Is it snowing?

October is a damned month, when the single track is ripe but all forces conspire to distract a fellow with the prospect of skiing. Highly-produced ski films, like Christmas decorations, come earlier every year, and the internet is abuzz with atmospheric predictions and ski porn live-streamed from South America.

I’ll admit, I am excited to go skiing, but with a trip to Japan scheduled for the middle of December, the feeling isn’t too pressing. There’s just no getting around the beautiful fall leaves and crip, clear days that make anything but skiing seem deeply appealing. I managed to work in day of turns-all-year quality skiing last week, so the piper has been paid for now.

Still, that’s not to say that I’m not preparing for the season. Two international trips and a wedding make it unlikely that I’ll be doing much racing this year, but I still want to come into the season fit and ready to go fast. Read on →

Gear Review: “The Raven” by Free Range Equipment

If you follow this blog you’ve most likely heard of Free Range Equipment. Owned and operated by Bend, OR local Tosch Roy and his sister Zoë, Free Range makes sport-specific backpacks for fast-and-light adventures. Their backpacks for multipitch rock climbing, alpine climbing and ski mountaineering all boast svelte designs that pair simplicity with functionality.

The “Raven” is Free Range’s ski mountaineering/ski touring pack. I have skinned nearly every day this winter with the Raven on my back and have done my best to scrutinize and test its every feature. Here, I hope to supply you with an unbiased review of its performance in order to better inform our collective pursuit of “gear enlightenment.”

The Raven

Whether you’re trying to escape the garish confines of SkiMo fashion or just move faster in the mountains, the Raven has you covered. Pictured w/ standard diagonal ski carry. Read on for discussion of standard vs. race carry options.

Read on →

4 Tips for Ultralight Backpacking

I know what you’re thinking. It’s winter. Why write a post about backpacking?

admit this post is unseasonal. I’m trying to add more knowledge-based content to the site because I realized the majority of my posts have been general photo blogs–more valuable to me than to you. Backpacking seems a good place to start because Patrick hasn’t written about it. Although some may argue backpacking isn’t quite as exciting as skiing, climbing, etc, I believe it is the foundation of nearly all backcountry pursuits.

But hey, it’s summer in the southern hemisphere.  Maybe you are making last-minute preparations for a thru hike of Te Araroa in New Zealand. If not, it’s never too early to start planning for your big summer trip. Also, these tips can be extrapolated to other fast-and-light endeavors, such as ski mountaineering. If nothing else, I believe you can apply the ultralight philosophy to improve your daily “front-country” life as well.

Bring Fewer Things

99.9% of the different “camping” items in REI should not be in your backpack. Unless you are on an expedition, a heavy pack is like a garage that is cluttered full of junk you never use. Your possessions begin to control you. That’s not what we want. Gear should be a gateway to freedom.

The easiest way to make your pack lighter is to simply leave behind what you don’t need. How do you decide whether or not you need something? For starters, if it doesn’t serve a purpose directly related to keeping you warm, dry, or healthy, it’s probably superfluous. Second, as a rule of thumb, if you can’t envision using something every day (excluding first-aid/emergency items), consider leaving it behind. If it’s a really tough decision, bring it. After the trip, be critical of each item. What did it do for you? Was it worth the weight? Just remember that even small items can add up to pounds.

Many times, the question of “need” comes down to deciding how comfortable you want to be in camp. You carry fewer, lighter things in order to be more comfortable while on the move. Naturally, you must sacrifice some camp comforts in order to do this. However, this sacrifice becomes less of an issue the more time you spend moving.


The author’s first true attempt at an UL backpacking kit, put together for a month on the PCT this summer.


Let’s talk concrete examples.

You don’t need a stove. It’s possible to reconstitute dehydrated food with cold water. Just leave it in a screw-top container with water while you hike. For rehydrating food, I like to use empty 18oz plastic peanut butter jars. “Near East” brand cous-cous rehydrates very quickly and is a tastier alternative to Idahoans instant potatoes. Alternatively, you can eat food that doesn’t need to be cooked or rehydrated at all. Nutella and peanut butter wraps, anyone? Cafe Fanny granola has an insane calorie to gram ratio. In my experience, I can never bring too much cheese. Eating cold food every night certainly isn’t for everyone, but you won’t know until you try. (Edit: this advice assumes you are backpacking in relatively mild summer conditions. With wetter/colder weather, leaving behind the stove becomes less sensible).

Ditch the stuff-sacks. Use a garbage bag as a pack liner and stuff your clothes in all the nooks and crannies. Not only will this save you several ounces in weight, it also helps form your pack into a svelte bullet. Look good, feel good.

