The Question Of Gear

» Posted by on Feb 10, 2013 in Blog | 21 comments

…breaking things down and finding magic in reduced things just feels good. It’s not about challenge or discovery, just realization. Constructing from minimalist standpoints seems as worthy a pursuit as any. Derek Hynd

The following is a fairly complete overview of the gear and food I will be using on the Iditarod Trail Invitational this month. There are a few things I am still fine tuning or that may be missing so this post may be tweaked a little between now and the event. The race is 350 miles long and in my mind presents two major challenges: the multi-day nature of the event and the cold. There is no official required gear, but to participate racers must have completed at least one winter 100 mile race. Even with that small amount of experience, one understands that the demands of the trail are not trivial. Sticking to a minimal set-up is difficult since winter travel is always gear intensive. For me, going light is not just a matter of performance, but also has a direct correlation with my safety. The more gear I take with me, the slower I move and this reduction in speed increases the duration of exposure to the elements. That being said, in choosing my gear, I did not necessarily focus on the lightest options available. Rather, I chose pieces that I have experience with and that I know are reliable and effective. I’ve sought to put together an integrated and versatile system that requires little energy and thought for me to use. The challenge with what to bring is to strike a balance between the acceptable amount of risk I am willing to take and having sufficient options to effectively take care of myself if things were to not go my way.

While the process of refining my gear choices is compelling to me and also necessary to a certain degree, I am much more interested in the doing, in the experience of the race itself. Good gear should effectively fulfill its intended purpose, hence allowing me to focus on the task at hand without the distractions of its shortcomings. The pieces in the following list have met and continue to meet that demand. It is not to say that specific items cannot be improved upon, that there aren’t better options or that I won’t add or subtract a few items, but for now at least I am both satisfied and confident with my set-up.


Arc’teryx RHO LTW Beanie – Wool blend beanie very warm for the weight and can stretch over other layers. 
Arc’teryx RHO AR Balaclava – Great for sleeping or full weather protection combined with my goggles.
Neck Gaiter – versatile piece useful for face protection when it’s not super cold.
Julbo Dust – the Zebra lenses adjust in varying light conditions so I can wear them most of the day.
Julbo Orbiter – ideal for really cold weather or whiteout conditions.
Black Diamond Icon Polar – Battery pack is detachable and can be worn inside my jacket.
Black Diamond revolt – awesome rechargeable back up light that also takes regular AAAs.

Upper body
Arc’teryx Motus Crew SS – my favorite shirt that works great in hot or cold conditions.
Arc’teryx Phase AR Crew LS – warm and close fitting.
Arc’teryx Stryka Hoody – versatile, comfy and warm. The added balaclava hood is a huge plus.
Arc’teryx Gamma SL Hybrid Hoody – thicker than my windbreaker but still light, with convenient pockets for food and small gear. I’ve worn this jacket on most of my outings all winter long.
Arc’teryx RHO AR Zip – super warm with Polartec fabric. Great to sleep in.
Arc’teryx Atom LT Hoody – warm, light, insulated jacket that has proven itself as one my most comfortable and reliable pieces.
Arc’teryx Fission SL – my Arc’ shield. The fear nothing jacket.

Lower body
Arc’teryx Gamma MX Pant –  light fleece insulation with stretchy, windproof fabric make these versatile for a range of temps and comfortable to run in, in this context.
Arc’teryx Rho AR Bottom – same super warm Polartec fabric as the zip top and also great to sleep in.
Arc’teryx Atom LT Pant – matches the Atom LT jacket. Synthetic insulation is both light and warm (warm when wet too).

Arc’teryx Phase Liner Glove x2 – light liner gloves for a small layer of protection when handling gear or food.
Arc’teryx Venta SV – my favorite, all around glove with great dexterity.
Arc’teryx Zenta AR Mitt – fear nothing mitts.
Arc’teryx Zenta LT Glove – warmer than the Venta and a nice back up pair.
Black Diamond – Ultra Distance Trekking Poles –  good with snowshoes or in mushy snow conditions. They can be completely stowed away in my duffle.

