The farther you go into the backcountry, the more fatigued you’ll feel dragging along heavy gear. Here’s how to lighten your load without sacrificing performance.
You know the feeling. You’re slogging like an Everest climber in the Death Zone up the skin track, one leaden foot in front of the other, not sure if that clicking sound is your bindings or your heart valves about to give out. You look up and see your friend and partner (who you’re sure, at this point, must possess bionic legs) 200 yards in front of you, paused mid-stride, looking back. It’s too far to be certain, especially with your vision blurred by the effort, but his expression seems a mix of impatience and genuine worry.
“Are you OK?”
“I thought you toured a lot.”
If you have no concept of events like these, the rest of this article will sound just as alien. Also, I hate you, because I’m that guy: the caboose, the tail-gunner, the reason a four-lap tour gets cut down to two. And in my misery and solitude, I’ve had some time to think about why I’m so slow. Part of that comes down to training (fewer après beers, more salads), but part of it is equipment.
There’s a concept in auto racing called “un-sprung weight,” which is the combined weight of your tires, wheels, and brakes. The heavier they are, the less responsive your suspension will be because the springs and shocks have to deal with more mass bouncing up and down every time you hit a pothole. The same applies to touring: from the waist down, every gram gets picked up and put down hundreds of times an hour, leaving you more tired with every step.
The Internet says there are about 2,000 steps in a mile. I’m not a calculator, but even I can figure out that one extra ounce per boot adds 250 pounds of dead weight per mile. Lighten your load by just that much, and you’ll be faster and less tired at the summit, which in turn means you won’t ski like shit on the way down. Here’s how to do it:
Tech touring bindings are easily the number-one way to lighten your touring setup. Tech systems use a lightweight fixed toe pivot and a releasable heel to keep weight on the ski, not the boot. Dynafit is the juggernaut in this arena, but companies like G3 and PLUM are making inroads in the tech binding industry. The interface—two steel pins that lock into metal fittings on the boot toe—may look flimsy compared to alpine bindings, but tests have shown that it is one of the stiffest and strongest connections out there. Recognizing the shift toward freeride, Dynafit has come up with some pretty burly options, including the Beast, a monster of a binding with a 16 release value that will handle anything you can throw its way.
A few years ago, you’d have been hard pressed to find a touring ski wider than 100mm underfoot. A lot has changed, and wide, light skis are now the rage. Even the big companies like Volkl and K2 are making fatties with a focus on feathery weight, but my favorite has to be the new Moment Exit World, which takes a killer rockered freeride ski design and swaps in a paulownia wood core to shave away half a pound per pair.
If you’ve been touring in alpine boots, it’s time to save up and switch over to a touring-specific design. There are plenty of stiff, supportive boots available that are lighter (not to mention more mobile) than your plug shells. The Dynafit Vulcan seems to be the current Holy Grail for lightweight stiffness, but its price tag puts it out of range for many. Black Diamond, Scarpa, and La Sportiva have all made burlier boots to meet the increasing demand, while classic alpine companies like Salomon, Dalbello, Tecnica, and Nordica have all stepped in with tech-compatible walk-mode touring designs for rippers, though these tend to land on the heavier side.
Lightening your poles may sound silly, but when you think about it, you’re toting a metal stick in each hand uphill along with the rest of your gear. Go adjustable, and you’ll be more comfortable as you work sideways across the slope. Go carbon, and you’ll never look back. Black Diamond, LEKI, Swix, and Salomon (among others) all make adjustable carbon poles specifically for the backcountry enthusiast.
Winter packs are made to take a beating, and that makes them heavy. Lightweight touring packs can drop over a pound off your back without sacrificing anything in terms of performance. If you use an Avalung or an airbag, pick the version that balances weight and storage best for your needs. If not, seek out a sleek top-loading alpine pack with fewer weighty bells and whistles. For more information on ski touring packs check out Picking the Right Ski Touring Pack
Softshell pants and jackets not only breathe and stretch better than hardshell outerwear, they’re also usually cut a bit closer to the body for weight savings and packability. If you carry a spare layer in your pack, make it a lightweight down or synthetic hooded jacket. Choose lighter gloves since they often come off during the ascent, and if you bring a helmet, make it a lightweight one like the Smith Maze, K2 Rival, or Bern Thin Shell. To learn more information on choosing the right outerwear check out What the Hell is a Softshell and A Guide to Jacket Insulation.
There’s no substitute for fitness and practice. The number one reason my friends beat me up the hill is that they’re in better shape than I am. Don’t ignore your body in the shoulder season: hit the gym and the stationary bike when it’s wet out, and find a dog to motivate you to get outside even when the sky is gray. Ski fitness programs abound, and even finding an overall fitness program will help if it’s different from your usual training. Also, practice. Tour more, and you’ll tour better: mastering the most efficient stride (e.g., dragging your toes, kicking with your heels) will let you cover more distance, keep more weight on the ground, and keep your legs fresher when you hit the summit. Be sure to pre-hydrate, and bring water and high-energy snacks to maintain your blood sugar levels under exertion.
There’s no law stating you have to have the best and latest gear to enter the backcountry. If you can’t afford to upgrade your setup, take a look at your current situation and figure out what you can leave behind the next time you head out. Remember the two-ounces-equals-250-pounds-per-mile rule, and you’ll definitely find something to shave from your pack or person. Remember: the less tired you are at the top, the smoother you’ll ski on the way down and the more energy you’ll have for another lap. Not to mention the photos will turn out better. Now get out there and get it.