedicated front pocket allows you to grab safety tools quickly and conveniently. You also get a variety of external attachment points for ice tools and trekking poles, along with compatibility with most hydration systems. Like many packs of this size, the Mammut does not accommodate skis in an A-frame configuration, but you can utilize the large buckles on the front panel for strapping skis diagonally or a board vertically.
With its fairly limited capacity, the Nirvana 18 falls short as a dedicated day touring pack, but it’s a nice option for resort skiers that dip into the sidecountry from time to time. In the end, choosing a capacity is all about finding that just-right balance between having sufficient space and keeping your pack streamlined enough for an unencumbered descent. Compared to the Ortovox Free Rider below, the Nirvana accomplishes this at a much lower cost (you save $80), although serious freeriders will appreciate the added protection and back-hugging fit that the Free Rider offers. Mammut also offers the pack in 25, 30, and 35-liter capacities, the latter of which comes in dedicated men’s and women’s versions.
See the Mammut Nirvana 18
Category: Day touring
Capacities: 18, 26, 36L
Weight: 4 lbs. 1.6 oz.
What we like: Quality day-touring pack with the option to add an airbag system.
What we don’t: Heavy and fairly expensive.
In contrast to their relatively simple and budget-oriented Mission Pro above, Dakine’s Poacher is among the more feature-rich ski packs on the market. To start, you get a range of carry options, including A-frame, diagonal, and a vertical snowboard set-up. Plus, organization is excellent with a zippered backpanel access, helmet attachment, and dedicated pockets for avy tools and a ski goggle. But what really sets the Poacher R.A.S. apart is its compatibility with Mammut’s Removable Airbag System 3.0. Adding the airbag and canister tacks on another $640 to the bottom line, but at $910 all-in, you get excellent versatility for day touring or hut adventures.
What are the downsides of the Poacher R.A.S.? The pack by itself is pretty spendy at $270, especially when you consider it’s not markedly better than the $70-cheaper Dawn Patrol 32 above (other than its airbag compatibility). In addition, the Dakine is rather heavy for its capacity at over 4 pounds, although that does include a mix of burly 500- and 840-denier nylon on the pack body, the extra roll top closure for the airbag, and the intuitive storage layout mentioned above. Finally, if you like the design but don’t plan to get the airbag, Dakine makes a non-R.A.S. Poacher 32 that ditches the airbag pocket and saves you $55 (with a slight drop in capacity).
See the Dakine Poacher R.A.S. 36L
Category: Day touring
Capacities: 22, 28L
Weight: 2 lbs. 8.6 oz.
What we like: Built-in back protection and body-hugging fit.
What we don’t: Pricey for the fairly limited capacity.
If you’re a skier or snowboarder that lives for the descent, the Ortovox Free Rider 28L has your name on it—literally. This pack differs from many of the standard models here with the option for an add-on foam protector that conforms to the contours of your back and hardens to absorb impacts in the event of a crash. To keep it all in place, a wide, elasticized hip strap extends high off the backpanel, hugging your body and ensuring you get protection where you need it (many critical organs can be impacted through the back). Finally, compression straps near the top and on the hipbelt cinch the load close to your back, allowing it to ride as an extension of your body. All told, for committed freeriders that want a streamlined pack for maximum agility on the descent, the Ortovox is a high-performance option.
Despite the Free Rider’s minimalist build, organization is high with both backpanel and top access to the main compartment, along with a dedicated safety tools pocket. But while the pack’s 22- and 28-liter sizes can accommodate the essentials for cat- or heli-accessed terrain, you’ll likely want a bit more capacity on human-powered days. Further, you’re paying a bit of a premium for the purpose-built design—for reference, the Free Rider is $11 more than the Patagonia SnowDrifter 30L above, which is by far the more versatile choice. On the flip side, the Ortovox’s added protection and closer fit will be well worth it for hard chargers. And if you’re looking for a descent-oriented pack but don’t anticipate needing the back protector, Ortovox’s simplified Cross Rider 22L ($140) can save you some hard-earned cash.
See the Ortovox Free Rider 28L See the Ortovox Free Rider 26L S
Category: Day touring/ski mountaineering
Weight: 1 lb. 8 oz.
What we like: Purpose-built for quick transitions and on-the-go access.
What we don’t: A very niche feature set and not very supportive.
