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Backcountry Gear for Dummies

I’ve written about gear before on my blog. As I move through different phases in my life and in my backcountry adventures I find myself changing methods and gear along with the times. Although I’m not getting any younger, somehow my trip plans keep getting bigger and bigger each year. I’m not sure exactly why this is happening but a lot of it is simple math. As I continue to finish off trips in easy-to-access areas of the Alberta Rockies my objectives keep getting pushed deeper and deeper into the backcountry. As I wrote in my Prairie Mountain “dummies” guide, in this post-truth world, I dare not claim to have any definitive authority or special knowledge on the topics contained herein. Yes, I’ve done plenty of peaks and have put in some big days in the hills over the past few decades, but in the end this is all just one guy’s opinion. You know what they say about opinions and specific parts of our anatomy? That’s exactly right – everyone has one. So take this article as just one input to your gear decisions, not the one input.


DISCLAIMER – I cannot stress strong enough how important experience is in the discussion of backcountry gear and going lightweight in the backcountry. I have decades of experience and am closing in on 950 peaks, almost all of them in the narrow band of the Alberta Rockies from Waterton Lakes National Park to Jasper National Park. This is a lot of experience in a relatively focused landscape and my gear is tuned for this. It would be exceedingly unwise for anyone without experience to jump into all my gear recommendations at once. Ease yourself into some of the ideas I present here and see if they work for you before jumping in with both feet. Don’t be a dummy!


The category of backcountry gear covers a lot of stuff. I’m going to keep my focus to hiking, scrambling and light alpine climbing in the Alberta Rockies. I’m going to focus on the following gear and leave the rest to others with more relevant experience:

  1. Backpacking gear including shelter, cooking and sleeping systems
  2. Hiking and scrambling gear including footwear, backpacks and safety items
  3. Alpine gear including ax and crampons
  4. Other gear including Bear Grylls and water filters

Going Lightweight

Before getting into specifics I want to write a few paragraphs on the latest trend of going light in the backcountry. There are different ways to do “lightweight”. The first is literally carrying very little gear compared to what most folks put in their packs. The explosion of ultrarunning, extreme adventuring and solo climbing was driven into the mainstream by athletes like Ueli Steck and Kilian Jornet and continues to fill my social media feeds. I remember the first time I heard of such a thing was some guy running Recondite Peak in a day with 5 granola bars in his pockets. I could barely conceive of such a thing way back in 2013 and still consider that a pretty impressive solo effort.

Incredible views down the east face of Bonnet Peak as we traverse the north ridge to the main summit. The south summit visible at center. Wietse and I ascended both peaks of Bonnet and Mount Hickson before returning all the way to the parking lot in a single day. These sorts of days are not possible with large, heavy gear.

There are locals we all know, running and climbing peaks and linking multiple objectives in almost unbelievable times. It’s amazing what some people can push themselves to do! The other way to do “lightweight” is to carry pretty much the same amount of stuff as anyone else, just lighter and smaller versions of it. In this article I’m going to espouse both of these strategies of going lightweight in the backcountry. I believe there are benefits to moving quickly through certain types of terrain, not carrying too much gear and having a lighter pack.


Pro tip – The easiest and cheapest way (by far) to shave weight off your backpacking system is to lose body weight. I know this is a sensitive topic but as someone who has struggled with my body weight for the past 30 years, I’ve earned the right to discuss it. I’m almost always 10 pounds or more overweight. Losing that 10 pounds is going to do me a lot more good than buying the most lightweight, expensive gear in the world. I don’t like it but it’s the facts. Losing body weight will also result in few injuries, more core strength and the need for less food and water.


There is a great article on the Hyperlite Mountain Gear (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. I’ve lost weight on my body many times over the years, and losing weight from my gear follows 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 start adding up to something noticeable and significant. (Interestingly enough – the same applies to gaining weight both on your body and in your pack…)

  1. In order to know what gear to focus on you have to weigh all your current gear
  2. To get the best bang-for-your-effort you must eliminate or replace your bulkiest and heaviest gear first
  3. Only by continually evaluating your specific needs can you get to that sweet spot where you have the right amount of gear at the right weight for you – everyone is different

Pro tip – There is no point trying to go lightweight while throwing heavy, unnecessary gear into your pack. I chuckle every time I watch this YouTube video (which is excellent BTW) as the author is wearing huge, heavy boots, uses a metal hammer to bash the tent pegs in and uses the largest version of the pegs! There is absolutely NO POINT in paying $1000 CAD for the world’s lightest backpacking tent only to bring heavy boots, a hammer and huge tent pegs along with it – that’s being a wee bit of a dummy IMHO.