Drymax Hiking HD socks- Geoff Roes pretty much wore a single pair of these for the entire race last year. Nuff’ said.
Drymax Snowboarding HD socks x2 – I find them to be a bit warmer version than the above with added light compression.
Inov-8 Roclite 286 GTX – light, comfy, warm boot. Runs like a normal running shoe with the added advantage of the hightop for snow. I’ve used these on Kiener’s and for more of my snow running. 
Black Diamond Apex Gaiters – Full gaiters for snow and added warmth. 
Down booties – REI – for sleeping or emergencies.
Neos Trekker Overboots -for overflow. A bit excessive and I’m leaning towards not taking these but overflow is bad this year and they do add extra warmth when snowshoeing or double up as an emergency shoe with the down booties if the others are wet.
Kahtoola Microspikes – great on hardpack snow or icy conditions. Might not bring them though as the terrain isn’t very hilly and I’m pretty covered for traction with the snowshoes.
Northern Lites Elite snowshoes – I’ve had these for 5 years and they’ve never failed. Light, simple and great for running. I tape the first and second strap shut to have less to fiddle with taking them on and off. The tape also helps lessen the abrasion of the straps on my shoes.

I will bring some options with me to AK and decide the day before the race based on the week forecast trends.
Mountain Hardwear – Phantom 0 degree bag – warm, high loft bag.
Or Handmade nepali bag – I’m unsure of the rating of this bag but it’s warmer than the Phantom and has worked well for me sleeping above 16,000ft and many winter camping trips. It’s about a pound heavier though.
Or Mountain Hardwear Ghost -40 bag – if the weather is forecasted to be in this range consistently through out the week then I will opt for this bag.
Thermarest Z-lite Sol – Foam pads are hassle free and provide good enough insulation. Bulk isn’t an issue with the sled.
Black Diamond Spotlight bivy sack – I like the fabric and spaciousness of this sack. I will only use the sack – no poles. I’ll only bring it if using one of the lighter bags.

-70oz Camelbak bladder (worn in Ultimate Direction AK vest under layers) – very light, breathable vest that allows great heat transfer from my body to the bladder to prevent freezing. I can also store food up front.
-20oz bottles x2 (can be worn in vest front pockets under my jacket)
-Thermos 16oz – nice to carry a warm meal or some coffee from the check points or when I boil snow. It’s a worthy luxury.
-Cash, Credit Card, and Driver’s License for buying food at checkpoints and return flight from McGrath
-Trail notes, maps and compass
Jetboil – with 2x3oz canisters that can fit in AK vest to keep warm. Used properly the Jetboil has never failed me.
-Lighter, wp matches, esbit cubes and micro stove (as back up) – can be used with Jetboil pot in case it’s too cold for the white gas canisters.
-Body glide
-Tissue paper
-Ibuprofen, tums, Scaps
-Chemical hand, foot warmers
-Reflective tape
-Duck Tape
-Crazy glue
-Climbing tape
-Music player
-Camera (TBD)
– Accessory cord, extra buckles
-Batteries (AA, AAA)
Suunto Core watch 

Modified Paris Expedition sled with back cut off . A single piece of tubular webbing is threaded through the sled eyelets, 5ft PVC poles and harness belt. I tie two overhand knots in the webbing at the top of the PVC poles, then thread two mini carabiners through the knots that I clip to the gear loops of the harness belt. This simple system helps keep the whole unit tight and provides some light shock absorption. Additionally, a piece of 6mm cord is threaded around the sled body through the eyelets to use as a fixation point for the duffle and snowshoes. The duffle is 100 liters in capacity  so I don’t need to use any compression sacks for gear or clothing (other than my sleeping bag).


Food (in calories)

VI gels x1500
-Cheese x2000
-Crushed chips x700
-Cheese puffs x600
-Recoverite x340
-Cliff Bars x2000
-Justin’s nut butter and sun cups x1100
-Candy (gummy bears, licorish) x1000
-Sardines x300
-Freeze dried meals x600
-Via coffee
-Coco expresso beans x600
Total food calories: 10640 

Finger Lake: (totals in calories)
-VI gels x1500
-Cheese x2000
-Crushed chips x700
-Recoverite x340
-Cliff Bars x2000
-Justin’s nut butter and sun cups x1100
-Candy (gummy bears, licorish) x1500
-Justin bars x1000
-Sardines x600
-Freeze dried meals x1000
-Coco expresso beans x600
-Peanut coverd chocolat x500
Total food calories: 12840

-VI gels x1500
-Cheese x2000
-Crushed chips x700
-Cheese puffs x500
-Recoverite x340
-Cliff Bars x3000
-Justin’s nut butter and sun cups x1100
-Candy (gummy bears, licorish) x1500
-Justin bars x1000
-Sardines x600
-Freeze dried meals x1600
-Coco expresso beans x600
-Peanut coverd chocolat x500
Total food calories: 14940






  1. Damn. Sure. We read about this, and heard the interview. But seeing this, and the “math” … this is some serious ass shit.

