Just when you thought you were done with any new flavor of “packing”, let me add another one…

Backpacking on skis

Background

I’m a hiker. If I consider myself a mountaineer it’s because the mountains offer the best hiking. They’re often the only place with some sort of wilderness-like environment. I rock-climb too and I’m comfortable in the steep stuff but I don’t seek the vertical for the sake of it. My emphasis is on the trip and I’ll commonly look for the easiest way through.

With this philosophy I take on both summer and winter conditions and the gear choices somehow reflect this approach. I find this latter fact interesting: there seems to be little feedback between summer and winter as soon as you get into the technical stuff.

Skiing is a rather technical winter activity but I take it as a means of moving efficiently in the snowy mountains. Also for the fun of it and because I find it incredibly elegant. Skiing as a means of transport is a common practice in the northern regions where snow is found all over the place, not so much further south where the snow is a mountain thing and skiing takes a rather sporty, out and back feel.

All this to illustrate why it may be that there is a wealth of information on travelling the long distance on skis over the gentle rolling hills but not so much on the alpine terrain. And this latter is what I (must) do if I mean to stay local.

Ski-packing on the alpine

I’ve never pulled a pulka behind me but it looks like a much gentler way of carrying the weight than on your back, just not suitable for steep terrain. Carried weight is never free but it appears as far more critical when you take it all on your back. A heavy weight is not only physically demanding and uncomfortable, it may also be tricky or even dangerous depending on conditions (steep terrain, hard-frozen snow…). On the other hand, winter is not the time for compromises and the stupid-light boundary is much closer to normal than it is in summer.

No pulka here

The intended activity framework here is about staying in the snow for the length of the trip with no support and no base camp. For anyone used to backpacking in any of its flavors (fast, slack, ultra, whatever), ski-packing is a new challenge at building an optimal gear list that ticks all the boxes: light, efficient, safe, satisfactory… elegant (never forget elegance)

It’s winter technical and it’s backpacking. It’s both things. It’s got specific packing style.

Winter vs Summer

Differences are obvious here, similarities are more interesting. Approaching winter with a backpacking mindset is something that only summer backpackers can do.

Ski vs walking

Changing the means of transport has an influence on where you go. In alpine terrain, walking climbers will typically find added value in steep gullies and getting to places of difficult access. Getting down will be nearly as much work. When on skis, that basin below will be easier to get to and it’ll feel like the obvious place for tonight’s camp: room for a spacious tent.

Weight vs Function

This is the most typical backpacking issue. We aim for less weight and more function. Both terms are not necessarily mutually exclusive but there’ll come a point at which they’ll be. Then we need to get to a compromise.

Such compromise is not a red line. It’s rather a shades of grey area. Anyone would probably agree that function is always first and that weight reductions don’t mean a thing if you lose the function but this is not the full answer. It’s a bit more complex than that.

Ski-packing will typically demand a different position in the grey area than general backpacking does.

Safety margin

This is where the grey area stand materializes. Winter will demand greater care. Not only it is the Stupid Light boundary lower: it’s also that the potential consequences of a trespass are more serious.

Volume

Winter is cold. Ski-packing demands more insulation than general backpacking and insulation is bulky. A ski-packing pack is bound to be a big one, even if it’s not particularly heavy.

Fiddle factor

Fiddling with stuff is hardly ever funny or welcome. It may be little more than a minor inconvenience while backpacking. The same fiddle factor may be hellish or even dangerous while ski-packing.

Additionally, you may need to wear gloves while handling stuff. As much surprising as it is how much delicate things you can do with gloves on, winter is not the time for tiny knobs.

Winter strongly demands gear that’s rugged and easy to use. At the cost of you know what.

Gear

The goal here is commenting on gear from the ski-packing perspective, see how the activity may influence the gear even if only subtly. Vs summer or vs other winter flavors.

An example of a complete gear list is at the end of the text.

Shelter

We absolutely need our shelter to be storm worthy and easy to set up. Winter conditions in the alpine will be tougher than average across all seasons/terrains and there’s the potential for catastrophe scenarios. Our shelter must be worthy of (most of) them. It is also key that it can be set up under such tough conditions: shelters are often at their weakest while they’re being put up or taken down and some designs are better than others in this regard. On top of that, winter days are short and outside conditions tougher on average than in the summer so we don’t want a lengthy, fiddly process for setting shelter up. In summer, it can be fun. In winter, it’s critical.

Heavily framed shelters are solid but heavy and they’re usually tough to set up in high wind conditions. Pyramids are light, simple and so aerodynamic that they can take a beating. They’d need some frequent attention during heavy snowfall that can mostly be done from inside.