Backpacking Gear

I started my gear purchasing journey like a great number of Calgarians of a certain age. After lusting eagerly over glossy sales magazines, I wandered into my local MEC and spent more than I could afford on a Tarn 3 tent and a 75+ liter MEC backpack (hey – it was purple, how could I resist). I added a tent footprint, sleeping mat, sleeping bag and a cooking system before coming up for air and realizing this whole backpacking thing wasn’t cheap! It certainly wasn’t light back then either. Most of my longer trips at the time were canoe trips back in Manitoba and Ontario and I purchased gear with this in mind. For family trips it got even more ridiculous with a MEC Wanderer 4 tent added to the arsenal and a lot of other large and heavy gear.

I remember on our 2005 trip into Skoki where we bagged all the Kane peaks we carried items such as liquid fuel lanterns, whole cans of instant coffee, Gatorade and hot chocolate and a full assortment of regular kitchenware. And still managed to get it all done in 72 hours. By the time 2021 rolled around I was transitioning to much lighter gear when Hanneke and I did a two week canoe trip in the Churchill River and McLennan Lake area of northern Saskatchewan. Put it this way. There’s a reason why, at 47 years old, I am now regularly walking 30, 40 and even the odd 50km day in the backcountry – while bagging peaks along the way. It’s not because I’m necessarily carrying less gear (although I am doing that too), it’s because the essential gear has gotten so much lighter and more versatile if you know what to look for and how to use it.

CategoryOld GearWeight2019 GearWeightWeight Savings2023 GearWeightWeight Savings
TentBD Hilite1582gHMG 2-Person Ulta Mid + Solo insert907g675gZpacks Plex Solo + Pole475g432g
Sleeping BagMEC Raven (-7)1150gFF Vireo UL (74″)474g676gS2S Spark UL340g134g
BackpackBD Mission 55L1660gHMG 3400 Ice Pack 55L980g680gZpacks Nero 38L DCF308g672g
Sleeping MattExped 7 Down888gNeoAir UberLite Regular250g638gNeoAir UberLite Regular250g
Down BootiesMEC Regular346gGoosefeet socks w/ over-liners111g235gN/AN/A111g
Hiking PolesBD Regular490gBD Ultra Distance CF290g200gBD Ultra Distance CF290g
Satellite DeviceGen1300gGen3114g186gGarmin InReach Mini II100g14g
Water BottleNalgene Regular 1L175g500ml Nalgene90g135gBeFree 0.6 (Filtered)21g69g
HeadlampOld school style183gBD Storm120g63gPetzl Bindi35g85g
Stove Fuel 650ml w/bottle601gISO Pro 110g211390gEsbit Tablets (6)84g127g
Cook PotMSR Aluminium400gSnow Peak Titanium106g294gTOAKS Titanium 550ml72g34g
StoveMSR Whisperlite288gGSI Pinnacle 4170g183gEsbit Titanium12g158g
Insulated JacketMEC Tremblant574gArc’teryx Cerium LT305g269gArc’teryx Cerium LT305g
Shell JacketMEC Synergy670gPatagonia Storm 10235g435gPatagonia Houdini105g130g
Fleece JacketMEC Generic (guess)450gPatagonia R1391g59gPatagonia R1 Air366g25g
Rain PantsMEC Generic (guess)400gMEC Gore-tex300g100gBerghaus Paclite237g63g
Long UnderwearMEC Generic (guess)300gUnder Armour Base 3.0230g70gPatagonia Capilene Air167g63g
Totals10288g (22.7lbs)5284g (11.6lbs)5004g (11lbs)3167g (7lbs)2117g (4.7lbs)

Looking at the table above, you can see that I went from a total of around 23 pounds of basic backpacking gear in 2019 to 7 pounds in 2023. That’s a huge difference, and if I weighed my gear from 2005 the difference would have been even more dramatic. But it’s not just about the weight. The gear in many cases has improved along with shrinking and getting lighter. Take the Garmin InReach satellite device. Not only is it tiny compared to the Gen1 Spot device I used to use, it connects easily to my iPhone and lets me text people like I was on a regular cell network from anywhere in the world. We didn’t even have this option back in the early 2000’s. The iPhone 14 can do this without a separate device and soon every cell phone in the world will communicate through a satellite system.