  2. Wow. For being more an artist than mathematician, you are thorough. My lazy brain can’t comprehend all those details.

    No matter how you do, I hope you can look back on your Alaskan adventures and be grateful for them, abject misery and all. I’m proud of you for having the courage to go back with a sled and go at it even longer this year. You are Captain Badass in my book.

    Best of luck and if I see you at the summer races, I’ll be sure and give you a congratulatory cookie.

  3. EPIC!!! Can’t wait to see how you adventure turns out. That sled looks light and ready. Good luck buddy.

  4. You the dopest. Period.

  5. No doubt, you are prepared. Best of luck.

  6. Awesome, man. Best of luck.

    what about socks?

    • Drymax Hiking HD and Drymax Snowboarding HD. The links are highlighted in the feet section.

  7. Good stuff! You sound ready to play.

    If you have the option, you might want to add a bit more protein/fat to your drop bags. When pulling, the candy stuff gets a bit old and you might crave something more. Macedamia nuts and cheese curds I’ve found to be satisfying.

    Did you re-inforce the webbing/rope through the PVC poles near the end with duct/Gorilla tape to prevent friction and potential fraying? Found that helpful.

    Good luck. Look forward to following along.

    • I don’t have the option to add anything in the drop bags, but do have quite a bit of fat/protein in there already with chips, cheese, cheese puffs, nut butter and sun cups, freeze dried meals, sardines and peanut coverd chocolat. I can also get meals at some of the check points.
      As far a reinforcing the webbing with tape, I will put a strip around the knots and potential friction areas before the start. Right now I have the end of the poles sanded and taped to avoid this issue and there’s been no sign of wear so far which is encouraging.

      • Nice to be able to get some hot meals along the way.

        Good call on sanding the inside of the poles. I found that helped too…and with the tape, should be good.

        Good luck!

  8. A few comments if you’d allow me…

    * Leave the goggles at home. Between your glasses and head attire, you have enough protection.
    * There’s a lot of redundancy in your upper body clothing. Personally, I’d only bring the mid-weight hooded base layer, wind shell and the two insulated pieces.
    * Will you be wearing the fleece bottoms underneath the softshell pants? If not, I’d leave them at home — to put them on, you’ll need to strip down to your skivies. A better system is running tight-style bottoms, then shell pants, then insulated pants. I would actually consider two pairs of insulated pants — you’ll need one pair during the day when temps are -20 or colder, depending on the wind. And you’ll want another pair for that “fear nothing” security.
    * Again, a lot of redundancy in your hand system. One pair of liners, one pair super insulated mitts, that’s it. Keep a carabiner on your shoulder strap so that you can securely store your mitts when your hands are overheating.
    * Good call on a foam pad. Air pads aren’t reliable enough, IMHO, when your life really does depend on them.
    * No shelter, just a bivy? I’ve thought that road before too, but have always gone with a shelter. Consider, for example, that the Mountain Laurel Designs SoloMid is just 13oz. So it’s lighter than the bivy AND you have way more room to sleep and melt snow, much less moisture build up, and no claustrophobia, especially if it snows and the bivy presses against your face.
    * It sounds like you are aware of the need to keep canisters warm. A workaround is a remote canister stove with a pre-heat tube. You can invert the canister so it’s a liquid feed. A little bit heavier maybe but more reliable and less needy.
    * Some food items are very temperature sensitive. For example, Clif bars are like hockey pucks in cold temps. Yes, you can warm them in your armpits, but I just assume take foods that don’t require special attention, like chocolate bars and Fritos.

