Chris on October 18th, 2009

Anyone that is familiar with investments knows about the concept of diversification.  Basically, it is the idea that you shouldn’t put all your eggs in one basket.

I apply this concept to my equipment and clothing as well.   This is especially true on long trips when your body will be undergoing changes due to the new stress of carrying a pack every day, being perpetually cold, probably wet, and living on insufficient calories.

Sock diversification

My first example of diversifying gear is with socks.  Try as I might, I’ve not been successful in reducing my the number of socks I carry below three pairs.  When I’ve tried using only two pairs, I usually end up wearing wet socks a lot.  During a stretch of wet weather, where humidity is high, it is difficult to get a pair of thick socks to dry, even inside a sleeping bag.

Three pairs of socks seem to be my minimum number.  That said, I don’t carry three pairs of the exact same socks.  I carry at least two different brands.  If I start having a foot problem, I may be able to remedy it by wearing the softer socks, or the firmer socks, or the slightly thicker socks, etc.  Sometimes a pair of socks will just seem right due to a particular reason halfway through a trip.  But the next trip, that may not hold true.

For example, feet often swell over the course of a trip.  Altitude is another factor that can cause swelling.  Early in the trip, at lower altitudes, a thick, firm sock will often be comfortable.  After a week of lugging a heavy pack over talus and scree, your feet may have increased in size substantially due to swelling.  Having a softer sock, or a slightly thinner sock could be the key to alleviating any discomfort.

Layer diversification

My second example is diversifying your layers.  I don’t use all wool, or all down, or all fleece, etc in my clothing system.  Different conditions often seem to favor certain layers more than others.  This is especially true as your body goes through the changes that living outdoors has a tendency to cause.

This involves tradeoffs in terms of weight.  A wind layer plus a light fleece sweater offers more options than a single softshell jacket, or a light down or synthetic filled mid-layer.  Two garments offer the potential of three layering combinations (item 1 worn alone, item 2 worn alone, or both items worn together), as opposed to the single possibility of one garment.  The downside is that two garments will usually be heavier than a single garment.

Sleeping bag and belay jacket insulation diversification

For most conditions, I like to have a down sleeping bag and synthetic insulation in my belay jacket.  Should something bad happen, like an unplanned swim in a glacier fed river, having something that will insulate while wet is essential.

I’ve chosen to use down sleeping bags most of the time while using synthetic clothing is due to two key reasons.  First, while moving, I may not have the choice but to sweat in my layers.  If I’m in my harness, pack, roped up, carrying the extra coils of rope, slings, and a rack, while climbing a glacier, stopping to add or remove layers isn’t very practical.  If I guessed wrong and the weather ends up warmer than expected, I’ll be sweating in my layers.  Down doesn’t deal with all that moisture when you stop to belay and have the chance to throw on that belay jacket over the wet layers.  So I use synthetic clothes.  It is harder to keep clothing dry.

The second key reason is that it is easier to keep a sleeping bag dry with the use of some garbage bags while it is inside the pack.  And, because a sleeping bag is a major piece of equipment, the weight savings by going with down instead of synthetic is substantial.

I do, however, occasionally go with all synthetic.  If the conditions are going to be around freezing most of the time, and I plan to do things like sleep in the open, in snow caves, etc where it will be nearly impossible to stay dry, I ditch the down bag and take something synthetic.

Conclusion

There are several ways to diversify gear to give yourself a lot more options during a long backcountry trip.  Diversification can increase your safety and comfort over the course of time.  Taking different brands of socks, a variety of layers, and using different types of insulation prepares you to handle the changes in weather, conditions, and physiology that occur during extended duration trips in the backcountry.

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Chris on October 17th, 2009

Finding a durable pair of pants that can withstand the rigors of traveling off trail in heavy brush isn’t easy.  Lightweight nylon pants often get shredded quickly, and more durable fabrics like cotton canvas or cordura are heavy and uncomfortable.

I had been using old camouflage pants for bushwhacking for a while, but found the 5.11 Taclite pants.  They are a cotton/poly blend fabric, with lots of pockets.  I’m a big fan of the bigger thigh pockets that hold small items easily; compasses, GPS, snacks, etc.

