A Gear Discussion – Going Light (and Lighter)

Update 2022 – This article was first written in 2019 and has now been updated with my latest thoughts and gear since then. I don’t like to advertise my age, but suffice it to say that I’m getting to that point in life where I no longer throw things in my pack “just in case” I might need them. My knees, back and shoulders have taken quite the beating over the past decade. After hundreds of mountain summits, dozens of canoe trips and thousands of kilometers of walking and skiing with everything from light day packs to huge expedition sized (90+ liter) backpacks overflowing with gear, my body is telling me that it wants a bit of a break! After completing some very grueling ling trips over the past few years in some of the more remote and beautiful terrain in the Rockies and in Canadian Shield country, I came to realize a couple of things;

  1. I love remote areas and the difficulties getting into them almost as much as climbing the peaks they protect, and I love paddling along lakes that are hidden amongst ancient routes.
  2. I want to keep doing these trips as I get older – I don’t want the fun to end until it absolutely has to.

In order to fulfill my dream of continuing to plan and participate in many more trips as I get older, I’ve had to do more than one analysis of my outdoor gear and my philosophy towards enjoying and traveling in the backcountry. I’ve always been a big believer in going as light and ‘bare-bones’ as I thought possible, but now I have to get more serious about it than ever. Since I originally published this article in 2019 gear has gotten even lighter and correspondingly so has my pack and so has my wallet.

Magical views back over our approach up the Cheshire meadows. Trips deep into the backcountry such as the upper Ram River require either many days or many kilometers per day. Your choice. But when you’re approaching 50 you need to decide which is more realistic and enjoyable.

I’ve lost weight on my body a number of times over the years and losing weight from my gear had to follow the same basic process. At first glance the losses are so small they seem inconsequential. It’s only after adding up a large number of small weight savings that the numbers finally add up into something more significant.

  1. I needed to know how much my current gear weighs so I could focus on certain areas.
  2. I had to eliminate the heaviest stuff first – the best “bang for my buck” so-to-speak.
  3. I have to constantly re-evaluate my gear, plan trips more carefully and possibly take slightly more risks around what to put in my pack (hence this article update in 2022).

There is a great article on Hyperlite Mountain Gear’s (HMG) web site on the going light philosophy as it applies to adventuring and outdoor travel. The article specifies what is generally accepted as light (20lbs), ultralight (10lbs) and super-ultralight (5lbs) for base packs (not including food, fuel or water). As of 2022 I am somewhere between light and ultralight at a base pack weight of between 9 and 14 pounds depending on the trip. Over the winter of 2022/23 I hope to get my base pack weight closer to the super-ultralight threshold.

IMPORTANT NOTE: The easiest, most obvious and by far the hardest and least-fun way to go lighter is to lose body weight. I can speak to this unpopular topic because I’ve always struggled with my own weight and am often at least 10-15 pounds over my optimal weight. Obviously 15lbs adds up over thousands of kilometers of hiking and many hundreds of meters of ascent. Working out and maintaining a good fitness level is the best way to have fun and be safe in the back country – at any age. There are no shortcuts to these two obvious first steps to going light and having fun. Just lots of hard work.

Prioritizing Gear

The first task is fairly easy and fun on a cold or rainy day when you are bored. I bought a $25 digital kitchen scale from my local grocery store and proceeded to weigh my gear. This included everything from mosquito spray to bear spray to sunscreen to toilet paper. At the end of the day I knew what my top heaviest gear was going to be but some items still surprised me. Here’s some of the biggest weight savings that I targeted over the past few years.

