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 2020, 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. To complete your kit, check out our comprehensive collection of ski gear reviews.
Category: Day touring/resort
Capacities: 20, 30L
Weight: 2 lbs. 10 oz.
What we like: Simple, easy-to-use design and functional organization.
What we don’t: Unable to accommodate oversized loads.
For resort skiing, sidecountry exploration, and day tours, the Patagonia SnowDrifter 30L is an impressively well-designed pack that quickly and easily transitions between the skin track or sitting on a chairlift and the downhill. As we’ve come to expect from Patagonia, the bag is durable, comfortable, and offers very functional organization. Prop it on its base to grab your avalanche tools or lay it on its front to access the rest of your gear via the full-zip backpanel. And unlike many back-access models, the SnowDrifter also features a wide U-shaped top lid that provides alternate entry to the main compartment, making gear retrieval incredibly convenient.
We had a few gripes about the first iteration of the SnowDrifter, but Patagonia made some notable improvements for this winter. It now features helmet-carry capability, and the wider, more supportive hipbelt is built with a pocket on each side for easy access to snacks. And the SnowDrifter nails the rest of the details, including glove-friendly pull tabs and durable zippers, mesh padding on the shoulder straps, backpanel, and waistbelt, and that premium Patagonia fit and finish. For a pack that you can wear in-bounds, off-piste, or even on light ski mountaineering missions, the versatile SnowDrifter is our top pick for this season.
See the Patagonia SnowDrifter 30L
Best Airbag Ski Pack
Weight: 5 lbs. 5.7 oz.
What we like: Airbag offers trauma protection and buoyancy.
What we don’t: Expensive for a CO2-canister model.
Mammut was one of the first companies to develop an airbag-equipped ski pack, so it comes as little surprise that their Light Protection Airbag 3.0 is our favorite of its kind. When deployed during an avalanche, the Protection Airbag System inside the bag inflates and expands around the head and neck and over the shoulders to cradle your upper body, offering impressive trauma protection against debris, trees, rocks, and other obstacles. We also like that the system is removable and can be used in a variety of other packs—including many non-Mammut models. Other technical design features include a gear loop on the hipbelt, an ice axe attachment point, and an adjustable back length for dialing in fit.
All that said, the Light Protection Airbag 3.0 is not without its downsides. At $930, it’s one of the most expensive CO2-inflated systems on the market—the BCA Access Float below comes in at a full $180 less. And unlike the convenience of a fan-powered airbag (or the unique Ortovox Avabag below), the Light Protection doesn’t allow you to practice deployment without burning through your CO2 canister. But the trauma protection it provides nevertheless is impressive, and it doesn’t hurt that the Light Protection is one of the most lightweight, comfortable, and easy-to-use designs available.
See the Mammut Light Protection Airbag 3.0 30L
Best Budget Ski Pack
Category: Resort/day touring
Capacities: 18, 25L
Weight: 1 lb. 9.6 oz.
What we like: Streamlined and affordable design is great for the resort.
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 SnowDrifter 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 SnowDrifter 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 $79-pricier Patagonia above, 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 SnowDrifter’s 30 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 Ski Mountaineering Pack
Category: Ski mountaineering/day touring
Capacity: 32, 40L
Weight: 2 lbs. 4.9 oz.
What we like: Lightweight but fully featured; long side zip for secondary access to main compartment.
What we don’t: No helmet carry and lacks support for heavy loads.
If you’re not ready to spend up for an airbag but still need a performance-focused and lightweight pack for ski mountaineering missions, the Descensionist is our top pick. Built off of Patagonia’s popular Ascensionist alpine climbing pack, the top-loading Descensionist is purpose-built for the backcountry. It features a cavernous main compartment (which can also be accessed by a generous side zip), dedicated avy-gear pocket, and external straps and daisy chains for attaching skis, a snowboard, ice tools, crampons, and more. At 2 pounds 4.9 ounces, the Descensionist is one of the lightest packs on our list for its size.
