PC: Evan Green
The right ski-touring pack can make all the difference.
Unless you’re rocking the lycra skinsuit and race skis on a training day, you should pretty much always be wearing something on your back. In addition to the mandatory items such as your avalanche rescue gear, the list of items that are recommended to have in the backcountry is long. Whether it's water, extra layers, or crampons, having a backpack to carry all of these things is paramount. Below we discuss the different style backpacks on the market today, and what their best intended uses are. In case you were wondering the answer is yes- in the modern world of ski-touring, backpacks have quiver slots too.
If you’re entering your local Skimo race, or you simply want to be as efficient as possible on the skin track, you’re going to want the lightest pack possible on your back. These Race/Fitness options are designed to be ultra light (because every gram matters) and functional even while being worn. Regardless of your intention, once you experience the ability to put your skis on your pack without taking off said pack, it is difficult to go back to a traditional offering.
Over the course of a race, it is the goal for these packs to never come off of the person. A loop and elastic hook system is standard for these packs which allows you to put your skis on your back without taking off your pack. Food and water storage is put on the shoulder straps for easy access and a larger pocket is typically accessible for stashing your crampons and extra water bottle. While these packs are perfect for racing, they are not ideal for avalanche kits or full-sized tools that would be preferred in a backcountry setting. For race requirements, the bare minimum for safety gear is stashed away and rarely, if ever, do they get pulled out of the pack and used.
We love the Dynafit Speed 20 pack in this category.
When embarking on a ski mission that involves more exposed terrain or a long approach, you're going to want a pack that is lightweight but more functional than a traditional Race/Fitness offering. Ski-mountaineering packs are also suitable for your average day tour in the backcountry. These options are constructed with a heavier duty material, include more volume for storage, and offer more features designed to increase safety and comfort in the mountains.
Firstly, it is standard for these packs to include a dedicated pocket for their avalanche rescue gear (beacon, shovel, probe) that offers quick access in the event of a rescue situation. On the outside of the pack, a quick access strap system will hold their ice tools and most packs will also include some sort of helmet carry system.The idea is to make it as easy as possible to access gear when in a precarious situation. For example, the Cirque pack from Black Diamond features an easy accessible attachment for your ice tool. As soon as the slope steepens and you want the added security of an ice axe, simply reach behind you and it's there when you need it. Lastly, these pack feature enough volume for layers, food, water, boot/ski crampons,etc. for a long day out in the mountains.
We love the BD Cirque 35 in this category.
Having the right pack translates to confidence in the mountains
Multi Day Pack
When embarking on a multi day hut trip, or a spring traverse where you'll be spending multiple days out in the hills, you're going to want a pack with more volume. These options will have the same features as a ski-mountaineering pack including a dedicated pocket for avalanche rescue gear and dedicated exterior straps for ice tools, but they will be able to carry a lot more stuff.
When you bring your tent, your jet boil, and all the other essentials for a comfortable night out in the mountains- it's going to be heavy. How that weight is distributed on your pack is just as important as the amount of gear you can lug around. Look for wide shoulder straps, adjustability, and a more subsantial frame to distribute the weight. A good volume for this type of pack would be over 40L for a typical hut trip, but even more for an expedition style trip.
You can use a backpacking style pack for this purpose, but the downside is not having a specific pocket for your avalanche rescue gear or the appropriate straps for your ice tools. If you plan on doing any serious ski-touring with this pack, then this can be problematic if you need quick access to your ice or avalanche tools.
We love the BCA Stash 40 pack in this category.
For long approaches into multi-day hut trips, you'll be glad to have the extra volume
At the top of the food (and price) chain is the airbag pack. These packs are designed with an airbag system that is to be deployed in the event you get caught in an avalanche. The idea is based off of the ‘brazilian nut theory’ where if you shake a can of mixed nuts the largest ones (usually brazilian nuts) will rise to the top. So in an avalanche flow, the idea is that the largest object will rise to the top. When you deploy an airbag, it blows up like a balloon and drastically increases your surface area to weight ratio, helping to keep you on top of the slide. However, while these backpacks will keep you on top of the snow, they do not protect against trauma. Getting dragged through a grove of trees or over a band of rocks will still cause damage. In otherwards, wearing an airbag on your back does not make you invincible- or even close to it.
These packs come in a variety of sizes, use a variety of mechanisms to deploy the ‘balloon’, and have become wildly popular among ski enthusiasts who recreate in avalanche terrain during less stable winter months. When not deployed, the pack looks like any other but features a hidden, uninflated balloon and a compressed air canister or battery-operated fan. When activated by the user with a shoulder-mounted handle, the system rapidly inflates the balloon, creating both a larger surface area and additional buoyancy in the case of an avalanche.
The two main systems you will see on the market today are compressed air or battery powered fans. Compressed air systems such as the BCA Float or Mammut systems, feature a canister of compressed air that inflates the bag when deployed. The disadvantage of these systems are that you need to refill the canister after every deployment, and you cannot travel with a full canister on an airplane. So not only will you be detered from practicing with your system, but they are a hassle to travel with. Fan systems on the other hand simply need to be charged to work and are safe to travel with. Traditionally, the disadvantage of fan systems was the weight, but with the introduction of new super capacitor battery systems, the more advanced fan systems are even lighter than canisters. The only disadvantage is the price.
We love the 25L BD Jetforce in this category.