Done properly, packing for a mountaineering trip becomes an artful routine. Whether you’re just starting out, or you’ve lost count of the number of trips you’ve taken, packing is still crucial to do accurately and thoughtfully every time. This is an essential guide for packing for a mountaineering trip, covering different lengths and styles to suit your needs in order to make your trip successful, from what pack to use, how to pack it and with what.
Let’s start with packs:
There’s an overwhelming variety of mountaineering packs on the market, none of which are cheap and it can be hard to pick the right one. I recommend really exploring your options, and going to a gear shop and talking to a specialist. Many gear specialists can custom fit you for your pack and this ensures a more comfortably fitting pack. Packs come in a variety of sizes depending on your torso height and waist length, and a specialist can measure you and find the right size for you. A well fitting pack is crucial for long endeavors with heavy gear. A pack that fits well should have a weight distribution of about 80% on the hips and 20% on the shoulders for the most efficient carrying system. Packs are almost exclusively internal frame nowadays, as they are more comfortable and distribute weight more evenly. You occasionally see old timer’s rocking external frames, and perhaps those guys are tougher than we are with our modern technology. However, it’s ideal to have your gear packed inside of your pack and to avoid having anything on the outside for balance and better distribution, which is why internal frames are more popular.
For alpine pursuits, its best to choose an alpine pack. These packs are designed for mountain climbing and have a lot of technical attributes that are specifically crafted. Alpine packs are designed to be packed with everything on the inside so there is nothing in the way for climbing. The only exception is that they have latch points for crampons and ice axes, which are often needed to be accessed quickly and are usually wet after use. These packs are therefore quite large in volume and cylindrical shaped. Many alpine packs have the option to remove the waist belt and the brain, or top, of the pack in order to cut down on weight and make for a lighter ascent pack. They are designed to withstand exposure to the elements, whether it be very rocky terrain or ice and snow.
Some important features to look for in an alpine pack are:
- Attachment points for technical ice tools and an integrated or removable crampon holder.
- Removable brain, or top, pocket.
- Removable or stowable waist belt.
- No external pockets, bottle holders or alternate points of entry into the body of the pack.
- Rope Carry strap or attachment system.
- Durable and/or waterproof materials.
It’s possible to use backpacks designed for backpacking, such as the Osprey Talon or Atmos if you already own these. The differences would be to make sure to cinch all of the straps tightly and to pack everything on the inside of the pack, similar to how you would pack an alpine pack. If you’re not doing much technical hiking, using axes and crampons, then a backpacking style pack is great. They usually have great padding and are made to aid in carrying heavy weights comfortably. They have room on the outside for water bottles and other quickly needed items. They are versatile for a variety of trips as well and can make a smarter investment if you are active in backpacking as well as mountain climbing.
The size of your pack will vary with the length and style of your trip. If you’re going for multiple nights, you will need a significantly bigger pack than for a day trip. The size and weight of your gear is a major contributing factor as well. A larger pack can hold more, but with that extra volume comes extra weight. It’s best to find a pack that’s large enough to hold everything you will really need for your endeavors. If you’re using porters on your expedition, then you can carry a much smaller pack on your person and put the rest of your items in other packs, duffels, or boxes. This is common for large expeditions such as Mount Everest. If you’re not using porters and are staying multiple days, and thus requiring full camping equipment, you will need to ensure your pack is big enough to hold it all. You can consider bringing a smaller pack in order to use for the final summit push, and some packs even come with detachable parts to be used as day packs.
Day Trip/Summit Push
For a day trip, where you will leave and return in the same day, you will only need a minimal amount of gear and therefore a smaller pack is appropriate. You will want a pack that will go with you for fast and light trips, or for the final summit push.
Now, What to Pack?
Now that you’ve hopefully picked out the perfect pack for your trip, it’s time to gather together the gear. It’s crucial to make you bring everything you will need to make your trip successful, but at the same time not weighing yourself down with too much stuff. Creating a checklist for every trip can really help to organize and ensure you always remember the essentials.
Day Trip: Use a smaller pack around 25-35L.
- Food and Snacks
- Layers – warmer layer and rain protection, dependent on weather conditions of your trip.
- Map /Compass
- Ice Axe
- First Aid Kit
Overnight: Use a bigger pack between 65-100 liter depending on the length and size of your gear.
- Food and Snacks
- Layers – warmer layer and rain protection, dependent on weather conditions of your trip.
- Map /Compass
- Ice Axe
- First Aid Kit
- Sleeping Pad
- Sleeping Bag
- Stove and Cooking Utensils
- Water Purification System
- Camp Shoes (Optional)
- Extra Layers
- Dry clothes for sleeping
- Dry Bags
Food and Water
Food and water can easily make the bulk of the weight in your pack, but obviously, these are crucial to having a healthy and happy excursion. There are ways to make sure you get enough calories and cutting weight, and it’s all about efficiency. For example, dehydrating your foods, or removing all of the water, can cut back on a lot of weight. You can also buy pre-packaged dehydrated meals such as MREs or Mountain House. These meals are high in calories and come in a variety of meals and flavors to add variety. You simply add hot water and weight for the food to rehydrate before eating, according to the instructions on the package.
There aren’t many tricks to making water lighter, other than using lighter weight containers, but it’s crucial to carry enough water to get you through to the next reliable water source. Camelbak, one of the leading makers of water bladders, recommends drinking a liter of water for every hour of outdoor activity. Your personal hydration needs will vary with lots of factors, including elevation, temperature, weather, personal health, and the intensity of your activity (Green.) Therefore, it’s important to map out the water sources on your trip and how often you will be able to fill up and to carry the amount of water you will need to drink in between sources. Most alpine environments are without water once you reach a certain elevation so it’s crucial to pack enough water.