Pro tip – My rule-of-thumb for replacing gear is that the new gear has to be twice as light as the old gear (within reason). This prevents me from buying every new piece of gear and focuses me on the greatest weight saving areas.


Backpacks

The first thing most people buy when gearing up for multi day trips is a backpack. If you’re a hardcore hiker you will likely end up with more backpacks than any one person needs in their lifetime. There are a daunting number of packs and pack systems out there but most of the glitter is meant to attract the buyer, not benefit the buyer. You have to find a system that is comfortable for you but I would strongly suggest a Dyneema Composite Fabric (DCF) if at all possible. Reasons I will only buy a DCF or similar pack include:

  • waterproof – no need for a pack cover and don’t saturate when wet (i.e. stays lightweight)
  • lightweight
  • strong
  • simple (most DCF packs are simple, without all the silly bells and whistles so many other packs come with)

As with DCF shelter systems, DCF packs don’t come cheap. If I had to recommend just one pack it would be something like the HMG 3400 Southwest Pack or the HMG 3400 Ice Pack if you’re more into alpine climbing. Both of these packs are multi-functional, plenty large enough even if you still have some older gear but also easily adaptable to lighter and smaller loads. I own both a 3400 and 4400 Ice Pack and still use both extensively on canoe trips where a waterproof pack is a godsend. Imagine being able to drop your entire pack in a lake and everything in it stays bone dry! Invaluable. It can rain all day on my HMG packs and the stuff within them stays dry. Recently I switched my main multi day tripping backpack to a Zpacks Nero 38l DCF. At only 330 grams including a padded seat, it isn’t quite as waterproof as the equivalent HMG 2400 Southwest (862g) but it’s over 525 grams lighter and still very water resistant. (I rarely hike for multiple hours in rain, nevermind days and worst case my pods are 100% waterproof inside the pack anyway.)

Vern on a multi day ski trip on the Columbia Icefields in 2015. This is my HMG 4400 pack loaded to the gills!

Many folks don’t realize that an efficient backpack system should be more than just a big container to jam stuff in. Unless you want every camp to be chaotic, you should seriously consider adding stuff sacks and pods to your system. Once again, I turn to HMG for their excellent stuff sack and pod systems. These help me organize my gear and add yet another layer of water and mud protection without adding very much weight. Compression sacks are the final bit of necessary gear for any backpack system IMHO. I use some lightweight OR compression sacks for my sleeping bag, extra clothing and any other gear that can compress. This ensures everything fits in my 38 litre pack with room to spare.


Pro tip – Don’t be suckered into a pack with many different zippered pockets and compartments. Zippers are almost never waterproof and tend to be a common failure point on all gear that has them. A simple roll top pack with some mesh pockets and possibly smaller hipbelt pockets is all you need and keeps your pack much lighter. If you label your pods you will always know where your gear is too, rather than rifling through a dozen pockets to find that spork for dinner.


Shelters

Unfortunately you can spend a LOT of money on a shelter system. I went from a MEC Tarn 3 to a Black Diamond HiLite, Hyperlite Mountain Gear UltaMid II and finally to a Zpacks Solo Plex at the end of 2022. Following is a hard look at the prices and weights of these various setups just to give an idea of what you’re looking at. I’ve also included a column for the number of people each can comfortably fit and the strengths and weaknesses of each.

