How to Choose The Right Backcountry Ski or Snowboarding Backpack

Published 2017-10-20

By: Mike Harrelson

Whether you’re a seasoned backcountry skier, devoted splitboarder, intrepid cross-country skier, peak seeking ski mountaineer, or front country (chairlift-access) rider who wants to be well prepared for consequential terrain and deep snow along the boundaries, MYSTERY RANCH has an ideal backpack for you. Or, if you’re just getting started in the transcendent pursuit of backcountry skiing, we can help you sort through the various pack-related considerations and simplify your selection process.

Here at our Bozeman, Montana HQ, we take backcountry skiing seriously and have been developing purpose-built packs for our snow shredding passion for decades.

Fortunately, for us, winter made an unusually early arrival this season. It’s not our average September when we’re making legit powder turns (on a consolidated three-foot base!) a month before Halloween. As we scramble to swap out our mountain biking and rock climbing kits –to ready our backcountry skiing gear –it prompts a timely question: What is the right (best?) backpack for skiing or backcountry snowboarding?


Front Country: Backpacks for Chairlift-Accessed Touring and Turns

Are you primarily doing hot laps on the ski area boundary where you just need the basics: a shovel, probe, H20, spare goggles, Cliff® bar, (perhaps a “micro-puffy” jacket) and a simple way to lashon your board(s)? No need for overkill, you just want a comfortable yet bombproof pack that will intelligently carry your bare essentials and securely lash on your shred stick(s). Keep in mind; you’ll want to make sure your pack is made from thoughtfully spec’d, snow-shedding materials, so you don’t build up an iceberg between your pack and your back.

For ski/snowboarding packs that will primarily be worn while riding chairlifts, you want a narrower profile packsack that doesn’t push your butt forward –making you feel as if you might get pitched out of the chair. Thin is in for chairlift-friendly backpacks. For such uses, we suggest the new D-Route (our most minimalist ski pack) or our new men’s Saddle Peak and women’s Saddle Peak packs with a bit more capacity and gender-specific harnessing for superior carrying comfort.

D-Route Pack

Men’s Saddle Peak Pack

Women’s Saddle Peak Pack

Best Backpack(s) for Big Backcountry Skiing Adventures

If you live for big days in the backcountry –ski tours that involve longer, more committed approaches to alpine objectives –there are a number of additional considerations you must weigh. Perhaps you’re an avalanche forecaster or ski patroller, and your pack is your wearable “office.” Whether a recreational shredder or an on-snow pro, either way, you must ask yourself, what are your real capacity needs

Additional questions to ponder include: What is the most efficient, intelligent way to pack your backpack, so you have ready, rapid access to your avalanche kit should a slab rip out? On a more pragmatic –day in, day-out –level, it should be easy to access the contents of your pack without having to dump stuff out on the snow (where it might get lost in the powder). It must be easy to grab a snack or your camera on the fly… easy to add a layer when you’re at a skins on/skins off transition.

I recall the first time I saw a ski tourer on Teton Pass carrying what appeared to be a 2500 cubic inch (41 liters) pack for a half-day outing. Smugly thinking to myself, “what the heck is that guy carrying… his kitchen sink?” Now, many moons later –having experienced my fair share of off-piste epics: broken skis, bruised knees, blown out bindings, nearly hypothermic partners, way undernourished friends, and so forth –I’ve firmly embraced the Boy Scout mantra, “Be prepared.” As that relates to your pack, size does matter.

Size Matters –Picking the Right Capacity for Your Ski Touring Backpack

We’ve developed two new backcountry skiing/snowboarding packs for winter 17/18 that nail the capacity sweet spots for most every powder quest mission. Our new Patrol 35 is offered with both men’s and women’s harnessing for an ideal, curve-specific fit and long haul carrying comfort. The Patrol 35 will accommodate all your primary ski touring equipment and offers adequate, additional space for climbing skins, a snow saw, extra clothing layers, extra food & H20, a bullet thermos, a backcountry repair kit, a headlamp, a camera, crampons and an ice axe and so forth. We’re also introducing the new Patrol 45 this winter for those needing an additional 10 liters of capacity; enough to fit a bivi sack, light sleeping bag, small stove and those critical items required for a Spartan overnighter at that remote yurt.