It’s important not to overpack and to only take the things you will need for your trip. Making investments in lighter gear is rewarding as each ounce adds up to pounds and makes your pack heavier and heavier, until sometimes it’s too heavy for you to carry. Your fully packed backpack should weigh no more than 20% – 30% of your body weight.
Your Weight Max Pack Weight
120 lbs 24-36 lbs
140 lbs 28-42 lbs
160 lbs 32-48 lbs
180 lbs 36-54 lbs
200 lbs 40-60 lbs
220 lbs 44-66 lbs
How to efficiently pack:
Now that you’ve got your pack and all of your gear it’s time to fit it all in there. You don’t want to just throw everything into your pack and hope it all fits; there’s an order which can help with weight distribution and efficiency. After you’ve gone through your checklist and ensured you’ve got everything you need, begin placing like items together. Generally, you want to place your sleeping items and camp only items on the bottom of your pack, since they won’t be used during the trek. Medium weight items should be packed into the middle and top. Place your heaviest items in the back center so that they can be carried primarily by the hips as opposed to your shoulders. You want to avoid the voids – or avoid leaving volumes of unused space in your pack. You can do this by stuffing clothes into void spaces such as an empty cooking pot, or in between two items. Avoid tying items to the outside of your pack especially when doing alpine climbing. These items can alter your balance and weight distribution in addition to being a hazard for tripping and getting caught on things. However, it is common to attach sharp items such as crampons and ice axes to the outside of your pack. Most alpine packs come with attachment systems for these items that lock them securely in place. Place your crampons in a crampon bag and make sure to have covers for the sharp ends of your axes so as to not destroy your pack or hurt yourself or others.
Make sure your sleeping bag is compressed well into its compression sack, your sleeping pad is rolled up, your tent is well packed and everything is cinched tightly. Place camp items into your pack first, placing your compressed sleeping bag at the bottom of your pack, as well as your sleeping bag and tent. If you’re going with multiple partners, disperse parts of your tent with others so as to lessen weight. For example, you can carry the tent body and your partner can carry the tent fly. Then place medium weight items such as your cooking stove and pot above your sleeping gear. Your food is likely the heaviest item in your pack so place that in the center and against the back of your pack. Put your food in a sealable and food safe bag so as to avoid spillage. Leave out snacks that you will want while wearing the pack and place those in easily accessed pockets in your pack or on your person. For smaller essential items, such as your headlamp, place those in the brain of your pack if you have one. Leave your rain jacket on top as well in the event of a sudden rainstorm.
You may have gone through your checklist and realized that all of the things you want to bring on your trip do not fit. First, address this problem by making sure you’ve used up all of the void space in your pack and that everything is packed as efficiently as possible. If you’ve really done this, then you may need to make sacrifices. It’s up to you how much you’re willing to remove and the decrease in comfort levels that result. Start by removing anything that could be considered a luxury item – or one that is not directly necessary for the trip but serves only the purpose of making it more comfortable. This could take some reimaging of your gear. For example, opting out of a full sized sleeping pad and using your pack or a half-sized pad instead. Avoid removing items that are rarely used but highly crucial, such as your first aid kit. Even if it doesn’t get used on the trip, it’s still very important to have and it’s worth the extra weight in the event of a medical situation.
Most of the time, you may need to upgrade your gear to smaller and lighter versions, notably your sleeping bag, which can take up large volumes in your pack. While it costs more to go smaller and lighter, it also helps to greatly reduce weight in your pack which can make your trips less energy intensive and more enjoyable.
The easiest thing to overpack is clothing. It can be seemingly unhygienic or insane to wear the same outfit for several days. However, most outdoor specific clothing are designed to wick away moisture and some are anti-microbial, meaning they won’t hold sweat and stench as bad as normal, cotton clothes. It’s important to understand the weather conditions on your trip and to pack methodically and wisely. This takes experience and knowing how your body reacts to the elements and can be fine-tuned over time.
Many outdoor outfitters offer pack shakedowns, where they analyze the contents of your bag and help you to efficiently pack them. It is worth consulting your local gear shop if you need more assistance or a second set of eyes.
For a day trip or a final summit push, make sure to run through your checklist and place items accordingly into your pack. The order is less important as your pack won’t weigh too much with minimal gear. Place items that you will need quick access to, such as snacks, headlamp, map and GPS in easily accessed locations such as the brain of your pack or side pockets. You can use a water bladder system with a hose that runs out of the back for quick access to water, especially if you don’t have pockets for water bottles. It is useful to use a significantly lighter pack for the summit push, and to leave the remainder of your items at base camp. You can use the same pack you’ve been using with less weight and all of the straps tightened, or bring a smaller day pack along. Some packs have daypacks incorporated for this purpose as well, such as the Osprey Aether.
Putting on Your Pack
A fully loaded pack can be difficult to lift for some of us. An efficient way to put on your pack without throwing your pack is to lift it by the handle (most packs have a handle strap between the two shoulder straps) and place the pack on one bended knee. From here, Twist the pack and place onto one shoulder at a time. You can bend forward a bit to have the pack rest on your back and to ease some of the weight. From here, align the hip belt with your hips and close them snuggly. Then, tighten the shoulder straps from underneath towards your armpits. The last strap is the sternum strap across the chest. Adjust all straps according to comfort levels prior and while using the pack.
Investing in the right pack for your needs can really improve the conditions of your trip. Packing everything you need efficiently and wisely can ensure safety and a higher stake of a successful summit bid. In addition to this packing guide, consult experts at your local gear shop. Ultimately, your pack and packing methods are a trial and error endeavor, which becomes fine-tuned over time and use.
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