Training: Cut Weight Not Capability I frantically opened my bags and began sorting gear in the hangar. Our float plane would land in 15 minutes, and the ground crew told me my bags were overweight. If I wanted to fly into the remote high lake and hunt Mountain goats, I’d have to leave behind some kit. I’d planned this trip for three months and had my gear dialed, but my error was not weighing it all to ensure I met the weight requirements of the aircraft we’d fly on. I needed to cut 12 pounds and struggled to decide what gear to leave while not compromising my survivability. Creating a packing list and assembling a large pile of equipment is easy but cutting weight from our kit and not sacrificing capability is a learned skill. Ounces equal pounds, and the weight adds up quickly. “What If Weighs A Lot” and overthinking every conceivable contingency adds more weight to our loadout. Better to sort it out at home than to have a grumpy wrangler throw your expensive gear into a puddle as he weighs and loads up the pack string in a storm. Going through our kit with a fine-tooth comb will yield ounce upon ounce of unnecessary weight. Modern technical clothing and equipment are very reliable, and most of them will meet the rugged demands of the wilderness. Ten to fifteen years ago, this was not the case, and often it was prudent to bring back-ups of essential items. We no longer need to burden ourselves with a second stove, headlamp, boots, or clothing if we’ve constructed solid systems. I’ve tried various ways to cut gear over the years with varying levels of success. I’ve spent many miserable nights cursing bad decisions while cold, hungry, nursing a sore back, or praying the shelter didn’t collapse or blow away. Ultimately, these poor experiences help inform what is required for safe backcountry living. The learning curve for the backcountry traveler often swings from carrying too much from lack of experience to too little from over-confidence and often settles somewhere in the middle. Here are some ways I’ve learned to cut weight responsibly while traveling the wilderness without sacrificing capability. Technical clothing should dry quickly, protect you from the elements, and be durable enough for a week-long trip. Because of this performance, redundancy in clothing, aside from socks and liner gloves, is not required. Sleeping in your clothes leverages this critical system 24 hours a day, allowing you to respond quickly to issues at night — like a bear in camp, a pulled shelter anchor, or relieving yourself. Integrating the clothing system into the sleep system allows you to carry a lighter-weight sleeping bag saving both volume and weight. This method has allowed me to carry a light three-season bag into the mountains year-round for the last 20 years with no issues. There’s no need to carry the tags on clothing, the bottom of sleeping bags, or inside packs. Removing this excess garbage will save precious ounces. Metal zipper pulls on tents and packs create unwanted noise and adds useless weight. I replace all metal pulls with a 2 mm cord which solves both issues. Excessive guy lines on shelters and burly reinforced grab handles on packs can be trimmed. A word of caution, though; don’t cut anything off until you’ve tried the gear and know what you require. Removing all food from commercial packaging saves both weight and bulk. Field stripping meals into quality freezer bags allows meals to be fortified at home with extra protein, spices, and oil, customizing them to your tastes and dietary needs. It also dramatically reduces garbage and provides a vessel for emergency water collection in a survival scenario or storing a Grouse breast for dinner. Stuff sacks are great for organizing equipment inside a pack but come with a weight penalty. You may find that your organizational method adds several pounds of weight just in stuff sacks alone. If each stuff sack weighs 3-4 ounces, then 4-5 stuff sacks add a pound to your kit. I like to collect all the food wrappers and unnecessary items removed from my gear in a Zip-loc bag to measure the volume and weight savings. This exercise can be enlightening, showing the useless weight and bulk that can be left behind without sacrificing capability. The pilot yelled into the hangar to bring our gear and line it up on the dock. I quickly zipped up my bags and hoisted them onto my shoulders. The victims left behind on the hanger were some extra food, my hip boots, and an extra fleece jacket. What I didn’t leave behind were the essentials to thrive and be successful in an austere environment. The Closet: Glove Systems Gloves Gloves are tough to get right, and functional hands are critical to survival. Losing dexterity and motor function in our hands can leave us helpless. Once hands are cold, performing basic tasks, such as setting up a tent or lighting a stove, can be challenging. I’m not one for carrying extra gear, but gloves are easily lost or blown off mountains. Taking several pairs of gloves that work as a system is cheap insurance. Liner Gloves Liner gloves are a base layer for your hands and serve the vital purpose of keeping hands functional in cold weather. Liner gloves should be thin, lightweight, dry quickly, provide dexterity, and manage moisture. I favor wool liners to keep my hands warm when damp and always carry two pairs, so when I get one pair wet, I can put on a spare pair and dry the others in my puffy jacket. Liner gloves provide dexterity to manipulate a rifle scope or trigger without concern for damaged skin in frigid conditions. Shooting Gloves Shooting gloves are armor for your hands when crawling or climbing and should provide excellent dexterity. I wear shooting gloves only in warm weather when liner gloves aren’t suitable. Waterproof Gloves A waterproof shell glove with a removable, insulated liner provides versatility for changing environmental conditions. Wear the shell in warm, rainy conditions or with an insulated liner for colder weather. Wear a liner glove inside the shell in place of the insulated liner in moderate conditions. I’ll wear all three gloves in below-freezing conditions allowing me to remove my hand from the shell and insulated liner but keep the liner glove on for cold weather protection. Mittens Mittens are warmer than gloves and intended for below-freezing temperatures. Mittens should be sized loose enough not to restrict blood flow and to accept a liner glove. Mittens provide no dexterity and are best-used