Gear Selection: How & Where to Focus for a Lighter Load

“How do I lighten my pack weight but still bring enough gear?” This is a very common, very important question. Here, I break down some key tips for dropping your pack weight.

Get Rid of Some Niceties

Perhaps the truest axiom when talking pack weights is that if you bring less, your pack will weigh less. It’s an unavoidable fact. Always start by trimming the fat. This will mean different things for a 2-3 week expedition as compared to a 2-3 day climb. On Aconcagua or Denali, having basic entertainment in the form of a Kindle is key. On a 3-day or short climb like Baker or Rainier, I sometimes pull a good article from a magazine and fold it up in a Ziploc…or leave out the entertainment entirely. Skip the battery pack for a short trip. Cut out the solar panel. Leave the deck of cards at home. Adjust how you trim the fat based on the trip length!

Get Rid of Even More

From there, I pare down my kit list more finely. I walk the line between too much gear and insufficient gear. If you’re climbing with Alpine Ascents, go by your gear list. Each list represents thousands of days of climbing experience. If your objective doesn’t match our climbs, think through what you really need. For example:

  • Low-elevation summer backpacking with a really strong high pressure system (high pressure: dry and sunny)? Skip the hard shells but bring a wispy down puffy for the evening.
  • Cooking one-pot or add-water meals only? Leave the frying pan home but don’t forget a lighter.
  • Long weekend ski traverse? 1 pair of socks will work, since I know my feet will survive and every ounce actually matters on those downhill turns…but add a few ski straps.

Building the right kit list is to climbing what playing Go is to board games: deceptively simple to learn but incredibly complex to master.

Consider Lighter Gear

Do not, do not, do not start with this step. The truth is that dropping just a solar panel + battery setup will make up for replacing 6-10 items in your kit with the newest, fanciest, lightest models. As an added bonus, removing extra stuff from your pack is completely free! That said, lightweight gear will help you hit the lowest possible weight for a climbing trip. Let’s look at a few examples:

  • Alpine Harness: a typical climbing harness is going to weigh 350g/12oz. Petzl’s Altitude weighs only 150g/5.3oz. Weight saved: 190g/6.7oz.
  • Climbing Helmet: surprisingly, common helmets weigh as much as 348g/12.3oz. Light helmets like the Petzl Sirocco drop to 170g/6oz. Weight saved: 178g/6.2oz.
  • 0-5°F Sleeping Bag: an entry-level down bag like the Questar weighs 1360g/48oz. An alpinist’s down bag like the Mythic 600 weighs 885g/31oz. Weight saved: 475g/16.75oz.
  • Double Boots: the venerable La Sportiva Baruntse weighs 1267g/44.7oz. It’s newer, sleeker cousin that handles the same tasks? 1024g/36.11oz. Weight saved: 240g/8.5oz.

1083g/38oz – more than two pounds in weight savings with just the above four swaps. The same logic applies to nearly every item used in the mountains. While not all gear is created equal and can’t be swapped out (a light down sweater is never an OK replacement for a real down parka), there is almost always a lighter alternative for each piece of gear in the mountains. To fine-tune where to apply your energy and budget, look to replace any worn-out items with the “best in class” for weight and function. Doing this year-over-year allows for incremental and manageable spending. If you’ve got specific targets in mind (“I need to drop five pounds.”), look to the most significant swaps you can make, as in the pound-plus savings from swapping a heavy sleeping bag for a lighter one.

Fine-Tune It

If you find yourself still looking to scrimp on a few ounces, there are nearly infinite tiny tweaks you can make. I find that a small postal scale can be useful to see exactly how much things weigh if I’m getting obsessive with gear weights. Here are a few examples of the kind of tweaks you might consider:

  • I use Black Diamond Guide Gloves, but with inner liners from Rab Alliance Gloves. The Alliance liners are lighter (and warmer) than the stock Guide Glove liners.
  • Piz Buin makes a combo-tube that has sunscreen and lipscreen. It’s less plastic to carry than a separate lipscreen and sunscreen, and I only have to keep track of one object for sun care.
  • Stop putting your stuff in stuff sacks! Every stuff sack weighs ounces. I occasionally skip the stuff sack even for my sleeping bag.

In Conclusion

As you seek (en)lightenment, I want to wrap up with a cautionary case-study on choosing the right gear rather than the absolute lightest. Years ago, Mountain Hardwear produced an incredible line of products designed and developed with Ueli Steck. That product line is a true honor and credit to the climbing community’s memory of Ueli. Each piece – from parkas to mittens to tents – was stunningly lightweight and perfect for the record-breaking climbing Ueli undertook. However, that gear was not built to offer the same function to those climbing at a more average pace in the mountains. A good example is the Nilas Parka. For an elite-level alpinist, the Nilas was suitable for truly high-altitude use when climbing at remarkable speeds. For an average climber, the insulation in the Nilas doesn’t quite cut it. Think about what a runner needs to wear to stay comfortable on a December day in Chicago, versus what someone casually walking the frozen lakeshore might need to wear – the same principle applies. In summary: when you’re trying to trim your pack weight, beware marketing campaigns, and always seek expert advice.

Don’t forget that myself and our gear team live & breathe gear for the mountains. Send us an email if you’re looking to talk through your kit or make sure that the fancy new parka you’re eyeballing will give you the warmth you need for your next trip.

Matt Miller
Director of Operations

 

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