One of my best friends owns and operates Superior North Outdoor Center, a small bike shop in northern Minnesota. When selling bicycles, he often tells his customers, “light, strong, inexpensive – you can only have two.”
Simply put, you’re often going to make this trade-off when trying to maximize the utility of your gear against the boundaries of your budget. During my ritual packing process for an expedition, I often determine the value of each piece of gear, clothing, and equipment based on two qualities: weight and durability. The remaining factors playing into the equation include breathability, functionality, packability and the specific need or value the item serves. Surprisingly enough, my own arbitrary preference often filters out certain brands as well.
It’s hard to say which quality is most important because they are all interrelated and serve the unique demands of each expedition in their own ways. The truth is, I’ve consistently found exceptions to my own hard rules in the field, but when I’m recapping what elements to of my gear contributed to the success of each expedition, I always seem to come back to the same two factors. Now, let’s explore what I’ve come to know best over the years:
Once, while packing some last minute items for an expedition, my climbing partner told me to just “take it … it doesn’t weigh anything.” I replied, “If you were to pile up all the things that you said don’t weigh anything – and weigh them, it would total a substantial amount.” When you’ll be carrying everything that is essential to your survival in a backpack or on a sled, the weight of your gear, food and clothing items should undergo some heavy scrutiny. While a gram here or there might not seem like a big deal, the accumulation of all those small extra amounts will have an echoing effect on your ability to succeed on an expedition.
It should be important to note that during some of my expeditions, my own comfort or personal preferences have trumped the whole weight issue. The purpose of my Save the Poles expedition is to tell a dynamic story through video, images, and blog posts. The technology I needed to convey this experience was anything but light. Believe me, I’ve spent many days on the Arctic Ocean with my legs tired, back sore, wanting nothing more than to drop my camera gear in the nearest open water. At the same time, there have been other items like a book or extra gloves that I don’t necessarily need, but I’ve brought regardless simply for the comfort they provide – both physically and mentally.
Food weight is a separate problem altogether. If you skimp out on the amount, quality or type of food you’ll be depending on for the next month or so, you will not have enough energy to finish your expedition. Yet, similar to most other weight issues, if you bring too much food, you’ll wear yourself down hauling around all of that excess weight. Therefore, more than gear or other equipment, your expedition menu planning should falls under some rigorous “weight scrutiny”. To maximize efficiency, I shop for foods that contain the highest calories/gram ratios. Butter, for example, is off the charts. We regularly add 50 grams of it to our breakfast oatmeal. However, our bodies can’t function solely on butter; we need a diet that is high in protein, carbohydrates and fat. Make sure to explore these different food categories when preparing yourself for the coming challenges.
While an extremely light gadget or tool might look fresh or sexy and catch my eye, fashion is definitely not the deciding factor when you’re in nature’s territory. For me, any object in my pack has to be both light and durable. In polar travel, you are on the trail for weeks and months. Intensely cold temperatures, repetitive use, Ultra-Violet light, freezing and thawing, abrasions and just normal wear and tear can shred even the most resilient gear. Anything that makes the cut on my list has to pass the toughness inspection. I look at the type and quality of materials, how it was put together and made, the zipper size (hey, it matters!), and check whether it “makes sense” (i.e., if something involves a complicated series of set up procedures it is most likely because it’s not totally durable). The list goes on.
Usually, I choose durability over weight, but that’s just me. For example, MSR’s XGK EX and Whisperlite International both provide excellent expedition cooking stoves. They both can run on a variety of fuels and each has a larger diameter generator that vaporizes fuel quickly in the extreme cold. In this case, the Whisperlight International is lighter and burns substantially quieter but I still prefer the XGK for its bomb-proof construction. Again, durability reigns king.
It is important to note that some durability issues can be overcome by simple procedural solutions. If I’m taking something I know is somewhat fragile, I come up with a standardized plan for how I’ll be using it. In polar travel, I make a special second wind screen/heat exchanger for my cook pot and an elongated stove board to get the most out of my fuels, increase my cooking efficiency and stabilize the cooking system. These makeshift tools are both somewhat fragile, but anything more durable would be way to0 heavy. With this truth in mind, I set up a series of basic routines for setting up, taking down, packing up and storing the board and screen. On four separate polar expeditions these items have never failed me, even though I would consider both of them on the more fragile side, as far as expedition-grade equipment goes.
Each quality plays a stronger role for different types of equipment. For example, most modern expedition clothing is incredibly light, so when I’m choosing the right garments I hardly ever look at weight first. Instead, I focus more on quality of construction, ease of use in extreme conditions and, most importantly- breathability. In polar travel, we are constantly managing body temperature to prevent overheating. Unchecked sweat and moisture builds up in clothing and freezes completely. Fabrics like Gore-Tex eventually freeze and cease to function altogether. Choosing between big gloves with zippers vs. mittens, the type, variety and placement of pockets, and lastly, the glove fit, length and cut can all be deal breakers if they don’t meet the specific demands of the expedition.
Because so much of my comfort and success depends on the gear I use, I am constantly reevaluating my equipment’s performance and function. After 15 years of expeditions, I have developed some go-to standards. Still, it is important to keep an open mind and to track the innovation of gear manufacturers, especially when you’re taking on new challenges.