The benefit of the cotton/poly fabric is that they are durable while remaining relatively light.  The downside is that it will get wet and not dry as easily as a lightweight nylon fabric.  In warm weather, this isn’t that much of a concern.  I wouldn’t use these pants in weather where I was concerned with hypothermia.

I’ve not used these pants for rock climbing, as I bought them specifically for bushwhacking, so I can’t speak to durability against rock, nor the design of the pockets for wearing a harness.

Another interesting feature of these pants is that they have double layer knees.  This, in and of itself, is a great feature as it adds substantially to the durability.  There is a small slot in the knees that you can slide a neoprene knee pad into.  If you like to take photos like I do, kneeling a lot is common.  In addition, they help pad the leg against the brush and thorns.  However, they really make the pants much hotter in warm weather.

So, in short, these are a great pair of pants for off trail use.

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Chris on October 14th, 2009

In my search for the perfect pair of pants to use while traveling, and on the trail, I tried The North Face Paramount pants, which didn’t last very long due to a blown seam, which left me rather disappointed.

I bought another pair of convertible pants because I really like the idea of pants and shorts all in one.  I bought the Marmot Cruz convertible pants.  These pants also come in different lengths, which is handy as I’m tall.

They are made of a very light nylon material that has been durable to this point.  I have noticed something strange though.  It seems that when I wear my wool socks, the pants stick to my shins.  I think maybe it is a static electricity effect.  It seems to go away once the pants get dirty and muddy.

The pockets aren’t very good on these pants.  There is one zippered thigh pocket that I end up using for everything I would keep in the normal slash pockets.  The normal pockets are shallow and items seem to fall out readily.

The pants don’t come with an integral belt, which at this price point, I expect a nice thin integral belt that is comfortable under a pack waist belt as well as under a harness.

Speaking of harnesses, I really do find these pants to be comfortable while wearing a climbing harness.  However, the pockets still leave something to be desired while wearing a harness.

If they had better pockets, and a low profile integral belt, they would be ideal in my opinion.  They are good, but for the 68 USD price tag, I expect great for a pair of nylon convertible trail pants.

These pants are available at Summit Hut and Mountain Gear

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Chris on October 12th, 2009

Finding the perfect “all in one” pants for travel, trekking, and trail is really difficult.  The pants need to look presentable in while in airports and restaurants, feel comfortable, allow free movement, be quick drying, pack incredibly small, and wear durably once you get to the trail.

I won't win awards for my tailoring

I won't win awards for my tailoring

The North Face Paramount pants zip off into shorts, are made of a quick drying and thick nylon fabric that looks good even after wearing them for days on end.  Dirt doesn’t show easily.  I figured I had a winner.

However, the pockets are place over the top of the thigh, rather than on the sides.  In addition, they aren’t bellows pockets like most cargo pants.  This made it difficult to store anything and access it while seated (for example during a flight).

Second, my pair didn’t last very long.  In fact, I got 1 two-week long trip out of them before I split the seam in the seat.  I’ve never actually had a seam rip on an outdoors garment before.  I’ve torn holes, I’ve abraded through cloth, but I’ve never had a seam blow out.  So, this was a surprise.

After repairing the split (this is why a repair kit is a good idea), I still use the pants, but no longer for travel.  They are strictly trail use now.

From The North Face and for the price, I expected a lot more from these pants.

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Chris on October 7th, 2009

Keeping warm feet when on glacial ice or even snow can be a problem.  Even boots that have a thick outsole will still eventually conduct heat into the ice.  This problem is further compounded when wearing crampons.  The steel really sucks the heat out of your feet.

I usually choose to wear light and fast boots when climbing.  The downside is that they can’t be made as warm and insulated as heavy double plastic boots.  I’ll take every extra bit of insulation I can get.

The Superfeet REDhot insoles are made for winter use, and they have some insulation, plus a reflective bottom.  I have used these on glaciers and frozen rock, and even while wearing crampons, I have not had problems with cold soles.