Don’t bring doubles of any clothing item, other than socks. Face it, you are going to smell bad no matter what you do. For my summer backpacking kit, I bring some variation on the following: 2 pair light merino wool socks, 1 pair med-weight wool socks, light-weight long underwear top and bottom for sleeping, running shorts, wind pants, long-sleeve synthetic button-up sun shirt, puffy jacket, wind shell, rain shell (consider combining the two), hat, and light gloves. Your clothing system should be just warm enough to keep you warm on the coldest night, wearing everything while in your sleeping bag.

Ditch the rain pants. If it’s raining in camp, get in your tent. If you try to hike in rain pants, your legs will get wet from condensation anyways. Wind pants are a great alternative and provide surprising warmth when the temperature drops or the wind picks up. Another option I’m really excited about is the Z-Packs rain kilt.


A week-long, stoveless food packout for two young guys. Yes, those are avocados. Not ultra light, but they keep you going for a long time. Bishop, CA.


Bring Lighter Things

It helps a lot to have lighter gear, no doubt, The best place to start upgrading is with the “Big Three”–your backpack, shelter, and sleeping system. This is where the majority of weight savings will be made. In other realms, big savings can be made by following tip #1. A typical 70L pack can weigh up to 5lbs. That is a lot when you consider the base weight (pack weight w/o food or water) of many experienced ultralight backpackers is less than 10lbs. The less weight you have in your pack, the less burly your pack needs to be. Ultra-Light Adventure Equipment (ULA) makes great packs. Their most popular pack is a great intro to the world of UL. It has around 50L capacity, weighs 2.5lbs, and carries a max load of 35lbs. I’ve used it and love it.

If you are backpacking somewhere with little or no mosquitos, ditch the bug netting and just bring a tarp. If you hike with trekking poles, find a tarp that can be set up with your poles (see tip #3). Tarp Tent makes some really great trekking pole shelters, most of which have waterproof flies than can be pitched on their own.

Sleeping quilts are a relatively new piece of equipment that have garnered a lot of appreciation from UL backpackers for their versatility and improved warmth-to-weight ratio. For insulation from the ground, I like to use a closed-cell foam sleeping pad cut to just above my knees. It’s light, I don’t have to worry about it popping, and it doubles as a sit pad. The Thermarest Neo Air is another popular option.

Besides the “Big Three,” an easy way to save some weight is to swap out your Nalgene bottles for a cheap, plastic bottle. My go to is a 1L SmartWater bottle w/ squeeze nozzle lid. If you use a Sawyer Squeeze water filter, it can screw right onto your plastic bottle, eliminating the need for an extra receptacle designated for unfiltered water.

Lastly, the less weight you carry, the less support your feet need. Rather than wearing ankle-high, thick-soled hiking boots, consider trail runners instead. I liken this to SkiMo racing, in which light skis and ski boots make all the difference. The same is true with your shoes when you are hiking 30-50 miles a day.


Your pack should be light enough that you can send a V5 boulder problem while wearing it, at the end of a 30 mile day. Only partially kidding. Below Milestone Mt, High Sierra.


Bring Multipurpose Things

This is really an extension of tip #1, but it shouldn’t be overlooked. An easy way to bring fewer things is to have one thing be able to do the job of two things. For example, I use a mosquito head net (replaces tent bug net) to hold all my sundry items (i.e. toiletries, first-aid), rather than carry an additional stuff sack. At night I empty the headnet and then fill it with extra layers to use as a pillow (if there aren’t bugs). Also at night, I place my empty backpack under my legs to compensate for my extra-short sleeping pad. In a more extreme application of this idea, some companies make single-person shelters that double as rain ponchos. This is where backpacking becomes a creative exercise. Let you inner MacGyver shine.

Develop a Routine

Okay, so your pack is a lot lighter than it used to be. Now it’s time to make the most of it. With less time spent thinking about how heavy your pack is you can spend more time appreciating your surroundings. You can also walk further in a day and therefore see a lot more. However, having a 20lb pack doesn’t automatically let you start cranking out 30+ mile days. You still need to be efficient in your daily backcountry routine. In SkiMo racing, making fast transitions is key. The same is true with backpacking. A lot of daylight can be lost in the morning without an efficient system for getting out of bed, getting packed, and hitting the trail. Small actions can add up to a significant chunk of time. Good habits include changing into your hiking clothes as soon as you wake up, packing your bedding right away, etc. Another way I improve my efficiency is by preparing my lunch in the morning and packing it at the top of my pack. That way I don’t have to spend time unpacking and repacking my food bag (and often my entire pack) to eat lunch. Find what works for you and stick to a system.

