Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Light Packing for Women by Amy McCarthy

A recent desert adventure in Southern Utah helped me shift gears and start planning for summer backcountry excursions. Pouring over maps and Google Earth imagery of the Wind River Range got me thinking that Forrest has posted quality gear lists, many of which I subscribe to, but none that offer a purely women’s-specific look at backcountry gear. So as his first guest blogger, I've organized a list of great gear for gals who are getting ready for summer wilderness adventures.

I possess a deep love for long traverses, off-trail wilderness travel and peak bagging. The following list focuses on essentials (and a little extra) for a safe and satisfying lightweight overnight or multi-day trip into the wilderness.



For a hiking journey with significant scrambling, I am a fan of La Sportiva's line of trail runners. They offer good support and sticky rubber, while being light and relatively quick-drying (as I tend to cross a fair number of creeks on my outings). Currently, I’m using the La Sportiva Raptors  (and, that’s not just because I work at Teton Raptor Center).

I was a huge fan of La Sportiva's Exum Ridges, but they are out of production. So, my recommendation is, when you find a pair of trail runners you love, buy two pair, stock up!

Rarely do I bring camp shoes, but if you so desire, go light. Crocs or something like Merrell’s Vapor Glove Road-Running Shoes are good choices.

I like ankle-high wool socks and Farm to Feet, Darn Tough and Keen all offer a good selection. Forrest is known for bringing 1, maybe 2, pair on an overnight or multi-day, but I always go for at least 2 pair and generally 3 --- the one I’m wearing, sleepy socks, and a clean pair. There’s nothing like that first wear from a new pair of socks. Wet, cold feet suck, so the extra weight for dry socks is worthwhile.

I used to be a committed user of gaiters. Today, I wear them less frequently, but a good pair can definitely aid in the elimination of painful pebbles and dirt in your shoes, especially if you’re doing a lot of travel on scree. Outdoor Research makes a wide assortment of gaiters and the Sparkplug and Stamina gaiters are new ones I’d like to try.

Currently, I have a pair of Dirty Girls. If you want to add some flair to your ankles then Dirty Girls are for you.

Pants vs. Shorts

This is another area where I’ve made a big shift. It’s pretty rare to find me hiking in shorts these days. I’ve grown tired of all the scrapes on my legs from bushwhacking, so I’ve opted for lightweight, quick-drying hiking pants that can easily be rolled up to the knees if desired.

My favorites in this category come from Patagonia and Outdoor Research (OR). Patagonia makes an impressively cool lightweight trekking pant called the Happy Hike Pant. OR’s Ferrosi Pant is a real winner. Ever so slightly heavier than the Patagonia pants, the Ferrosi is durable and good looking -- great for backcountry treks and frontcountry travel (I’ve worn these pants all around the world).


Whether I'm in the frontcountry or the backcountry, I'm usually wearing  Patagonia Active Hipsters

When it comes to long underwear, I'm all for merino wool. The Icebreaker Oasis Leggings work well under hiking or rain pants and are great for sleeping.

Sports Bra

Again, lots of personal preference in this arena, but one switch I’ve made in the world of sports bras is to move away from the Tankini style to a more classically cut sports bra. I sweat a fair bit when moving in the mountains. Although good sports bras are made of quality wicking material, I don’t like the cool-down I experience with moisture from a sports-bra-tank on my abdomen. These days I have a nice collection of Isis sports bras, and I’m looking forward to the launch of their new line this fall. In the mean time, Patagonia, Title Nine and Athleta all offer a great selection of sports bras in a spectrum of styles and sizes.


The most essential top you can have is a lightweight merino wool hoody. Rab’s Women’s Meco 165 Wool Hoody is a beauty -- great color, fit and form. I usually sleep in my wool bottoms and hoody top. 

Another top to consider is a lightweight sun-shielding long-sleeve shirt. The sun is intense in the high mountains and although sunscreen helps, ExOfficio's line of shirts offers protection from sun and bugs. Mountain Khakis' Granite Creek long-sleeve shirt is also a nice choice in this category.

When it comes to a short-sleeve or sleeveless layer, I like Athleta's Super Swift Tank and Ibex's U-Sixty T Shirt.

Hats & Visors

So, if you aren't wearing Dirty Girl gaiters, then you need to opt for a Wizbang Lightweight Hat to assure that there's a bit of pop to your backcountry wardrobe. Even though I often have multiple hoodies with me in the mountains, I ALWAYS have a hat --- and fun ones! Wizbang has a sweet selection of colorful designs in hats and headband styles.

