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Mountaineering Training | 5 Packing Tips From RMI Guide Pete Van Deventer

Between training and the climb itself, climbers spend a lot of time with a pack on their backs. Somewhat of a necessary evil, the goal is to make your pack carry comfortably and efficiently so that it doesn’t work against you. A few tips that will result in a more enjoyable pack to carry:

1. Minimize dead space in the pack

2. Try to fit everything (except the ice axe) inside the pack

3. Keep the mass of the pack close to your body

4. Frequently adjust the straps to carry the load more comfortably

5. Have a system 

Minimizing dead space in the pack will help the pack ride in a more balanced way, and allow you to fit everything inside. A big factor that creates dead space is too many stuff sacks packed together. Round or barrel shaped stuff sacks don’t nest together well, instead leaving large gaps between them (like a cup full of marbles). To minimize this effect, try to limit the number of stuff sacks you use. A compression stuff sack for your sleeping bag is important, as it dramatically reduces the volume of the sleeping bag, but most of the other items can be packed loose, without stuff sacks. The down parka and spare insulating layers do a great job of packing around the sleeping bag to fill any spaces. Some guides go so far as to pack their pack partway, and then (taking care not to crush anything breakable) insert their foot into the pack and squish everything down to squeeze out all of the air. In addition, if climbers have packs with dedicated sleeping bag compartments, I often recommend that they detach the shelf that separates the compartment from the main pack, and treat the pack as one large tube. Sleeping bag compartments tend to create dead space where we want it least, right near the center of mass of our bodies.

Minimize the number of items that are attached to the outside of the pack. The ice axe generally has a dedicated attachment point (the ice axe loops), and is really the only exception to this rule. The rest of our equipment should fit inside the pack. With a little bit of thought, items that seem to take up a lot of space can be packed more efficiently. For example, by stuffing the helmet with extra socks and food before packing it, the volume of the helmet itself becomes very little. Crampons can be put together so that the tines cover each other, and they too can be placed in the pack. Items clipped to the outside of the pack tend to swing, get damaged, and make a ruckus. By minimizing the number of items clipped to the outside of the pack, your pack will carry more comfortably and with less noise!

In general when you are packing, place items that you won’t need or use that stretch to the bottom of the pack, while items that you would like to keep handy (food, sunscreen, etc) stay near the top. Additionally, place heavier items closer to the back panel of the pack, keeping them nearer your center of mass.

There is no perfect fit for a pack, and comfort and fit of your pack will change throughout the course of a climb or training session. In general, try to carry the majority of the weight on your hips. When putting on a pack, hitch the pack up higher on your back than it will ride, and cinch down the waist strap. Then tighten the shoulder straps until they just make contact with your shoulders. Next, lightly tighten the load lifter straps on the shoulder straps and waist belt. This helps to pull the weight of the pack in closer to your back and helps with balance. Lastly, constantly adjust throughout the day as discomforts arise!

Have a system to your pack so that you have a good idea where each item is. This will save you time and frustration throughout the climb, if you can reach straight to a warmer pair of gloves for example, rather than unpack most of your pack each time you need an item. With a well-organized system, you will spend more time at each break resting and recovering, and less time digging for items in your pack. With a little bit of time and practice your pack won’t be such a burden and your training sessions, and ultimately the climb, will be more enjoyable!


Pete Van Deventer is a senior guide at RMI Expeditions. A former collegiate nordic skier, Pete climbs and guides around the world, from the Andes to Alaska. Read about Pete's recent sailing and ski mountaineering trip to Norway's Lofoten Islands on the RMI Blog.

Questions? Comments? Share your thoughts here on the RMI Blog!

Comments (7)

What are your thoughts on training with steel barbell weights in a pack, up to 50 pounds? Does this mimic climbing conditions, or should different materials be used for a more realistic pack feel?

Posted by: Mark on

Hi Vikas,
It depends on how many days you are heading out for and what kinds of conditions you expect to encounter. In general, a 60L - 85L pack should be adequate for a backpacking trip of several days in the summer. Check out Whittaker Mountaineering’s Guide to Backpacks for more information on picking and sizing a pack:
- The RMI Team

Posted by: RMI Expeditions on

What size of bag do you recommend on multiple day backpacking trips?

Posted by: vikas on

Joe, if you pay close attenion to the guide’s pack, other than the foam mat, everything else are items that “must be carried outside”. Shovel, pickets, rack and wands might be used at any given moment, therefore must be available. Things that defeat the guide’s advice here are nalgenes, stuff sucks, extra layers, fuel bottles, etc

Posted by: Elias on

As to the guide with lots of stuff on the outside of his pack: I think these tips are designed for CLIENT climbers, not necessarily guides. Guides carry MUCH more gear than their clients (wands, additional safety/rescue gear, group gear, etc.) So out of necessity their pack might look like the Clampettmobile. They are world class athletes and THEIR system is much different than ours (clients).  Same reason they’re usually carrying a 100 lifer plus pack while we’re carrying 80’s or even 70’s.edif

Posted by: dan mcminn on

There are compromises, of course. I would like to carry my crampons in my bag, but then I’d have to add 5oz with the crampon bag,

Posted by: brave on

I love that the advice includes fitting everything in the bag, and the guide has heaps of stuff strapped to the outside of the pack.

Posted by: joe on

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