I have wide feet, so it was nice to finally find some insoles that were wider.  These cover the whole interior of my boots and keep my feet comfortable as well.  The arches are somewhat high, but I find them quite supportive for long days, especially with a heavy backpack loading my feet.  Durability has been good.

If you have cold feet in the winter, I’d really recommend trying the Superfeet REDhot insoles.  You can get them at REI

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Chris on October 5th, 2009

My hands are a really important body part.  My hands enable me to do all the things necessary to keep myself alive and well in the mountains; handling ski poles, ice tools, dressing myself, cooking, feeding myself. . .

A selection of my favorite handwear for severe conditions

A selection of my favorite handwear for severe conditions

I am very serious about keeping my hands warm and happy.  I’ve gone my whole life without frostbite, and I fully intend to maintain that record.  Here are some of the things I use to keep my hands happy.

First, are the light gloves.  These are the fair weather, or high dexterity task gloves.  I like fleece with a windproof laminate.  They are surprisingly warm and comfortable, but don’t count on them for a second in wet conditions.  They will soak through.  Carry a few pair of these types of gloves so that you always have dry ones handy.  I use mine for tasks like setting up a tent or fixing dinner.  I keep mine in my pockets while active so that I can slip out of a mitten and into a glove if I need to readjust a binding or some other task that is too intricate for clumsy mittens.  My personal favorite gloves over the years are the Black Diamond Windweight gloves .

Next, a good pair of work gloves are necessary.  These are the gloves with thick leather palms for handling poles, ice tools, ropes, and so on.  These are the gloves that get used and abused and destroyed rapidly from all the use.  In warm weather, like spring when it can be easily above freezing during the day, a great solution is to go to any hardware store and buy some all leather work gloves for 10 dollars and rub them with neatsfoot oil to waterproof and soften them really well.  But, for cold weather, something more substantial is necessary.  I want good leather palms, and a high gauntlet to keep my wrists warm.  It also helps to have knuckle padding.  My personal favorites are the now discontinued Black Diamond Ice glove.  Black Diamond has a new version that they call the Enforcer Glove.

Finally, big and warm mittens are like sleeping bags for your hands.  Definitely do not skimp on the mittens.  Durable palms, and lots of puffy insulation will keep your fingers intact and warm.  I don’t wear liner gloves inside my mittens because that defeats the idea behind mittens.  I want the blood flow in each finger helping to keep the other fingers warm.  It is nearly impossible to do anything in proper mittens.  Opening my water bottle, and maintaining a grip on a ski pole or ice axe is about all I plan to do in mittens.

Mittens are especially important if you have to wear a backpack.  The straps seem to always reduce blood flow to the hands and arms.  Keep that in mind while traveling, and make sure your fingers are always getting blood flow.  Stop and shake some fresh blood into your hands on occasion.  I like to use Expedition Mittensfrom Marmot.  These are packed full of insulation and are lined with a soft wicking layer to keep hands dry.

I have a big pile of gloves and mittens I’ve accumulated over the years.  I’ve tried most combinations I can think of, and this is what works well for me.  Let me know what works for you.

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It has been well established that layering is a superior approach for dressing for outdoor pursuits.  However, the traditional layering method of base, insulation, and shell often does not meet my needs.

I have spent a lot of time in the cold working out this method for layering, that allows for changing weather conditions, and changing activity levels.  I’ll separate the approach by torso and legs.

Here is a summary of the layers.

Torso

  1. Base layer
  2. Wind layer
  3. Light insulation
  4. Shell
  5. Belay jacket (heavy insulation)

Legs

  1. Base layer
  2. Softshell
  3. Belay pants

Base layer

The base layer is the start of the layering system.  It should fit snugly without feeling constricting, as the main purpose of the base layer is to keep your skin dry.  All your sweat should be wicked away from your skin to the outer layers where it can evaporate.

A common question is whether to use wool or synthetic base layers.  High quality merino wool base layers are available.  They are comfortable and good for some conditions.  Synthetics, I find, work better on extended trips.  I reviewed the wool versus synthetic debate previously.