It can certainly be energizing to take a break for lunch, but many UL backpackers prefer to simply snack all day. In that case, it’s critical to be able to eat and drink without taking your pack off. I like to organize the day’s snacks (bars, gummies, etc) in the morning. I keep them in a waist belt pouch so I don’t have to dig through my pack when I need a little boost. There are multiple solutions to having water accessible, but I don’t like bladders because removing them from your pack, refilling it, and putting it back in your pack takes a long time. Water bottles are better, but make sure your pack has side pockets you can actually reach. Alternatively, find a way to fasten water bottles to your shoulder straps.


A small pack can take you to some pretty cool places. Rae Lakes, High Sierra.


A lot of ultralight backpacking is trial and error. There is no hard and fast solution, no magic gear list that will transform you. Don’t start by going out and buying a bunch of new UL gear. Start by leaving behind items you don’t need. Less is more. Live simply. Happy trails!


To give you some more ideas, here are some of my favorite lightweight items in my backpacking kit.

Sawyer Squeeze water filter

La Sportiva Ultra Raptor shoe

Patagonia Sun-Stretch long sleeve shirt

Petzl E-Lite Headlamp

Patagonia Fitz Roy down jacket

Black Diamond Distance-Z carbon trekking pole

Dirty Girl Gaiters


Also, here is a great opinion piece about UL backpacking from one of my favorite blogs.

Guaranteed Gear: 8 Holiday Ideas That Don’t Suck

We’re passionate about sharing our stories and motivating you to get outside. It makes everything that we do here worthwhile when we run into one of you in the flesh and you tell us that our articles got you excited to plan trips of your own. It’s amazing, humbling, and drives us to work harder.

Still, we’re not rich, and running this site costs hundreds of dollars. To make up for it, we work in some advertising and we get a small cut when you use our links to buy gear. This week I’m doing something a little different and offering some gift ideas for your most beloved gearhead. Unlike what you find on, ahem, other sites, I make you a promise: these things DO NOT SUCK. These are pure wins that I or someone close to me have beaten to death out of love. They’re guaranteed to please.

So enjoy! Help support Mountain Lessons by clicking our links and shopping for some gear. We’ll be here next year either way, because we love you. But it helps.

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Arc’teryx Cerium LT Down Jacket: A seriously warm jacket made with high quality down that packs small enough for daily carry while out skiing. It uses synthetic insulation in the hood and cuffs to keep you warm when it’s wet outside. It’s spendy because it’s just better than the competition. Read on →

D.I.Y. Skimo Skin Tip Attachments


Home-made race-style tip fix. Clean and simple.

There are a lot of skin options available these days with retailers like bringing more of the European variety to the USA. Unfortunately, tip attachments on pre-built skins are like cell-phone chargers; they’re unstandardized and are often poorly cross-compatible with other manufacturer’s platforms.

The recent availability of skins sold in bulk (from a roll) makes possible a solution to this problem. You can pick your skin, your width, your length, and put it all together by making your own tip attachment. This is easy, kinda fun in a dorky way, and produces an equal product that is both cheaper and lighter than commercial offerings.

The one caveat here is that we’re making race-style skins, which require a notch in the ski tip for fixation. This style of attachment also doesn’t use a tail-fix, so good skinning technique is required. The advantage of the “tip fix” is that it makes removing the skin from your ski while wearing the ski infinitely easier and faster than traditional fixation methods. The only downside to the system is that the lack of a tail-fix can lead to skin failures in certain conditions, such as breaking trail through steep, loose snow, which leads one to slide backwards slightly with each step.

Still, despite that downside, I’ve converted entirely to skins without a tail-fix. After a short learning curve, they’re just simpler and lighter. An added benefit of using race-style skins is that they are so thin and subsequently light that a backup pair can be carried without being a burden. Black Diamond nylon skins are Hummer H2s compared to these Porsches.

What follows is a step by step pictorial guide to making your own tip fix system at home. This is the second time that I’ve built skins at home, and the process took 25 minutes from start to finish. If this is your first time, allow yourself an hour and measure twice, cut once. Please comment with any questions that you might have. You will need the following equipment, or similar:

  • – Sharp knife
  • – Stout scissors
  • – Sharpie
  • – Scrap piece of paperboard
  • – Some virgin skins
  • – Lighter
  • – Two (2) soda bottle tops
  • – Three (3) feet of 1/4″ elastic cord
  • – Allen wrench or similar metal object
  • – A speedy-stitcher or riveter (see below)

Read on →

Making a SkiMo Tow Rope

When I started researching techniques for partner skimo racing, a common theme emerged: lots of winning teams use a towing system to attach the partners to each other. I had an inkling that this happened because my Camp Race 260 pack had come with a tow system built in. Still, it seemed silly. However, as I though more about the psychological and logistical difficulties of racing with a partner, who no doubt possesses different skills and strengths, the potentially massive benefit of a tow rope became clear to me. In this post, I explain the pros and cons of using a tow, how to make one for yourself, and how to use it. For those not familiar with a rope tow, the system is simple: A length of elastic material connects the back of one racer to the front of another, usually with a carabiner-style attachment.