When it's warmer and I'm trying to create some shade on my face, I opt for a visor over a ball cap. To be honest, I'm not sure why, but my visors always win. I've certainly burned my part a few times as a result of this preference, but I've begun clipping my bangs back over my hair part with a barrette and this mitigates the potential for scalp sunburn and it's kept me loyal to visors. 


Cold hands are almost as bad as cold feet, so gloves are a must. I like Mountain Hardware’s Women’s Momentum Running Glove or if I know I’ll be doing a lot of snow travel or glissading, I’ll take Outdoor Research’s Stormtracker Gloves.


A few years ago I was given a Patagonia Ultralight Down Hoody and I've never looked back. It goes with me everywhere. It stuffs in its own pocket and is like a mini-heater. I don't typically bring insulated pants. If the temps drop that much, I'll slip into my sleeping bag. I'd pick Patagonia's DAS Pants though, if I needed some puffy pants for a trek. 


Some of you may think this piece is redundant when you already have a waterproof shell in your pack, but Mountain Hardware's Women’s Ghost Whisperer Hooded Jacket is the best and lightest addition to my quiver. You simply can’t beat this layer for the weight! I actually wore it all winter backcountry skiing and now it will be headed into the mountains for summer adventures. Patagonia's 3.6 oz Houdini Jacket is a fine alternative, but the Ghost Whisperer weighs in at just 1.9 oz. 

Obviously, a good waterproof shell is essential and Patagonia's Women’s M10 Jacket  is one of the lightest waterproof shells made. And, of all the great outdoor gear brands, none hold a candle to Patagonia for the way in which they stand behind their products and embody an environmental ethic. As far as keeping dry on the bottom, the options aren't as plentiful. For a good pair of rain pants I recommend Patagonia's Leashless Pants.



Aside from choosing your underwear, I think sunglasses are probably the most intimate runner-up for personal preference gear. I do believe that you get what you pay for and that polarized lenses are worth the extra cash. So many options in this arena, where to start? I’ll just say that I’ve found some of my favorites at Maui Jim and Zeal Optics.

Bag of Tricks

Every gal needs her bag of tricks. First, it starts with a bag, I like a small zippered stuff sack (Kathmandu Packing Cell) to corral some of the essentials:

Water Storage

I’m still a Nalgene gal – these are pretty dependable containers that double as a mug for hot drinks. I will usually bring one Nalgene and when needed a MSR Dromlite Bag. Bladders are excellent space savers.


You can’t get much easier than a JetBoil and if you plan your meals so that you only need hot water, then the JetBoil is a great choice. Alternatively, the Kathmandu Titanium Backpacking Stove (50 grams) or the slightly heavier MSR Pocket Rocket (84 grams) is a better choice if you are just going to have one stove. When using one of the latter, I bring a MSR Titan Cook Pot.


This is, of course, extreme personal preference, so I’ll just share with you some of my favorites. My #1 backcountry snack is leftover pizza. I’ve lost my appetite for most bars and prefer savory and classic snacks, like salami, cheese and pretzels…and a little chocolate never hurts. For those times when an energy boost is needed, I go for Clif Shot Bloks. I’m a make-my-own GORP kind of gal, and it rarely has raisins or peanuts. Basically, I've found that everything tastes better in the backcountry.

For meals at camp, you simply can’t beat Mountain House for weight and taste. These simple dehydrated meals only require boiled water. The fajita meals are great for sharing, with some tortillas and cheese you can easily feed 2-3 people.

If you travel in bear and/or marmot country, the Ursack Food Bag is a worthy investment. Just check out this video and you'll be convinced. 

Stuff Sacks

Because I don't like packs with lots of pockets and compartments, I prefer to sort my gear in stuff sacks. A couple I like include: HMG's Cuben Fiber Stuff Sacks and Sea to Summit's Lightweight Dry Sacks.

Trekking Poles

These are a must in my book. If you love hiking and want to pursue it as a lifetime activity, then do this for your knees. Plus, trekking poles can serve a dual purpose when you set up your shelter (see below). Be sure to get trekking poles that telescope, so you can easily tuck them away when you need both hands during a prolonged scrambling section and to prevent them from becoming lightning rods. Komperdell has been my go-to brand for years and I’m presently trying out a pair of Black Diamond's Distance FL Trekking Poles.


