8 Hard-Earned Lessons on Backcountry Gear
Wisdom gained by trying, and sometimes failing, to stay comfortable outdoors
Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
I get to spend a lot of time outdoors. And I like to do that as far away from other people as possible, which often means spending that time in cold, wet, remote places. To stay comfortable and safe, I’m constantly rethinking and refining my gear, often through trial and error. Here’s what I’ve learned in the last year. It’s enabled me to go a little farther, a little more easily. I hope these lessons can do the same for your next adventure.
Backcountry Gear: What You Need and Why You Need It
1. When it comes to insulation, reliability is more important than packability.
Despite repeated efforts, nobody has ever managed to make synthetic insulation material that truly matches the lightness or compressibility of natural down. At the same time, and again despite repeated efforts, nobody has ever managed to make a treatment for down that genuinely enables it to remain warm when wet. So when you’re packing for a trip somewhere wet and cold, it makes sense to sacrifice a weight, and a space in your pack, to bring along clothing insulated with synthetic. It just does more to keep you warm no matter what. And deep in the backcountry, that reliability is not just a matter of coziness; it may be the difference between life and death.
Sitka’s new Kelvin Aerolite Jacket ($300) uses a new insulation from PrimaLoft that employs fibers made with aerogel. Those fibers trap air even when compressed, so the Aerolite isn’t just warm when wet—it retains its insulation even when it’s compacted by your other layers, a pack, or your body weight, too.
2. With knives, the handle comfort and carry system matter more than the blade.
Carrying a fixed-blade knife—one with no moving parts—is the smart decision outdoors. It eliminates any potential for failure in your most critical tool. That said, fixed-blade knives are long and awkward to carry. Sheaths that hang from your belt often interfere with your backpack’s waist strap, creating a hot spot that can rub and cause discomfort over many miles. So I like to carry a knife in a sheath that can instead mount to the pack’s shoulder strap. There it’s easily accessible but out of the way.
Using a knife to process firewood, clean an animal, or build a shelter is often arduous work. One slip can also spell disaster. It’s for those reasons that handle grip and comfort are all-important.
In my experience, the easiest knife to carry and the most comfortable one to use is the 1.7-ounce Montana Knife Company Speedgoat ($225). Its Kydex sheath is purpose-built to mount to a pack’s shoulder strap, and its paracord-wrapped handle is big enough to entirely fill my large palm while remaining tractive even when wet. The ultrathin 0.095-inch-thick blade isn’t the strongest, but as long as you’re careful to avoid prying forces, it’ll still get through a large branch with aplomb and is totally at home performing fine work inside a carcass.
3. Make clean water portable and convenient.
One of the advantages of spending so much time in cold, wet environments is that a good water source is never that far away. Water is both heavy (a gallon weighs 8.3 pounds) and incompressible, so I try to carry as little as possible. A liter weighs only 2.2 pounds and is small enough to fit into a large cargo pocket on a pair of pants. But if you have to stop and spend five minutes pumping a mechanical filter to refill it, that liter can feel super inconvenient.
For the last year, I’ve been carrying Platypus’s new Quickdraw Microfilter system ($45). It adds only 3.3 ounces to the weight of the water itself, and it includes both a soft one-liter bottle and a hollow-fiber microfilter that doubles as the lid. When I need to fill it, all I do is remove that filter, dip the bottle in a stream, mud puddle, or cattle trough, then drink through the filter.
Platypus is owned by Cascade Designs, the company that owns MSR, and the Quickdraw was designed and is made in the same Seattle, Washington, facility. MSR runs the largest water lab in the world and makes both consumer products and all the water-filtration systems for the military. Filters designed and produced there are the only ones I trust to keep me safe. And like all MSR filters, the Platypus will never let unfiltered water into your bottle. This system isn’t just lightweight and convenient, it’s also reliable.
4. Whiskey is worth the weight.
Stuck on the Alaskan tundra somewhere west of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for seven very wet, very cold days last August, I quickly ran out of whiskey. I wish I’d devoted the pack space necessary to bring twice as much. A little booze just has a way of relieving boredom, and it would have made the realization that the caribou migration was still weeks from beginning that much less frustrating.
5. Get insulation from your boots, not your socks.
No matter how thick they are, socks compress inside your boots, limiting the amount of insulation they’re able to provide. Whatever the weather, I wear thin merino wool socks that dry quickly, always pack more pairs than I’ll need, and then rely on insulated boots and insoles to provide warmth. Built into the boot, a quality synthetic insulation is what will get you down deep into subzero conditions—or just make walking around town when it’s snowing that much more comfortable.
