A day touring in Rocky Mountain National Park, a ripe place to learn about avalanche safety. Photo: Mattie Schuler

Heading into the backcountry requires a lot of preparation ahead of time — taking an avalanche safety class, identifying a safe route, creating a trip plan, and making sure you have your probe, beacon, and shovel. Plus, you’ll need snacks, extra layers, and some other safety gear (first aid, headlamp, and plenty of water).

Backcountry touring packs are made for just that activity, so they are built to hold all the extra gear you need, plus your snow tools in easy-to-access pockets. Here is a breakdown of our must-have features in a pack, as well as some highly recommended options you might consider investing in.

Features

You could technically use your regular hiking pack for a day in the backcountry, but you’ll probably learn pretty quickly that it’s not ideal. Backcountry touring packs have key features that not only help with dry and wet gear, but also with safety in regards to your snow tools.

Pockets and Compartments: Touring packs are made with a specific pocket for quick and easy access to the safety gear you need (like your probe and shovel). This pocket should be easy to get to and to open, often with zipper pulls that are in a standout color.

The next important compartment is going to be your main compartment where you store your dry gear. Often, this compartment can be accessed through the top, side, or back panel. Some people like the back panel access the best, because you could then see into the entire main compartment, rather than having to unload the top gear to get to the bottom. Some packs also include a space for a hydration reservoir paired with an insulated hose sleeve. Keep in mind, too, how many other pockets you prefer, like a fleece-lined goggle pocket or other smaller ones for a compass, slope meter, and snacks.

Carry System: The carry system should include the ability to carry a snowboard horizontal or vertical, and can carry skis diagonally or a-frame style, with one ski on each side. Although carrying your board or skis is doable, you’ll quickly find that tromping through deep snow, even with snowshoes, will leave you sinking with each step, which is why splitboards and alpine touring ski setups are ideal.

Helmet-Carry system: You’ll get too hot wearing your helmet while ascending, so many packs have a helmet-carry system to keep your helmet from bouncing around. These systems are often stashed in a small pocket near the bottom of the pack, and can be attached easily in a hammock or net style to hold your helmet securely to the outside of the pack.

Airbag System Compatibility: Airbag safety systems are another mechanism used in the backcountry if you get caught in an avalanche, like those by Backcountry Access. Essentially, if a person is caught in an avalanche, they deploy the airbag (which is stored in the backpack) and then the person is ideally able to stay afloat rather than getting buried in the slide.

Not all packs are compatible with airbag systems, but if you are going into any avalanche-prone terrain, the price increase for compatibility will outweigh the other (sometimes deadly) outcome.

Volume: Similar to a hiking backpack, the volume of a backpack depends on what you are using it for. For overnight trips with one or multiple nights, opt for a 40 liter (or more) pack to carry touring gear, plenty of layers, food and water, and any shelter. A 30- or 32-liter pack is going to be the sweet spot for a nice, long day trip.

Anything smaller, like a 20-liter pack, is going to be a bit tricky to not only fit all of your touring gear, but also layers, snacks, and hydration.

Recommendations

There are plenty of options when it comes to purchasing a touring backpack, but we found that there are a few key features that are definitely necessary: a solid, easy-access pocket for your probe and shovel, back-panel access to the main compartment for dry gear, and buckles that can be opened with gloves or mitts on. Here are a few options to consider …

Osprey Kresta 30L ($170)

The women specific Osprey Kresta 30 liter fits perfectly and carries plenty of weight without the bulk. Photo: Courtesy of Osprey

The Kresta 30 is part of Osprey’s women’s line for backcountry packs (Kamber is the men’s line) and is fitted with all of the amenities you want (and need) in a touring pack. The pack comes with back panel access to the main dry gear compartment, a large J-zip front pocket for your probe and shovel, horizontal snowboard carry and a-frame ski carry, an ice axe loop, a built-in back pocket for bladder, a stowable helmet carry system, a designated goggle pocket, and glove-friendly buckles and zippers. (Other sizes of the Kresta include 40 and 20 liters.)

Dakine Women’s Poacher RAS 32L ($220)

This pack is sleek and slim, but can hold plenty of gear for a backcountry tour day. Photo: Courtesy of Dakine

The Women’s Poacher RAS is a 32-liter backcountry touring pack made by Dakine (here is the men’s version).

Unlike the other two packs here, this pack is compatible with an avalanche airbag system (sold separately by Mammut; fits into the rolltop closure) that a rider deploys if caught in an avalanche. Other features include diagonal and a-frame ski carry, vertical snowboard carry, deployable helmet-carry on the front outside, a fleece-lined goggle pocket, a space for a hydration pack with an insulated hose sleeve, a snow tool and shovel pocket in the front, a quick draw ice axe loop, and a padded hip-belt.

The most convenient part of the pack though, is the back panel zipper to the main compartment, which allows you to fully open up the main compartment to see everything. The chest strap and other buckles were easy to use with gloves on; the hipbelt buckle was difficult to take off or tighten with gloves on.

Burton AK Tour 31L ($179.95)

The Burton AK Tour pack has both a zippered back panel access to the main compartment and is fitted for a water bladder —two features that testers loved. Photo: Courtesy of Burton

The Burton AK Tour pack is a 31-liter pack made for backcountry days or overnight hut trips. Features include both bucket-top access and a zippered back panel for entry to the main compartment (score!), a front pocket for snow tools (although the tester’s shovel did not fit), a horizontal and vertical board carry system, a fleece-lined goggle pocket, a removable helmet carry system, and a space for your water bladder.

This pack also has an extra space that is dedicated to hold your skins, as well as plenty of other smaller pockets for your tiny, yet very important, gear.

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