Gear Guy

How Do I Pack to Be Fast and Light?


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I can’t think of a better alpinist to answer this question than Steve House—guide, author, Patagonia ambassador, and founder of the Alpine Mentors Program.

House has climbed some of the highest peaks in the world with his remarkably clean, fast, and light style. The Oregon native and his climbing partner, Vince Anderson, were the first North Americans to win alpinism’s most prestigious award—the Piolet d’Or—for their 2005 ascent of the Central Pillar of the Rupal Face of Nanga Parbat. 

And he’s all about sharing his knowledge. Alpine Mentors Program—an intensive nonprofit training program for young alpinists—will finish its first class in October. House and Anderson also offer a winter climbing class, a large section of which is devoted to covering proper clothing and equipment.  

I spoke with House in Chamonix, France to get his gear tips for traveling fast and light in an alpine environment. You don’t have to be a wannabe alpinist to benefit from his teachings—his advice will help you move fast and light in almost any outdoor setting.

Be Fit and Efficient

Before recommending any gear, House defined fitness and efficiency as two distinct categories. “People put a lot of importance on gear, but I think the most important thing in climbing [is to be] fast and light yourself,” says House. “A really skilled, fit climber can basically use any gear he wants and probably be faster than anybody.”

Anyone can work on staying fit in the gym, but efficiency is another matter. House will challenge clients to climb a 30-foot section of ice in as few moves as possible. “If you’re the guy who spends a tiny amount of energy to send those 30 feet, then you’re not going to be tired. It doesn’t matter if your pack is light or heavy at that point,” House says.

Think Multi-Use

Don’t carry any gear that can’t be used in multiple ways. House thinks about versatility even when packing his first-aid kit. Because tape serves many purposes, it has a permanent home in House’s kit. Look at gear that’s absolutely essential to your activity from a multi-use perspective, too. Rope is the perfect example, says House. There are thousands of ways to use it, and it’s both a critical and versatile piece of equipment.

Be Smart About Calories

What you eat depends on how much you’ll be exerting yourself and that depends on how fit you are. “If you’re redlining all day, all you can deal with is carbohydrates,” says House. In these instances, he chooses food he can digest quickly like gels. A good rule of thumb is to consume about 100 calories (or one gel) every hour.   

If You Plan to Sweat, Go Synthetic

House almost always uses synthetic insulation. “When you’re working hard enough that you’re sweating and you put on a down jacket, that sweat goes into the down. And unless it’s Encapsil [hydrophobic] down, that down is going to get wet and not insulate anymore,” House says.

A wet jacket can put you in serious danger when you’re hiking in the winter. That’s where synthetic insulation’s fast dry time comes in handy.

Three Strikes, It’s Out

If you take an item on a climb and don’t use it once, it gets red flagged. If you go on three trips without using the product, remove it from your pack. The only exception? A first-aid kit. “That’s something that you hope you never have to use, but probably will always carry,” House says. “But if there are things I don’t use, I get rid of them.”

Keep it Simple

“It’s the old KISS principle, right? Everything complicated is heavy,” House explained. You can even apply this principal to buying a backpack. If you find a pack loaded with extra features, think about how those bells and whistles will slow you down on the trail. That wasted energy can mean more than just some huffing and puffing. “I want to have that energy available for climbing the mountain and getting down safely.” House says.