Moving fast and light has never been more in vogue, and backcountry skiers are hot on the trend with everything from leg-burning dawn patrols and Everest-in-a-week challenges to big in-a-day spring missions. Black Diamond’s Cirque 22 meets this style head-on, combining the on-the-go ethos of a running vest with all the storage and attachment points you need for a day of skiing. The big selling point here is accessibility: with a quick-stow diagonal ski carry, side crampon/skin stash, and front pockets for water and snacks, you’ll almost never need to remove the vest throughout the day. Tack on a dedicated avy-tool compartment, removable helmet carry, and two ice tool slots, and the Cirque Vest is the complete package for fast efforts in all sorts of terrain, whether you’re skimo racing, tackling your own PR, or just enjoy moving efficiently through the mountains.
But with only 22 liters of capacity and a vest-style strap system (read: no hipbelt), the Cirque Vest is fairly limited to quick hits when you’re not carrying much in the way of layers or extra supplies. What’s more, it’s bound to feel overburdened with anything more than a fairly light ski setup (it pairs well with BD’s narrow Cirque skis), and the diagonal carry system does not accommodate a snowboard. Further, while the Cirque Vest’s on-the-go access will be a game-changer for some, most casual users will want the convenience of standard features like a full-zip backpanel or fleece-lined goggle pocket instead. Like any purpose-built design the Cirque has its fair share of tradeoffs, but skiers with a need for speed will be hard-pressed to find a better-suited pack. For a more affordable design that forgoes the Cirque’s vest-like shoulder straps, check out the Ortovox Trace 20 and 25 ($110 and $130, respectively).
See the Black Diamond Cirque 22 Vest
Category: Day touring
Capacities: 20, 30, 40L
Weight: 3 lbs. 4.6 oz.
What we like: A burly workhorse with a supportive frame and great organization.
What we don’t: Heavy and only sold in one size.
Backcountry Access is one of the most trusted names in backcountry ski gear and a go-to source for everything from avalanche transceivers and probes to two-way radios. Their Stash 30 joins the ranks of packs like the BD Dawn Patrol, Patagonia SnowDrifter, and Mountain Hardwear Powabunga as a functional daily driver that places a high priority on organization. You get all the requisite features, including a full-zip backpanel, dedicated safety tool compartment, fleece-lined goggle pocket, and hipbelt pockets. And similar to a pack like the Osprey Soelden, the Stash’s internal wire frame adds a sizable boost in both comfort and support for hauling your skis or a compact overnight load.
The Stash is only offered in one size, but you can tweak the torso length with the height-adjustable waist belt. Even so, fit is one area where the pack falls significantly short of the competition—for comparison, the Dawn Patrol and SnowDrifter come in two sizes, while the Soelden is available in both men’s and women’s models. The Stash is also notably heavier than other packs, but the burly nylon (210D & 420D) puts up a strong defense against sharp tools and everyday wear and tear. And finally, many skiers will appreciate touches like the insulated hydration hose sleeve and shoulder-strap attachment for a two-way radio. At $180, we hesitate to recommend the Stash over the similarly premium yet more affordable designs above, but it’s nevertheless a solid ski pack that will last you multiple seasons of use.