sitting and glassing, riding sleds, in boats, or on horseback. On winter trips, I carry a pair of mittens for emergencies like frostbite. Painful blisters can form if someone develops cold injuries, and mittens will protect hands from further damage better than gloves. Hand Muffs I’ve often incorporated a hand muff into cold weather spots and stalk archery hunts. This accessory allows me to wear thin gloves for shooting while keeping my hands warm. I wear the muff around my waist and upfront under my pack’s waist belt for easy access. An insulated hand muff has allowed me to sit on Mule deer in miserably cold weather yet be capable of working my release and optics for accurate shots. Chemical Heat Packs Chemical heat packs dropped inside a hand muff or jacket pocket can provide enough warmth to keep fingers pliable for shooting and manipulating a range finder. While I don’t rely on them within my glove system, they can be the difference between success and failure. Build your glove system with the same care and attention as your clothing. This critical system can factor heavily into your success on cold weather trips. www.sitkagear.com www.outdoorresearch.com www.blackdiamondequipment.com Gear Locker MKC Blackfoot 2.0 Knife, $300.00 I’ve carried scalpels into the field for two decades and appreciate the sharp blades and the ease with which they are changed. But scalpels are a specialized tool and are not a replacement for a fixed blade knife when casting off into the wilderness. A great fixed blade knife for the backcountry is a versatile tool that could save your life. It should fit well in your hand, keep its edge, be sturdy for batoning, and lightweight Montana Knife Company offers many excellent blades, and any one of them would be a good choice for a wilderness trip. I enjoy the sharp point of the Speed Goat for caping and skinning. I love the durability and size of the Super Cub for batoning wood and general chores. Still, the Blackfoot has found its way into my survival kit for its size, weight, and durability. Ultimately, it comes down to personal preference and how you intend to use the blade. The Blackfoot 2.0 has a 3.5″ blade, which is workable and makes the overall length only 7.75″ and weighs only 3.6 oz. The 52100 ball-bearing steel offers excellent durability, edge retention, and easy in-field touch-up. The Kydex sheath can be mounted in several configurations, but I prefer the classic leather sheath produced by Teton Leather company which can be purchased separately. This compact knife fits perfectly into my survival kit, so I know it’s always with me, ready to deploy, and defeats all the excuses to leave it behind. Knives are a personal choice, and I use several depending on the scenario expected. This year the Blackfoot 2.0 has earned the spot in my kit, and I know from training that it won’t let me down. www.montanaknifecompany.com Media Elk Shape Podcast Ep 253 Dan Stanton and I talk about how to stay adaptable during elk season to capitalize on what the hunt provides. We discuss unique sleep systems and elk tactics to try and stack the odds in your favor this season. Listen Now Beyond The Kill Podcast Ep. 392 Adam Janke and I have an in-depth discussion about active insulation, how it works, what to look for, and how to test for integration into your clothing system. This podcast is the deepest I’ve gone into discussing this critical layer. Listen Now Nock On Podcast Ep. 322 John Dudley, Nick DeCastro from Land Trust, and I discuss hunter education, ethics, and mentorship. Listen Now The Word: Calculated Risk My skis slid effortlessly through the ankle-deep snow, making a slight hissing sound as I advanced up the bottom of the imposing valley. Low clouds flirted with the peaks surrounding me, making them ominous as snow floated slowly to the ground. I was excited and nervous as I approached the mountain. The three-mile ski to the base of the route allowed plenty of time for thoughts to bounce around my head. Many unknowns would reveal themselves in the next several hours. I didn’t know if anyone had climbed this obscure line before, so I was unsure how difficult it would be. Would I get halfway up the mountain and become stuck or need to descend? Would the rock be frozen in place for safe passage, and would the fair weather hold long enough? I craved the moment’s gravity and continued skiing the three miles up the valley to confront myself. The recent death of a friend had been unsettling, and I knew to be mindful of my headspace and not push beyond my limits. I contemplated what the new snow would do to the conditions on my face and the heavy conditions on my way down. I calculated it wasn’t accumulating quickly enough to be a factor but filed it away in my mind. I had been in these mountains every week since the snow started accumulating and had a good idea of the snowpack. Still, my training had taught me to be willing to change my hypothesis as conditions evolved. I’d first spied this line a week prior, climbing a new route on this same mountain with a friend. The familiarity with the approach, descent, and conditions mitigated some risks and helped give me confidence. The recent intel had factored heavily into my calculus for attempting this route solo. To move quickly across the landscape, I carried minimal gear. Alaskan winter days are short, and I wanted to be off the mountain before dark. No stove or bivy gear made my margin of error slim, so I needed to be mature enough in my decision-making to turn around if things didn’t align. The climbing revealed itself to be fun and challenging but within my capability. Several times while scratching ice axes and crampons over snow-covered rock, I chose the easier path. I sought an experience only justifiable to myself. The risks taken on that climb were calculated based on years of experience but seem almost inconceivable today in reflection. Our appetite and tolerance for risk can vary based on partners, the terrain, experience, and headspace at the time. To survive, we must understand and accept the risks and then take steps to mitigate the risk to an acceptable level. We must also be brutally honest with who we are, our capabilities, and our partners. Detailed planning, preparation, focused training, and luck are also required. Each time we cast off into the wilderness, there are risks. To think otherwise is naïve. Having a sober approach and taking calculated risks provides our best chance of survival and success.