Attitudes and Altitude: Gear Guide for Alpine FastpackingGear
Written by Alex Roddie // Photography by James Roddie & Alex Roddie
Here’s what I learnt about gear on my traverse of the Alps, and the equipment I picked to help me travel through the mountains.
In summer 2022, our editor Alex Roddie set out on a fastpacking trip across the Alps: 900km from Ventimiglia to Zermatt, featuring countless mountain passes. This is part of a series of online stories about his project, helping you to go higher and faster in the mountains.
THE FULL SERIES
Attitudes and Altitude: Mountains of the Mind Feature Story
Attitudes and Altitude: Tranter’s RoundAttitudes and Altitude: Destination Guide to the Grande Traversata delle Alpi
Attitudes and Altitude: How to Go Fastpacking
Attitudes and Altitude: Gear Guide for Alpine Fastpacking
Attitudes and Altitude: Gear Review
Long distances in the high peaks dictate a lightweight pack – doubly so if you’re running. Try to keep your base weight (total pack weight minus consumables such as food and water, which change on an hourly basis) to 5–6kg if you can.
A wide variety of weather can be encountered in the summer Alpine season, from long sunny spells to thunderstorms, wind, and rain. However, summer weather is usually fairly settled, which makes it possible to adopt a minimal wardrobe.
Look for well-fitting, high-performance base-layer tops. Some people prefer long sleeves, which are more versatile in changeable weather, but I find a T-shirt better for running. You’ll need sun cream to protect bare arms from the sun’s rays.
Active insulation is important in cooler temperatures, especially if it rains or snows. Everyone’s different here and people who run cold will need more insulation, but I find the lightest Polartec tops ideal for the Alpine environment – they’re great at regulating temperature and very lightweight. They also dry quickly. Unless you run cold, I suggest carrying a single spare layer to double up as active insulation and a sleeping top (this helps to protect your sleeping bag from your main T-shirt, which will get manky fast). Anti-odour technology such as Polygiene helps to keep the pong under control.
You’ll want a down jacket for those frosty early mornings at altitude. Get the lightest one with the highest-quality down you can afford. A high-fill-power jacket is lighter for the weight and more compressible – vital for making the most of the storage space in your ultralight backpack. Hydrophobic down is useful as the jacket will be less affected by damp conditions.
One word: shorts. Running can be warm work and most Alpine mountains are blessed with abundant sunshine (again, sun cream is vital). Shorts are best for ventilation and freedom of movement. Look for lightweight, airy running shorts. Some runners favour tights, but I find them too hot most of the time. They are, however, worth carrying for cold mornings and to wear inside your sleeping bag.
When the weather turns, and it always does at some point, waterproofs help you to keep going. Modern ultralight fabrics are highly breathable and durable. A jacket fit for Alpine trails can weigh as little as 200–300g and roll up to the size of a Coke can – and the same goes for waterproof trousers. Overtrousers will rarely be used, but I think they’re worth carrying. If nothing else, they’ll make that tempting-looking glissade down a snow patch a lot more comfortable…
Hats and gloves
Along with sunglasses, a sunhat is one of the most important items you’ll carry, but make sure you can run in it – I don’t recommend a wide-brimmed floppy hiking hat! A peaked cap is the way to go. Find a lightweight, quick-drying one in as jazzy a colour scheme as you can get away with. Oh, and a woolly hat or Buff is handy to have for cold mornings too – as are lightweight softshell gloves, although these will rarely be needed.
You don’t need thick, cushioned hiking socks for summer in the Alps, even if you’re hiking. For fastpacking I find it better to have thin running socks that dry quickly and don’t make my feet overheat (for me, damp, hot feet lead to blisters). Merino wool is fantastic although it can be less durable than synthetic materials. Carry two pairs of socks and rotate between them daily. Always have a pair drying on the outside of your rucksack after a good morning rinse in a stream. If you sleep cold, fluffy sleeping socks could be a worthwhile luxury item, but I only carry these in winter.
Darn Tough Men’s Stride Micro Crew Ultra-Lightweight Running Sock, 42g
Be bold, pick a small pack right from the start, then adapt your gear to fit. Depending on the route, about 30L will be best for most people and a 5–6kg base weight. Experienced minimalists might be able to go as low as 20–25L, although this will restrict your ability to carry food (not a problem if you’re staying in huts).
A good pack for fastpacking is lightweight and has a pared-back design. It should weigh no more than about 900g. All you really need are a roomy main compartment, big stretchy mesh rear pocket (for stuffing things like waterproofs, tarp etc.), and mesh pockets at each side (for water bladders and snacks). A lid pocket can be handy for hats and gloves.
The straps must give a close and adjustable fit designed for running. The last thing you want is for your pack to be jostling around on your shoulders, fighting against your momentum, wasting energy, and rubbing against your skin (this can lead to blisters). An adjustable back length, well-padded shoulder straps, one or two stretchy chest straps with fine-tune adjustment, and breathable materials are all essential.