As with any lightweight design, there are inherent tradeoffs that come with shaving weight. With a foam backpanel but no stays, the 40-liter Descensionist lacks support for truly heavy loads, especially when compared to a sturdy pack like the Osprey Kamber below. Further, the pack’s design requires that you both unhook a buckle and unzip a zipper in order to access avalanche tools—one more step to take in a time-sensitive situation. And finally, the Descensionist does not come with a dedicated helmet-carry system (a helmet can be attached via the collar drawcord) and lacks a strap on the shoulder to secure a hydration tube. All that said, if you’re looking to go lightweight and don’t plan to overload it, the Descensionist is a well-built pack at a good price.
See the Patagonia Descensionist 40L
Best of the Rest
Capacity: 22, 30, 40L
Weight: 5 lbs. 14.1 oz.
What we like: Fan offers a step up in performance compared to CO2-equipped airbag packs.
What we don’t: Airbag system takes up a fair amount of interior space.
Released last year, Scott’s Patrol E1 30 features an innovative fan-based airbag design. Powered by a supercapacitor that functions similarly to a rechargeable battery, the Alpride E1 airbag set-up is fully electronic and can be charged by AA batteries in the field or a USB at home. This means that—unlike Mammut's CO2-powered system above—the bag can be inflated and only require a quick recharge (rather than needing to refill a canister), allowing skiers to practice deployment and be better prepared. Additionally, the fan continually spins once the airbag is deployed, keeping it inflated even if punctured by a rock or tree. And a bonus for those who travel to ski: you can fly with the Alpride, so no need to hunt for CO2 once you’ve reached your destination.
At $1,100, the fan-equipped Alpride is significantly pricier than most CO2 systems, and not everyone needs the latest and greatest tech. Further, despite being very light for an electronic airbag, the Alpride still takes up a good amount of space in the Patrol pack (and it doesn’t help that the fan is placed right in the middle of the main compartment). We also don’t love that the Patrol loads from the front—difficult to access with skis on the pack, and you run the risk of caking the backpanel in snow each time you transition. But if you’re looking for the most innovative airbag technology currently on the market, the Scott Patrol (and Black Diamond JetForce Tour below) is currently leading the charge.
See the Scott Patrol E1 30
Category: Day touring/resort
Capacities: 15, 25, 32L
Weight: 2 lbs. 5 oz.
What we like: Compact enough for resort skiing but with enough space for avalanche gear.
What we don’t: Too small for full-day tours; limited size adjustments.
We’re suckers for lift-accessed sidecountry—on the right day, almost nothing beats the experience of logging thousands of vertical feet with minimal uphill effort. To get you through an afternoon at the ski hill, the Dawn Patrol 25L from Black Diamond is a great tool for the job. This popular pack is nicely sized and shaped to carry your avalanche gear and the bare necessities, and the clean, strapless exterior means you won’t catch the chairlift when unloading. The Dawn Patrol is also AvaLung-compatible for that extra margin of safety when you venture out of bounds.
At 25 liters, the Black Diamond Dawn Patrol is on the smaller side, although it also comes in 32- and 15-liter versions that are ideal for day tours and in-bounds skiing respectively. The 32-liter is very similar to the Patagonia SnowDrifter above, although it lacks the convenient backpanel access to the main compartment. And similar to the Patagonia, the two larger versions of the Dawn Patrol feature compression straps on the sides, allowing them to maintain their comfort and shape when underpacked. It’s worth noting that some—and particularly those with broad shoulders—have reported fit-related issues with the Dawn Patrol, so we recommend trying it on before you buy.
See the Black Diamond Dawn Patrol 25L
Category: Ski mountaineering
Capacities: 16, 22, 32, 42L
Weight: 4 lbs.
What we like: Carries heavy loads comfortably.
What we don’t: Does not ski especially well; straps and pockets add significant weight.
Osprey is a standout in the backpacking market, and we think that expertise crossed over nicely to skiing with the Kamber 42. This do-it-all rig has the features we look for in a technical ski pack, including a dedicated avy-gear compartment, glove-friendly zipper pulls, hydration sleeve, fleece-lined goggle pocket, and convenient backpanel access to the main compartment. Like most Osprey packs, the Kamber carries loads quite comfortably, making it an excellent choice for hauling heavy gear or overnight trips. And with a customizable build, you can remove the top lid for short day tours or securely strap an ice axe or rope on the outside for multi-day mountaineering missions.