Shelter SystemCost (CAD)Weight (g)Dollars per gram# of PeopleStrengthsWeaknesses
Tarn 3$3003400$0.092
  • Cheap
  • Durable
  • Roomy
  • Heavy
  • Packed volume
  • Outer fly (double wall)
  • Poles for setup
  • Saturation (when wet)
BD HiLite$5501790$0.311
  • 3.5 season
  • Durable
  • Stability
  • Single wall
  • Packed volume
  • Heavy
  • No vestibule
  • Finicky setup
  • Condensation
  • Saturation (when wet)
HMG UltaMid II$1600 (w/ inner)907 (499 w/o inner)$1.762
  • Versatile (many configs)
  • Roomy
  • No xtra poles
  • 4-season
  • Stability
  • Single wall
  • Easy setup
  • Doesn’t saturate
  • Cost (ships from USA)
  • Durability
  • Need for inner (bug net and floor)
  • Add-ons are expensive
  • Condensation
Zpacks Solo Plex$850475$1.791
  • Lightweight
  • Packed volume
  • 3-season
  • Roomy
  • No inner
  • Single wall
  • Vestibule
  • Easy setup
  • Doesn’t saturate
  • Durability
  • Cost (ships from USA)
  • Condensation

As you can see from the chart above, cost per gram has gone way up with a corresponding lighter and much more packable tent. In the case of the HMG UltaMid and Tarn 3, these are 2-person setups and the HMG is a 4-season shelter that I’ve used on icefields in -20 degree temperatures and howling winds. Comparing the UltaMid to any other setup isn’t really fair – even the cost and weight is inflated due to the use of a separate half insert giving a floor and bug netting that isn’t always necessary. For canoe trips or shared shelter trips, the cost and weight per person is roughly the same between my UltaMid and Solo Plex because I can split the HMG system between two people.

As I moved to a solo setup the advantages of a dedicated solo tent became clear and I ended up with the Zpacks Solo Plex, one of the lightest setups available in 2022. The biggest considerations before purchasing a new tent include;

  • What am I looking to improve?
  • What seasons will I use it in? (Most 3-season tents will go to 3.5 seasons in a pinch)
  • What am I willing to live with? (Single wall tents will always have condensation issues in the mountains – it’s science)

Make sure you’re honest with yourself. It sucks to spend almost $1000 on a new tent only to find that you hate having wet ends on your sleeping bag from your feet and head touching the walls of the tent with corresponding condensation issues. This is something that I have to live with on all my single wall tents. I thought I could deal with the odd mosquito or mouse running through my tent in the mountains with a bare-bones UltaMid. That didn’t last long! Soon I found myself purchasing a solo and double insert for it, adding weight and dramatically increasing costs (split between two people).


Pro tip – Don’t use a tarp with your tent unless you don’t want to get wet packing up in rain the following morning. There is no point in spending 100’s of dollars on a waterproof shelter only to doubt its effectiveness by packing more gear along to hang over it or put under it. Learn to trust that your gear does what it claims – or don’t buy it. It makes zero sense to carry the same amount of weight and bulk as a heavier system while spending way more money just to think you have an UL setup. Don’t be a dummy.


There’s a trend that I see today with folks using hammocks instead of tents as a primary shelter system. All I can say is, be my guest. I’m sure that for some people, in some cases, these are an excellent alternative to a tent. Try slinging a hammock above treeline, in a recent burn area or in an alpine meadow and you might reconsider their versatility. When I compare the packed size and weight of a storm-proof hammock system to my Zpacks Solo Plex I personally don’t see the advantages for any of my use cases.

Sleep Systems

Sleep systems include sleeping bag and sleeping pad and possibly even a pillow if your so inclined. When I started backpacking we used very heavy sleeping pads that took up a ton of room in the pack – my first few pads didn’t even fit inside my 75+ litre pack. Over time, sleeping pads got smaller and lighter until today’s miracle designs such as the incredibly small, light and expensive NeoAir UberLite from Thermarest. It’s mind boggling to me how we went from huge, heavy matts to these tiny ones and gained comfort rather than lose it! There are a few downsides to the NeoAir including durability (sharp rocks will slice it easily), r-rating (not a great insulator), price and noise (it crinkles). It’s hard to ignore the obvious upsides of a comfortable matt weighing 250 grams and packing to less than the size of a 500ml nalgene bottle!


Pro tip – If at all possible, take gear that has multiple functions. For example a down jacket can be used for warmth at camp and in bed – making it possible to carry a much lighter and smaller sleeping bag.


