While co-teaching a mountaineering course, I was talking to some of the students about packing light. A couple of the students complained about not knowing how, a few complained about it being too expensive, and a few more said it's too risky to go ultralight during the winter. What I have found, however, is that going ultralight isn't expensive (at least, it doesn't have to be), is often safer than carrying more weight and extra gear, and it isn't difficult to learn. It just takes practice.
Going light during the summer and going light during the winter are two different animals. The principles are the same, but they're two different systems to get figured out. I find that every first trip of the given season is usually my heaviest, because I forget what I need and don't need. Over the course of the season, my pack lightens significantly as I start leaving things at home and my confidence increases. This post is about going light during the winter. I don't go as light as some, but I do usually go lighter than most. Hopefully some of these ideas can help others lighten up.
3-day climbing trip in Wind Rivers, 18lbs including water, crampons, ice axe, 30m rope
Going light is about enjoying the journey. Try hiking five or ten miles during the winter with a 50 pound pack and enjoy it. First of all, you can't hike nearly as quickly, so you spend twice the time hiking. Hiking like this usually consists of stopping every five minutes or so to adjust the pack, hunch over your hiking poles to catch your breath, and contemplate giving up.
Second, you have to eat and drink way more food and water, because you're burning so many more calories and losing water from sweating or breathing out more water vapor from panting. Needing to eat and drink more means that you have to carry more food and water and you have to spend more time melting snow for water.
Third, you probably won't sleep as warm. If you hike/climb half of the day and then have the other half to melt snow, eat, drink, and relax, you can probably rehydrate properly and eat a decent amount of calories to keep you warm. If you're hiking/climbing until it's dark and then stopping for the night, you're probably going to bed dehydrated and calorie-deficient. Poor hydration and not enough calories (or the right kind of calories) means you will probably be sleeping cold, even if you have a really warm bag.
Fourth, hiking with a heavy pack means you'll have sore shoulder, sore hips, and probably a sore back.
Fifth, going light is safer. If the weather turns really ugly or there's some emergency and you have to get back to the car, you'll get there much faster with 20lbs than with 50. You're also less likely to get injured (ankle, knee, etc.) with 20lbs than with 50. You're much more prone to injury when you're tired. You'll tire more slowly with less weight.
I could go on, but I'm sure you get the point. Going light allows one to enjoy the mountains more. It does for hiking and climbing what metamucil does for pooing in the mountains; it turns an uncomfortable situation into a delight!
Light equipment and apparel is usually more expensive than the heavy stuff. So if you try to lighten up only by buying new, lightweight gear, it will be expensive. Don't get me wrong, I love new gear! It drives my wife crazy. I am the last person that would tell you not to buy a new tent or jacket if you have the money and it's a good value. But when it comes to going light, taking four jackets will always weigh (and cost) more than taking one or two jackets. The fastest and best way to lighten up is to leave stuff at home. Maybe this is why people feel like going light is dangerous. It's as if their mind is subconsciously saying, "if you don't have everything you need for Denali, that 6" of forecasted snow and 20 degree weather could kill us."
Also, use clothing and equipment that multi-tasks. For example, instead of taking insulated pants, a down jacket, and a 0 degree sleeping bag, take the pants, jacket, and a 30 degree sleeping and sleep in your clothes. You can easily save two pounds on a lighter sleeping bag and not be any less warm than if you brought the heavier bag. I made a 40 degree primaloft quilt (sleeping bag without a floor) that I can use, along with a down jacket and pants, down to 0 degrees (with proper nutrition and hydration). 0 degrees is usually about as cold as it gets in the mountains of Utah below 12,000 ft. My quilt weighs 14oz and packs up just slightly bigger than a nalgene.
This quilt weighs 16oz, keeps me comfortable to about 40 degrees without layers or 0 degrees with my belay jacket and insulated pants. The strings are to keep it snug aroung a pad.
Compresses to about 2/3 this size, but this is the smallest stuff sack I have.
