WritingsThoughts, ideas, comments, diatribes, and rambles. A subjective take.
Choose Your Tools: Universal Gear Truths
Before delving further into the specifics of gear selection for the backcountry, there are some universal truths that need to be carved into stone. These are concepts that many folks understand in one way or another, but few have said aloud. I hope that by sharing them with you, reader, you will be one step farther on the path to gear enlightenment.
What is gear enlightenment you say? Gear enlightenment is attained when there is nothing more to take away, and nothing is missed. That is, when you think not of gear.
Quality Over Quantity
It is tempting to become a gear whore. So much is written about gear that the very idea has come to assume an inflated status. In some circles, excitement over gear seems to match or even exceed excitement about the sport itself.
As an ex-gear whore, I understand. Acquiring gear can become a sport in its own right. But it is important to recognize that it’s a sport that doesn’t create the kind of real satisfaction that we get from traveling in the mountains. It is easy to fantasize that when you get the newest thing out there, then you’ll be able to finally tour how you’ve always wanted to. Not true. If you’re not getting off the sofa now, then new gear won’t help.
To avoid the trap of becoming a gear whore who mistakes the gear for the sport, focus on acquiring reliable gear than won’t require replacement within 2 years, and then forget about that gear until you need to replace it.
“Today’s [alpinist] carries his courage in his rucksack… Faith in equipment has replaced faith in oneself.”Reinhold Messner
One thing that I’ve learned in my many years of paying too much attention to gear is that the majority of products out there just plain aren’t good. They’re poorly made, ill-considered, overpriced, or most commonly all of these.
Manufacturers capitalize on our search for novelty and excitement to sell us new crap every year, and every dollar that we spend on gear is a dollar that we don’t have for our real adventures.
While it’s true that once in a while a product comes out of the blue that is truly revolutionary and is deserving of excitement, the hype-machine is so big that it’s impossible to tell in any given year what these products will be. So, it’s important to avoid falling into the gear-whore trap, because otherwise you’ll waste your money on products that aren’t worth your coin.
If you’re just starting to build your quiver, or even if you’re a vet still rocking K2 tele skis from 1995, it’s important find trustworthy sources who you can rely on to deliver the boring gear news. I say boring because good gear is gear that you don’t notice. It’s durable, light, versatile, and more often than not, it’s been around for several years and gone through several iterations to become it’s reliable and amazing self.
As you select your gear for backcountry skiing, it’s more important to find quality– those pieces that will last many years and serve many different purposes, than to buy the latest and greatest. If everyone you know owns the same boring base layer there’s probably a reason for it. Go with it and don’t sweat the other options.
Less is more
We don’t choose to spend our money and our time heading into the backcountry just to find there a life as complicated and hectic as the one that we left behind. The backcountry is quiet, sparsely populated, and starkly beautiful. Accordingly, the gear that we bring into the backcountry should enable us as much as possible to enjoy this environment. Taking too much or the wrong gear into the backcountry is distracting, and counter to why we go touring. High-quality and well-selected gear is important and amazing because when it functions well we don’t notice it and are free to travel through the mountain environment that we find so invigorating and engaging.
Thoreau: Simplify! Simplify!
Emerson: One ‘simplify’ would have sufficed.
Subsequently, it is important to remember that regardless where we’re going on what we’re doing in the mountain, less is almost always more. Our cautious selves can take the what-if’s too far. How often have you finished a tour with extra food, extra water, and multiple layers that you never used? Over time, experiment with eliminating from your pack items that you used to think necessary. What do you throw in your pack without thinking about it?
Weight vs Functionality
In every calculus of gear manufacturing, a balance must be struck between weight and functionality. Almost by definition, a piece of equipment needs material to create function. While the best gear follows the famous dictum by Antoine de Saint-Exupery , it remains nearly a law of physics in hard goods that there is a back-and-forth between weight and functionality, especially in hard goods.
Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take awayAntoine de Saint-Exupery
This tradeoff is best illustrated by comparing randonee racing skis with alpine skis. Randonne race skis exemplify the modern standard of light and fast– they weigh a piddling 3 lbs per pair. Compared to modern fat skis at 10 lbs per pair the weight is negligible. On weight alone, race skis are the clear winner, but on almost snow surface, the free ride ski is more fun to ski. Why? Because it’s twice as wide, 20 cm longer, rockered, and made of heavier materials which lend it absurdly poppy and fun riding characteristics. By comparison, racing skis are challenging and finicky.
Nevertheless, many choose a lighter and “less functional ski” rather than tour on monster planks. Weight increases the platform for functionality, but it decreases available energy and enthusiasm. In general, heavier gear is more durable and more functional provided that energy is not a consideration. A crucial point to consider is that technique can make up for less-functional gear. Take Glen Plake for example. He still skis on skis from the 90s and he rips better than most all of us.
Thou shalt not think more on gear than you must, buy more than you must, or think gear a replacement for action.
Thou shalt buy quality gear and then forget about it.
Thou shalt use as little as possible to do as much as possible.
Thou shalt use big tools for big tasks,
And thou shalt use smaller tools for even bigger tasks, replacing thine gear with thine courage and technique.
When your base layer gets too ragged and smelly and your girlfriend wants you to replace it, support Mountain Lessons and pick up a boring and super classic Patagonia R1 Hoody. It’ll last you.