At 4 pounds for the 42-liter version, the Kamber is fairly heavy given its technical focus (you can shave a significant pound and a half with the Descensionist above). And while many will appreciate the straps, pockets, and compartments for organizing gear and tools, weight-conscious skiers will likely find them cumbersome and unnecessary. Size-wise, 42 liters is great for short overnights or long days, but it can feel a bit ungainly when skiing downhill (resort-goers will prefer the smaller 16- and 22-liter models). All in all, we love the Kamber for its ability to carry heavy loads comfortably, but ounce-counters should check out the more streamlined Patagonia Descensionist above and Black Diamond Cirque below.
See the Osprey Kamber 42 See the Women's Osprey Kresta 40
Capacity: 22, 30, 40L
Weight: 5 lbs. 8.5 oz.
What we like: You can practice airbag deployment without the CO2 cartridge.
What we don’t: Thin build requires extra care.
Ortovox's Ascent 30 Avabag is competitive in both size and weight to the Mammut Light Protection above. However, unlike other CO2-powered designs (the Mammut included), the Ortovox allows you to practice deployment with the CO2 cartridge removed, simulating a realistic pull of the handle without blowing through pricey and difficult-to-fill cylinders. This feature provides peace of mind as well as a good opportunity to build up muscle memory in case you need to deploy the Avabag in the field.
The Ascent offers a full 30 liters of capacity, and the streamlined airbag system takes up less than 2 liters of space inside. And similar to Ortovox’s non-airbag-equipped Haute Route below, the Ascent is nicely appointed with an ice axe and pole attachment points, a rope strap, a removable helmet net, and straps for securing skis, a snowboard, or snowshoes. We do wish the pack was a little more robust—its 100-denier fabric is pretty vulnerable to tears—but that’s an expected sacrifice in a minimalist build. Further, the front-access-only design means you have to place the shoulder straps and backpanel in the snow to fish out your gear. But all in all, we like what Ortovox did with the Ascent, and the ability to practice without the CO2 cartridge might be the tipping point for many.
See the Ortovox Ascent 30 See the Women's Ortovox Ascent 28 S
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.
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. And unlike the packs above, the Cirque features an internal sleeve for rescue gear that’s separated from the main compartment by a flap, 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 would be in the running for our top ski mountaineering pick if it weren’t for a few noteworthy design issues. For starters, although it can accommodate 45 liters of gear for longer expeditions, the lack of load lifters and stiff suspension means it doesn’t carry as comfortably as we’d like. Further, we’ve found it difficult to max out the capacity while carrying our skis diagonally since the top load strap doubles as the diagonal ski carry strap. And finally, the Cirque’s side zipper is almost too short to be useful, making it primarily a top-loading pack. We love the Cirque’s light weight and streamlined build, but the Descensionist above is a bit more well-rounded for $21 less.
See the Black Diamond Cirque 45
Category: Resort/day touring
Weight: 1 lb. 8 oz.
What we like: All you really need for a day at the resort.
What we don’t: 12-liter capacity is fairly limiting for other uses.
If you’ve ever tried to use your hydration reservoir in the winter, you’ve probably realized that freezing temperatures can quickly render your bladder worthless. For use in cold weather, CamelBak’s Powderhound 12 is a nice solution. By adding insulation and a zippered pocket along the shoulder strap, the Powderhound help prevent water inside your bite valve and drink tube from freezing. The rest of the design is equally ski-ready with glove-friendly zipper pulls, an interior compartment for snacks or rescue tools, and external ski straps for carrying skis (although we wouldn’t recommend using these over long distances due to the pack’s small and lightweight build).
With only 12 liters of capacity, you won’t be going very far from the car or lodge with the CamelBak Powderhound, but we think it’s a great companion for resort skiers who like to stay hydrated throughout the day. Not to mention, the streamlined design means that you can get on and off the lift and down the slopes without feeling weighted down by a heavy and bulky pack. For those who want a bit more storage, CamelBak also offers the 24-liter Phantom LR, which adds hipbelt pockets and straps for hauling a snowboard vertically.
