In my younger days, I went overseas to discover the Alps and their incredible surroundings. How frustrating it was, however, to discover that my backpack broke during traveling, leaving my trekking plan entirely up to my gear repair skills. After a few limited adjustments, I was able to wear it, but the weight was distributed mostly on my shoulders instead of the hips. This is a minor difference for a quick trip, but a significant one for a 2-week trek.
Trekking in the Italian Alps with a broken backpack.
Carrying both camping and mountaineering gear while being a naïve and untrained youth, I came back home two weeks later with an injured left shoulder and a final unsuccessful climb. Needless to say, I was disappointed — but extremely determined to make it my first and last gear mistake.
Outdoor items are specifically designed to be as ergonomic as possible and provide security and efficiency in the mountains. Making slight mistakes about them can go unnoticed for a while but can lead to serious injuries over long-term use.
Let’s dive into 3 of the most important items to use meticulously in the outdoors.
Nasty weather in the Switzerland backcountry.
A backpack is, in my opinion, the core of any adventure. Comfort, durability, and versatility are some of the many qualities that are required from our backpack no matter the activity. However, we often forget a crucial matter about them — ergonomics.
A heavy pack (about 20kg and up) means an elevated center of mass which results in different working muscle groups. An increase in the trunk, hip, and dorsi/plantar flexors are the main ones. We also often find a reduction in the knee flexor range of motion (ROM).
What does it mean exactly? The quads cannot work at the best of their ability when wearing a heavy pack, and therefore have to transfer some load to the psoas muscle (a major hip flexor).
- Increase cadence and reduce stride length will help split the load to major muscle groups instead of stabilizer ones, allowing you to reduce fatigue.
Heavy load carrying remains a great training during off-seasons.
- The hip belts don’t simply add comfort, but they also assist with the deceleration and reversal of the loaded thorax, allowing for better stability.
Climbing route at 4200m in Switzerland.
An entire sleeping system normally includes a sleeping pad, a sleeping bag, and a shelter. Together, they form your best ally against the worst nights and ever-changing conditions. But how come we can find ourselves with high-quality gear and still spend some frustrating nights in the backcountry?
First of all, let’s look at our sleeping strategy as a global system. When sleeping, the body produces heat, and the sleeping system has the unique task of preventing this heat from getting away. Each piece of gear has its own crucial role to play in this situation:
Entire sleeping system for multiple backcountry nights.
They are more suited to insulate your top surface because the bottom is somewhat crushed under the weight of the sleeper.
They are more suited to insulate your bottom surface. In opposition to bags, they have a structure to support body weight and allow the internal insulation to remain effective. Some sleeping pad architecture also allows a percentage of the sleeping bag insulation to remain lofted and, in turn, increase your heat retention. NEMO's Flyer™ does a great job at this.
Despite their protection against the elements, shelters can be seen as a hardshell, another piece of layering that serves as insulation and moisture management.
The Dragonfly™ 1P in the early morning.
If you only consider the bag for warmth, heat will still find its way out through your bottom surface area, resulting in a cold and frustrating night. The more the body has to fight through thermoregulation, the more it burns calories and loses energy, which are vital elements in the backcountry. This is where layering comes in handy as the more layers you have the more precise you can be with temperature regulation.
Layering is key during cold winter days.
Let’s have a quick look at distinct situations that might give you some ideas for your bombproof sleeping system:
A general indication of two pads' warmth would be to add the cumulative R-Values and see if they exceed the specific season. For example, a cumulative R-Value of 3.3 would be adequate for a 3-season sleeping system, but not warm enough for a 4-season one.
The Hornet™ Elite & Dragonfly™ are both ready for a cold night out.
Whether we’re running, hiking, or climbing, footwear remains the cruelest item with the ability to completely ruin an adventure. Inflammation, blisters, and abrasions are some of the most common foot injuries in the backcountry — all closely related to footwear.
Heavy-duty footwear sometimes is required for technical adventures.
Let’s dive into the not-so-obvious differences between footwear categories from various scientifical articles around running circumstances.
- Minimalist shoes have been associated with shortened stride length and increase cadence, which are both important factors in economic and high-speed running.
- Heelstrike landing, which has been associated with high-cushion shoes, may limit the ability to transfer kinetic energy to elastic energy. Minimalist shoes allow for a more efficient energy exchange.
- Some studies suggest that oxygen uptake during running increases by 1% for every 100g added per foot.
- There is no correlation between high-cushion shoes and ankle injury prevention.
Minimalist shoes during a very long day out.
In summary, your walking pattern is an extremely natural function and footwear that is altering this task may eventually lead to ligament or tendon injuries. Feet are complex, yet extremely strong structures that demand training just like the core. There is, unfortunately, no straight answer to which type of footwear one must prioritize — as it’s your feet and your training regimen that will determine what works best under your own circumstances.
From personal experience, minimalist shoes helped get me through several ultra-distances with spicy climbs, some that I couldn’t imagine doing with any other type of footwear.
Minimalist shoes for technical routes.
If used correctly, gear should help you maximize security and efficiency in the mountains for you to fully enjoy your adventures.
Here are 3 key takeaways to keep in mind about equipment:
- Always try out the gear before the big day. Look for discomforts — if it appears after an hour, be sure to know it’ll be painful after 3 hours!
- Expensive doesn’t necessarily mean better. Look for what you really need rather than what the item has to offer!
- Equipment remains secondary. Knowledge and experience will always be the dominant factors that you should prioritize at all times.
Gear won’t make you better — practice will.
Type I fun in the heart of the Alps.
Tristan Hogue is a mountain enthusiast, student, and trail runner based in Montreal. He hopes to inspire others to live their dreams by exposing himself to unique and challenging projects around the world and passing on his wealth of training techniques and practices. Follow him on Instagram at @trist.hogue.