Equipment for the High Country
This page will focus only on equipment, refer to the clothing section for information on recommended clothing.
This is one of the more challenging topics to approach with regards to preparation for the high country. Few people agree on what is necessary and what is best. The discussion below is simply my opinions based on my experience. It is not possible for me to have tried every peice of equipment available or every situation conceivable. I will try to deal in generalities so you may come to your own decisions about what works best for you, but in some circumstances I will give specific examples to help illustrate a point.
Equipment can make or break an expedition. Too much can slow the pace, yet too little can bring it to an early end. I have tried to break equipment down into different catergories of need. When choosing your equipment keep in mind that personal abilities, comfort levels, and budgets affect your decisions and my recommendations may not help you.
Dayhiking in fair weather
- Water - I recommend a camelback, nalgene hydration pack, or similar product. These keep your water easily accessible and therefore you will drink more. Carry at least a liter for every 2 hours of hiking. Carry too much if unsure. Most trips to Colorado's high country will have many hours of hiking that aren't near a water source so even if you bring a filter you'll still need to be able to carry a fair amount of water.
- Sunscreen - Sunburns are much easier to get at high altitude. There's less atmosphere to filter the UV rays and above treeline shade is rare.
- Food - There are an abundance of options for food. Try to find a snack that balances complex carbohydrates, simple carbohydrates (sugars), and fat. That way you get an instant energy supply as well as a long term one. Taste is also important. If you can't stand eating it, you probably won't.
- Hiking Poles - Apparently outside the hiking realm I am used to dealing with these make you look stupid, however the scientific backing for using them is hard to argue. Your endurance is increased by 25% when using them, damage to the knees is cut in half, and the likelihood of a fall is greatly reduced.
- Camera w/ extra batteries - Not really a survival or endurance item, but you'll regret not taking it if you don't. Also useful if you don't want to admit you need a break. Get everyone to stop for a group shot, or pretend you are taking your time to capture the perfect shot.
- Backpack - Get one that is padded appropriately and sized to fit you well. (Women a backpack designed for women is a huge benefit for you.) Try to use the lightest pack that will still hold everything you need. Also taking the time to properly adjust the load and straps will make the experience much more enjoyable.
- First Aid Kit - Refer to the Safety section for more information on this topic.
- Light source - Headlamps have become very popular, and for good reason. They are lightweight, the keep the light where you need it, and keep your hands free. LED ones burn for a long time on one set of batteries, but don't cast light very far. I prefer the combination halogen/LED ones that allow you to choose how much light you need. Some come with a belt pack for batteries which will help your batteries last longer in cold weather. (If you're new to headlamps you'll quickly learn the rule to not look at people when you talk to them.)
- Emergency Shelter - A Bivy sack is a great option. ot one of those cheap aluminum foil bags, but a real bivy sack like the Black Diamond Winter Bivy) In case you have to spend the night, one of these will save your life. It will keep you dry and protected from the wind.
- Extra insulation - If you have to spend the night outside you'll need something to insulate you from the ground you are on and the cold air. I always like to carry a pair of fleece pants and an extra fleece jacket. If I had to spend the night somewhere in an emergency, putting those on, making a bed of pine needles or grass, and then sleeping in the bivy sack would actually be a reasonably warm comfortable night.
Overnight trip in fair weather
Everything noted above plus:
- Tent - (instead of Bivy sack) The lighter the better as long as it can handle any possible weather you may run into. Your preference for space will determine how big it should be. I like to use a 3-person tent for 2 people. Some tents are designed so that you can just bring the rainfly to save weight or you can just bring a tarp. This is a decent lightweight solution, but one you'll regret if the weather really turns on you.
- Sleeping Pad - Don't conserve here. A good nights sleep is worth carrying a few extra ounces and spending a few extra dollars. Self inflating ones are heavier but more comfortable; while closed cell ones are light and provide better insulation to thickness/weight ratio, and cannot have a leak; insulated air pads are light, comfortable and warm.
- Sleeping bag - Carry one appropriate for the weather you expect. The temperature ratings vary greatly between companies, so if possible try before you buy. Down bags are lighter and warmer, but synthetic are cheaper and better in wet weather.
- Stove - If you want a hot meal stoves work much better than cooking over the fire. I like to camp without a fire and just use a stove. It simplifies the process and is environmentally friendly. The type of stove you will need is dependant on what you want to do with it. If you are a backcountry gourmet be sure the stove you buy has a controllable flame. Many stoves are basically just on or off. Be sure to carry enough fuel. Carry an extra canister or make sure your bottle is full, depending on the style of stove you use. Remember to bring a lighter or matches as well even if the stove has a piezo igniter. A cheap alternative is to make an alcohol stove out of a couple of soda cans. These work fairly well and are easy to make, but putting in the right amount of fuel is difficult to master and carrying pure alcohol has some risks.
- Pans - Only necessary if cooking. Teflon ones are much easier to care for on the trail. Some cooking units (Jetboil, MSR Reactor, Primus EtaPower) are a system of stove and pot that are excellent at maximizing the efficiency of the heat.