See the Backcountry Access Stash 30
|Black Diamond Dawn Patrol 32||$200||Day touring/resort||15, 25, 32L||2 lb. 9 oz.||Backpanel, top|
|Dakine Mission Pro 18L||$90||Resort/day touring||18, 25L||1 lb. 9.6 oz.||Top|
|Osprey Glade 12||$120||Resort||5, 12L||2 lb. 0.4 oz.||Top|
|Black Diamond JetForce Pro 25||$1,500||Airbag||10, 25, 35L||6 lb. 8 oz.||Top|
|Black Diamond Cirque 45||$220||Ski mountaineering||30, 35, 45L||2 lb. 4 oz.||Top, side|
|Patagonia SnowDrifter 30L||$179||Day touring||20, 30L||2 lb. 10 oz.||Backpanel, top|
|Deuter Freerider Pro 34+||$180||Mountaineering/touring||34+10L||2 lb. 13 oz.||Backpanel, top|
|Ortovox Ascent 30 Avabag||$910||Airbag||22, 30, 40L||5 lb. 8.5 oz.||Front|
|Hyperlite Headwall 55||$449||Ski mountaineering||55L||2 lb. 9.6 oz.||Top|
|Mountain Hardwear Powabunga 32||$200||Day touring||32L||3 lb. 3.4 oz.||Backpanel, top|
|Patagonia Descensionist 40L||$219||Mountaineering/touring||32, 40L||2 lb. 13 oz.||Top, side|
|Gregory Targhee 45||$220||Ski mountaineering||32, 45L||3 lb. 11 oz.||Backpanel, top|
|Osprey Soelden Pro 32||$1,400||Airbag||32L||6 lb. 6.5 oz.||Top|
|Mammut Nirvana 18||$120||Day touring||18, 25, 30, 35L||2 lb. 3.3 oz.||Backpanel|
|Dakine Poacher R.A.S. 36L||$270||Day touring||18, 26, 36L||4 lb. 1.6 oz.||Backpanel, top|
|Ortovox Free Rider 28L||$200||Day touring||22, 28L||2 lb. 8.6 oz.||Backpanel, top|
|Black Diamond Cirque 22 Vest||$180||Touring/mountaineering||22L||1 lb. 8 oz.||Top|
|Backcountry Access Stash 30||$180||Day touring||20, 30, 40L||3 lb. 4.6 oz.||Backpanel, top|
*Editor's note: prices and weights include batteries or canisters where applicable.
- Ski Backpack Categories
- Ski Backpack Capacity
- Carrying Comfort
- Closure Systems and Access
- Organizational Features
- Ski and Snowboard Carry
- Women’s-Specific Ski Backpacks
Skiing can take a variety of forms, from lift-served turns to quick dawn patrol laps before work, traveling the week-long Haute Route in the Alps, or seeking out powder stashes deep in the backcountry. Given the variety and the notable differences in pack designs for each use, we’ve broken our picks into four separate categories: resort, day touring, ski mountaineering, and airbag backpacks.
A resort pack is the ideal choice for in-bounds riding, sidecountry terrain, and even sno-cat or heli-accessed skiing. The main distinguishing factor here is capacity—packs in this category are around 12-22 liters in size, which is perfect for carrying your water and snacks, an extra layer, and avy tools (if needed). For lift-accessed terrain, you’ll also want to look for a clean exterior with minimal straps to avoid snagging the chairlift when loading/unloading. Most of these packs feature an insulated sleeve for storing a water reservoir, which is great for staying hydrated without removing your pack. Some of our favorite designs in this category include the Osprey Glade 12 and Mammut Nirvana 18, and it’s also worth checking out smaller-capacity versions of many of the other packs above.
Packs in our day touring category are a great fit for close-to-home backcountry tours. When you’re earning your turns, you’ll be transitioning a lot from touring to skiing, so a good day-touring pack will prioritize organization with features like full backpanel access to the main compartment, external accessory pockets, and a dedicated snow goggle pocket. They also place a high priority on comfort (over the weight-savings of ski mountaineering designs), with robust backpanels and nicely padded hipbelt and shoulder straps. Most backcountry skiers and riders will appreciate a pack in the 25- to 35-liter range, which is a just-right capacity for accommodating your food and water, extra layers, avy tools, helmet (on the uphill), and skins (but not quite enough for overnight gear or technical equipment like a rope and harness).
Ski mountaineering—not to be confused with skimo racing—is a discipline of skiing that involves venturing into more technical, mountainous terrain. Ski mountaineers might encounter glaciers, ice, steep snow, and even dry trail along their route, and missions can often be multiple days long. To account for the added gear and technicality, ski mountaineering packs offer a bump in performance in more streamlined packages to shave crucial weight. Look for dedicated ice tool and pole attachments, a helmet-carry system, external straps for ski or snowboard carry, lighter-weight fabrics, and supportive suspension systems. Ski mountaineering packs will often range from 35-45 liters to accommodate technical or overnight gear. Our favorite packs in this category are the Black Diamond Cirque and Patagonia Descensionist 40L, which do a great job balancing weight-savings and comfort.
One of the dangers of an avalanche is that it can pull you deep under the snow, making rescue a physical and time-consuming process. To help increase chances of survival, airbag packs include a bag that inflates to about 150 liters, allowing skiers to stay close to the surface rather than being sucked under (this is governed by the process of granular segregation, which states that larger objects will stay on top of a mixture while smaller objects will sink to the bottom). Additionally, airbags provide a barrier around the head and neck to guard against obstacles like rocks and trees. By nature, these packs are heavier, more expensive, and have limited capacities, but they're still common in heli-skiing, cat-skiing, lift-served backcountry skiing, or day-touring applications. Additionally, some designs allow you to remove the airbag mechanism completely, which gives you the versatility of traveling with or without the extra load.
