Selecting a pack for snowshoeing and backcountry skiing
The modern outdoor goods market leaves us with a multitude of backpacks to choose from (good!), but all of the choices can result in confusion and frustration (bad!). Read on to simplify things.
Obtaining a good fit is a universal concern with backpacks, three-season and winter alike. 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, obtain your torso length. Second, try and arrive at a sense of the depth of your thoracic and lumbar curves relative to the population at large. In a minority of people the curves are more exaggerated and begin to approach a lowercase s when seen in profile, and in another minority the curves are minimal and begin to approximate a lower-case l when seen in profile.
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 so as 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 and/or deep lumbar curve, you may find packs designed for the other sex to provide better fits in those areas. Be aware, however, that hip belts are also sex-specific and do not tend to work well for the opposite sex. They can sometimes be switched out, however.
Belts can be very much a matter of personal preference. Some are simple webbing and more properly waistbelts than hipbelts. Hipbelts are more or less padded and vary in stiffness. Some offer pockets and/or attachment points for pouches or holsters and/or gear loops. A few are articulated (i.e., move independently of the rest of the pack to some degree).
Daypacks for winter backcountry use require sufficient capacity for a number of cold weather-related survival items and as such approximate the size of light three-season overnight packs. Packs of this size typically incorporate some type of structuring element to ease load-bearing. Four types of such structuring elements are discussed below.
External frames such as those utilized on alice packs strike some as deprecated and many do not care for the way in which they balance their contents relative to the wearer’s body weight. They do an excellent job of bearing large loads, regardless. Unfortunately, they rarely incorporate the attachment points (see below) required of an adequate winter pack.
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 packs are an example of non-ul packs putting it to use.
Some packs incorporate an hdpe framesheet in a pocket adjacent to the pack’s back in order 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 (see below).
One or two graphite or aluminum stays may be included into 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.
While attachment points such as daisy chains and shock cord are nice options for three-season packs they are a requirement for snowshoers and backcountry skiers. Skiers will want a carry option for their skis, with slots being one. Crampons are a must when trekking into uplands, so anyone doing so will require a pack with a crampon patch or lash tabs or a daisy chain for attachment of a crampon pocket (either of which will also serve for the attachment of a pocket for ski skins). Upland trekkers may also find the need to carry an ice axe and so will require a pack with loops for stowing it.
Snowshoes of the common 8″–9″ width are commonly stowed via side or front compression straps (see Figs. 4 & 5 below). Another option for shorter snowshoes is a pack incorporating a front flap known as a ‘beavertail.’ Beavertails tend to be sewn into the pack along the bottom seam, but those that are 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 criss-crossed through paired daisy chains can serve the same purpose.
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). 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.
Still feel lost in the cereal aisle of winter load-bearing options? Drop me a line in the Comments section and I will do my best to ease the way.