See the CamelBak Powderhound 12
Category: Day touring
Capacities: 18, 26, 32, 36, 42L
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 RAS apart is its compatibility with Mammut’s Removable Airbag System 3.0. Adding the airbag and canister tacks on another $630 to the bottom line, but at $865 all-in, you get excellent versatility for day touring or hut adventures.
What are the downsides of the Poacher RAS? The pack by itself is pretty spendy at $235, especially when you consider it’s not markedly better than the $66 cheaper Patagonia SnowDrifter 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 rolltop 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-RAS Poacher that ditches the airbag pocket and saves you about $45 (depending on the capacity).
See the Dakine Poacher RAS 36L
Weight: 5 lbs. 9 oz.
What we like: Lighter than the Scott Patrol E1.
What we don’t: Expensive and no snowboard carry straps.
New last winter, the Black Diamond JetForce Tour represented a giant leap forward from their discontinued Halo 28 JetForce pack. Featuring the lightweight and compact Alpride E1 fan-powered system seen in the Scott Patrol E1 above, it shaves almost 2 pounds off the previous fan-powered model. And compared to the Scott, the JetForce Tour clocks in around 5 ounces lighter and tacks on convenient features like a hipbelt stash pocket and side zipper for alternate access to the main compartment. We’ve been really impressed of late with the fit and feel of Black Diamond’s technical packs, and the JetForce Tour is no exception.
Our biggest gripe with the JetForce Tour is size. Like the Patrol E1 above, the airbag in the JetForce is placed smack-dab in the middle of the pack’s main compartment. However, unlike the Scott, the Black Diamond is only available in a 26-liter option, which is already on the low end for day tours. When fully packed, it's a tight squeeze and you might find the avalanche tool pocket too cramped and awkward to access. In the end, we wish BD made the pack in a 30+ liter model or offered multiple capacities. But for carrying light loads while cat skiing, sledding, or exploring the sidecountry, the JetForce is another capable avalanche-ready design.
See the Black Diamond JetForce Tour 26L
Category: Ski mountaineering/day touring
Capacities: 32, 40L
Weight: 2 lbs. 15.3 oz.
What we like: Nice mix of weight, storage, and features.
What we don’t: A bit overkill for shorter outings.
The Ortovox Haute Route 32 bears a strong resemblance to the Ascent 30 Avabag above, but without the pricey avalanche airbag and with a bit more storage for longer outings. Right off the bat, we’ll note that this is one of the most feature-rich packs on our list. The 32-liter version sports an impressive array of straps and compartments for your technical gear: attachment points for snowshoes, snowboards, and skis (both A-frame and diagonal), a crampon-fastening slat in the fabric, rope-carrying and ice-axe straps, a hiking pole attachment and fixed helmet net, and even a pocket for holding a map. Impressively, the Haute Route’s suspension is up to the task without going overboard with weight (it easily undercuts the Osprey Kamber in a similar capacity above).
That said, not every backcountry skier needs all these features. For example, day tourers who don’t intend to embark on technical ski missions will likely find the ice axe and crampon attachments and map holder unnecessary. If this is the case, you can get away with a lighter, simpler design like the Patagonia SnowDrifter above or Arc’teryx Alpha SK below. Alternatively, if you’re primarily a resort skier, the 32-liter Haute Route has a similarly clean and thin exterior that works well for on-piste use. And for a similar design with more capacity and even stiffer suspension, check out the Ortovox Peak 45, which boasts a unique moisture-wicking wool backpanel.
See the Ortovox Haute Route 32
Category: Day touring/resort
Capacities: 12, 30L
Weight: 2 lbs. 11.7 oz.
What we like: Simple and relatively affordable.
What we don’t: Avalanche gear pocket is challenging to access.