There currently are two types of mechanisms used to inflate airbags: compressed air and electric fans. When a canister is triggered, it shoots air (or gas) into the bag, inflating it in about three seconds. Powered by batteries or supercapacitors, fans also are activated with a pull cord and take around the same time to inflate. Where do the two differ? First and foremost, while canister airbags are generally lighter and less expensive than electric systems, they can only be deployed once. Fans, on the other hand, can often be used multiple times on a single charge (like Black Diamond's JetForce Pro) and are easily recharged. This allows skiers to practice without the hassle and cost of expending canisters (if you don’t live near a refill location, you’ll have to mail the cartridge in for replacement). Finally, fan-powered airbags can be taken on airplanes with relative ease, while canister models are trickier and require you to empty the air beforehand (compressed gas canisters cannot be taken on a plane at all). For a closer look at the market, see our article on the best avalanche airbag packs.
Ski backpacks come in a range of sizes, from compact 20-liter packs for sidecountry or heli-accessed skiing to large 40- to 50-liter packs for overnight trips and technical ski mountaineering. Resort-goers leaving the rescue gear behind can likely get away with an even smaller pack like the Osprey Glade 12. But in our experience, the sweet spot for most skiers is in the 30- to 40-liter range, which is where the majority of the picks above fall. These are perfect skiers who enjoy long days at the resort or short backcountry outings, and provide ample space and organization for avalanche gear, extra layers, skins, food, and water. We also feature a few packs in slightly larger sizes for overnight trips or exceptionally frigid days when you want to carry along your bulky puffy jacket and thermos of tea. However, keep in mind that the larger your pack’s capacity (and the more you load inside), the more cumbersome it will feel on the downhill.
Ski backpacks range from lightweight 2-pound models to heavy airbag-equipped bags like the Black Diamond JetForce Pro, which clocks in at 6.5 pounds. For those focused on moving quickly on the skin track or who don’t want to be weighed down on the descent, a lightweight pack—along with lightweight gear both inside and underfoot—should be a top priority. If you want added carrying comfort or an airbag system, expect a big bump in weight. Finally, you should keep in mind that a pack’s weight is generally correlated with its level of supportiveness: the lighter the pack, the less padding and suspension it offers.
Many factors contribute to a pack’s overall comfort, including the shape and size, beefiness of the suspension, and the amount of adjustment the pack offers. For those who prioritize freedom of movement on the downhill, a pack that is streamlined and sits close to the back (look for smaller capacity, minimalist suspension, and compression straps) will perform better than a pack with a bulky suspension system that separates the load from the body. On the other hand, when weighed down with 40+ liters of gear on the skin track, you’ll be thankful to have a robust backpanel (packs like the Gregory Targhee 45 even incorporate an internal wire frame, which offers a lot of extra support for hauling heavy loads), shoulder straps, hipbelt, and features like load lifters that allow you to dial in fit.
In the end, it’s important to identify your priorities and understand that there will be tradeoffs with any pack you choose. A good place to start: Are you more focused on the uphill or downhill? For instance, the Gregory Targhee is one of the most comfortable packs on our list, but some will find that its heavy-duty suspension is too restrictive for aggressive skiing. On the other hand, many of the lightweight options above (like the Black Diamond Cirque 45) sacrifice support to shave weight, which can make skinning and bootpacking rather arduous. And interestingly, most manufacturers offer larger-capacity packs with the same suspension as their smaller counterparts, so don’t necessarily expect to find increased support as you size up.
One way that ski packs stand out from standard hiking daypacks or climbing packs is in their access to the main compartment. Most ski packs feature multiple access points—usually a combination of a top drawstring or zipper paired with a side zip or a back/front panel zip. Because skiing tends to be very transition-heavy and you’re in an out of your pack a great deal, multiple access points allow you to get at gear in every nook and cranny without needing to take anything out.
