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Packing Principles for Alpine Climbing

Written by Peter Terwilliger

When we’re climbing in the alpine, we ideally carry no less and no more than what we need. When we think of passing someone on the trail with a gigantic backpack full to the brim and items clipped to the outside, odds are that person is over-prepared, often to their detriment. As alpine climbers we rely on speed and efficiency, and so we want to stay clutter-free in order to move efficiently and safely in the mountains.

Ultimately, our objective will dictate what we choose to stash in our backpack. While done-in-a-day objectives give us breathing room to move light and fast, a multi-day climb often requires that we bring a sleeping setup, cooking tools, and extra food—on top of all our climbing gear and apparel. When we think about packing for the alpine, it’s essential that we are intentional not only with what we pack, but how we pack it as well.

Below, we’ve outlined a few rules of thumb to consider when packing for the alpine:

 

Accessibility

We want to keep our often-used items readily available. Food and water, for example, ought to be kept close at hand to provide proper nutrition and hydration during the climb. It is also wise to separate out gear that we may need to account for changing conditions. Ask yourself things like:

Will it rain during the ascent?
Will I need warm layers to throw on during breaks?

It’s important to ask these questions, as it will determine how we choose to stack our belongings into our backpacks. If there is a decent chance that it rains, the few extra minutes for you to dig down to the bottom of your pack is all it takes before you’re soaked. Having these items readily accessible means that you’ll be able to layer and de-layer according to the conditions before it’s too late.

Hard and/or sharp gear, such as crampons and ice axes, will almost always live on the exterior of our packs so as to not tear holes in our bags or destroy our gear or apparel kept inside. Things that you won’t be using on the climb itself, such as the stove, your tent, and your sleeping bag, can stay safe and dry at the bottom of your pack until it’s time to pull them out.

Guide Tip: While plenty of packs may come with a rainfly or have one available for purchase, a large black trash bag will often do the trick and can double as an extra poncho if needed.

 

Compaction

Beneath our accessible items (hats, sunglasses, food, water, gloves, layers), we need to consider how to most efficiently use the remaining space in our packs to avoid large gaps, voids, and otherwise dead space between items. Generally, heavier items are best stored towards the bottom, and lighter items on the top. A few small stuff sacks will help immensely with organizing and stashing our gear. Toiletries and food items work well in small compression sacks, whereas extra clothes and gear that we will not need until later are better off in larger stuff sacks.

Guide Tip: Small slots and crevasses can be filled with extra clothes or a lightweight sleeping bag. Instead of placing your tent within its designated stuff sack into your pack, stuff it into your bag filling the voids around items like food bags and cooking equipment.

 

Minimalism

Minimizing our packs down to the bare essentials will lighten the entire load that we carry up the mountain. While we certainly don’t advocate for going out and purchasing a full kit of flashy, lightweight gear, it can be beneficial to lighten up a few key pieces within our system.

For example, a high quality down sleeping bag that is highly compressible and light will, with the proper care, keep you warm for many years of climbing. We specifically recommend down, as it is superior to any other insulation type in terms of its warmth to weight ratio. Depending on your specific objective, you can find a bag at varying temperature grades that are best suited to your specific needs.

Additionally, having a lightweight, insulated air pad paired with a closed-cell foam pad is a perfect setup for sleeping in the alpine, where we often sleep directly on the snow surface if we are not in a tent.

Lastly, we can lighten the backpack itself. If we can fit everything we need into a 75L backpack with minimal forethought and packing strategy, it is likely that conscious packing may allow us to fit everything into a 55L backpack. Moreover, reducing pack size will force us to eliminate items we may not need to bring in the first place.

Guide Tip: As the saying goes: ounces lead to pounds, and pounds lead to pain. Consider carefully everything you put in your pack, and ask yourself, Do I need this? When will I need it?

 

Beyond these three packing principles, you will develop efficiency and find success over time spent in the alpine learning what does and does not work best for you, depending on your gear and chosen objective. However, minimizing the potential woes of trial and error are always in your best interests, and our experienced guides have collectively spent years in alpine environments around the world. Alpine climbing is a delicate and at-times hazardous pursuit, and small differences in your overall approach, whether that’s reducing the weight of your pack to move faster and lighter, or having the item you need readily available, may ultimately be the deciding factor between reaching your goal or being forced to retreat.