Backpacks for Winter Camping

Internal frame packs tend to be better for winter use. They have a lower center of gravity and hug your body better. When skiing or snowshoeing, the weight moves more with your body allowing for greater freedom of movement.


To carry all the winter gear for a multi-day trip (large sleeping bag, lots of clothing layers, tents, lots of food and fuel, etc.) you need a pack with a capacity of 5,000 cubic inches or greater.

Choosing an Internal Frame Backpack

When choosing an internal frame backpack look for these features:

  • A slim profile to enable travelling off-trail.
  • Straps and loops for transporting sleeping pads, ice tools, etc.
  • Compression straps to squeeze and stabilize the load and for carrying poles or other items on the outside of your pack.
  • Load lifter straps to pull the load off the top of your shoulders.
  • A shoulder harness that doesn’t inhibit arm movement or have buckles that pinch.
  • A hip belt that cups your hip bones, so the pack’s weight is evenly distributed over the entire belt surface and not just on the part of the belt that rests on your hip bone.
  • Head clearance so you can easily look up to see where you are going.

Measuring Torso and hipbelt Length

All pack makers design their packs with your torso in mind. Know your torso length. Lack of this knowledge often leads to the realization, after the fact, the pack doesn’t fit correctly. A tall person can have a short torso thus requiring a smaller pack. Conversely, a shorter, person can have a longer torso and require a larger pack.

To determine your torso size, ask a friend or family member to help you, if possible. You will need a tape measure or tailor’s tape to measure along your back from the seventh vertebrae, the largest bump on the back of your neck with your head tilted forward, to the point on your lower back which is horizontal with the top of your hipbones. This measurement in inches corresponds to the following pack sizes:











¬        Short          ®

¬         Tall            ®

¬      Regular        ®

If you find that your torso is on the border between two sizes, my experience is to go with the larger size. For example, if your torso is 18 and a small size is torso 16-18, and a medium size is 18-20, go with the medium because you’ll have more room to make adjustments. Most good packs allow for that.

The hipbelt should wrap around your hips, not your waist and the lumbar pad should be centered properly into your lumbar area. You want a significant amount of the pack’s weight on your hips. A good way to do that is to make sure your hipbone is centered under your belt and the lumbar pad centered and pressing firmly into you lower back.

Fitting a Backpack

Once you’ve selected a pack with the right torso length and hip belt size, you need to get properly fitted. Your goal is to have 80% to 90% of the load weight resting on your hips. To achieve this, start by putting about 10 to 15 lbs. of weight into the pack to simulate a loaded pack. Follow the steps below in front of a mirror and/or get a friend to help if possible.

  •  Adjust the Hip belt. First make sure all the pack’s straps and hip belt are loosened. Put the pack on your back so that the hip belt is resting over your hip bones. Close the hip belt buckle and tighten it. Check the padded sections of the hip belt to make sure they wrap around your hips comfortably. Keep at least 1″ of clearance on either side of the center buckle. If the hip belt is too loose or tight, try repositioning the buckle pieces on the hip belt straps. If this doesn’t solve the problem, you may need a different pack (or hip belt).
  • Adjust the Shoulder Straps. Pull down and back on the ends of the shoulder straps to tighten them. Shoulder straps should fit closely and wrap over and around your shoulder, holding the pack body against your back. They should NOT be carrying the weight. Have your helper check to see that the shoulder strap anchor points are 1″ to 2″ inches below the top of your shoulders.
  • Adjust the Load Lifters.  Load-lifter straps are located just below the tops of your shoulders (near your collarbones) and should angle back toward the pack body at a 45-degree angle. Gently snug the load-lifter straps to pull weight off your shoulders. (Over tightening the load lifters will cause a gap to form between your shoulders and the shoulder straps.)
  • Adjust the Sternum Strap. Adjust the sternum strap to a comfortable height across your chest. Buckle the sternum strap and tighten until the shoulder straps are pulled in comfortably from your shoulders, allowing your arms to move freely.
  • Adjust the Stabilizer Straps. Pull the stabilizer straps located on either side of the hip belt to snug the pack body toward the hip belt and stabilize the load.
  • Final Tweak. Go back to the shoulder straps and carefully take a bit of tension off of them. Now you’re ready to go!

Packing your Backpack

For an external pack it is best to have the weight low, but for an internal pack the weight should be kept to the middle since the pack is designed to fit closer to your body. Put your sleeping bag and clothing not needed during the day in the bottom.

Locate the stove, cooking items, and food in the middle.  Keep fuel (especially white gas) containers away from food and cooking gear. Place fuel containers in heavy duty gallon zip-loc freezer bags and pack upright.

Next to the top goes the tent, because it will be one of the first items you need to access. Finally, on the top of the pack stuff the clothes you will need accessible during the day, like extra gloves, a windbreaker and/or insulating layer. Pack items such as water, snacks, sunscreen, sunglasses, camera, and other quick access gear items, in an easily accessible location such as next to a side zip, in the pack lid pocket, a side pocket, or on top of the pack.

Strive for a horizontal distribution of weight, so that one side of the pack isn’t heavier than the other. You should keep the weight centered so that you don’t lose your balance or hurt your back.

Follow our occasional Tweets @WinterCampers and visit us on Facebook.


1 comment to Backpacks for Winter Camping

  • Very informative article. You did a great job keeping it simple and to the point. Dialing in your backpack for the first time can be quite a bit of work and often requires a follow up or two, but when carrying heavy packs with lots of winter gear,there is nothing better than a pack that is loaded correctly, and fitted properly. One of the best investments I ever made was on a custom moldable hipbelt. Thanks for sharing.