Category Old Gear Old Gear Weight 2019 Gear 2019 Gear Weight 2019 Weight Savings 2023 Gear 2023 Gear Weight 2023 Weight Savings
Tent BD Hilite (no pegs) w/ Groundsheet 1582g HMG 2-Person Ultra Mid + Single insert 907g 675g Zpacks Plex Solo + Pole 475g 432g
Sleeping Bag MEC Raven (-7) 1150g FF Vireo UL (74″) 474g 676g S2S Spark UL 40 F 340g 134g
Backpack BD Mission 55L 1660g HMG 3400 Ice Pack 55L 980g 680g Zpacks Nero 38L DCF 308g 672g
Sleeping Matt Exped 7 Down 888g NeoAir UberLite Regular 250g 638g NeoAir UberLite Regular 250g
Down Booties MEC Regular 346g Goosefeet socks w/ over-liners 111g 235g N/A N/A 111g
Crampons Grivel Full Steel 980g Grivel Aluminum 580g 400g Petzl Leopard FL 360g 220g
Hiking Poles BD Regular 490g BD Ultra Distance CF 290g 200g BD Ultra Distance CF 290g
Satellite Device Gen1 300g Gen3 114g 186g Garmin InReach Mini II 100g 14g
Water Bottle Nalgene Regular 1L 175g Vapur Element 1L 40g 135g BeFree 0.6 (Filtered) 69g -29g
Mountaineering Ax BD Raven w/ Leash 408g BD Raven w/ Leash 408 Camp Corsa (50cm) 202g 206g
Helmet Camp 400g Petzl Sirocco I 165g 235g Petzl Sirocco II 160g 5g
Headlamp BD Storm 114g BD Ion 48g 63g Petzl Bindi 35g 13g
Stove Fuel  650ml w/bottle 601g ISO Pro 110g 211 390g Esbit Tablets (6) 84g 127g
Water Pot MSR Aluminium 400g Snow Peak Titanium 106g 294g TOAKS Titanium 550ml Pot 72g 34g
Stove MSR Whisperlite 288g MSR Pocket Rocket II 105g 183g Esbit Titanium 12g 93g
Insulated Jacket MEC Tremblant 574g Arc’teryx Cerium LT 305g 269g Arc’teryx Cerium LT 305g
Wind / Rain Jacket MEC Synergy 670g Patagonia Storm 10 235g 435g Patagonia Houdini 105g 130g
Fleece Jacket MEC Generic (guess) 450g Patagonia R1 391g 59g Patagonia R1 Air  366g 25g
Rain Pants MEC Generic (guess) 400g MEC Gore-tex 300g 100g Berghaus Paclite 237g 63g
Long Underwear MEC Generic (guess) 300g Under Armour Base 3.0 230g 70g Patagonia Capilene Air 167g 63g
Totals 12176g (26.8lbs) 6242g (13.7lbs) 5934g (13lbs) 3937g (8.7lbs) 2380g (5.2lbs)

Notice that total weight saved on these 20 common items was over 13 pounds in 2019 and an additional 5+ pounds planned for 2023. Also note that there just isn’t a lot of extra room for lighter gear on some items – I already have gone about as light as possible with today’s technologies. In the case of down booties I simply stopped carrying them to save space and 111 grams weight in my pack. Other items such as the Camp Corsa mountaineering ax aren’t necessarily the recommended size for my height but I’m only bringing it for extreme cases and don’t end up using an ax about 95% of the time I’m carrying one. Might as well be really light if I’m basically not even going to use it. Same with the crampons. In just one case my gear weight increased from 2019 to 2023 but the gear improved. My water bottle now includes filtration.

Water / Hydration

Water is very heavy. It weighs a full 2.2 pounds for each liter carried. I know many folks who regularly carry at least 2 to 3 liters of water every trip – this is 4.5 to 6 pounds! Not me. I have trained myself over many years to need very little water compared to almost everyone else I know. This means I usually don’t carry any water at all, except in very specific scenarios and usually not very much. Does this ever get me in trouble? Yes, but not often. I climbed over 60 summits in 2022 and I had too little water maybe twice. For example on our Barrier to Gable Mountain traverse I filled up 1 liter of water at the Red Deer River crossing and didn’t have any more until a good 9 hours later! That was pushing it even for me but I survived. On our 2022 White Goat Wilderness trip we had access to water at valley bottoms and I only brought 600ml on the peaks. I ensure that I’m hydrated before starting out in the morning and often drink a lot when I do come across fresh water sources. Obviously YMMV but I encourage you to seriously consider making do with less water, especially while covering distances at valley bottom with access to streams along the way.

For many years I drank straight from most Rockies water sources without getting sick. This is a personal decision based on several factors and I only recently switched to the Katadyn BeFree system, drinking from water sources as I cross them during the day. On canoe trips I now carry a water bottle with a built-in filter making drinking from the lakes and streams ridiculously easy and safe. Ironically this is the only item in the 19 above that increased in weight from 2019 to 2023, going from a 40 gram unfiltered solution to the 69 gram BeFree solution.

I don’t understand why anyone still carries water filtration pump systems in 2023. Not. Needed. Especially if you’re using them in silty mountain water where they can easily clog, there are so many lighter and better options available. Just to mention a few;

Cookware / Food

Some people love to eat in the outdoors and I totally get this. There’s nothing like fresh bread or some wine with fresh veggies or fruit after a hard day of hiking, but it’ll cost you extra energy and wear ‘n tear to carry that extra weight. Is it really worth it? It’s like carrying too much water. The extra weight means you need to carry more, which in turn means you’ll need more to carry more. Only you can train and decide what combination is best for you. Dehydrated food is my best friend. It’s much healthier to make your own (less crap like salt and MSG in it) but I still buy mine pre packaged as it’s much more convenient and comes in a bag that also is the bowl and cookware.