Personally, I don’t like sleeping bags. I am claustrophobic and I find myself getting annoyed within 10 minutes of getting in the bag. This is why I don’t love long nights in the tent – if you hike with me you know how early I wake up. I use a half-bag instead of a full sleeping bag whenever possible. In cold weather I use a heavier down bag that needs to be replaced someday sooner than later so I very rarely bother with it. Half bags or quilts make a ton of sense if they’re used correctly. Mine is the Vireo UL from Feathered Friends. With a lower half rated to -4 and the top half to +7, you might think that I would be cold when the temperature drops to 0 degrees or colder – which happens year around in the Rockies. You’d be right and wrong. If I’m properly prepared I can remain toasty even when the temperature drops. The trick is to wear more clothing to bed than others are used to. I always carry a toque, down jacket and fleece jacket in the mountains and I wear combinations of all three to bed. Often I’ll go to sleep without any layers and end up adding them part way through the night. I wear my hiking pants to bed and am often too warm at the bottom half of my body. The Vireo packs to the size of a large grapefruit when compressed. Even with today’s advanced bags, it’s very hard to match or better the compressed size and weight of the Vireo UL.

I use the Hyperlite stuff sack pillow. It’s kind of a no-brainer when used as a stuff sack anyway. More tips and tricks to a good sleep in the backcountry:

  • wearing a toque will make you feel much warmer
  • layer up – your alpine shell will trap a lot of heat when needed
  • socks or even down booties to bed will keep your feet toasty
  • it’s gross, but if your socks are wet or damp, wear them to bed and they’ll be bone dry by morning – same goes for sleeping with wet gear like mitts or boot liners
  • listen to podcasts or read ebooks on your phone to pass time in the tent

Clothing

Don’t carry too much clothing when traveling the backcountry. 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 camp 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 and dry out overnight in the sleeping bag. Don’t bring long underwear unless you really need it. 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 on basic 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, less smelly and of course, more expensive than alternatives.

McDonald Lake is a beautiful alpine body of water which sees very, very few visitors. On this 3-day backcountry trip I only brought 1 shirt, 1 pants and 2 pairs of socks as base clothing which kept my pack to a reasonable size and weight, allowing us to travel a long way and bag a lot of peaks in 3 days.

Pro tip – I buy shirts that are meant for warm weather fishing for most of my outdoor activities. They tend not to smell and have built-in venting for warm days and collars that protect the neck from strong mountain sun. They also have long sleeves and are relatively bug proof. For hiking pants I prefer ones that convert to shorts and have plenty of pockets to store stuff I use all day such as my phone, a granola bar, lip treatment and even a camera lens. I buy expensive clothing for its excellent warranty. I’m hard on gear and usually end up using the wear-out warranties from manufacturers. My all time record for refund was an 8 year old Patagonia shell jacket that I returned for full refund when it started delaminating on the inside after years of hard use. I’ve also received full refund for approach shoes that wore out too quickly.


I almost always sleep 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 or 4 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 half bag. Obvious care must be taken when winter camping which adds a lot of voluminous and heavy clothing to your pack.

FootwearFootwear is very important to saving weight, energy and overall wear and tear on your body. I wear approach shoes 99% of the time, saving me a ton of weight on each foot and damage to my body compared with 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 overall fitness and ability to push out longer days as I age. I know there are a lot of skeptics out there who still believe in the “ankle support” that a hiking or climbing boot gives over a shoe, but what about the rest of your body? There is so much more to footwear than simply supporting your ankles. My knees, back and footpads are much more comfortable after a 30 kilometer day in shoes than boots. I’ve done countless rubble traverses on my approach shoes and despite the uneven terrain, there is an argument to be made that being light on the feet actually makes this traversing easier on shoes than in heavy boots. There are two areas where boots are clear winners – steep hardpack scree and hard snow and ice.

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 a recommended option for hiking or alpine boots. My approach shoes or runners don’t give me blisters when wet and dry out within an hour or so of a water crossing. Carrying water crossing shoes is a waste of time and weight IMHO. On certain trips it would add hours to the day, taking off your 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 for me and my hiking partners over the past few years. I’ll say it one last time – I can not overstate the difference this one simple adjustment has made!


