What clothes, computer, ice axe, and backpack does a photographer and writer for an adventure travel site fall back on when he’s going to be going up against the unpredictability of nature, while travelling unsupported around the world? This is the best of the best, the stuff I took with me to adventure around the globe, and how it performed.
Four months ago, my friend Daniel Bruce Lee and I embarked on the journey of a lifetime that took us around the world. We watched the sunset from the most epic ledge on earth. I nearly died on a glacier while we endured the worst weather Iceland could throw at us. Daniel and I summited a 20,305′ Himalayan peak; I vomited on the way down.
I only had the slightest idea of what we were getting ourselves into; but I knew that it would be cold, wet, and that we’d be experiencing a taste of the harshest environments on earth. We prepared the best that we could; this is the gear that kept us alive, warm, and dry — and allowed us to share these epic stories with you.
Jacket: Mountain Hardwear Alchemy Hooded Jacket ($US395)
The Alchemy is a waterproof, breathable softshell jacket designed for alpine climbing. It uses MHW’s Dry.Q Elite technology to achieve hardshell-like performance, while still providing excellent mobility, comfort, and ventilation. I wrapped myself up in the Alchemy whenever conditions outside got gnarly. Rain, wind, sleet, snow — it didn’t matter — while wearing the jacket, I truly felt protected. Ample pockets kept my camera filters, snacks, and phone close; the hood provided excellent coverage for when the weather turned to shit. The only downside is that the Alchemy is heavy. It weighs 1 lb, 7 oz — about as much as a dedicated softshell and hardshell combined.
Pants: Patagonia Alpine Guide ($US229)
These pants were bulletproof, figuratively speaking. I wore them every single day for three months; only washed them twice. They didn’t even smell. No patch wore through. Not a single stitch came undone — though I put them through hell.
The Alpine Guide pants utilise Polartec Power Shield, a softshell fabric that provides hardshell-like protection from rain, wind, snow, and abrasion — while remaining highly breathable, flexible, and comfortable, even in calmer conditions.
They feature two zippered handwarmer pockets and one thigh pocket, articulated knees, a built-in waist buckle, and reinforced leg cuffs for crampon protection.
Base Layers: Icebreaker Oasis Longsleeve Turtleneck ($US100) & Leggings w/Fly ($US90)
Made from Icebreaker’s 200-weight merino, I wore these babies day-in, day-out. They helped regulate my body temperature throughout trekking and climbing from the ’70s to below zero. I only carried one pair; didn’t wash them often, yet they remained odor-free thanks to the natural properties of wool. They held their shape throughout the trip; no seams gave out.
Insulation: Mountain Hardwear Super Compressor Hooded Jacket ($US295)
The Super Compressor is a lightweight, synthetic-insulated belay jacket. It’s stuffed with MHW’s Thermal.Q Elite insulation, which mimics the structure of down to create the highest warmth-to-weight ratio available in synthetic insulation; because it’s synthetic, the Super Compressor maintains it’s insulative properties when wet, making it great for climbing in damp environments like the North Cascades and Iceland. The jacket uses a new proprietary construction technique that eliminates draft at the seams, therefore increasing warmth without increasing weight. It packs into its own pocket for storage. Paired with the Ghost Whisperer Down Jacket I stayed warm even during my coldest adventures.
Insulation: Outdoor Research Floodlight ($US395)
Outdoor Research wrapped some 800-fill down in a completely waterproof Pertex Quantum shell to create the Floodlight, a waterproof down jacket. The Floodlight is right at home in cold wet conditions like those we dealt with in Iceland. In order to achieve waterproof warmth, Outdoor Research seamlessly bonded the baffles (instead of sewing) so no moisture can get through. This jacket was one of Daniel’s favourite pieces of gear – he’d often forgo a rain jacket in favour of the Floodlight when the sky fell out.
Rain Shells: OR Helium II Jacket ($US150), Pants ($US120)
These are some of the lightest and most compact rain shells that you can get your hands on. The jacket clocks in at 6.4 oz; the pants at 5.9 oz and each packs down to the size of an orange. They’re completely waterproof, breathable, lightweight, and compact – a holy grail item.
Gloves: Mountain Hardwear Hydra Pro OutDry ($US130)
These were well-designed and comfortable, but while climbing Imja Tse, my fingers got really cold. And the waterproofing wasn’t the best. They would easily shed snow and ice, but actual rain soaked through.
Shoes: Adidas Outdoor Conrax & Terrex Fastshell
Daniel and I tried out a couple pairs of shoes from Adidas Outdoors‘ new winter line. Daniel runs cold, so he wore the Conrax, a heavy-duty winter boot with 200g of Primaloft Gold insulation. I wore the Terrex Fastshell,which is more like a lightly-insulated trail runner. Both offered great protection against the cold, snow, and ice and featured a quick-lace system similar to those found on Salomon hiking shoes. The quick lace system was really convenient, but one of Daniel’s laces broke after a couple of months of continuous use. Fortunately it broke in a place where we were able to retie it. The Conrax had a built-in lace flap and front gaiter hook; they would have worked great with snowshoes. Neither pair kept our feet dry in full-on rain, but they did a good job at shedding snow.