Tunnels are simple enough and very solid if properly oriented and anchored.

Both pyramids and tunnels rely heavily on proper anchoring. This can mostly be done while the shelter is still flat on the ground so both geometries are good for setting up under high wind conditions.

A small dome may be fine in all aspects except livability: not the best idea beyond an overnight. Make it any bigger and it starts to suffer everywhere else. Leave the domes for base camp expeditions or any kind of extended trip where weight is not so critical.

3 anchor points, rock solid

Pack

We need a big pack. Not so much a big carrier but surely a big sized pack. Insulation items alone are bulky, no matter how much they can compress. It’ll be cold and you’ll need insulation that can cope. Then there’s the hardware, some of which fits nicely outside (ice axe, shovel handle), some other (foot crampons, ski crampons) not so. Crampons have a particularly high volume/weight ratio, even if they’re heavy metal, due to the odd shapes. The temptation to lash them outside is an obvious one. I don’t find this a particularly good idea.

I recently studied the difference between summer and winter packing. I found it’s not that much about weight as it is about volume. A simple pack may do as a ski pack, even a frameless one, but it’ll need to be rather high volume.

The pack will need to be abrasion resistant. Apart from the rugged stuff inside, it’ll get dragged over the snow sooner or later. Leave the silnylon for summer.

Waterproofness is not necessary.

Simple design, big size

Stationary insulation

Skiing is an intense activity. Even in low temps, you can usually be fine with limited layers on if there’s no wind but as soon as you stop, you’ll need insulation. Be stationary for any length of time and you’ll need thick insulation.

Being cold is not an option. Ski packing is hard enough even if you’re comfortable. Don’t skimp on insulation. Don’t count on keeping active to avoid getting cold so you can skimp on stationary insulation.

Cooking

Combustion is a chemical reaction among gases. This may get tricky when gases refuse to be gases and insist on turning to liquid, as it happens with some compounds when it’s cold enough. The obvious choice then is those heavy hydrocarbons that are liquids also in mild temperatures anyway. You know, those that require heavy stoves and a rather fiddly priming process.

Whatever the fuel, winter worthy stoves tend to be heavy, bulky or both, often unnecessarily. So there’s hope.

The key is in getting to burn gas, i.e. fuel that’s not liquid nor solid. Gas is easy to burn and the burner required gets really simple. Such as this:

The Caffin stove. Built to be light

It’s only 90 gr, just barely heavier than the lightest screw-on, “summer” burners. It was built to be as light as possible. It allows liquid feed.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to find a stove like this available commercially but there are options that keep to the idea, just using less of a fringe design and that are still reasonably light. This is a good example:

MSR Windpro

Despite the wind mention in the name, the defining feature of this burner is the pre-heat tube that allows a liquid feed. It’s actually an interesting option as the bigger size and mass make it more stable, safer and less fiddly than the tiny wonder above. It’s 200 gr light.

The idea with these gas burners is that a brief, initial lapse of gas feed is enough to get the stove going, then you can keep a liquid feed. Keeping the canister within your (worn) clothing for a few minutes can be enough to get the initial gas feed.

The system is almost just as simple and light as any lightweight gas burner.

Windscreen intentionally missing

Snow/Ice specific gear

The focus being on the ski, ice axe and foot crampons are still a must, even if you don’t mean to use them, they’re essential items in the winter mountains. Lightweight versions should be fine even though this depends heavily on location, plans and conditions.

It’s all about compromises. As usual. The ski-packing compromise may involve something like this: you’ll not go on the steepest, most difficult route for the sake of it and most likely you won’t need anything more than the ski crampons but things may get tricky and you must have the tools. Axe and spikes are not a cosmetic burden imposed by the organization: they must work when needed.

Aluminium works well for me. It’s not ideal for thick, compact ice but it’ll get you over the occasional ice section fine with a bit of extra attention. Hard-packed, frozen snow, most likely to be found than ice, is fine for Alu tools. You’ll hear mountaineers despising aluminium for any kind of serious use: don’t believe them. They’re in a different use case and they don’t realize.

I use the following items:

Camp XLC 490 crampons at 490 gr/pair

 

Camp XLA 210 ice axe at 270 gr in the 60 cm version

You’ll never be tempted to leave them behind. In case of need they’ll work.

Ski-packing it is

For those of us that can only find the snow in the mountains, travelling on skis is not as straightforward as it may be in gentler terrain. The naming is just anecdotal but the activity is singular enough to deserve it. Most important of all, it feels such an elegant way of moving over the territory. Just choose your lines well: 6 ft long feet turn from elegance to burden real quick.

Gear list

Complete gear list for a winter ski-pack