Choosing a Backpack: Features To Consider For Backcountry Snowshoeing

The outdoor goods market leaves us with a multitude of backpacks to choose from, but all of the choices can result in confusion and frustration. Luckily, we’ve rounded up the features to look for when shopping for a new backpack for your days in the hills on snowshoes or skis.

man sitting on rock looking at sunset wearing Granite Gear backpack

Fig. 1. The front of my Granite Gear backpack is in this photo. Photo: Matthew Timothy Bradley

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Backpack Fit

To start, let’s look at finding the right fit. After all, obtaining a comfortable fit is a universal concern with backpacks across seasons. Before perusing options at online or brick–and–mortar (always the preferred option) retailers, it is important to take note of two characteristics of your body.

First, accurately measure your torso length. Second, try and arrive at a sense of the depth of your thoracic and lumbar curves relative to others. In a minority of people, the curves are more exaggerated and begin to approach a lowercase s when seen in profile. In another minority, the curves are minimal and begin to approximate a lowercase l when seen in profile.

Review Torso Length Options Available

Thus, while perusing backpack options, look to see if multiple torso length options are available for particular models, and if not, whether your torso length falls within the range of the “one size” option. Some backpacks offer an option to adjust torso fit. The most basic option for doing so is the inclusion of a length adjustment at the top of each shoulder strap.

If you possess a relatively deep lumbar curve, you are likely to obtain a better fit from a pack with a back that gently slopes away at the bottom to snug into your lumbar curve when worn. The inclusion of lumbar support in the form of a pad at the bottom and back of the pack also tends to be a useful feature for individuals with a deep lumbar curve (see Fig. 2 below).

A note on sex-specific pack designs: if you are a female with a particularly long torso or a male with a particularly short torso or deep lumbar curve, you may find packs designed for the other sex to provide better fits in those areas.

lumbar pad on backpack

Fig. 2. Lumbar cant and support. Photo: Matthew Timothy Bradley

Belts

Whether you choose a backpack that offers waist and hipbelts as a feature, can be very much a matter of personal preference. Some belts are simple webbing and more properly waistbelts than hipbelts. Hipbelts are more or less padded and vary in stiffness. Some offer pockets and attachment points for pouches or holsters or gear loops. A few are articulated (i.e., move independently of the rest of the pack to some degree).

Be aware that hip belts are sex-specific and do not tend to work well for the opposite sex. However, you can sometimes switch them out.

Backpack Size & Structure

Daypacks for winter backcountry use require sufficient capacity for many cold weather-related survival items. So, it’s essential to approximate the size you’ll need for an overnight pack. For an overnight, a 30 L pack, such as the Osprey Kamber 32 Snow Pack is an excellent choice. Also, backpacks of this size typically incorporate some type of feature used as a structuring element to ease load-bearing, such as the following structuring element types.

Read More:
The Osprey Kode 30: A Snowshoer’s Backcountry Best Friend
Pack It In, Pack It Out: Mountainsmith Mayhem 35 Backpack Review

External Frame

External frames such as those utilized on military Alice packs strike some as deprecated, and many do not care for how they balance their contents relative to the wearer’s body weight. Regardless, they do an excellent job of bearing large loads. Unfortunately, they rarely incorporate the attachment points (discussed below) required of an adequate winter pack.

Internal Frame

An internal frame backpack sits closer to the wearer’s back and it typically incorporates a large pocket. Internal frame backpacks also usually include attachment points for your gear. Furthermore, these packs carry the weight lower, which is closer to the wearer’s center of gravity. For hikes and outings that involve a regular shifting of your body weight, internal packs help to better distribute the weight of your pack as you’re moving.

The structure of internal frame backpacks vary and can include wire frames, framesheets, or stays.

Framesheet

Some packs incorporate a high-density polyethylene framesheet in a pocket adjacent to the pack’s back to impart structure. This pocket may be sewn shut, or the sheet may be removable, as will be the case if it is used in conjunction with a bendable stay, an element discussed below.

Stay(s)

One or two graphite or aluminum stays may be included in a pack’s design as structuring agents. The option to shape aluminum stays makes those packs incorporating them appealing options for individuals with exaggerated or reduced thoracic and lumbar curves.

Soft Frame

Some packs incorporate a removable ground pad in a pocket adjacent to the pack’s back as a structuring agent. This type of structuring is most commonly seen with ultralight packs. Randy Rackliff’s Cold Cold World Backpacks are an example of non-ultralight packs putting it to use.

Attachment Points

While attachment points are optional for three-season backpacks, they are a required feature for snowshoers and backcountry skiers. Attachment points allow backcountry trekkers, like snowshoers, to store their gear when not using it.