Use the action suit/belay jacket system. If you're hiking or climbing, especially with a pack, you can stay warm with a surprisingly small amount of clothing. When you stop, however, it gets cold. Having a warm, light belay jacket (down or synthetic) and insulated pants for sitting around is usually all you need. Then, when you're hiking or climbing, maybe you only need a baselayer and windshirt or softshell. This system is usually much lighter than carrying extra fleece midlayers.
Stay dry! Many people overdress during the winter and then soak their layers through sweating. Wet layers, even synthetics, don't insulate well (and you'll get more dehydrated). It will take a lot more wet layers to stay warm than dry layers. Also, pick layers that dry quickly. Postholing in snow for hours or sitting under a dripping belay are sure to get your layers wet. If they dry quickly during exercise, you should be ok. You can even use synthetic outerlayers to dry wet base or midlayers by hiking in them. Make sure, however, that you're not overheating and just sweating in your layers.
If you're cold while sitting, climb in your bag or walk around. When I get into a winter camp, I usually set up my tent (or build an igloo/dig a snowcave), throw on my belay jacket and insulated pants, lay out my pad and quilt , and climb in. I usually do my cooking just outside the tent door while laying in my bag. If I'm sick of laying down but am afraid that I'll get cold outside of my bag, I walk around. Usually if I walk around too long, I start to overheat and need to stand around for a minute to cool off. If I'm climbing, I usually just climb until dark, climb into my bag and cook/melt snow, and sleep. Not much walking around on the side of a cliff.
A Good System
Here is an example of what I would consider a good system for winter backpacking (overnight). My climbing system is pretty similar. Food might be different but everything else stays about the same for longer trips. I add an extra fuel canister for 3+ night trips (8oz).
- If time and snow allow, I'll leave the tent at home and make an igloo (Ooz). If not, I'd take a Black Diamon Hilight (3lbs 2oz; split between 2, 1lb 9oz each).
- My pack is usually a Cilogear Worksac 60L (I'd take a smaller worksac if I had one), stripped down; no top pocket, no framesheet (2lb 10oz) or Golite Jam Pack (17oz)
- Pad is Thermarest Neoair (13oz) or Z-rest 3/4 length and use backpack under feet (10oz). Z-rest can't be ruined by crampons/ice tools
- Homemade primaloft quilt (16 oz) or 30 degree down bag (1lb 5oz approx)
- Stove, MSR Reactor w/fuel (1lb 9oz)
- Headlamp, BD Spot (4oz)
- Gloves, lightweight primaloft mittens (6oz)
- Extra socks (1oz)
- Food (2lbs)
- Arc'teryx Acto MX Hoody (18oz)
- Rab Neutrino Endurance (22oz)
- Mountain Hardwear Compressor Pant (1lb 5oz)
- Water for hiking, (3lb)
- Shovel, BD Deploy 3 (1lb 4oz)
- Probe, BD Supertour 265 (11oz)
This makes for a total minimum weight of 15lb 11oz, total max weight of 20lb 14oz (not splitting up the tent). on one's back. I didn't count clothing, boots, etc. that would be worn, just what is on the back. I may have forgotten a few items, like a map/compass, etc, but I think the extra weight would be minimal.
This system would work well to keep me comfortable down to 0 degrees, maybe even colder.
This is Phil with his 20lb pack and Kelsey's in the background with her 20lb pack. I'm behind the camera because I'm embarrassed how heavy my pack is.
How do I get there?
Like I said earlier, my heaviest trips are almost always at the beginning of a season. Throughout the season I trim what I take to the very bare minimum. It can be a little intimidating going into the mountains during the winter, not feeling like you have everything you need. So, each time I go into the mountains, I make note of what I used, what I didn't, and what I could get away with not using in the future. Then I leave that stuff at home on the next trip. When I'm not with my wife, my pack usually hovers between 15lbs and 20lbs, without climbing gear. With climbing gear it is around 30lbs.
Finally, once you've trimmed down your load so you're only carrying stuff you absolutely need, then you may look into replacing that stuff for newer, lighter gear, which may trim off an extra 10 lbs, depending on your current equipment.
Another good resource for lightening up is Ray Jardine's website:
or Nick Truax's blog often has good information:
and finally Cold Thistle, for the climbing folks: