The Art of Choosing What Goes into a Pack for Fast and Light Alpine Style Objectives

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by Bobby Cosker

Things to consider when packing for bigger objectives.

Martha Stewart once said, “life is too complicated not to be orderly.” The same couldn’t be truer when discussing the topic of what to consider when packing your backpack for alpine climbing in the bigger mountains. Being thoughtful and orderly in how and what you choose to put in your bag directly affects your ability to be safe and successful in the mountains. While death scrolling through Google results and exhaustive gear lists on this topic, I’ve noticed that few articles make mention of key considerations in the decision-making process of knowing what to bring. Even though this process is best refined with repetitive practice and experience, there are some key concepts I’ve found to be helpful when it comes to the art of packing a bag for a grand adventure in the alpine.

The Art of Knowing What to and Not to Pack

When it comes to deciding on what to pack for your outing, much of what to bring heavily relies on your experience and fitness in the type of terrain you are going to be navigating, how long you’re planning on being out, the weather you may or may not encounter, and how big or small your safety margin is going to be. The packing process starts well before you begin putting all those trinkets and gear into a bag. Here are some suggestions to use as guidelines to help refine your art of packing for the bigger mountains.

  • Information, fitness, and experience are all tools that you can bring that weigh nothing. Take the time to make a good tour plan, research your route, and put in the work on your fitness. The more information, fitness, and experience you have the take less stuff you need to take!
  • Subtract don’t add: Lay out everything you think you’ll need to start and then take away what you think you won’t need after consulting with the suggestion above.
  • Pack items you won’t need while you’re climbing at the bottom of your bag. Pack your sleeping kit, extra insulation layers, and first aid kit at the bottom of your bag and keep things like food, water, and sunscreen at the top for easy access while moving.
  • Think of each item that you put into your bag as a tool for the task you are looking to complete. Can one item do the task of 3 items relatively well? For example, can you bring a v threader with a built in knife to act as a knife, v threader, and a tool to fix your tent poles if something breaks?
  • Know where to shave weight and where to save weight. Experiment with your packing systems to find where you can shave off some ounces and where you need to put more in. The more meticulous you are in dialing out how much clothing, food, gas, and gear you need before your trip, the more confident you’ll be that you’re bringing all that you need and nothing more. Write out what you bring each trip and see how far you can go with less and less gear over time. You don’t need that whole bottle of toothpaste for a 3-day outing!

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Determining Your Safety Margins and Non-Negotiables

Choosing your safety items is a bit like buying insurance for yourself. You’re insuring yourself by putting items in your bag that you hope not to use but can help buy some time when it all starts to go wrong. These items come in the form of fitness and experience, extra gas or food, bivy sack or tarp, map and compass, satellite communication device, and so forth. When determining what to bring, consider the types of gear that can have multiple uses for a variety of different situations and the strengths and weaknesses of those systems. Also, have some non-negotiables of things you won’t go climbing without. Personally, my non-negotiables when I’m climbing in big snowy environments are a first aid kit, stove with a little extra gas, Garmin Inreach, map and compass, and a safety tarp split between the team. These light and small items can really go a long way in keeping things manageable if things were to hit the fan. However, what I bring for alpine rock climbing will differ from climbing technical peaks in Alaska. Fill your toolbox with the gear you need specific to the job.

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Overall, the length of your trip, the terrain, your experience and fitness, the weather, and how big or little your safety net will be is going to determine what to bring. Putting in the work well before your trip by knowing what you might encounter while on route and having the fitness and experience to navigate it safely and efficiently can allow you to bring significantly less stuff than if you are just winging it! Cause the mountains are already too complex not to be orderly.


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