A Gear Discussion – Going Light

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 kilometres of walking and skiing with everything from light day packs to huge expedition sized (90+ litre) backpacks overflowing with gear my body is telling me that it wants a bit of a break! 😉 After completing some very gruelling 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 realized 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 a complete analysis of my outdoor gear and my philosophy towards living 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 serious about it. Really serious.

Phil checks out the views from the SW end of the summit block of Mount Brussilof. We approached and ascended both Brussilof and Alcantara in a day from the road mostly thanks to our very light gear which included approach shoes instead of much heavier boots.

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 add up.

  1. I need to know how much my current gear weighs so I can focus on certain areas.
  2. I should 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.

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) weights for base packs (not including food, fuel or water). I am somewhere between light and ultralight at a base pack weight of less than 20lbs. This includes all basic camping gear such as a tent, sleeping mat, sleeping bag, warm clothing and even photography and climbing gear such as extra lenses, batteries, climbing helmet, crampons and even a crevasse rescue device, ATC, harness and an ice screw! I’m pretty sure I could get my base pack for just a few days of scrambling / hiking to around 12lbs.

Paradise in Evelyn Lake. Once again the Hyperlite Mountain Gear UltaMid II was an absolute pleasure to hike into this remote spot.

NOTE: The easiest, most obvious and least-fun way to save your knees / back and go light, is to lose body weight. 🙂 I can speak to this unpopular topic because I’ve always struggled with my own weight and am often a good 10lbs over my optimal weight for hiking / climbing. Obviously 10lbs adds up over kilometres of hiking and climbing. 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 was easy. 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 in the top 14 surprised me. Here’s some of the biggest weight savings that I targeted first, roughly ordered by the amount of weight saved;

Category Old Gear Old Gear Weight New Gear New Gear Weight Weight Savings
Tent BD Hilite (no pegs) w/ Groundsheet 1582g HMG 2-Person Ultra Mid 499g 1083g
Sleeping Bag MEC Raven (-7) 1150g FF Vireo UL (74″) 474g 676g
Backpack BD Mission 55L 1660g HMG 3400 Ice Pack 55L 980g 680g
Sleeping Matt Exped 7 Down 888g NeoAir UberLite Regular 250g 638g
Down Booties MEC Regular 346g Goosefeet socks w/ over-liners 111g 235g
Crampons Grivel Full Steel 980g Grivel Aluminum 580g 400g
Hiking Poles BD Regular 490g BD Ultra Distance CF 290g 200g
SPOT Beacon Gen1 300g Gen3 114g 186g
Water Bottle Nalgene Regular 1L 175g Vapur Element 1L 40g 135g
Mountaineering Ax BD Raven w/ Leash 408g Camp Corsa Nanotech 278g 130g
Ice Screw BD Regular 170g Petzl Laser Speed Light 100g 70g
Headlamp BD Storm 114g BD Ion 48g 63g
Cooking Pot MSR Aluminium 400g Snow Peak Titanium 106g 294g
Stove MSR Whisperlite 288g MSR Pocket Rocket II 105g 183g
TOTAL WEIGHT 8951g (19.7) 4075g (8.9lbs) 4876g (10.8lbs)

Notice that total weight saved on just these 14 items is almost 11 lbs! There are other tricks and tips that I’ve learned over the years that save me pounds of weight compared to a lot of trekkers and climbers without compromising too much on safety or even comfort;

  • Don’t carry water unless you have to. I carry Katadyn BeFree 0.6l bottle and drink straight from streams / rivers as I cross them during the day. I also carry a life straw on every trip now in case of suspect water. At 10 grams and $25 it’s a no-brainer. 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.
  • Footwear is very important to saving energy and overall wear and tear on your body – and of course weight! I wear La Sportiva TX3 approach shoes saving me a TON of weight on each foot, not to mention wear and tear on my feet from hiking in huge and heavy hiking or climbing boots. I even wear crampons with my shoes in a pinch.
  • Don’t get fancy with cooking / eating. 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 / wear ‘n tear to carry that extra weight in your pack. Is it really worth it? (Sometimes the answer is ‘yes’ BTW.)
  • One pot solutions for cooking. I use titanium cup / pot to save weight.
  • Dehydrated food is your friend. Much healthier to make your own (less crap like salt and MSG in it) but I still buy mine usually as it’s more convenient.
  • 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).
  • Extras like water filtration pumps, air mattress pumps, camera tripods, camp chairs, hammocks, binoculars, camp grills, big knives, axes and most other “Bear Grills” items are simply not necessary and often don’t even get used.
  • Instead of bringing a warm jacket and a warm sleeping bag, bring a warm (down) jacket and a lighter sleeping bag. Wear your jacket to bed and you’ll be toasty! Wear your down socks to bed and you’ll be too hot half the time!
  • 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 singles if at all possible. You spread the load between two people, can still rap 15 or 30m at a time and can even do easy climbing where the odds of actually falling are very low. 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 TON of 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).
  • Do lots of research before traveling so you know what to expect and can plan for it ahead of time rather than bringing everything you worry you might need. For example, if your route is well traveled it might have bolted anchors or lots of solid tat. You may not need those 8 pitons or that full rack of nuts or cams. On Mount Assiniboine and Mount Alexandra we brought too much gear for just-in-case scenarios. Especially on Assiniboine, which is climbed many times per season by experienced mountain guides, you know there’s going to be lots of (recent) tat, tons of gear on-route and very little need to build your own anchors. At most you should only need a moderate rock rack. If you time it right you should have a dry mountain and may only need to protect a couple of pitches and rappel a few times on descent. For Alexandra, we knew the rock section was short and the rap bolted, so pitons were complete over kill.
Late evening views at almost 11,000 feet on a remote Rockies peak. What could be better? This is looking down the Pipestone River Valley from the summit of Cataract Peak deep in the heart of Banff National Park. There’s no way we could have approached and ascended this peak with heavy gear. We even used crampons with our approach shoes to get up here!