  • Bonus Beta: Keep in mind, while a pack designed for the backcountry can serve double duty for occasional lift-serviced frolics, an austere “Ridge” pack designed for the front country is simply not going to offer enough capacity for longer tours or more ambitious excursions.

Men’s Patrol 35 Pack

Women’s Patrol 35 Pack

Patrol 45 Pack


Ski & Snowboard Carry Options –How to lash on your board(s), poles, or other awkward overloads

Depending on one’s preference, thereare various schools of thought regarding the best way to shoulder your skis or snowboard when booting and “billygoating.” Here at MYSTERY RANCH, we honor these differing methods by offering options. For decades the tried and true A-Frame method has worked well for ski mountaineers scrambling to pyramid summits. This approach involves lashing a ski to each side of your pack, utilizing the side compression straps to cinch and stabilize your boards. Generally, a spare lash strap ties the tips together to form the reliable A-shape from which this method derives its name.

In more recent years, the diagonal carry method has won many converts for its quick mount & dismount ease. Here you put your skis base to base (connected by the ski brakes), and stuff the tail into an adequately large webbing loop sewn into the base of the pack. Tilting the skis at about 15-degrees, you clip the top loop and pull the webbing snug via a ladder-lock slider. Voila, the skis are secure and angled to the side so they don’t bounce off the back of your noggin as you tromp upward.

For backcountry snowboarders, our Patrol Series Packs have front Stick-its™, an exterior pocket/lashing feature that will secure your board and also makes a handy place to stuff your puffy when you begin to overheat in the skin/up track.

A-Frame Carry

Diagonal Carry

Quick Access to Avy Gear: When the caca hits the fan, don’t be scrambling to find your shovel handle, your probe or any piece of your rescue/safety kit.

For years, backcountry skiing packs were primarily designed with topload or panel load access offering one primary packsack in which to cram all your stuff. However, after years of personal experience by our MYSTERY RANCH R&D team (and after receiving lots of in-depth, field-savvy feedback from on-snow professionals), we’ve developed a separate, stand-alone pouch/pocket in which to store and QUICKLY access your avalanche kit. Our streamlined avy tool pockets are positioned on the front, exterior of our packs and feature purpose-built organizer pockets for each critical snow tool.

Zippered Back Access

Avalanche Gear Pocket

Top Access

Materials that are snow-repellant, snow shedding

For those who have ski toured with normal, every day carry backpacks (and rolled in the snow via a series of face shots and face plants) you know the open-weave mesh used in most back panels and hip belts is prime for getting compacted with snow. Not only does this add weight to your load, but it also creates an icy layer between you and your pack. Over time this results in unnecessary dampness between you and your pack and makes you feel colder.

At MYSTERY RANCH, we purposefully spec our backcountry skiing packs with fabrications that repel snow and resist the tendency to build mini-icebergs between you and your gear. Specifically, we use alaminated, stretch woven nylon back panel, yoke and waist belt to fend off snow.

Suspension and framing for all day carry comfort

If we’re known for one thing, it’s for packs that carry more comfortably –over the long haul –than any other packs out there. Over the decades, we’ve engineered intelligent load bearing design elements into each of our packs. Should you wish to dig into all the R&D nitty-gritty, we encourage you visit our LOAD CARRIAGE compendium.


  • Don’t forget to assemble and always carry a backcountry repair kit. These should include: a multi-tool, compact ratcheting screwdriver to fit your bindings, duct tape, bailing wire, spare binding parts & screws, pole repair splint. Also pack extra clothing layers and accessories (puffy, vest, spare socks, spare/dry gloves or mittens, balaclava, beanie).
  • Also, each skier/rider in your party should carry some form of a first aid kit, such that collectively your posse is poised to deal with most minor to moderate medical mishaps.
  • Being prepared, prudent and informed is rad. So, be rad and check the avalanche forecast before you head out. Dig pits, monkey with the snow and have the presence of mind to head back to the truck/bar when conditions are too dicey. Live to shred another day.