Pro tip – On Mount Forbes Anton used runners for the approach and carried his mountaineering boots for the ascent. This is a great strategy that makes a lot of sense in these scenarios. I bought a pair of extremely light mountaineering boots to minimize the pain of carrying them when needed.


I have many friends that have taken the idea of approach shoes one step further and hike, climb and scramble in trail runners. It’s hard to argue with the results this has produced for some of them but for me personally I get nervous on upper moderate to difficult terrain without the stiffer sole of an approach shoe.

Cookware / 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 and wear ‘n tear to carry that extra weight. Is it really worth it? It’s like carrying a lot of water. The extra weight means you get more thirsty which 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 whenever possible. 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 results. A solid fuel (Esbit) system has many advantages including;

  • the stove and cubes are tiny and pack small compared to a canister system
  • there are no mechanical parts hence no risk of failure with the stove or fuel system
  • there is no deterioration in cold weather (a big plus in the mountains)
  • it’s very easy to estimate how much fuel to bring (each tablet boils 550ml of water)
  • there’s no empty fuel container to carry after use (these weigh between 100+ to 200 grams each)
  • the fuel cubes double as emergency fire starter, each cube burns for 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.

 

Various incarnations of the backcountry stoves I’ve used over the past 25 years. Believe it or not, we lugged the Coleman stove (and its associated huge and heavy fuel canisters) deep into the bush on many canoe trips before finally switching to the Pinnacle 4 in 2018. In 2023 I’ll be using the Esbit solid fuel system, ‘only’ around 9977.5 grams lighter than the Coleman!

Water / Hydration

Water is very heavy. It weighs a full 2.2 pounds for each liter carried. I know many folks who 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 then either. Does this ever get me in trouble? Yes, but not often. I climbed over 60 summits in 2022 and I had water issues only once. On our Barrier to Gable Mountain traverse I filled up 1 liter of water at the Red Deer River crossing and didn’t fill up again until over 9 hours later! That was pushing it even for me, but I survived easily nonetheless. On our 2022 White Goat Wilderness trip we had access to water at valley bottoms and I only brought 600ml up the peaks. I ensure that I’m well 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 fresh water along the way.

Phil hikes along Roaring Creek deep in the Banff backcountry. When hiking along fresh water sources like this on a cool day with plenty of melting snow up high there is very little need to carry huge amounts of water. I’ve trained myself to drink as much as possible every time I am near a water source to ensure I’m hydrated before starting up the peak or during long stretches with no easy access to water.

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 nalgene water bottle with a built-in LifeStraw making drinking from the lakes and streams ridiculously easy and safe. I don’t understand why anyone still carries water filtration pump systems. 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 such as:

I know many folks carry water bladder systems in the mountains – especially runners seem to use them. This is personal preference but there are some big disadvantages to these systems including their extra weight and the fact that they often leak. Using bladder systems in cold weather is full of pitfalls due to freezing issues – I gave up on that years ago after a nasty “Gatorade incident”. Don’t ask. Another disadvantage to the bladder system is that refills are tough to filter without carrying even more gear. Remember – you have to be ruthless when going lightweight. Every 100 grams adds up quickly to a heavier pack making you work out more and requiring even more water and food to keep you going. It’s an endless and ruthless cycle but only you can decide what you are willing to compromise to save weight and energy.

Climbing / Snow Gear

Scramblers may not need to carry ropes and ice screws but we often need to carry a mountaineering ax and crampons for simple snow ascents. 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. Scramblers shouldn’t even think about steel crampons, there are lightweight options such as the Petzl Leopard Flexlock crampons. Aluminium isn’t good on ice or rock but scramblers shouldn’t spend a lot of time on this terrain in crampons anyway.

Looking at the rest of our ascent up giant Cataract Peak. Despite appearances, I needed to use my aluminum crampons near the summit. With approach shoes this was marginal at best, but it worked.

As far as a mountaineering ax is concerned, again – scramblers shouldn’t be full-on climbing and a smaller-than-normal ax should work just fine for the odd steep snow patch. You should practice your self-arrests because trust me, when you need to do it, it happens very quickly. While traversing from Mount Aberdeen to Haddo I slipped and needed to self-arrest. This is the only time the maneuver probably saved my life. When you need it, you really need it.