For a no-fuss option at a reasonable price point, Salomon’s QST 30 is a great resort and day-touring design. Its 2-pound-11.7-ounce build packs in a number of features and is noticeably sturdier than the Black Diamond Cirque above or Arc’teryx Alpha SK below. In terms of features, you get the option of diagonal or A-frame ski—or snowboard—carry, and an external helmet pouch saves space inside the pack. We also love that the pockets are easy to access while riding the lift: one in the main compartment for layers and a water bladder, a couple smaller pockets for goggles and snacks, and a separate zippered compartment for avalanche gear.
Where does the Salomon QST 30 fall short? First, the pack is notably heavy for its capacity, and therefore not the best choice when you’re looking to go fast and light. But the biggest flaw, in our opinion, is the vertical zipper on the rescue gear pocket, which makes it difficult to access your avy equipment quickly (not ideal in a time-sensitive situation). We’d strongly prefer a top-loading pocket instead, like that on the Patagonia SnowDrifter above. All told, the QST doesn’t stand out in any major way, but it nevertheless can get the job done on a morning tour, a day at the resort, or a short backcountry mission—and that’s all most skiers really need.
See the Salomon QST 30
Category: Ski mountaineering
Capacities: 26, 32, 45L
Weight: 3 lbs. 10.6 oz.
What we like: Fully featured and comfortable.
What we don’t: Can’t be streamlined for light day use.
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—including a rarely seen floating top pocket—as well as an internal hydration sleeve, helmet-carry system, and all the requisite ski and snowboard straps. Further, the Targhee’s beefy build and thick fabrics are confidence-inspiring and made to last.
Like the Osprey Kamber and Ortovox Haute Route above, the Targhee is designed to carry large loads comfortably with 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. That said, the Targhee doesn’t streamline well (only the floating top pocket can be removed), and therefore isn’t a great one-quiver option for both overnight and day-touring use (instead, check out the Black Diamond Cirque or Patagonia Descensionist above). But for the ultimate in comfort and convenience when you need to carry more than a day’s worth of supplies, the Gregory Targhee 45 should be on your short list.
See the Gregory Targhee 45
Category: Day touring/resort
Weight: 2 lbs. 1 oz.
What we like: Lightweight, great price, and offered in a women’s-specific version.
What we don’t: Thin construction, and we’d prefer a few more features.
Like Osprey, Deuter is best known for their hiking and backpacking designs, but their Freerider series of ski packs shouldn’t be overlooked. The “Lite” model in particular stands out with its competitive $120 price, feathery 2-pound 1-ounce weight, and available women’s-specific “SL” version (the Patagonia SnowDrifter and Black Diamond Dawn Patrol above are only made in unisex styles). The Deuter also hits a nice sweet spot in terms of capacity for mixed resort and day touring use, and its narrow profile and U-shaped frame help keep everything locked into place.
What do you sacrifice with this trimmed-down model? For one, an A-frame-style carry isn’t possible with the Freerider Lite—you can only utilize the front panel for strapping skis diagonally or a board vertically. Within Deuter’s line, you’ll need to step up to the standard Freerider 26 to get that feature. Second, the 100-denier fabric on the pack body is notably thin for use around chairlifts or sharp ski equipment and will require additional care. And finally, you miss out on the convenient backpanel access that we value with the SnowDrifter above. Overall, unless weight wins out above all else, we think the SnowDrifter and BD Dawn Patrol are worth the added ounces and expense.
See the Deuter Freerider Lite 25 See the Women's Deuter Freerider Lite 22 SL
Category: Ski mountaineering/day touring
Weight: 2 lbs. 3 oz.
What we like: Sleek design and impressively light.
What we don’t: Very pricey.
Without a doubt, the Arc’teryx Alpha SK is the most pared-down pack on our list. Taking cues from their popular Alpha FL climbing pack, the Alpha SK shares the same focus on minimalism, weather protection in harsh alpine environments, and a sleek design that moves with the body. You also get a host of ski-specific features including a simple roll-top design with a pull tab for snugging down the lid, weather-resistant side zipper for alternate access to the main area, an internal rescue gear compartment, and adjustable ski-carry straps on the outside. Perhaps most notably, the Alpha SK clocks in at an impressively low 2 pounds 3 ounces—the lightest pack on our list at this capacity.