    Finally, based on past race results, I think you should be looking at a 5- or 6-day effort. Given that time span, your gear systems overlook a key consideration: moisture is going to accumulate and freeze in your outer layers, as it moves away from your body as vapor and hits the dew point within your layers before it can get to the outmost layer to evaporate into the atmosphere. You might be able to reset the moisture buildup by jumping into the checkpoints and drying all your gear, but a sustainable and long-term solution isn’t difficult or complex: use vapor barrier liners, or garments made of non-breathable fabrics. The VBL stops perspiration from getting into your outer layers, preserving their integrity/loft/warm. At a minimum, I’d recommend VBL gloves, like the RBH Designs Mitts, combined with a mid-weight liner. Without VBL’s, you will find that your insulated mitts get soaked from perspiration, and then cold. For more info about VBL’s, I’ll point you to this article:

    • Great tips. The one that surprises me is a recommendation not to bring goggles. They’re relatively light in the grand scheme and can be that crucial piece of gear to achieve 100-percent coverage. In 2008 a woman running the ITI accidentally left her goggles at home. She wore all of her headgear and sunglasses while running at night at 20 below, straight into a 50 mph wind. She ended up with frostbite on much of her face and her eyes in a way that severely impacted her vision. With conditions like that, I’d be surprised anything but full goggles could provide adequate eye protection.

      • I’m sold on the VB’s.

        Agree with Jill on the goggles, wouldn’t leave home without them. The wind can simply works it’s way to the eyeballs and freeze em in the right conditions.

    • Not sure on your assessment of redundancies. Joe has little AK experience, and he is racing. Sweat could be an issue. As for upper body layers, particularly if you’re not going with a 40 below bag, then what exactly happens if one gets hurt, or wet?
      You undoubtedly have vast experience in AK, but maybe that’s exactly why I wouldn’t take some of your advice for myself (I do have a bunch of VB clothing though, but its use is not trivial). There’s a lot that can go wrong. The 350m race has plenty of opportunities to dry out gear, of course that can slow you down. Also you’ll end up bivying at most once or twice, unless you avoid checkpoints.

      I do second the RBH mitts. Fantastic piece of gear.

      Not having eye protection though – the potential consequences are grave. Even if you could be right … nah.

    • Hey Andy, thanks for the thoughtful comments and the previous help you’ve provided me with thinking about all this. To your points:
      -goggles: I’ve had superficial frostbite on the top of my cheeks wearing a balaclava and sunglasses on the divide after less than a few hours of exposure to the wind. The coverage is good just simply not enough in extreme conditions. Also, goggles are really nice to have in a whiteout. If anything I’d rather bring goggles and no sunglasses but given the weight of the glasses bringing both just makes to me.
      -I’ve thought a lot about the pant choice. I tend to agree with your layering system and is actually what I used at Susitna last year and was pretty happy with it. However, experimenting a bit out here this is what I’ve found: the combination of running tights and shell pants gives me roughly the equivalent warmth to the softshell pants alone in cold weather. However, the softshell pants breath better in warmer weather and eliminate the need to have to take one layer on and off and have several useful pockets for food. For the -20 or colder days I use the insulated pant (full side zips) over the softshell. The fleece tights are really only for sleeping or for permanent wear if it’s really cold for an extended period of time. They can also be worn stand alone if the softshell get wet. I’ll consider this some more though because the tight/shell pant is pretty solid too. A second pair of insulated pants over the tights isn’t a bad idea either.
      -I agree with your point that the system is redundant somewhat and have gone back and forth with it a lot. The temp range where my lighter leather gloves are useable is large so if anything I’d rather bring these and the mitts and forgo the thicker pair of gloves. The liner gloves weigh half an ounce so bringing a couple pairs is a pretty trivial addition.
      -Yes for the shelter in every other condition except for racing. Basically, I’ve found that even the most trivial thing like staking and putting up a shelter becomes difficult and annoying when cold and tired. I just want to minimize any extra work I have to do (which is a good argument for the second pair of insulated pants over the fleece tights). With the back cut off my sled it is easily propped in the snow providing additional wind and snow cover if needed. Also, as much as possible I want to take advantage of checkpoints to rest so I hoping to not have to bivy that often.
      -Interesting about the remote canister stove. I’ll look into it.
      -For food, I can keep 5-6 hours worth in my vest pockets directly against my body so much like the water the cold isn’t an issue there. When I grab food from my sled I consume the food that isn’t affected by the cold first, giving the other items like gels or cliff bars time to thaw. I think it’s worth the hassle because they are foods I like and have used before on multi-day trips.
      – Very interesting read regarding the VBL’s. My only real experience with RBH was using the socks which I found terrible despite multiple attempts to use them correctly. This turned me away from any of their other products. I’m curious whether you think that a soft shell jacket provides enough of a barrier to meet the same purpose? For instance, when doing Kiener’s on Longs Peak in the winter, I run in my softshell jacket and work up a sweat to the base of the climb. Then with the climbing and belaying being a lot slower, I wear my puff jacket directly over the softshell. Now, I realize that the actual time spent doing this is quite short (and the temps aren’t that cold) but it’s never been apparent to me that there is any moisture between the softshell and the puff jacket or at least not enough to be an issue. I have to do more research on this.
      Thanks again for the feedback.