Base layers come in a variety of weights, usually “lightweight”, “midweight”, and “heavy weight”. Sometimes, there is even an extra heavy weight.  For the most part, I stick with lightweight and midweight baselayers.  For the same conditions, I generally tolerate a heavier base layer on my legs than on my torso.  For example, I generally will wear a lightweight shirt, while choosing midweight for my legs.

Wind layer

No insulation on the back where a pack provides all the insulation you need. . . great design.

No insulation on the back where a pack provides all the insulation you need. . . great design.

The next layer for the torso is the wind layer. The wind layer should be a very light wind shell, that is extremely breathable.  There really is no need for any waterproofing.  In fact, I don’t reapply (DWR) to my wind shells, as I have found they breathe more easily after a few washes.

The idea behind the wind layer is to allow all that perspiration to pass through, and then evaporate without chilling your core.  For this reason, I personally prefer a vest, as my arms seem to do just fine without a wind layer, so I see no need for the extra weight and reduced mobility of sleeves.

I reviewed the Marmot Driclime vest.

Light insulation

The purpose of the light insulation layer is purely to keep you comfortable (meaning slightly cool) while you are moving.  Carrying a pack, climbing, preparing camp, etc are all hard work and lots of insulation just isn’t necessary.

I have a variety of light fleece sweaters that I use depending on the overall expected conditions.  If temperatures will be above 0F much of the day, I’ll use a 100 weight fleece sweater or pullover if I need it.  Close to 32F, I am usually only wearing my base layer and my wind layer.  Below 0F, a 200 weight fleece sweater, usually fill zip with a hood is a good option.  For consistently severe cold, there are other options that can be lighter than fleece, such as thin synthetic insulated sweaters.  I tend not to use down for such a piece as it will get wet from sweat.  I also avoid the use of wool sweaters unless it is only a day hike.

Shell for the Torso

A shell jacket is still useful in extreme cold weather, however, it needs to be highly breathable.  Being waterproof is less of a necessity the colder the temperatures.  The likelihood of encountering liquid water is very low.  Wind resistance is critically important, as wide open and cold places tend to have very strong winds. Even light shells with DWR shed snowfall well enough.

I avoid the high cost waterproof breathable hard shells because my shell is going to get abused against rock, and there is a lot of risk of damage from ice tools, ice screws, and other sharp implements common in the cold.  And, as I mentioned, waterproofing isn’t a critical quality of a good extreme cold weather shell.

I’ve used the Marmot Precip jacket for years now in various forms.  It is a nice, light, and inexpensive option for a shell.

Belay jacket and pants

Leukotape patch on my DAS

Leukotape patch on my DAS

The belay jacket and pants are common for winter climbing and mountaineering.  The idea is to have heavy insulation for periods without much movement.  These should be thick puffy garments full of synthetic insulation, as they go on over the top of all the sweaty layers from the day.

For the legs, full side zips are important so that boots do not need to be removed.  These garments must be sized to fit over the top of all of the other layers.

I discussed the belay jacket concept more thoroughly in the past, including my preference for the Patagonia DAS Parka and Patagonia Micro puff pants

Softshell for the legs

On my legs, I can tolerate one system much more easily because my legs aren’t full of critical organs that need to be closely temperature regulated.  In addition, I’m often wearing a climbing harness which precludes the ability to quickly, easily, and safely add or remove layers as conditions change.  These reasons lead to softshell being a more ideal system for the legs.

Softshell is suitable for a wide variety of conditions, more so than the traditional 3 layer system.  It is a light, breathable, and comfortable system.

I reviewed my favorite softshell pants, the Patagonia Mixmasters in the past.

Conclusion

The 5 layer approach for the torso, of base, wind, light insulation, light shell, and belay jacket, as well as the 3 layer approach for the legs of base, softshell, and belay pants works very well in a wide range of extreme cold weather and severe conditions.  I’ve used and abused this system for quite a while now, and have no reservations relying on it to keep me safe and comfortable in the mountains.

For more information about cold weather clothing choices, Extreme Alpinism: Climbing Light, Fast, and High by Mark Twight is a very good resource.

For more information about sleeping in the cold, see my article about cold weather sleep systems.

I hope this helps.  Let me know!

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