I use one pot solutions for my meals and drinks in the backcountry. I used to think there was almost no way to get lighter than my 2019 system which was only around 422 grams for a small fuel canister, a 750ml titanium pot and the tiny MSR Pocket Rocket II stove. I was wrong. My 2023 system only weighs 168 grams for the same effect! A solid fuel (Esbit) system has many advantages including;

  • stove and cubes are tiny and pack small compared to a canister system
  • no mechanical parts hence no risk of failure with stove or fuel canister
  • no deterioration in cold weather (a big plus in the mountains)
  • easy to estimate how many to bring (each tablet boils 550ml of water)
  • no empty container to carry after use
  • doubles as emergency fire starter, each cube burns 14-15 minutes

The one major drawback of the Esbit cubes is their smell. Man – do they stink! Not so much while burning but when you first open the package you will lose your appetite for a few minutes. Another drawback is that you MUST use a windscreen in order to get a full boil of 550ml from 1 tablet. I always bring a windscreen and am using a very light titanium one for 2023 so this is not an extra item for me.

Clothing / Sleepwear

Don’t carry too much clothing. Either learn to like your own smell or better yet, invest in fabric that doesn’t smell, like Merino wool products. On multi-day trips, simply do laundry once in a while (i.e. when your tent mate starts dry heaving every time you come close). The first items I started eliminating from my camp gear were all the extra clothes I used to bring along. No need for extra socks unless it’s going to be cold overnight – mine get washed with every creek crossing. Don’t bring long underwear unless you really need to. Bring a light wind jacket if there’s no need for a much heavier Gore-Tex mountaineering shell. It pays to be ruthless when eliminating extra clothes that won’t compromise too much on safety. Jackets with too many pockets and zippers are not needed – simple is better and will break down less often. Materials like Capilene fleece are lighter, warmer (and more expensive) than others.

I sleep in my underwear or if it’s cold in my hiking pants, adding Gore-Tex rain pants as needed. I rarely bring an extra camp shirt unless I’m out for more than 3 days. Instead of bringing a warm jacket and a warm sleeping bag, bring a warm jacket and a light sleeping bag. Wear your various warmth layers to bed and you’ll be toasty. I’m usually too hot in this combo and I use a 3/4 mummy bag. Speaking of which, my Feathered Friends Vireo (which isn’t a full bag) only weighs 474 grams and packs down to less than 1 liter in a stuff sack. It’s very hard to beat this for size and weight, even in 2023. I’ve slept in subzero temperatures many times with this setup, wearing shirt, fleece, down and even a wind jacket if it gets really chilly. I’ll admit, I’d be more comfortable in a nice, cozy -5 degree sleeping bag but the cost of that setup is a heavier, larger pack.

Footwear / Wet Feet

Footwear is very important to saving energy and overall wear and tear on your body – and of course weight! I wear approach shoes saving me a ton of weight on each foot, not to mention wear and tear compared with hiking in hiking or climbing boots. I even wear crampons with my shoes in a pinch. I can’t overstate the difference switching to lightweight footwear has made in my fitness and my ability to push out longer days as I get older. I know there are a lot of skeptics out there who still believe in the “ankle support” that a hiking or climbing boot gives, but what about the rest of your body? There is much more to it than simply supporting ankles. My knees, back and feet are much more comfortable after a 30 kilometer day in shoes than in boots – I guarantee you!

Another option that saves tons of weight and time on long trips is the ability to walk straight through water sources without taking my footwear off. This is not an option with boots. My approach shoes or runners don’t give me blisters when wet and dry out within an hour or so of a river crossing. Carrying water crossing shoes is a waste of time and extra weight IMHO. On certain trips it would add hours to the day, taking off heaving hiking boots for each water crossing. The practice of walking through water and hiking with wet feet has opened up a great many huge days in the Rockies over the past few years.

Climbing / Snow Gear

Climbing gear is generally really, really heavy. If you must bring a rope (better yet, learn to scramble low fifth class), bring one or two 30m 8mm or less singles if at all possible. This setup spreads the load between two people and allows for 15 or 30m rapells. I know of people that travel glaciers with only a 7mm rope or one 30m 8mm travel rope, and one 30m 7mm rescue rope. It’s not for everyone, but it saves a lot of bulk and weight! Know how to use a skinny rope – i.e. make sure your rap device works with thinner ropes and know how to rap on a munter hitch which works well with thinner ropes (although rope twist can be an issue).