When conditions really get gnarly, I slip on a pair of Lacrosse Alpha Burly Pro rubber boots insulated with 1,600-gram Thinsulate Ultra ($225). They’re big and heavy, so I won’t use them for much more than vehicle or boat travel. For human-powered adventures, I use a pair of Salomon Toundra Pros ($200), which are built like heavyweight hikers but insulated with aerogel. Above zero when I’ve really got to bag mileage (and also around town because they look nice), I wear a pair of Lowa Hunter Evo Extremes ($475) paired with a set of Superfeet Merino insoles. My feet have never been happier.
6. Spend your money where it matters: your feet.
Speaking of expensive boots, those dollar amounts are a lot less frightening when you picture your feet staying dry, warm, and protected days into a challenging trip. A little over a year ago, I took the plunge and upgraded from a pair of mass-manufactured textile boots to a $270 pair of Lowa Baldo GTXs handmade in Germany. I’ve barely taken them off since, except to wear my trail runners or the boots described above. And I haven’t gotten a single blister or bruised toe in that time. Much to my wife’s chagrin, I even wear them to nice restaurants and dive bars. They feel like such a natural part of my body that wearing anything else feels wrong.
The soles are nearly worn out now, but in what must total several hundred miles of wear, absolutely nothing else has gone wrong with them. No stitch has popped, no campfire has melted any part of them, and no water has ever gotten through the membrane. And more important, I haven’t once tripped, twisted an ankle, or landed awkwardly after leaping over a stream or fallen log. The value proposition here has become clear. The Baldo is now discontinued, but once I figure out which model Lowa has replaced it with, I’m going to place an order. I’ll also buy a new pair of Superfeet Flex insoles, which fit these low-volume boots perfectly while adding to the support they provide.
7. Always wear Polartec Alpha.
I’ve written about it at length before, but Polartec Alpha remains the most breathable midlayer on Planet Earth. And that means you’ll want to wear it in virtually any conditions that aren’t midday summer heat. Made from lofted synthetic fibers held together by a mesh chassis, Alpha is so open you can read a book through it. That means there’s no resistance to escaping heat and moisture when you’re active, but at the same time, that loft is capable of trapping more warm air than traditional fleece when you’re static. There’s also nothing here to absorb any water whatsoever, so paired with the right base layer and shell, Alpha will keep you totally free from sweat buildup and won’t retain any precipitation.
There are a lot of midlayers made from Alpha available from brands like Beyond and Sitka. They’re all good, but nothing is better than the Rab Alpha Flash jacket ($125). Forgoing any face fabric, the Rab is simply free to offer all the benefits the material can provide, because it’s just Alpha and a zipper. It may look a little fragile, but I’ve been wearing mine for three years now, and it’s still got at least that much life in it yet.
8. Make your base layers as thin as possible.
Let’s quickly recap the role each layer plays within your system. Your shell keeps weather out, your puffy provides static insulation, your midlayer provides active insulation, and your base layers move moisture away from your body. Used correctly, those layers together can keep you comfortable and alive as conditions and activity levels change outdoors.
In the context of that system, it makes sense to wear the thinnest base layers possible, ones that will dry out quickly. Not only does this approach allow you to instantly cool down by stripping everything else, but it fosters good performance from every other layer.
Whereas a thick base layer may keep you too warm under a hard shell in a rainstorm, causing you to sweat and then hang onto that moisture, a thin base layer will create less sweat and hang onto whatever you do produce for less time. That thin layer will then enable your Polartec Alpha midlayer to better evacuate what moisture reaches it, helping to keep you dry. And the drier you are outdoors, the warmer and more comfortable you’ll stay.
Because they dry virtually instantaneously, even after they’ve been submerged, I prefer wearing the synthetic Sitka Core Lightweight base layers (from $69) in all conditions. I wear them under my jeans when I go out to eat in cold weather, I wear them under the full system when hiking in Glacier National Park in the dead of winter, I wear them when I go skiing, and I take them on summer backpacking trips so I can sleep in them.
Of course, I also wear them hunting. Last fall, I made the mistake of forgetting my rain shells one day, and found myself chasing an elk miles down a mountain during an unexpected snowstorm. I didn’t get him, but I did get absolutely soaked to the bone. Beginning to experience the first symptoms of hypothermia, I was facing a two-hour hike back to the ATV, then an hourlong, blustery ride back to my truck before I could reach an external source of warmth and a change of clothes. But the heat my body generated climbing back up that mountain pushed all the water out of the Sitka base layers in about 15 minutes, at which point they provided just enough insulation to keep my body functioning all the way back to camp. By the time I crawled into the truck’s heated seats, my hands were so cold that I struggled to work the key fob, but I did get there, and that was all that mattered. Good gear really can save your life.