Packing and Gear

He who would travel happily must travel light. -- Antoine de St. Exupéry

This is what I ended up carrying on the H2H. I started off with a slightly different list, but made changes based on experience.

  • Pack. Gregory G-Pack, Large. 1.3kg. Light, roomy (50 liters -- which is enough for everything else below), and very comfortable to wear (recommended for up to 14kg total pack weight). Useful waistband pockets, as well as plenty of other external pockets. Only complaint: irritating multi-step open/close process for main compartment, partially mitigated by the number of external pockets.
  • Hiking boots. Lowa Arko GTX mid. 1.4kg a pair. A compromise boot: stiff enough for rock-scrambling, flexible enough for walking along roads. Durable, comfortable, non-slip (Vibram soles), excellent ankle support, and they breathe well (Goretex uppers). They are not the lightest, but if there is one piece of equipment that should not be skimped on, it's the boots.
  • Poles. Komperdell Carbon Airshock. 400g a pair. Some people love poles, some people hate them; some say they provide more safety, some say they are dangerous. Count me among those who love them. I find that they leave my legs much less tired at the end of the day, and I also appreciate the fact that they give my upper body a work-out when I hike. These ones are the lightest I've come across yet, but they are very sturdy... except for the wrist-straps. I took along replacements just in case, but after the first pair broke on Stage 8 I went to an orthopedic cobbler who repaired and reinforced them with thick nylon weave and they then lasted all the way to Stage 70. Despite this weakness, I still like the poles.
  • Poncho. K-Way Roubaix. 500g. I used to wear a rain jacket, but I sweat so much while hiking that even a Goretex rain jacket leaves me almost as wet as if I hadn't worn it. This poncho is cut to go over a pack (so I can leave out the pack cover as well), and I can take it off and then put it back on without stopping or removing the pack (very useful for days with showers). The only problems were that it provided no additional warmth when the weather was bad, and that it whipped around in the wind (the fastener for the between-the-legs strap was too feeble). Nevertheless I still prefer it to a rain jacket.
  • Rain pants. Arcteryx XCR. 400g. Not initially on the list, but revealed to be necessary in driving rain -- the poncho not being long enough to keep me (and my boots) dry. Next time I might try long gaiters instead, but these also provided some additional warmth so maybe not.
  • Fleeces. Vaude Windlight III (670g), and a generic mid-weight fleece for evenings (240g). The Vaude is a wind-stopper fleece with detachable arms -- an excellent invention. On cold but not freezing days I left the arms off, and on freezing days I put them on. I had initially thought that I would also be able to use it in the evenings, but (duh) I found that once I had hiked in it a couple of times it developed a certain aroma that didn't go well with dinner. Hence the second fleece, which in addition I also wore once or twice while hiking (under the Vaude) when it was particularly cold.
  • Shirts, 3 short-sleeved (135g each), 1 long (180g). Shorts, 2 pairs (200g each). Socks, Wright double-layer, 3 pairs (60g / pair). Underwear, 4 pairs (50g / pair). Total weight: 1360g of which I wore around 440g on any given day, so 920g in the pack. For social and environmental reasons (i.e., to keep friends, and to avoid contaminating the pristine air of the Alps), I like to change out the clothes next to my skin each day. Since I didn't want to have to wash clothes every evening... or even every other evening... I adopted the three-of-each approach. I have found that it is best if all of the above are made of a synthetic wicking fabric such as polypropylene or Capilene (i.e., no cotton, no wool) for three reasons: they carry sweat away from the skin faster, dry faster, and are lighter than natural fabrics. I specifically mention the Wright double-layer socks because I've had very good experiences with them (blisters very rare).
  • Convertible hiking pants. 350g. I needed a pair of long pants for huts and other casual settings when shorts weren't warm enough, and I also used them on cold days while hiking. And when I got too warm I removed the lower legs and in a flash was hiking in shorts. Another excellent invention.
  • Sun hat (80g), ski hat (40g), ski gloves (180g). Total weight: 360g. Given the strength of UV rays at altitude, a sun hat was necessary. And for cold days and emergencies, the ski hat minimized heat-loss through the head, and the gloves kept my fingers functioning. Initially I took along much lighter gloves, but they were not waterproof and turned out to be useless when I really needed them.
  • A set of nice clothes (slacks (350g), shirt (240g), light shoes (910g), thin socks (20g)) for restaurants and hotels. Total weight: 1520g. From time to time we stayed in nice hotels and ate in good restaurants so I wanted something to wear other than hiking boots, hiking pants, and a fleece.
  • Small sweat-towel, swimsuit. Total weight: 120g. Optional nice-to-haves. The towel I kept hanging around on a string tied to my pack.
  • Silk sleeping liner. 170g. In mountain huts they usually require you to have either a sleeping bag or one of these (because they provide only blankets, not sheets). They will usually rent you one if you need it, but it will cost a few Euros and can be a bit of a hassle. Given that we stayed in huts 25 or 30 times, carrying the extra weight made sense. It also would have provided a little extra insulation in my bivvy sack in an emergency (see below).
  • Emergency bivouac sack. Adventure Medical Kits, Thermo-Lite 2.0. 200g. In an emergency (which fortunately did not occur) this would have kept me dry and reasonably warm (by reflecting my body heat back at me). If I had been stuck out on the mountain overnight, I wouldn't have slept well, but I would have survived, and that's what it was for. To sleep comfortably, I would have needed to take a light sleeping bag (instead of the silk liner mentioned above) and an inflatable mattress... but they would have added at a minimum a further 1.5kg... and for comfort in a worst-case situation (since I didn't need them at any other time) that would have been too much additional weight to carry.
  • Penknife (Swiss Army -- 8 tool (180g)), flashlight (Petzl Tikka XP (95g)), compass (50g), whistle (10g). Total weight: 335g. All were necessary safety items. I suppose I could have carried a lighter penknife, but what can I say: I like the tools.
  • Camelpack (1.5L (190g)), waterbottle (Nalgene, 1L (180g)). Total weight (without water): 370g. I like the ability to take a quick sip on the run, and I use the wide-mouth Nalgene for chugging along with meals. Most days I didn't need more than 2.5L, and when I did there was always a refill option somewhere along the way.
  • Emergency medical kit including Compeed (blister plasters that really work well), toiletries, vitamins, suncream, earplugs (critical, unless one is deaf, for those nights one spends in bunkrooms), bio-detergent, light towel. Total weight: 1300g (although this went up and down over time as things such as shampoo, detergent, vitamins and toothpaste were consumed and replenished).
  • Maps. Max 15 maps at a time, theoretically shared among the group (but sadly in practice carried only by me since the others' packs were heavier than mine). Max 1050g, but on average less than 500g since I sent back used maps whenever I could. Replacement maps were brought by "guest" hikers... see Maps for explanation.
  • Passport / money / cashcard / creditcard / Alpine Club card in wallet. 200g. Had to be able to pay the bills....
  • Chocolate or some other quick source of energy as an emergency reserve. 100g. This was in addition to whatever food I carried for regular consumption.
  • Playing cards and other games, notepaper, pen, itinerary and accommodation info (with phone numbers). Total weight: 500g (of which the games were 300g). The itinerary and accommodation info were also in the Smartphone, but an offline backup was critical for safety reasons (two sets per group were sufficient).
  • Ziploc bags for things that needed to be kept dry, including one larger one suitable for a partially open map (used when hiking in the rain). 20g.
  • Webbing (6 meters) and two carabiners in case of an emergency (e.g., if we had needed to rope someone down), or for safety where the only option would have been to go up or down a short climbing stretch (e.g., if a path had collapsed). We took one set of these among us and, fortunately, never needed to use them. Not sure of the weight because Sally carried them.
  • Camera, charger, backup battery and storage card, USB cable. Not sure of the weight because Russell was the official photographer.
  • Smartphone and charger. HTC TyTN. 300g. Functioned as cellphone, web-browser / email client, and MP3 player. I had also planned to use it as an audio note recorder, but I could never work out how to access this function using voice command (i.e., hands-free) and that was the only usage scenario I was interested in. Otherwise, however, I was extremely happy with the device.
  • Folding keyboard. Think Outside Stowaway. 190g (including case). A "nice-to-have" that made it possible to quickly respond to email, write blog posts, etc. Worked like a charm.
  • Battery-charger and 4 back-up rechargeable batteries. For the GPS, the keyboard, and the flashlights. 240g.
  • GPS. Garmin GPSMap 60CSx. 215g. Since we had maps with us, this wasn't strictly speaking necessary, but I wanted to record our actual (as opposed to planned) path... and its track function was invaluable for that.