Scramblers may not need to carry ropes and ice screws but we often need to carry a mountaineering ax and / or crampons for easy snow climbing. There are many ways to save weight here including careful planning (i.e. don’t carry the gear unless you need it) and buying lighter options.

Just-in-case Gear / Extras

One of the biggest areas to save weight for most people, including myself, is the so-called “just-in-case” gear that we insist on throwing into our packs before a trip. Stop doing that! Just-in-case gear includes items like;

  • clothing
  • first aid gear
  • extra parts (i.e. pole tips, repair kits etc.)
  • safety gear (i.e. ice ax, crampons)
  • convenience gear (pumps, tripods, chairs, binoculars, knives, saws, “Bear Grylls” items

Before you jump on me for listing “first aid gear” as extra, ask yourself if that gear will really help you in case of an emergency? There’s a reason I have paid $15-$25 per month over the last 5+ years for my satellite comms device. If I need urgent care in the backcountry I will call in the experts. This is the advantage of living in the year 2022 and I don’t apologize for it. An arm splint isn’t going to get me home from deep in the backcountry when I fracture my arm – a helicopter will do that job very nicely. I carry a tiny first aid kit but it only contains some blister bandages, blood clotting agent, wound closure strips and pain meds.

Doing proper research before each trip will save you carrying unnecessary gear such as ax and crampons, too much clothing or other just-in-case items. You should know what to expect and should plan for it ahead of time rather than bringing everything you worry you might need. Most of my just-in-case gear is conditions-based (i.e. weather, temperatures and snow). There are handy satellite tools available with up to date imagery to show current snow levels and countless sites to help you with the weather forecast. My favorites include;

On Mount Assiniboine and Mount Alexandra we brought way too much gear for just-in-case scenarios. Especially on Assiniboine, which is climbed many times per season by experienced mountain guides, there’s going to be lots of (recent) tat, tons of gear on-route and very little need to build your own anchors.

McDonald Lake steals the show under the SE slopes of McDonald.

Lightweight = Light on fun?

Some readers are probably wondering if trekking without all the extras is even fun anymore. Only you can decide what you need to make life in the backcountry worth getting to and traveling in. Contrary to what you may think, I will still carry the following extras  – depending on the type and length of trip.

  • e-reader (I managed to get a tiny kindle when they still sold them)
  • extra camera lenses (for tele, astro or macro photography)
  • ultra light fishing rod w/ tackle
  • hammock (a must have on canoe trips)
  • camp chair (another staple of canoe trips)

Many folks assume that because I’m in a 475g tent instead of a 1500g one, I’m less comfortable or compromising on space. The Zpacks Solo Plex is a wonder of new materials and manufacturing abilities. It provides 20.6 square feet of space under a completely water / storm proof (albeit see through!) material. It packs to the size of a couple of nalgene bottles and includes bug netting and a roomy vestibule for boots and pack. For 2-person, winter, or icefield camping I have the luxury of my Hyperlite UltaMid II, weighing in at only 499 grams (no floor or mesh) or 1126 grams (mesh and waterproof floor) and able to survive very harsh conditions. Pyramid tents are delightful for canoe trips and winter camping. Dyneema Composite Fabric (DCF) is the miracle material that companies are using for their ultra light packs and tents nowadays.

I have the Hyperlite ice pack for longer trips with more gear (canoe, winter mountaineering), which not only weighs much less than other 55 liter mountaineering packs, but is completely waterproof. No need for a pack cover. For 3-season backpacking and scrambling expeditions I use the Zpacks Nero 38 liter DCF pack. This thing only weighs in at 308 grams! I use Hyperlite stuff sacks for organizing gear in my packs and ensuring complete waterproofness.

I find going light to be more enjoyable than carrying everything and the kitchen sink. For example I like carrying only a few camera lenses. I find when I carry too much gear (usually on canoe trips where you can get away with carrying a lot of extra crap) I just end up not using it or always debating about which piece of gear to use. When I am ‘forced’ to live simply I spend less time worrying about my gear and more time enjoying the natural world that I’m part of. And for me that’s the entire point of it all in the first place! I’ve used cameras with only one fixed lens before and really enjoyed the experience (and still got some fantastic images).

Mount Robson with the Milky Way and Berg Lake. I took this shot as a 7 shot stitched panorama since the only camera I brought was a 35mm fixed lens Sony RX1R and I couldn’t fit the scene in one shot!

Lightweight = Heavy risk?

I think the biggest pushback most folks have to the lightweight and ultra lightweight philosophy as applied to hiking, scrambling and climbing is concerns over safety. Starting in the Covid era, one of my biggest annoyances is the saying, “be safe”. Every time I hear someone say that, I hear the words, “be boring”, “stay home”, “avoid risk”, “avoid fun”. Excuse my language but my response over the last few years has become a cheery, “fuck safe“.