  9. Excellent tips!! Thanks for posting.

  10. The very best of luck Joe! You sound prepared.

  11. Hey Joe,
    I met You at the Zane Grey 50 when I did not have enough gas to get You back to Your Car. Anyway, I am psyched for Your success in this wonderful journey. I have been enjoying doing some challenging 50ks with Aravaipa Running here in Phoenix, AZ. I look forward to following Your Iditorod and seing You out on the trails. Wow, talk about digging deep !!!

  12. I’d recommend bringing the goggles. I ran the ITI in 2010 and had high winds at times from Nicolai to the finish in -35 temps. It didn’t happen to me, but once you get “frostbite” of the cornea, your vision goes hazy for a while and your only option then is to just stop on the trail since you can’t see.

    I brought about half the gear you’re taking, but what did I know having come from Dallas, Texas. No bivy, just a -20 Gore-Tex bag and a pad. No stove since the time stopped trying to melt snow or cook leads to hypothermia. I kept a 2l insulated Nalgene full of water in my sled as a backup to a hydration pack. No insulated pants and fewer layers. No gaiters, booties or crampons. No food, just some drink mix I made. No toothbrush, sunscreen (?), chemical warmers, painkillers or glue. I have an alpine mountaineering background with mostly solo climbing and prefer not to manage a lot of stuff, so don’t take this as a recommendation.

    For upper body I had: Smartwool ss shirt, Patagonia polypro top, TNF vest, OR windshirt, and OR insulated jacket.

    Lower body: Windproof shorts, Sugoi insulated tights and GoLite softshell pants.

    My sled was bomber – a modified Hammerhead sled, carbon fiber poles, and modified BOD harness. It’s sitting in McGrath.

    I wrenched my left ankle pretty bad about mile 250 and wished I had some compression tape for that and some hiking sticks. Got lost a few times.

    Have a great time out there!

    • Glenn – thank you for sharing your thoughts and your report. Way to get it done in bold style! I’d initially put together a list very similar to yours and was hoping to even use a pack instead of a sled. However, I decided much like Geoff did last year, that my first priority should be to finish and get experience in the event before going for the best (most committed) style. Much like soloing, a certain amount of practice is necessary to come to that level of refinement in style. I do have a lot of experience in the mountains and Susitna certainly proved valuable in understanding the way these types of races work, but I am still very much a rookie in this kind of travel. Each race or experience is for me a stepping stone towards a cleaner, more perfected style and I don’t want to jump too many steps on my first go at it.
      More specifically, with regards to food, a drink mix is awesome if you can do it, but *real* food has proven more effective for me on multi-days despite the added weight. As far as layers go, I’m currently toying with the idea of using the -40 bag (simpler set-up) in which case I’d leave the fleece tights and top (and probably down booties) behind and no bivy so the overall weight would be pretty much the same but simplified. I don’t have a -20 bag (both the 0 and -40 bag are Geoff’s) so those are my options. For the miscellaneous items , sunscreen won’t come with me, I’ll just apply it before I start to my face (I’m a brit after all so I get charred easily). I truly never use Ibuprofen, but if I run into a similar situation to you with you ankle, it’s a nice back up to have. Anyway, thanks for your thoughts and see you at HR.

  13. The epic, indeed. What an adventure…good luck, Joe!


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