The secret to a backpack that feels good is to not put too much in it and don’t get dazzled by bells and whistles (i.e., zippers, pockets and pouches all over your pack). Hyperlite Mountain Gear makes a great pack called the Windrider that offers tons of versatility – perfect for an overnight or longer. It has the ability to grow with your needs. The roll-top took a bit of getting used to initially, and now I’m sold. Hyperlite Mountain Gear makes a superb product. 

Sleeping Bag

OK, here's where Forrest and I really differ. In Forrest's quest for weight-savings, he's trimmed in this arena and boy have I watched him shiver. A good night's sleep is so important in prep for the next day's travel. For me a good night is a warm night and I've kept warm in my GoLite Women's Z10 Three-Season Down Sleeping Bag (34 ounces) for the last few years.

When it comes to warmth and comfort in the backcountry, it takes more than a bag. I've tried a number of different sleeping pads, in the search for one that maximizes comfort and minimizes bulk. To date, the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite Sleeping Pad is your best bet. And, when using a delicate pad like the NeoAir, a SOL Emergency Blanket (ground cloth) is a smart addition.


See Forrest’s post on “Mid-Life” – it really is fine livin’. If you are really attached to sleeping in a tent, then I’d recommend the single-wall Firstlight Tent by Black Diamond. It’s light and easy to set up, but not incredibly durable, so beware in high winds.


Perhaps the most essential piece of equipment on any backcountry adventure is a faithful, enthusiastic canine companion. They add lots of warmth and fun to my mountain explorations. And, on certain occasions they’ve come in much handier than a GPS.

Packing List for Multi-Day Wilderness Trip: 15 Pounds

Amy and Fryxell, Lee Metcalf Wilderness

For those who are willing to exert themselves for this experience, there is a great gift to be won . . . a gift to be had nowadays in very few remaining parts of our plundered planet – the gift of personal satisfaction, the personal well-being purchased by striving . . .” - Margaret Murie


  1. Hi - I'm working on a TV show about outdoor gear testing- would love to speak with Forrest. Can you send me contact info? Much appreciated!

    Jess Greeley

  2. Your actual pack weight is below 15 pounds because you listed some of the clothing you would wear. But a Nalgene? Really?

    1. Mike, The weight was not intended to represent pack weight. In addition to the clothes Amy wears some of the gear (including the stove and shelter) is most often shared. And as far as a Nalgene water bottle; we have yet to find anything else as dependable or versatile. We have have tried a lot of lighter weight alternatives that have not lasted. We also like the Nalgene's wide mouth that, among other things, makes it great for hot drinks.

    2. Haha. Leave it to C! to come in and pick your list apart. I appreciate Amy putting this list together - even it includes a Nalgene - and I'm going to forward the link to my wife to see if she can learn anything from it.

  3. Hi Amy,

    Do you guys regularly use the emergency blankets as a groundcloth in the Ulta-Mid as shown in the pictures? I gave up our heavier Hilleberg Tarra for the 4 person version from HMG a couple weeks ago for our family's alpine/tenkara/packrafting adventures in the Pacific NW and I've been trying to find a durable, but ultralight solution for a groundcloth. Have heard good things about the Gossamer Gear ones, but would love any advice you or Forrest have for making the Ulta-Mid cozier as this is my first floorless tent since scouting days back in the 80's. Thanks for the great post - I really enjoy your blog!

  4. Hi Richard, We haven't tried the Gossamer Gear ones, but we've been quite happy with the SOL emergency blankets as a groundcloth. Ours have endured a couple of seasons and are ready for another one. At $4.95, you can't beat the price or the weight. Glad you're enjoying your Ulta-Mid.

  5. Hi Amy, Just warn people about that steri-pen. Twice I've gotten Giardia using it. Once it seemed functional but was not working correctly and I was in the Southern Winds where sheep gather. The second time I filled up out of a slow moving seep and the pen WAS working but I got Giardia. The water was a bit dirty and later was told that particles in the water can hide the critters even if you are stirring, which I was. I now take the two-part liquid Aquamira--light weight and virtually no taste but reliable!

    1. We haven't had that problem with the SteriPen. However it is a good thing to know and thanks for the heads up. Even when treating water we're careful where we acquire it. All water purification methods that we have experienced have had inherent limitations when treating very cold water and water and water with particles floating in it.

  6. Rab's Women's Meco 165 Wool Hoody is a beauty -- great color, fit and form. I usually ...

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