For example, crampons are a must when trekking into uplands and steep, slippery terrain. Upland trekkers may also find the need to carry an ice ax and will require a pack with loops for stowing it.

Here are a few types of common attachments that allow you to attach additional gear to your pack:

  • Daisy chains: loops sewn onto the backpack (can be used to attach pockets to store crampons or ski skins)
  • Shock cord: cord laced in a loop or crisscrossed on the front of the backpack
  • Crampon patch: used to strap your crampons to your pack
  • Lash tabs: diamond-shaped patches sewn to the pack and of which you can lace webbing straps
Fig. 3. This pack features a loop of shock cord, paired daisy chains, and dual ice axe loops.

Fig. 3. This pack features a loop of shock cord, paired daisy chains, and dual ice ax loops. Photo: Matthew Timothy Bradley

Storing Snowshoes On Your Pack

For snowshoes with a width of 8 to 9 inches (20-23 cm), you can stow them via side or front compression straps (see Figs. 4 & 5 below).

Another option for shorter snowshoes is to choose a pack that incorporates a front flap known as a ‘beavertail.’ Beavertails tend to be sewn into the pack along the bottom seam, but those do not accommodate longer models of snowshoes. Beavertails can also be used to make a jacket or other outer layer quickly accessible. A segment of shock cord looped through common loops or crisscrossed through paired daisy chains can serve the same purpose.

demonstrating snowshoes stowed via side compression straps on CamelBak MilTac H.A.W.G.

Fig. 4. Snowshoes stowed via side compression straps.

 

Backpack design features: snowshoes stowed via front straps on backpack

Fig. 5. Snowshoes stowed via front straps.

Organizational Backpack Features

While backpacks can become busy with organizational features, a few basics should be expected.

A zippered pocket on the lid of top loaders or the front of clamshells provides easy access to a map, compass, snacks, and snivel gear (see Fig. 6 below).

Furthermore, a hydration pocket and hang-tab should be present if you plan to make use of a reservoir to carry water. Water bottles can be packed inside the main compartment of a pack, but you may find side (or “wand”) pockets an attractive option for quick access to insulated bottles and possibly a stove.

backpack features: segmented outer compartment for organization of snivel gear

Fig. 6. A segmented outer compartment with a key fob is a common organizational feature.

Conclusion

Overall, when choosing a backpack for winter hiking, snowshoeing, or other backcountry adventures, it’s essential to consider the features. After finding the right fit, you’ll want to consider the size of the pack, depending on the length of your journey. Also, consider the attachment points for storing your winter gear as well as the organizational features to make your equipment easily accessible.

What recommendations do you have for choosing a pack? What are your favorite backpacks for snowshoeing and winter backcountry adventures?

Matthew Timothy Bradley

Read Next: Tips & Tricks For Cold Weather Backpacking & Winter Camping

Updated April 2020 to include additional links & formatting changes

About the author

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Matthew Timothy Bradley

Born and bred in Southern Appalachia; currently residing in lovely Southern New England. Follow @MateoTimateo and my blog The Human Family; circle +MatthewTimothyBradley.

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5 Comments

  • Hi Matthew, Thanks for the article, very informative. Though am one of those lost among the sea of backpacks. I have a 15″ torso (am 5’1″) and presently use an Osprey Sirrus 24 backpack for day hiking in the fall/spring/summer. However, am wondering if I would be able to use this pack for snowshoeing in Yellowstone (going with a group) in January or should I purchase a snow pack? If you suggest purchasing a snow pack any recommendations would be appreciated. Was looking at Osprey Kresta 20 snow pack, though do not know if it is appropriate for snowshoeing. Thanks for your help.

  • Matthew, thanks for writing this article on Snowshoe and Back Country Skiing. I’m one of those that feel lost in the “cereal aisle!”
    I want to be able to carry my MSR 22 inch Lightning Ascents and Fisher Spider Cross country skis. I also want to carry my food, clothing and shelter.
    Is there a particular bag you recommend? I have been looking at the Mammut Trion Pro pack. This particular pack is built with heavy material that I hope would hold up to carrying snowshoes and a set of skis.

    Sincerely, Frado Lopiccolo

  • I have Atlas 10 series snowshoes. Any tips on how to carry them? I tried to cinch strap them to a small 25 litre pack and there was no way it was going to work. Even simply strapping them together is not easy due to the bulging floating harness.

    • I’ve never used that particular model, but from photos I have to imagine they don’t “fold down” very well at all. They might fit one to a side under side cinch straps on a larger (50+ litre) pack, one to a side. That assumes the pack body had a little depth to it.