Pro tip – Of all the gear that goes unused on most of my backcountry trips, I would have to say that I very rarely use my ax and crampons despite carrying them many times. I’ve somewhat eliminated the annoyance this causes by purchasing lightweight crampons and a very lightweight ax but careful planning can help eliminate the need to carry them at all.


In general scramblers don’t require climbing gear but sometimes we straddle the worlds of hiking and climbing. Climbing gear is generally really, really bulky and 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).

Smartphones in the Backcountry

It’s amazing to me how this one bit of gear has replaced so many other items in terms of backcountry travel and camping. As a tech person I’ve always had the latest and greatest smartphones and I can’t imagine traveling in the backcountry without one now. My iPhone 13 mini has replaced the following gear in my pack:

  • maps and compass (iPhone has a compass built-in)
  • books – including both guidebooks and novels
  • dedicated video camera
  • camera (in some cases)
  • audio player (including music and podcasts)
  • flower identification tools
  • star chart (live)
  • cached how-to videos (i.e. for filleting fish or setting up a camp item)
  • gear manuals for all my gear
  • downloaded and saved trip reports for reference on route (rather than printed copies which get lost or forgotten)
  • comms device for my InReach Mini
  • altimeter

A big part of the backcountry experience, especially as you move to more and more off grid areas, is navigation. In the good ol’ days this was a paper map and a compass but those days are pretty much done. I know a lot of older folks are going to disagree with this, but I really don’t see the point of bringing paper maps and compasses and never take them in the mountains anymore. Yes, a smartphone could die or break but then the paper map and compass is one of those “just in case” items that I’ll be discussing next. A paper map could easily blow away, get wet or light on fire. There are always bad things that can happen to gear in the backcountry and if you are capable of getting into an untracked area you should be able to exit it too. If you get hopelessly lost (in the case that your navigation tool is no longer working), you should have a satellite rescue device and you should use it. Again – it’s 2023 and I won’t apologize for using modern gear when needed.


Pro tip – If you have a modern smartphone I strongly recommend using that instead of a dedicated GPS unit for navigation. It will have a larger screen, is easier to use with online planning tools and is a multifunction device that does a lot more than just navigation such as video, photos, music, podcasts, books etc.


I’ve been using iPhones to navigate all over the backcountry for at least 5 years now and never once have I had an issue, technical or otherwise. I use the Gaia app with purchased Canada Topo maps, although usually I’m using the Gaia base map and the satellite maps. I have planned out hundreds of trips online using Gaia – drawing out planned routes and uploading them to my phone before my trips. Something a lot of folks don’t seem to understand is that the modern smartphones have built-in GPS capabilities that rival dedicated devices and don’t require cell service to work. I can’t count the number of times objectives in the mountains were changed at the last minute and having multiple saved maps on our phones saved the day and allowed us to go somewhere else without worrying we didn’t have the right map along.

Sunset on Gammon Lake. Canoe trips are one exception to my “no paper maps” rule, but I rarely use them. My iPhone not only works as an excellent GPS unit, it takes 4k video, HDR photographs and helps ID plants along the way.

My iPhone 13 mini is waterproof, does excellent video and HDR photography and stores podcasts, music and books for at camp. I can download trip reports to follow on route and can use it to identify stars, plants and rocks. I can charge it at night while I sleep with a small chargebar so that it’s ready to go again and again. In short – why wouldn’t I use something that’s so much more than just a navigation device if I’m carrying it anyway? The modern smartphone has completely changed the way the modern traveler can view and move through the backcountry and you owe to yourself to get up to speed on this technology option if you haven’t already.

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;

  • extra clothing
  • most 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)
  • any time you throw something in your pack and mutter, “just in case”

Before you jump on me for listing “first aid gear” as an 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 rescue device. If I need urgent care in the backcountry I will call in the experts. This is the advantage of living in the year 2023 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 thanks! I carry a very basic first aid kit but it only contains some blister bandages, blood clotting agent, wound closure strips and pain meds.


Pro tip – Most injuries or issues in the backcountry are a result of improper planning and / or fitness. I know it sucks but attempting huge objectives without properly training for them is a recipe for disaster. No amount of “just in case” items can make up for careful planning and realistic goal setting. You are not a Red Bull athlete just because you drink the stuff at the trailhead so please, don’t be a dummy when it comes to overestimating your own abilities.