What does being “safe” really mean to most people? I think that it means minimizing risk to a tolerable level and I think that is unique to each person on this planet. The only way to eliminate risk for an outdoors person is to stay home. The only way you are guaranteed to come back from the mountains unscathed is to avoid them completely. If that truth makes you uncomfortable then you have some thinking to do. You and you alone can find your tolerance level somewhere between the extremes of complete avoidance and unlimited exposure to manage risk in the outdoors.

IMHO, going lightweight is in many ways safer than carrying unnecessarily heavy loads. Consider the following points;

  • lighter means faster means less time exposed to objective hazards (tstorms, hazardous terrain)
  • lighter means less injuries (both short and long term)
  • lighter means you did more planning which means you’re better prepared
  • lighter means a smaller pack which is more balanced, easier to bushwhack with and less likely to get snagged

The Cost of going Lightweight

Saving 10-20lbs on basic gear weight is far from free! Even though I can still use most of my old gear (i.e. my sleeping bag for car camping, my heavy crampons for ice or my large head lamp for canoe trips), I still spent thousands of hard earned dollars over the years, switching over to lighter gear. I recommend choosing your top 2 or 3 weight savers (likely your tent and sleep system) and concentrating on those first. The biggest expenses by far were on the shelter, pack and sleeping gear. But the cost of going light has to be weighed in terms besides just the cash outflow. According to me, the benefits of enjoying tough mountaineering, hiking and canoe trips into middle and old age are far more important than a few thousand bucks invested now. My knees were weak when I started climbing mountains over two decades ago. Through careful training, using poles and lightening my gear, I’ve managed to keep them reasonably functional. Now I have to invest some more in them to keep the rest of me going another 10, or 20 years.

There is another cost to going light. I might lose the occasional summit or end goal due to compromising on equipment to save weight. South Twin is a good example of where this already occurred. Thinking there’d be plenty of snow on the climb, a bunch of us left our full steel crampons at home. This meant we weren’t confident climbing the 35-40 degree hard glacial ice on our flimsy aluminum crampons. When one of our party tried going around the bare ice to make tracks in snow for the rest of us, he fell in a crevasse and our trip was over for the day. I’ve been pushed to the edge a few times thanks to crampon issues. On Mount Fryatt my aluminum crampons felt skimpy, and I really wished for a second ice axe for one of the icy gully moves. On Cataract Peak the aluminum crampons in approach shoes were a bare minimum – and felt it.

JW ascends North Twin with South Twin at right. Arguably the biggest fail of my career so far was trying to ascend South Twin in icy conditions with light crampons, resulting in a crevasse incident and failed summit.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention another potential cost of going too light. Unlike hiking where leaving that extra coat behind might mean a cold night or two, leaving climbing gear behind to save weight can either leave you stranded (best case) or even injured or dead. I’ve done ski trips on the Columbia Icefield in May when it was +15 degrees at the parkway and we all got frostbite while skiing in a blizzard above – I’m talking small areas of black skin on my face. Leaving warm gear or climbing pro behind can do much more than cost you a summit if you’re not extremely confident in your abilities, the weather and your ability to adapt to changing scenarios, which only comes with experience.I want to end this section with a strong caution to beginner hikers / climbers / skiers that it’s still safer to pack a few too many items than not enough. As you gain experience you’ll discover what “too few” and “enough” means for you – everyone has different definitions!

‘Go Light’ in Everything!

Finally, I would like to stress that discovering what works for you in the ‘go light’ philosophy is a personal journey and is unique to each individual. It should not be a contest to see how extreme everyone can go relative to each other. I’ve seen that script and I know how it ends. I am trying to ‘go light’ in my life outside of the mountains too. I live in a small house, drive smaller vehicles and try to leave a ‘light’ footprint on the environment both at home in Calgary and when I live in the wild. Going light in life is a huge relief and a huge stress-saver too. I don’t know about other people, but being indebted to a bank for 25-30 years just to own my own house is NOT a worthwhile spend of my time or dollars.

I’m a big believer in letting people go their own journey rather than dictate what everyone ‘should’ do but I do think we need to live responsibly with our environment wherever and however we can. There are over 7 billion of us and we all have unique needs, ideas and dreams. Let’s try to be responsible with our big, beautiful planet and leave it a better place than we found it, so our kids can enjoy the same wild places we do! Invest now in good, light gear for the future and you will be able to use the same equipment for many adventures while saving your body for even more trips in the future.

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