However, while the Alpha SK is aimed squarely at the ski mountaineering crowd, the extremely simple design limits the type of gear it can carry. For example, there are no external straps for ice tools, ski crampons, or a helmet—often necessary tools for skiing big lines. And if you want to haul a snowboard or skis in an A-frame configuration, you’ll need to purchase extra straps separately (keep in mind you’re already spending a whopping $345 on the bag itself). Finally, we found the simple webbing waist strap to be notably uncomfortable. Arc’teryx’s level of quality and craftsmanship is hard to match, but the Patagonia Descensionist above is fuller-featured, similarly well-built, and much cheaper.
See the Arc'teryx Alpha SK 32
Capacities: 12, 22, 32, 42L
Weight: 6 lbs. 12.8 oz.
What we like: Great price for an airbag pack.
What we don’t: Trauma protection isn’t as comprehensive as the Mammut above; difficult to pack and unpack.
Like the Mammut Light Protection and Ortovox Ascent above, the Backcountry Access (BCA) Float 32 2.0 is a CO2-powered airbag pack. The updated 2.0 airbag system uses a smaller and lighter canister than the previous 1.0 model, making the Float slightly more competitive with the packs above in terms of weight (although it’s still over a pound heavier). The Float also carries skis or a snowboard in a variety of positions, and we love the external helmet-carry system for saving space inside on the uphill. But the biggest draw is price: at $750 for the bag and a full canister, the BCA Float 32 is the most affordable airbag-equipped pack on our list.
Although BCA is a very reputable and respected name in backcountry skiing, we think the Mammut and Ortovox models above are better overall performers. Why is this? First, the BCA feels much smaller than its stated 32 liters, and we’ve found it particularly challenging to pack. With our goggles in the dedicated fleece-lined pocket and our helmet attached to the exterior, we were surprised at how little room was left inside. Additionally, the rectangular shape of the airbag behind the head—as opposed to the Mammut’s full coverage around the head, neck, and shoulders—offers less comprehensive protection during a slide. The Float used to be one of our favorite airbag designs, but recent innovations have made it less of a standout in this increasingly competitive category.
See the Backcountry Access Float 32 2.0
Capacities: 20, 30L
Weight: 8 lbs. 7 oz.
What we like: Streamlined design; water-resistant and durable materials.
What we don’t: By far the heaviest and most expensive pack on our list.
Arc’teryx often hits it out of the park, and their Voltair 30 is about as ambitious as it gets. Along with the Black Diamond JetForce Tour and Scott Patrol E1 30 above, it’s one of only a few battery-powered-fan airbag designs on the market, and the most premium-priced ski pack we know of. Its airbag is shaped to wrap slightly forward and guard the head and neck, making it competitive with the class-leading trauma protection of the Mammut Light Protection. In terms of the pack, it offers great organization (beating out the Scott in usable space inside) and simple but functional external straps for gear and ski carry. Finally, the waterproof fabric combined with sealed seams and WaterTight zippers do an excellent job keeping your gear dry.
But we’ll stop there with the accolades, because at $1,680 for the pack, battery, and charger, the Voltair really should be close to perfection—and unfortunately, it’s not. Most notably, after a recall, Arc’teryx downgraded the battery’s temperature rating from -22 to -4 degrees Fahrenheit (the Alpride E1-equipped packs are rated to -22˚F), meaning that your jet fan might not function on particularly cold days. Further, the Voltair is significantly heavier than the other airbag designs here at nearly 8.5 pounds, which can make a real difference on extended tours. To be fair, the Voltair has plenty of merits, but the combination of extremely high price point and a few questionable design choices means the Voltair takes our bottom spot for 2020.