Packs: Gregory Denali 100 ($US400) & Mountain Hardwear BMG 105 OutDry ($US360)
Both of these packs performed brilliantly. Check out our in-depth comparison.
Sleeping Bag: Big Agnes Crosho SL -20 ($US500)
The Crosho SL -20 is a high-performance, traditional mummy sleeping bag designed for true four-season use. It is stuffed with 700-fill DownTek water-repellent down, making it an ideal bag to use in cold, damp conditions. Big Agnes used their Insotect Flow construction method to eliminate the shifting of down between baffles – eliminating potential cold spots altogether. At $US500 for the regular length, it’s one of the most competitively-priced -20 degree down sleeping bags on the market.
Sleeping Bag: Eddie Bauer Karakoram -30 StormDown ($US800)
Sleeping in this bag was a dream.
Shelter: Hyperlite Mountain Gear UltaMid 2 ($US675)
The HMG UltaMid 2 is an incredibly lightweight, versatile, and strong floorless pyramid shelter made from the space-age Cuben Fibre. It held up to some of the most brutal weather conditions in Iceland. Only downside: it’s expensive.
Thermarest NeoAir X-Therm ($US190, Regular)
You won’t find a lighter, warmer, more comfortable cold weather sleeping pad. This thing packs down to the size of a Nalgene bottle and provides an R-value of 5.9 (really warm) making it ideal for sleeping during sub-zero adventures. It comes with a stuff sack that doubles as a pump, but it’s kind of a pain in the arse. I found it easiest to use the stuff sack to inflate it, then topped the pad off with a couple of extra breaths straight from my mouth.
Bivy Sack: Katabatic Gear Bristlecone ($US150)
Because we used a floorless shelter, we needed to pair it with a lightweight, waterproof bathtub-floor bivy sack. The Bristlecone weighs less than 7 oz and is a bit cheaper than those from other cottage industries competitors (zPacks, Mountain Laurel Designs). As an added bonus, they’re usually in-stock and ship out quickly. We liked these; they did their job, however we felt that they could be improved if the waterproof floor extended up over the footbox, which currently only uses a water-resistant material. If sleeping on uneven ground during rain, we’d often find our feet sliding out from underneath the UltaMid; getting our bags wet.
Stove: JetBoil MiniMo ($US130)
Like JetBoil stoves to come before it, the MiniMo excels at boiling water. However, this new design adds a very precise simmer control, allowing campers to cook real food too. It all packs down into a 15 ounce, self-contained unit when for when you’re ready to hit the trail.
Boots: La Sportiva Nepal Cube GTX ($US575)
I did a late-season climb of Mt. Baker – the snowiest mountain in the world, then trekked around on some glaciers in Iceland, before climbing the 20,305′ Imja Tse with these boots. My toes got a little cold while climbing in Nepal, but overall they performed wonderfully.
Helmet: Black Diamond Vapor ($US140)
At 6.6 oz, this is the lightest climbing helmet that Black Diamond has ever made. It’s got an incredibly low profile, it’s comfortable to wear; even more comfortable to carry. Carry it on your approach hike through Nepal though, and everyone will ask where your mountain bike is.
Glacier Glasses: Julbo Explorer Camel Lenses ($US190)
These wrap-around mountaineering sunglasses feature Julbo’s Camel lenses, which protect wearers’ eyes from high-altitude sunlight. They are anti-fog, polarised, and photochromatic, offering progressive protection from category 3 to 4, depending on sunlight. They come with a softshell case to protect them when not in use; a neck strap keeps them in place when they’re on your face. Caveat: the neck strap had to be snugged all the way down in order to keep them flush against my face.
Climbing Hardwear: Black Diamond
We used the Couloir Harness which packs down to the size of my fist and only weighs eight ounces, along with the ATC-XP Belay Device, Rocklock Screwgate carabiners, and snow safety gear. All of this stuff is tried and true; it proved itself for us as well.
Crampons: CAMP XLC 490 ($US150)
These are the lightest 12 point strap-on crampons in the world. They clock in at just over 17 oz. Constructed from aluminium, they’re great for glacier travel and general mountaineering, but are not the best for mixed terrain. They don’t come with anti-balling plates, so you’ll probably want to pick a set up if you plan on climbing with them in the snow. However, the Vibram plates didn’t hold up well against the glacier; mine ended up ripping off.
Ice Axe: CAMP Super Corsa ($US160)
This axe was my favourite piece of climbing gear. At 8.8 oz, it was insanely light. The shaft and head are constructed from the same lightweight aluminium as the Corsa (the lightest ice axe in the world) but the Super Corsa is reinforced with a steel pick and spike for increased durability. There were a few times when I had to arrest my teammates’ falls on Mt. Baker; it got the job done. The pick was very sharp and chipped ice away with ease. For general mountaineering, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better axe.
