You’re ready to try backcountry touring. You’ve heard “shovel, beacon, probe (and how to use them)” a million times, but nobody’s ever mentioned how to carry them. A well-made, rugged daypack will do the trick for carrying your gear for a day at the resort, but when you’re heading out into the backcountry, you’re going to be much better off with a pack that’s built for the purpose. Here’s what to look for.
You’re going to be putting your bag through the wringer in freezing cold and wet weather. A backcountry touring bag has to put up with high-speed rock encounters, sharp ski and board edges, shovel blades, tree branches, you name it. It also has to keep the contents dry while you ride through blizzards and set it down repeatedly to de-skin, eat lunch, and layer up. While there’s no specific fabric weight or ripstop weave indicated for winter packs, you should be looking for reinforced seams, bar-tacked stress points, and ballistic fabric or abrasion-resistant laminate overlays in high-wear areas, like the base of the bag and any spots that will come in contact with sharp edges. A PU coating on the inside and taped or sealed seams will keep your gear dry, as will watertight external zippers (the best choice) or wide storm flaps (easier on the waterproof wallet).
It may look hardcore, but shouldering skis or tucking a board under your arm will ruin your day after a few hundred vertical feet, not to mention make things super sketchy if you’re dealing with exposure and wind. For those times that you need to boot pack your way up un-skinnable terrain, a good touring pack should have diagonal ski carry with the option of A-frame carry (one ski vertically on each side, with a strap joining them at the tips, forming an “A”), or both vertical and horizontal snowboard carry options. Make sure the carry system can handle your equipment; some older ski packs, for instance, lack the strap length needed to fit today’s fatty backcountry boards.
You’ll be surprised at how much a loaded pack weighs, especially once you strap an extra ten pounds of skis or board to it for the final hike to the summit. Unless you plan to use it mostly inbounds, your pack should at least have a semi-rigid plastic frame sheet, dense closed-cell foam back and shoulder-strap padding that won’t absorb water, a sternum strap, and a wide waist belt to distribute the load. Compression straps bring pack contents closer to your center of gravity, making it easier to ski as well as hike and skin. The closer your packs stays to your body, the less pendulum effect you will experience with each step uphill or turn downhill, so take the time to test how the pack feels fully loaded before you take it out touring.
In the very unfortunate event that you should need to extricate a buddy from an avalanche or tree well, having your shovel and probe immediately accessible is a must. Any touring pack worth a damn will have a separate compartment or compartments designed to stow your shovel and probe away from your other gear, one that can be accessed without needing to remove your skis or board if they’re strapped on. In addition, there should be plenty of straps and slots for tools and poles.
Water is life. Water also has a tendency to freeze in winter. Most backcountry touring packs have a hydration bladder sleeve inside, plus an insulated, zippered channel in the shoulder strap to keep the hose out of the open. As anyone who has used one can tell you, they won’t always keep your water from freezing, but they certainly do a better job than non-insulated hoses do. Plus, they keep everything tidy and streamlined for the descent.
Winter packs range from ultra-minimal resort bags to full-on alpine expedition packs with space for a week’s worth of winter camping supplies. It all comes down to what kind of touring you want to do. Resort backcountry? Alpine ascents? Day trips? Overnight hut trips? When in doubt, go bigger; winter layers take up more space than summer clothes, and you still need room for water, food, snow tools, a first aid kit, rope, spare gloves, spare goggles, a space blanket, about a dozen ski straps, a flask of single-malt… you get the idea.
In the last few seasons, airbag safety systems have become more common, both inside and outside the resort. Whether you want to invest in one is a personal choice, and one to seriously consider if you’ll be touring in avalanche-prone terrain and snow conditions. On the downside, they’re expensive, they’re heavy, they occupy valuable space in your pack, and they don’t guarantee that you’ll survive an avalanche. On the plus side, they can save your life so you can ski or ride another day. There’s no rule that states you have to have an airbag to tour in the backcountry; the most important things you can bring with you are knowledge, and the wisdom to use that knowledge when making your decisions.
Have fun, be safe, and come home smiling.