Lost Valley ski instructor Sarah Gould bought a pack online this winter and retrofitted it with hooks for her keys. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

CamelBak, Osprey, Dakine or your basic L.L. Bean model?

This is the question skiers and snowboarders across Maine are asking during the “Winter of Coronavirus” as more Alpine enthusiasts turn to backpacks to store their gear. 

Skiing with backpacks at resorts is a longtime tradition in Europe, Canada and out west. But at resorts in the East, most skiers are accustomed to using ski lockers, cubbies in the lodge or even a table in the cafeteria to stow their gear while they enjoy the snow.  

But not during the pandemic.

With ski lodges now discouraging visitors from seeking shelter inside, forbidding them from using ski lockers, or, in the case of the Camden Snow Bowl, closing the lodge all together becausise of the pandemic, many ski areas have advised visitors to leave their gear in their car – or carry it on their back. And many new to carrying a backpack while skiing are embracing the more self-sufficient approach.

“I feel a little more comfortable than I did in October when I was stressing out over if my socks got wet and my feet were wet. Now I carry around an extra pair of socks,” said Sarah Gould of Auburn – who bought a pack online this fall and then retrofitted it with snaps and hooks to hold all the gear she needed while skiing.

Many use a basic day pack, no different than a school backpack. Others prefer a hydration pack, which has a built-in water bladder connected to a drinking tube that snakes up the shoulder strap and offers a drinking spout near the top, similar to the mountain biking packs made popular by CamelBak. The more-expensive winter versions have insulated shoulder straps to keep the tube from freezing. Costs for backpacks run as little as $20 or as much as $200 for the larger, winterized, backcountry versions that offer space for an avalanche probe and shovel and an insulated drinking tube. 

The new carry-it-on-your-back approach allows visitors at ski areas to have an extra thermal top, spare mittens, hand warmers, and a brown-bag lunch at the ready at all times. Many think the approach will catch on and continue long after the pandemic is behind us.

“Usually people fight to get inside. But I’m hoping eating outside will stay part of the lodge culture,” said Andy Shepard, the general manager at Saddleback, where a snack bar and warming tents were created outside the lodge this winter during the pandemic. “When I’m skiing in Europe – and I don’t do it all the time – but when I’m there, there are little kiosks along the trail that you can stop at to have a bratwurst and beer, standing up on your skis. It’s really cool.”

Sarah Gould’s new ski backpack has a whistle built into the chest-strap buckle. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

College student Spencer Funk of Falmouth spent a gap year skiing out west and in British Columbia and adopted the practice of carrying a pack there – because when you’re heli-skiing (that is, getting dropped from a helicopter in the backcountry) that ski locker is pretty far away. A ski pack now feels second-nature to Funk, who is a junior at the University of Vermont.

“I use it every day I ski now. It’s definitely an integral part of my winter gear,” Funk said. “The one day I skied at Sunday River in December, I definitely noticed an increase in backpacks.” 

Gould, who teaches skiing at Lost Valley and visits ski areas across Maine, knew she’d need a day pack to enjoy skiing during the pandemic. So she researched exactly what she wanted: a waterproof pack with a number of zipper pockets to store a variety of personal gear as well as a dry-gear pocket to contain wet clothes she took off to swap out for a dry spare.

She did not want a one-zipper bag, so everything could spill out when she opened it. She did not want a heavy pack. She found the bag she wanted for $18 online. It didn’t have a key ring, another must for Gould. She simply sewed one into the liner and added a climbing carabiner to hold her car keys.

“Losing my keys after I’ve been skiing for two hours is my worst fear,” said Gould, 38. 

Brian Simpson of Bethel carries a hydration pack with him when he snowshoes so he has water for him and his dog. He bought one that was specially designed so the water in the drinking tube won’t freeze. Photo courtesy of Brian Simpson

Brian Simpson of Bethel, a snowboarder and backcountry explorer, bought a larger hydration pack this summer, to test it out for winter. Simpson wanted to make sure he and his husky would stay hydrated without needing to stop in a store or ski lodge. As a restaurant owner in Bethel, Simpson wanted to recreate responsibly in his community during the pandemic.

“I know lodges will be very limited and I want to help them out,” Simpson said. “I’ve used a pack before. But I’ve never put as much thought into what I really needed in it. When I was hiking at the (Sunday River) resort this summer, it would get overwhelmed with out-of-staters. I had to limit how much I went inside. Now if I don’t have to add to that crowd, I want to help.”

Some folks looking for backpack recommendations on social media have voiced concern over straps getting caught in chairlifts as skiers and snowboarders ride up the mountain.

But Eric Nate James Nathanson of Portland, who has skied out west and teaches backcountry skiing at Saddleback, said if you cinch down all the straps, it’s not a danger. Nathanson also recommended leaving the waist strap buckled as you get on the chairlift, then sliding the pack around your torso to your front, where you can hug it, and keep it close on the way up the mountain.

Nathanson predicts as more Mainers use packs, this trend born of necessity will explode in popularity.

“I think when people get used to it, they’ll like it. It’s not as much of a change as you might think,” Nathanson said. “And if the resort has a spread-out parking area, like Sunday River, people will really love having their gear with them. If I’m just riding around the resort, I want food, water and extra layers. ” 

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