See the Arc'teryx Voltair 30
|Patagonia SnowDrifter 30L||$169||Day touring/resort||20, 30L||2 lb. 10 oz.||n/a|
|Mammut Light Protection 3.0||$930||Airbag||30L||5 lb. 6 oz.||CO2 airbag|
|Dakine Mission Pro 18L||$90||Resort/day touring||18, 25L||1 lb. 10 oz.||n/a|
|Patagonia Descensionist 40L||$199||Ski mountaineering||32, 40L||2 lb. 5 oz.||n/a|
|Scott Patrol E1 30||$1,100||Airbag||22, 30, 40L||5 lb. 14 oz.||Jet-fan airbag|
|Black Diamond Dawn Patrol 25||$150||Day touring/resort||15, 25, 32L||2 lb. 5 oz.||AvaLung-ready|
|Osprey Kamber 42||$190||Ski mountaineering||16, 22, 32, 42L||4 lb.||n/a|
|Ortovox Ascent 30 Avabag||$910||Airbag||22, 30, 40L||5 lb. 9 oz.||CO2 airbag|
|Black Diamond Cirque 45||$220||Ski mountaineering||30, 35, 45L||2 lb. 4 oz.||AvaLung-ready|
|CamelBak Powderhound 12||$100||Resort/day touring||12L||1 lb. 8 oz.||n/a|
|Dakine Poacher RAS 36L||$235||Day touring||18, 26, 32, 36, 42L||4 lb. 2 oz.||CO2-ready|
|Black Diamond JetForce 26L||$1,200||Airbag||26L||5 lb. 9 oz.||Jet-fan airbag|
|Ortovox Haute Route 32||$170||Mountaineering/touring||32, 40L||2 lb. 15 oz.||n/a|
|Salomon QST 30||$175||Day touring/resort||12, 30L||2 lb. 12 oz.||n/a|
|Gregory Targhee 45||$210||Ski mountaineering||26, 32, 45L||3 lb. 11 oz.||n/a|
|Deuter Freerider Lite 25||$120||Day touring/resort||25L||2 lb. 1 oz.||n/a|
|Arc'teryx Alpha SK 32||$345||Mountaineering/touring||32L||2 lb. 3 oz.||n/a|
|Backcountry Access Float 32||$750||Airbag||12, 22, 32, 42L||6 lb. 13 oz.||CO2 airbag|
|Arc'teryx Voltair 30||$1,680||Airbag||20L, 30L||8 lb. 7 oz.||Jet-fan airbag|
*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
- Avalanche Safety Mechanisms
- 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 three separate categories: day touring/resort, ski mountaineering, and airbag backpacks.
A day-touring or resort pack is great for both lift-served terrain and close-to-home missions, prioritizing comfort over shaving weight. In this category, look for convenient, transition-focused features like backpanel access, an external accessory pocket, a fleece-lined snow goggle pocket, and padded construction to hold the pack’s shape. Most resort skiers will opt for lower-capacity bags (10-20 liters), while many ski tourers will utilize every bit of a 30-liter pack. And for those who plan to wear their pack in-bounds, look for a clean exterior with minimal straps to avoid snagging the back of the chairlift when unloading.
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, larger capacities for overnight outings, external straps for ski or snowboard carry, lighter-weight fabrics, and supportive suspension systems. Our top pick in this category is the Patagonia Descensionist 40, which checks all of those boxes.
As the name implies, airbag packs are equipped with either a gas- or fan-powered airbag. By nature, these packs are heavier and have limited capacities, and are thus not the first choice for most ski mountaineers. However, airbag packs are commonly used in heli-skiing, cat-skiing, lift-served backcountry skiing, or day-touring applications. The most recent innovation in the world of airbags is the use of a supercapacitor to power a fan, which then continually inflates the airbag once deployed. From our picks above, both the Black Diamond JetForce Tour and Scott Patrol E1 feature this new tech (called Alpride E1), although they’re also the priciest packs on the list. For more information on airbag packs, see our section on Avalanche Safety Mechanisms below.
Ski backpacks come in a range of sizes, from compact 20-liter packs for sidecountry or heli-accessed skiing to large 40- to 60-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 CamelBak Powderhound 12. But in our experience, the sweet spot for most skiers is in the 25- to 32-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 Arc'teryx Voltair 30, which clocks in at almost 8.5 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 beefy suspension system that separates the load from the body. On the other hand, when weighted down with 40+ liters of gear on the skin track, you’ll be thankful to have a robust backpanel, 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 Osprey Kamber 42 is one of the most comfortable packs on our list, but some will find that its suspension is too restrictive for aggressive skiing. On the other hand, many of the lightweight options above (like the Black Diamond Cirque and Arc’teryx Alpha SK) 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 (the Patagonia Descensionist 40, for example, has the same foam backpanel as the 32-liter version), 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 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 more streamlined access (like the top drawstring and side zip of the Patagonia Descensionist).