Click here to read my review of the MSR Reactor.
Dayhiking in winter weather
Everything in "Dayhiking in fair weather" plus:
Other potential winter items:
- Bivy sack - Instead of tent. (Notes on their use in the Emergency Shelter line of Dayhiking in fair weather).
- Snowshoes or XC skis - I use the snowshoe option because it's cheaper and works better on mixed (rocks and snow) terrain or steep terrain, but the XC skis are probably the better way to go if you will be in a lot of snow and have some distance to cover. I will recommend the MSR Denali or Denali Ascent snowshoes. They are light, adaptable, and affordabe. I simply don't think any others compare in terms of all around useability.
- Avalanche Beacon, shovel (a good metal one), and probe - This is a very expensive set of equipment and must be carried by everyone in the group. However these save lives year after year. Be sure everyone in the group knows how to use them and has practiced. Knowledge is also key, take at least an avalanche awareness class. You may also consider an Avalung which helps you breathe should you be caught in an avalanche.
- Insulation for water - The tube of a hydration pack freezes easily without insulation, and still may with insulation. When it's really cold I usually give up on the hydration pack and use Nalgene bottles kept in insulated sleeves inside my pack. The nice thing about Nalgene's Lexan bottles is that if they freeze solid they still don't break. For some serious insulation for water get a vacuum thermos. These tend to run $20 to $30, but are worth it. I put boiling hot water in mine and left it outside for 24 hours when the temperatures dipped to -15F overnight. When I opened it the water was still very hot to the touch.
- Extra insulation - If you have to spend the night in the snow you'll need something to insulate you from the snow you are on and the cold air. I always like to carry a pair of fleece pants, a sleeping pad and a down parka. It would be a cold night of poor sleep, but at least I'd wake up in the morning.
- Ice Axe - If you will be on steep terrain in the snow this is a must. For mountaineering you should get one that will just barely touch the ground when you hold the head in your hand and your arm is straight at your side. Lightweight ones are nice for carrying, but won't handle much abuse. To put one in the ice axe loop on your pack put the point end down through the loop so the head rests in the loop and the axe hangs down. Then flip the axe up and attache the shaft to the pack so the axe is now inverted. It's a good idea to have the points covered while it's in the pack to avoid injury. An ice axe is worthless if you don't learn to use it properly. Read about proper use, talk to someone with experience, and practice using it.
- Crampons - Excellent for providing traction on hard snow or ice. The standard general mountaineering type for Colorado is a 10 point crampon, if you will be getting into steep ice you'll need to move to the 12-point and possible ice climbing grade. There are also milder ones for just general traction on fairly level hiking (Micro-Spikes are my personal favorite). Steel crampons will last longer and stand up to more mixed terrain abuse, but aluminum ones are much lighter. Unless you own boots designed to have crampons attached you will need to buy the strap-on type. When using strap-on crampons be sure the straps are tightened very well to keep them in place. Be sure to use the screw that locks in the size once fitted to your boots.
Overnight trip in winter weather
Everything in "Dayhiking in winter weather" plus:
- You may want to replace the Bivy Sack with a 4 season tent - Three season tents can work as well, it just depends on the weather you run into. Winter winds can shred a 3 season tent in minutes, or a good snowfall will crush them. However most people don't venture out when such conditions are possible.
- Stove - This becomes essential in the winter to melt snow for water. Also a drink of warm water before bed and a warm water bottle in the bag with you can make a cold night much more bearable.
- Pans - Gotta put the snow in something to melt it.
- Sleeping Pad - Essential to insulate you from the cold ground or snow while you sleep, most people that complain their sleeping bags aren't keeping them warm actually have insufficient ground insulation. While self inflating pads are popular, they are the worst option in my mind for winter camping as they don't self inflate in winter and are very heavy. I recommend carrying a closed cell foam pad and an insulated air pad (i.e. Big Agnes Insulated AirCore). The insulated air pad is very comfortable and warm. The closed cell is very light, excellent at insulating, and cannot get a leak. Try to acheive an R value of at least 5 for winter conditions. The colder the weather though, the more R value you'll want. I personally use a system with an R-value of 8.
- Sleeping Bag - Good cold weather bags are hard to find and costly to purchase. Mummy bags take some getting used to, however their warmth to weight ratio is excellent. Before you buy one, get into it and close it down to the point that the only opening is about a 2 inch hole by your mouth. Your feet should not be pressed up against the end and it should be loose around the shoulders. Nothing should be tight against you. Insulation only works if it isn't compacted. You should also look for a good draft tube along the zipper to keep cold air from seeping in.
- Snow Stakes - Setting up a tent in snow is difficult at best if you are trying to use the standard tent stakes.
- Pee Bottle - Many do without this, but not having to get up in the middle of the night to take care of natures call helps you have a better nights sleep. If you bring one, label it well and with something like duct tape that you can feel on the bottle in the dark. It also helps to practice so you learn how to use it without spilling.