Purpose: Why Use a Tow Rope

The primary use for a tow rope is to help to average out the pace and fitness of partners. Without fail, one racer will be better on the climbs, or stronger at longer distances. By using a tow rope to remain tethered to one-another, the team is able to work as an average of their abilities. Without a rope, the team must travel at the pace of the slower partner (many partner races exact penalties for excessive distance between partners). With a tow rope, the stronger partner is able to assist the slower partner, and the team moves together at a pace faster than they would otherwise. The rope can also provide some physical assistance to the slower partner, offering a tug uphill or across the flats to make their effort less.

Distant partner needs a tow rope

Does your partner love you? They might love you more with a tow rope. (Ethan Linck crossing snow dome, Mt Hood.)

Read on →

Fritschi Vipec 12 Tech Binding – First Impression

The Black Diamond representative was good enough to drive to Seattle for the Northwest Snow and Avalanche Workshop. Among the Black Diamond offerings were their partner-brand offerings from Pieps and Fritschi.

This year, Fritschi is debuting their first tech-compatible binding, the Vipec 12 (previously called the Zenith). I had the opportunity to play around with a binding this afternoon, and though I have some reservations, I’m impressed. As a Dynafit devotee, I won’t be among the first-adopters on a new entry to the tech market, but the Vipec (no not viper) is impressively feature rich.

The Fritschi Vipec toe piece. Molded plastic with metal on the business ends.

Read on →

The Ideal Ice Axe for Mountaineering

A friend asked: If you could have only one ice axe, what would it be? There are ice tools, ice axes, piolets, hammers, glacier walkers, third tools, and oh my many more. But one axe to do it all? That’s a tough question. Still, winter is right around the corner, and I have an answer for you.

black diamond, petzl, and camp ice axe

Many choices

Firstly, it’s important to clarify that I am not going to include a discussion of ice tools. An ice tool is a specialized axe that is designed to climb steep to vertical ice and mixed terrain. They come in many shapes and sizes, and they are, for the most part, very specialized tools. The average ice tool is shit for walking on a glacier, self-belaying on steep snow, building anchors, etc. They still carry out these tasks in skilled hands, but they’re far from ideal.

For most climbers, a more all-around tool will be much more useful. When selecting such a tool, it is important to consider length, material, shaft style, and head: Read on →

Choose Your Tools: Skiing light, fast, and far.

This is Part 5 of the Choose Your Tools series.  Also check out Part 4: Universal Gear Truths.

Going Light

The world's lightest ski boot, the Pierre Gignoux XP-444.  590g. You don't need these.

The world’s lightest ski boot, the Pierre Gignoux XP-444. 590g. You don’t need these.

Going fast and light is, among a small but growing crowd, all the rage these days.  This makes a lot of sense considering the currently plummeting gear weights and the growing popularity of backcountry touring. In small, speedy enclaves throughout the Mountain West, folks are experimenting with the low-end of the weight spectrum, stealing techniques and technology from mountain-racing disciplines to push the limits of minimalist weight and maximum vert.

Going Light is defined here as seeking to use the minimum gear possible to achieve the greatest amount of mountain travel.  Lightening you pack, clothing, boots and skis frees the energy that would be used to tow those pounds around, and that energy can be applied to traveling farther or faster in the hills.  Just as fast-packing and distance trail running are coming to dominate classic backpacking routes, so too is lightweight skiing turning previously multi-day traverses and enchainments into impressive day trips. Read on →

Installing B&D Ski Crampons

B&D Ski Crampon

B&D Classic Ski 80 mm Ski Crampons, 261g

After our circumnavigation of Mt Hood recently, I’ll be damned if I was going to have to circumnavigate another volcano or ski amazing PNW corn snow without ski crampons.  To reiterate what I’ve said before, you don’t always want ski crampons, but when you do, nothing else will suffice.  Specifically, if there’s a very slick but breakable snow surface  booting will be hateful  but skinning can be on a spectrum from near-impossible to extremely energy intensive.  Ski crampons fix this problem. Read on →