Running poles aid stability on steep ground, take pressure off your knees and other joints, and can give you a boost if you’re flagging. They’re also a handy way to hold your tarp or tent up, saving you the weight of a dedicated pole.
Look for the lightest carbon poles you can find – ideally running-specific ones, which have a more secure method of attachment to your wrists. Running poles also tend to be lighter and more minimal in construction, and are easier to attach to small running packs.
There are a few different ways you can approach this:
1. Stay in mountain huts. The lightest option, and great for meeting people. You won’t need to carry any food beyond snacks for the day. However, the expense can add up, and busy huts often have to be booked ahead, limiting flexibility.
2. Tent. A lightweight tent will let you ride out severe weather, but it isn’t the lightest option, and camping isn’t always practical on steep, rugged Alpine terrain. It’s also arguably overkill for fastpacking in summer.
3. Tarp. Much lighter than a tent, but offers less protection, especially in high winds, and takes more skill to pitch. Can be worth carrying as a backup to a bivvy bag.
4. Bivvy bag. Probably the best option for fastpacking. You can lie down in a bivvy bag anywhere, and it’ll keep your sleeping bag dry if it rains. Can get a bit soggy and claustrophobic in prolonged bad weather, in which case it’s best paired with either a UL tarp or strategic hut stops. A hooped bivvy gives you more headroom and is better for riding out the rain.
Outdoor Research Alpine AscentShell Bivy, 553g
DD SuperLight Tarp Small, 292g
You’ll need either a sleeping bag or quilt (which is lighter, but doesn’t have a hood and can be draughty). Choose the highest-quality down filling you can afford and make sure it’s hydrophobic down. Synthetic fills are cheaper and resist moisture better, but in most mountain ranges you’re better off with a much lighter, much more compact down bag or quilt.
Temperature ratings for sleeping bags are usually optimistic. I sleep warm and pick quilts rated to about –5°C (which means they are usually warm for me down to about freezing). If you sleep cold, you might need something even warmer. Carry a silk sleeping bag liner if you plan to sleep in Alpine huts – they’re mandatory.
Insulation gets squashed by your body when you lie on it, which means that you need a pad to insulate you from the ground. An ultralight inflatable mattress is best. Foam pads are lighter, but they’re bulkier and less comfortable; good sleep is important on physically demanding trips. You can get a decent inflatable mat weighing no more than 200–300g. Bring the repair kit along too!
Therm-A-Rest Vesper 20 Quilt, 570g
Silk sleeping bag liner, 99g
Therm-A-Rest NeoAir XLite Small Sleeping Mat, 215g
Tech and navigation
On an adventure like this, especially if tackling a longer route, forget about paper maps – they’re too heavy and bulky. Load up your smartphone with an app that can access topo maps offline, and make sure you have all the maps you need downloaded before setting out. A good phone for the trail has a big screen, good battery life and camera, and is waterproof. You’ll need a tough case, and a compact tripod can help you take pictures and videos. I also recommend a glass screen protector.
Carry a power bank for keeping it topped up between accommodation – and a fast charger will make the most of quick stops in cafes and bars. In sunny areas, an ultralight solar panel can be useful, but it isn’t essential.
A GPS watch makes it easier to navigate when running, but make sure you’ve loaded it up with your route before setting out. A watch with onboard mapping is best for the mountains. A small satellite communicator is worth considering too – it’ll help friends and family track your progress, and offers an emergency lifeline in remote areas. Look for something compact with long battery life.
Finally, you’ll need a headlamp! Compact and minimal is best. Make sure it’s bright enough for trail finding after dark. I recommend a lamp with a built-in rechargeable battery.
iPhone 13 Pro, 213g
Peak Design Everyday Loop Case, 39g
Peak Design Mobile Tripod, 79g
Garmin Fenix 6x Pro watch, 70g
Garmin inReach Mini 2 satellite communicator, 100g
GP XPLOR Compact Head Torch PHR17, 76g
Anker 40W dual-port charger, 98g, with EU socket adapter, 28g
Sunslice 6W solar panel, 140g
Charmast 10,400mAh power bank, 189g
Food and water
I prefer to go stoveless, only carrying food I can eat without cooking or rehydrating. However, a small gas stove and dehydrated meals can work out lighter in the long run – and if you need your coffee in the morning then a stove is essential! When it comes to hydration, carry either accessible water bottles (soft bottles are great) or a bladder with hose.
I recommend a spare bladder for storing extra water – especially useful in dry mountain ranges or drought conditions. Most small packs can’t carry more than 2–3L of water plus gear, so factor this in. You’ll also need some way to treat mountain water to make it safe to drink. A small filter is easier to use than Chlorine tablets.
HydraPak Stow 500ml bladders, 2x33g
2L Platypus bladder, 37g
Katadyn BeFree filter, 69g
Titanium spoon, 20g
Alex Roddie ran and hiked 900km from Ventimiglia to Zermatt via the Grande Traversata delle Alpi, Tour of the Matterhorn, and Tour of Monte Rosa – a journey involving 60,102m of ascent. A version of this story was first published in Sidetracked Volume 25.