When deciding on a pack, think about how often you’ll need to access gear throughout the day and in what sort of environments. For those who want to open their pack on the chairlift, a top zip is great for getting at snacks, water, or a goggle wipe. Alternatively, when skiing laps in our local backcountry bowl, we prefer a pack with a U-shaped backpanel zip (like that of the Black Diamond Dawn Patrol 32 or Patagonia SnowDrifter) that allows us to see all our gear and use our pack as an ad hoc staging area during transitions. Ski mountaineers who have longer approaches and descents (and are thus transitioning less) can get away with a more streamlined opening (the Patagonia Descensionist 40L features a roll top and side zips, for example). Finally, speed-focused skiers and endurance athletes will benefit from the on-the-go access of a vest-style design like the Black Diamond Cirque 22.
Avalanche Gear Compartment
Many new skiers will use a hydration pack, climbing pack, or hiking daypack for in-bounds days or ski touring. However, we highly recommend that those venturing into the backcountry purchase a ski-specific pack for one main reason: safety. The vast majority of ski backpacks have a dedicated avalanche gear compartment, allowing for quick access to your shovel and probe in the event of a slide. Some, like the Patagonia SnowDrifter, feature a dedicated zip pocket, while others, like the Black Diamond Cirque 45, have a pouch in the main compartment. No matter the design, the goal is to make your rescue equipment easily accessible. When purchasing a pack, make sure the compartment is large enough to fit your gear and that it’s easy to access regardless of what you might strap onto the outside.
Most ski backpacks feature at least one pocket in addition to the main compartment and avalanche gear compartment. We find this extra pocket extremely useful for smaller items such as goggles, sunglasses, lip balm, and snacks. Often, this pocket is also fleece-lined to protect your ski goggles, which is a nice touch. Sometimes, it’s located on the inside rather than the outside of a pack, which streamlines the exterior but is less convenient to access.
Your pack’s load will likely change throughout a day of skiing as you swap layers and transition. To account for this, most ski packs are designed with compression straps along the sides that allow you to snug down a partially full load so that it rides close to your back and doesn’t feel unwieldy. These straps are also especially helpful for streamlining larger-capacity bags. For example, the Deuter Freerider Pro 34+ is a good option for overnight trips, but thanks to its roll-top and compression straps, it can be tightened down to serve as a comfortable day-touring bag.
All that said, packs with compression straps or other external straps generally aren’t ideal for resort skiers, as they’re more likely to get caught on the chairlift. Instead, look for packs with clean exteriors and minimal outer features. Further, you should always exercise caution while getting off a lift with a pack. The best method is to sling it over one shoulder rather than both, and make sure you’ve undone both the waist belt and sternum strap before unloading.
External Attachment Points
Many ski packs—and especially those tailored to ski mountaineering—are made with various external attachment points, designed specifically for convenient storage of ice tools, poles, crampons, rope, and a ski helmet. Before making a purchase, it’s important to consider whether or not you really need these features—if you don’t, they might feel unnecessary and burdensome. And it’s worth noting that standard packs generally feature some variety of compression straps or ski-carry straps, which can be used to carry gear externally in a pinch. That said, ski mountaineers will appreciate the convenience of dedicated slots and systems for their ice tools, helmets, and ropes, like those found on the Gregory Targhee 45.
All of the packs in this article are designed with external straps for attaching skis (or often a snowboard) to the outside. These straps are incredibly useful in the event that you need to hike with your skis on your back, which is common in ski mountaineering and accessing hike-to terrain at resorts. In terms of design, some packs allow you to attach lightweight skis in both diagonal and A-frame configurations, while others limit you to one setup or the other (many airbag-equipped packs, for example, do not support A-frame carry). Further, it’s not rare to find a pack that is is unable to haul a snowboard (the Black Diamond Cirque, for example).
The backpacks listed here are either unisex or men’s-specific models, but many manufacturers make ski backpacks in a women’s version as well (when applicable, the women’s model will be linked directly below the pack's write-up). Women’s packs can differ in both shape (namely of the suspension system) and capacity, and often vary in colorway as well. For example, Osprey's Soelden 32 is also available in a women’s model called the Osprey Sopris 30. The Sopris comes in different color tones, a slightly smaller capacity, and with a hip belt and shoulder straps more contoured to fit a women’s body. Many backpacks on our list are only available in unisex models, but come in a variety of sizes (the Patagonia SnowDrifter is offered in S/M and L/XL). We find that unisex backpacks work for most females relatively well, but for the closest fit, we recommend that women look at women’s-specific packs.
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