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 some times – depending on the type of trip of course.

  • e-reader (I managed to get a tiny kindle when they still sold them)
  • extra camera lenses (for astro or macro photography)
  • flower ID cards or even books
  • ultra light fishing rod w/ tackle
  • good food
  • wine

The Costs of going Light

Nothing in life is free. 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 hundreds of hard earned cash switching over to lighter gear. The biggest expenses by far were on the shelter, pack and sleeping gear.

A rustic bush camp on Page Lake deep in Woodland Caribou Provincial Park. But the moss is 6″ deep here so I’m not complaining. My HMG UltaMid II is a very expensive shelter but at 499 grams and 100% waterproof and wind resistant, who’s complaining about cost? (Well, me sometimes… ;))

But the cost of going light has to be weighed in terms besides just the money it costs. 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 almost two decades ago. Through careful training and using poles and light 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, or 40 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 to me. 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 (and light) aluminum crampons. When one of our party tried going around the bare ice to make tracks 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 too, and I really wanted a second ice axe for one of the icy gully moves. On Cataract Peak the aluminum crampons were a bare minimum.

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.

As I mentioned earlier already, on Mount Alexandra we carried way too much rock gear. We should have realized that the route is done fairly often (thanks to ACC camps) and would be bolted and fairly easy. The approach on Alexandra is long and brutal so we didn’t want to fail, but carrying the extra weight cost too – just in more subtle ways, like wear on our knees and muscles. The cost of going light can be a missed route. If you count on Mount Assiniboine being dry and are very confident in your free climbing abilities you might leave too much gear behind and miss out on the summit of one of the Rockies most majestic mountain peaks.

Chess Group at left, King Edward at center and Mount Columbia at right. When I approached and climbed Mount Alexandra I didn’t have a lot of the light gear I do now and I remember my left knee locking up on me the day we exited. This is not a great feeling when you’re in the middle of nowhere!

Finally, 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 frost bite 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!

Going Light – Going Miserable?

Many folks assume that because I’m in a 499g tent instead of a 1500g one, I’m less comfortable or compromising on space. In this case, the opposite is true! The HMG 2-person UltraMid is a wonder of new materials and manufacturing abilities. It provides 63 square feet of space under a completely water / storm proof pyramid that is just as comfortable hanging from a tree branch or set up on an icefield in a howling blizzard. I’ve only ever stayed in a tent once in winter, every other time has been in a ‘mid’ of some sort. They are delightful for winter camping. Cuben Fiber is the miracle material that Hyperlite Mountain Gear uses for their gear. I also have their ice pack, which not only weighs much less than other 55 liter mountaineering packs, but is completely waterproof! No need for a pack cover. Excellent. I also use their stuff sacks for organizing gear in my pack. Due to it’s very limited manufacture and distribution, Cuben Fiber is not cheap! I managed to score some good prices on Black Friday and sold some of my gear, or I never would have afforded the UltraMid.

Paddling towards Page Lake from Bell in WCPP. My Hyperlite packs are perfect for canoeing since I can (and have!) drop them in the lake without soaking the gear inside them – not to mention they’re incredibly light and strong too.

As mentioned earlier, you don’t have to freeze either, just because you’re carrying a smaller / lighter sleeping bag than before. If you carry a warm down jacket and booties, just wear those to bed if it’s cold! Voila! Nobody is cold when wearing a 900 fill down jacket to bed… 😉

In a strange way, 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 camera’s 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!
A small tarn past Lake Katherine on our long hike into Recondite Peak. For this trip I carried a small Sony RX100 camera and a fixed lens Sony RX1R in order to save weight.

Another benefit to using lighter gear is that it’s usually smaller – it takes up less bulk. This means you carry a physically smaller back pack (in my case a 55L instead of a 85L) which has all sorts of side benefits from being easier to climb with, easier to bushwhack with and more balanced. You can also use the same pack for day trips from a base camp – you don’t need to lug your huge pack around or pack a separate day pack.

‘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’ foot print 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.

My beautiful Carbon-TEC Souris River 16′ canoe weighs only 41 lbs and paddles like a dream. I bought it intentionally as both a solo and duo boat so that I only needed one canoe instead of two. And the fact that I can easily portage it solo saves my knees and helps on group trips too because we can carry more gear, more easily in less trips on portages.

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.

2 thoughts on A Gear Discussion – Going Light

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