Camera (Chris’s): Canon 5D Mk II, Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM
I lugged this big, heavy, full-frame SLR around on my neck everywhere I went. I thought that Detifoss – the most powerful waterfall in Europe – killed it, but it survived. Read about why I shoot with the 5D here.
Camera (Daniel’s): Olympus OM-D E-M1, Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8
Daniel put the mirrorless E-M1 through hell; it survived – for the most part. The E-M1 features robust weatherproofing that allowed Daniel to shoot outdoors during torrential downpours; even shoot in pools of water. Eventually sliding down a scree slope destroyed the screen and near-total submersion in a hot spring got the best of it though.
Computer: Microsoft Surface Pro 3 ($US1,950)
The Surface Pro 3‘s touch capabilities and pressure-sensitive stylus have allowed me to edit and retouch photos, as well as write from the field. It’s powerful and portable; there’s not a better computer out there for what I’ve been doing.
Portable Power: GoalZero Sherpa 100 ($US600)
I could have gotten away without carrying this. In Iceland, we were only away from electricity for a week at a time; Daniel and I carried plenty of camera batteries to last through that. In Nepal, our original plan was to climb the much more remote Mera Peak; the Sherpa 100 would have been invaluable for keeping our tech going at base camp. However, we ended up doing a teahouse trek to Chukhung and climbed Imja Tse instead. Electricity was available at the teahouses, though it was expensive: charging a single battery could cost up to $US5. The Sherpa 100 did give us electricity independence and we were able to keep our camera batteries, phones, GoPros, and the Surface charged, but I had to lug the five-pound kit around in addition to the rest of my gear. It performed well; we were able to recharge four batteries for the E-M1 and three for the 5DMkII from the fully-charged Sherpa.
Hard Drives: LaCie Rugged Mini 2TB ($US170)
I made dual, redundant backups of every single photo and video that we shot on this trip; so far, we’re hauling around 1.2 TB of data. Daniel carried one; I carried the other – just in case one of us fell off a cliff, a copy of the photos would be safe. Even if we did fall off a cliff, the LaCie Rugged Minis would still probably survive. They’re rain resistant, can survive drops from 1.2 meters, and you can even run over them with a 1-ton car.
GPS: InReach Explorer ($US400 + Subscription)
The InReach Explorer is a two-way satellite communicator that also functions as a GPS. Or maybe it’s the other way around. We mostly used it to have primitive text-based conversations with family and friends back home. Additionally, it allowed us to track our mileage, speed, elevation, and location. You can also send status updates to Facebook and Twitter from the device; each status or message was integrated with MapShare, a GPS tracking service. MapShare allowed others to follow along with our journey in real-time. I’ll never forget getting a text message on the InReach from my mum while adventuring in Iceland: “You just descended 1,200′ in 10 minutes, are you rappelling?” When it all goes wrong, there’s a one-touch SOS button that’s ready to bring in the Calvary (potentially in the form of a helicopter.)
The interface was rudimentary (think Motorola RAZR-era phones,) there’s no physical keyboard (instead, one must rely on a D-pad and virtual keyboard to type messages,) and the screen is small. Battery life was great, however; we could run the GPS interval tracking for days on-end without recharging (by USB.) The Explorer’s shortfalls can be overcome by pairing it with your smart phone, but there’s no Windows Phone app; we didn’t like the idea of draining two batteries at once to unleash its potential.
Watch: Suunto Ambit2 ($US250)
The Ambit2 is a multisport GPS watch. And it is awesome. According to Suunto, it gets 24 hours of battery life while the GPS is enabled. When I researched GPS watches a year ago, you were lucky to get eight (and the Ambit3 gets 48!) In the real world, I was able to trek for 8-10 hours a day; and could go 4-5 days before needing to recharge.
The different sport modes prioritise specific readings and metrics. The trekking mode gives priority to the distance readout; then users can toggle between secondary metrics on the same screen. In mountaineering mode, elevation is prioritised; you can toggle between gain, loss, speed, or a pleathora of other metrics for the secondary display. There are literally dozens of modes, all of which can be toggled on through your MoveShare account when syncing the watch to your computer. If you pair it with the included heart rate monitor, you can track your body’s vitals in real time; and check them out later on MoveShare.
MoveShare provides detailed information and metrics about your activity in the form of interactive graphs, charts, and numbers. From here, you can opt to share your activity on social media, or keep it private to track yourself. My favourite part of using the free service was seeing graphical representations from my Imja Tse climb.
Photos: Chris Brinlee, Jr., Daniel Bruce Lee
IndefinitelyWild is a new publication about adventure travel in the outdoors, the vehicles and gear that get us there and the people we meet along the way. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.