Doing proper research before each trip will save you carrying unnecessary gear such as ax and crampons, too much clothing or other common, just-in-case items. You should know exactly 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 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. Many new hikers bring way too much gear simply because they are uncertain about conditions and don’t have the experience to know what is needed for each type of trip. This is something that takes time to develop – trying to shortcut the process could land you in some dicey situations with too little gear for your situation.

Lightweight = Light on fun?

Some readers are probably wondering if traveling 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)
  • ultralight fishing rod w/ tackle
  • hammock (a must-have on canoe trips)
  • ultralight 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 or function. 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 and storm proof material. It packs to the size of a couple of nalgene bottles and includes bug netting and a roomy vestibule for boots and a 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.

The Page Lake campsite is perfect. KC enjoys the hammock which became a very coveted seat once the only camp chair broke in half.

Over the past few years I’ve been doing more and more bikepacking trips where we pedal many dozens of kilometers with overnight packs on our backs. If you want just one reason to put together a lighter pack, bikepacking might be it. I can’t stress enough how different a few pounds over rough terrain can be on your body after several hours of difficult riding.

I find going light to be more enjoyable than carrying too much gear. 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). The following two images were made on a Sony RX1 when has a fixed 35mm lens.

Lightweight = Heavy risk?

One of the common pushbacks 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”. What does being “safe” mean to most people? I think that it means minimizing risk to a tolerable level and I think that is unique to each person. The only way to fully eliminate risk in the outdoors is to stay at 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 managing risk in the outdoors.

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

  • 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 and less likely to get in trouble
  • lighter means a smaller pack which is more balanced, causing less stress and injury
  • lighter means less distractions resulting in a more focused trip

There are many reasons why a lighter load on your back could result in a safer and more enjoyable trip, not to mention the ability to do many more trips in a lifetime. My trips have only increased in enjoyment the lighter my pack and gear have gotten. Many people have wondered if I have bionic knees but the simple truth is that I’ve lost body and gear weight and are putting much less stress on them over the past few years.

Conclusion

Phew. This article got a little long on me. There’s a lot to be said on this topic after 25 years of tripping experience. I want to stress that these are all just my opinions and my personal experiences – yours will be different and only you can decide where you chose to follow a similar path to mine or forge something that looks quite a bit different. I also have to mention again that if you are new to the backcountry it’s better to pack a little bit of extra gear rather than get into trouble with too little.

Experience has to be earned, there are no shortcuts for that. In the end we’re all just trying to get away from the stresses of everyday life and into the calm of the wild. However you choose to do that must suit you and must satisfy the very reasons you’re out there in the first place. It should be very obvious but one last thing is to please familiarize yourself with the principles of ethical backcountry travel and adopt as many of these practices as you possibly can.

4 thoughts on Backcountry Gear for Dummies

  1. Very nicely written article Vern! My favourite phrase in the read was “when your camp mate starts dry heaving”. “Experience must be earned” was another.

    Well done getting the pack weight down to where you got it!

  2. Nice article Vern! If I right understood, the Esbit cubes u can use once. Let’s say if the water boils in 5 min but the cube last 14 min u can’t use again the cube later, right?

    • Hey Jenny, the water will not boil that quick. Esbit cubes take 14 minutes to boil 550ml best case. It’s more likely that it’ll take 1.5 cubes to boil. In that case you simply blow it out and use the other half later. Only issue? They really stick so you’ll want to use it at the same camp – repacking it could be an issue.

      They’re tricky and a bit finicky. Certainly not for everyone! 😏

  3. Thanks for the article. I couldn’t agree more and am happy to learn about some of your gear. I sustained a long lasting injury from a trip. There was this voice in the back of my head saying that it seems to be overkill to carry all this gear for really not that big objective with decent conditions. We didn’t carry coleman stove or such but we did carry lots of just in case, safe mountaineering gear. Perhaps my body was not build for this, despite being quite active in the mountains and having fair amount of training. I wish I have read your article long time ago… I think people don’t realize that injuries also happen from being super safe and “overprepared”.

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