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 Osprey Kamber, feature a dedicated zip pocket, while others, like the Black Diamond Cirque, 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 Black Diamond Cirque 45 is a good option for overnight trips, but thanks to its 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 Osprey Kamber 42.
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).
Many skiers prefer to ski in-bounds, on mellow terrain, or opt to stay home when avalanche danger is high. However, it’s important to remember that whenever you ski, you’re assuming some level of risk. Choosing a backpack with an avalanche safety mechanism can be a big step toward ensuring your personal safety before even leaving home. That said, simply carrying the equipment is not enough—it’s imperative to practice so that you have that muscle memory if you do encounter a slide. There are two main types of avalanche-safety mechanisms used in ski backpacks: airbags and AvaLungs. These two technologies differ greatly in form and function, but both serve to keep you alive and breathing. And in the majority of cases, airbags and AvaLungs are removable, which means you can streamline your pack when avy danger is low (or when you want to use your pack for other gear).
Airbags: Gas- or Fan-Powered
When a person gets caught in an avalanche, they are often pulled deep under the snow, making rescue a physical and time-consuming process. To help increase their chances of survival (buried victims have about 15 minutes of oxygen if fully submerged), airbags are designed to pull skiers to the surface when deployed and keep them afloat so that they don’t get sucked under. Additionally, airbags provide a barrier around the head and neck to guard against obstacles like rocks and trees. Here, shape matters a lot—look for designs like the Mammut Light Protection 3.0 that provide full coverage around the back and sides of the head and neck.
There are currently two types of mechanisms used to inflate airbags: compressed gas cartridges and battery-powered fans. When a gas cartridge is triggered (most often CO2), it shoots air into the bag, inflating it in three seconds or less. Fans are also activated with a pull cord and take around the same time to inflate. Where do the two differ? First and foremost, while CO2-powered airbags are lighter and less expensive than fan systems, they can only be deployed once. Fans, on the other hand, can sometimes be used multiple times on a single charge (like Arc'teryx's Voltair) and be recharged using batteries or some other form of power, like a USB. This allows skiers to practice without the hassle and cost of expending CO2 cartridges—if you don’t live near a refill location, you’ll have to mail the cartridge in for replacement. Finally, fan-equipped bags can be taken on airplanes with relative ease, while canister models are trickier and require you to empty the gas beforehand (and others cannot be taken on a plane at all).
All told, airbags are great safety tools that allow skiers a great deal more peace of mind when traveling in avalanche terrain. The two biggest downsides are cost and weight. For example, the most affordable airbag pack on our list is the BCA Float at $750, and the fan-equipped Black Diamond JetForce Tour comes in at a whopping $1,200. Both weigh well over 5 pounds, which quickly adds up over thousands of vertical feet. And finally, it’s important to note that airbags should never replace thorough training. We always recommend taking an avalanche course (like AIARE Level 1) before venturing into the backcountry.
Created by Black Diamond, the AvaLung is essentially a snorkel that inserts into the shoulder strap of a backpack. When used correctly, it gives skiers buried by an avalanche a supply of oxygen when trapped under the snow. We don’t feature any AvaLung-equipped packs in this article, but we do list a couple that are compatible with the device, including the Black Diamond Dawn Patrol and Cirque. That said, while the AvaLung can certainly be an effective safety tool, riders must ski with the tube in their mouth in order for it to work—a very tall order should you suddenly be outrunning a slide. In the end, we prefer an airbag for its ease of use and proven performance. That said, the AvaLung is pounds lighter and much cheaper than an airbag ($100), making it a more approachable avalanche safety tool and one that we expect will continue gaining popularity. Note: Due to issues with material sourcing, the AvaLung is currently out of production and availability is limited.
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 Kamber 42 is also available in a women’s model called the Osprey Kresta 40. The Kresta comes in more muted 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 (our #1 pick 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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