Total final weight in pack (including pack): around 11.6kg at its heaviest, and around 10.6kg on average (when carrying fewer than the maximum number of maps and after having used some of the toiletries). These figures don't include food (usually around 500g) or water (up to 2.5kg) or boots or poles or the hiking clothes I was wearing (not in pack), or the things that Russell and Sally carried (webbing, camera...). With food and water I was typically carrying around 13kg when we set off in the morning.

The only thing I brought with me that I later decided was unnecessary was:

  • Sunglasses and charger. Oakley ROKR. 160g. With built-in speakers and a microphone they communicated wirelessly with the PDA and functioned therefore also as a headset for music and as a headset/microphone for phone calls. I ended up sending these home halfway through the hike, not because they didn't work... they did, very well... but because I just wasn't using them enough (I had a normal pair of sunglasses with me too). It turns out that I prefer to hike in silence or conversation, but not surrounded by music... too distracting.

Backups... a cautionary tale:

I had read from other people who had done similar trips that they wore out their boots and socks... and this was my experience too. The socks were getting distinctly threadbare, and the boots had minimal profile left on the soles. Assuming that this would occur I arranged to have a new pair of boots and replacement socks brought to me by a "guest hiker" about half-way through the H2H. Interestingly... well, more like painfully... although I thought I had broken the new pair of boots in beforehand (by wearing them on a half-dozen or so practice hikes), by the time I came to put them on (in Chamonix) it turned out that my feet had gotten bigger. Significantly bigger. I had awful blisters for a week afterwards until the new boots had stretched out sufficiently. Next time I'll buy a backup pair that is about half a size bigger than my typical boots.