Ultimate Summer Setup: 5 Essentials for Backcountry Travel

With the low snow year, mountain ranges across the west are melting fast and summer adventures are quickly coming into view. While everyone has their favorite piece of gear, we feel it’s always necessary to have an ultimate summer setup of essentials that go along every time you leave the trailhead.

Brooks Range summer gear

Two fundamentals to always carry into the backcountry are a hardshell and a puffy. You might not need either of them over the course of a weekend outing, but they are both invaluable when Mother Nature doesn’t follow the forecast. Given their weight to value ratio, there is never not a reason to pack both. Light and compactable, a hard shell and puffy can live forgotten in the deepest recesses of your pack until the time is right. The Brooks-Range LT Armor Jacket is a scant 13 ounces of wind and weather protection. Made of breathable Polartec Neo Shell™ fabric, the hooded hard shell features two simple chest pockets and is fully seam taped for simple but complete weatherproof protection in any mountain environment.

Overnighting? The Cloak sleeping bag series serves as an elegant, trusted and versatile backcountry refuge. Drape it around you at camp, sleep with it under the stars, or huddle beneath it during morning coffee before stowing it away for another adventure in the hills. Because so many campers sleep warm, traditional bags are often too hot and make overnights muggy and uncomfortable. In return, they get a poor night’s sleep. For versed backcountry aficionados, the Cloak sleeping bag series is a smart alternative to camping traditionalism. With three temperature-rated quilts—45, 30 and 15 degrees—the Cloak is a zipperless down blanket that has multi-purpose applications for myriad camping needs and demands. Treated with DownTec™ weatherproofing, these 850+ fill goose quilts provide premier loft with maximum compressibility and minimal weight penalty.

Cloak 15 lifestyle

Along those same lines is the Cirro Synthetic Hoody, a 60-gram Primaloft insulated back up plan. Temps can plummet at night or winds can rattle you to your core. Built with a lean but strong Pertex Quantam face fabric, the Cirro is a hearty insurance policy when things get chilly.

To further keep with the essentials but maintain that svelte pack appearance, our Foray two-person tent is an ideal shelter for fast packing as well as lax car camping. Weighing in at just over three pounds, the Foray is fully seam taped and features a roomy 6-square-foot vestibule for organizing, and full mesh canopy for maximum ventilation on muggy expeditions. It also boasts a no drip front door, which eliminates rain from dripping into the tent when the fly is open.

Brroks-Range Foray Tent

Then there’s getting lost. Or not. Brooks-Range offers a one-and-done UTM Reader™ for backcountry adventurers who enjoy the virtues of orienteering through wilderness playgrounds. It contains all the UTM’s, scales, and slope indexes used on backcountry topographic maps in North America, Europe, New Zealand and Japan. Measuring only 4¼” x 7”, the non-glare, flexible plastic slips easily into a pocket, and prevents broken corners or tearing in cold and severe conditions. Grid, inclinometer, common conversions, and detailed instructions are included, making the Brooks-Range UTM Reader as vital as a map and compass for backcountry travel and orienteering.

However your summer escapades take shape, having the crucial pieces for backcountry travel can elevate your experience no matter how wet, windy or wild the trails get.


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Step Up Your Mountain Prowess with These 4 Tips

By Brooks-Range Ambassador Aaron Richards

In the United States, if you want to make a professional career out of mountain guiding, you’ve got to have a decent level of competence in three major disciplines: skiing, rock climbing and alpine climbing. Like many of my peers, I entered the field with a passion for—and experience in—only two of these. I had been skiing and rock climbing for most of my life and starting to share these activities with clients, out of bounds and on real terrain, was easy and immediately rewarding. Hacking away at frozen water with sharp pointy things, on the other hand, had just never seemed that appealing to me. So guiding on ice? I wasn’t close to being ready for it.

Teaching companion rescue at a fundraiser for the Eastern Sierra Avalanche Center. Photo by Jessica Haist

Teaching companion rescue at a fundraiser for the Eastern Sierra Avalanche Center. Photo by Jessica Haist

Whether you’re a skier learning to climb or a sport climber pushing into the alpine, moving into a new discipline requires something more than a haphazard approach. It requires some strategy and intentionality. Here are some lessons I’ve learned as I’ve built competence on ice and moved toward becoming a more complete guide:

1. Acknowledge your weakness, and then move toward it.

In guiding, like in life, it’s easy to practice the things we already do well and much harder to focus on the things we struggle with. This seems to hold true whether we’re pursuing weight lifting, endurance running, music or academics.

When I started out as a guide, I was terrible at ice climbing and I knew it. When I had a free day, I had to very intentionally set climbing, skiing and my ego aside and go whack away at some blue stuff. Initially it wasn’t much fun; I would rather have been out pulling on rock or floating in some powder. But, as my competence grew, that feeling faded.

High on Dark Shadows during the AMGA rock guide exam. Photo by Angela Hawse

High on Dark Shadows during the AMGA rock guide exam. Photo by Angela Hawse

2.  Get as much experience as possible while treating every aspect of the environment and discipline as new.

In my first 18 months on ice, I relinquished the lead more than I had ever done rock climbing. This slow approach built a solid foundation on which to apply Will Gadd’s 100-pitch rule: Follow or top-rope at least 100 pitches before tying into the sharp end.

Moving from rock to ice, I was wary of my familiarity in the vertical world—conscious that my comfort on one substrate would give me a false (and dangerous) sense of confidence on the other. I had to force myself to pay attention to the subtle differences between the environments: how to protect your followers, where to position your belay, what ropes and devices work best in various situations. Stepping back and really appreciating the idiosyncrasies of my surroundings has helped propel me more quickly in the ice climbing environment.

Finishing the last 100 feet of Murchison Falls. Photo by Ian McEleney

Finishing the last 100 feet of Murchison Falls. Photo by Ian McEleney

3. Find a mentor, someone who can fill the gaps in your knowledge and push you to be better.

This February, my friend Ian McEleney and I headed back to my homeland, a place whose climbing had always intimidated me: the Canadian Rockies. In a little over a week, we treated ourselves to a fine sampling of what the area has to offer, with ascents of Louise Falls, Murchison Falls, Moonlight Falls, Polar Circus and Bourgeau Left.

Ian’s philosophy on climbing is centered around the idea that there’s always a lesson to be learned. This means that, whether cragging for a day or weathering an extended trip, both the individuals and the group are getting stronger. On ice, his form is impeccable, and he consistently inspires me to do better with every swing, to be patient with my feet, to not out-climb my tools. Plus he’s happy to put in long days and let me follow him up routes that would otherwise be out of my reach.

Ian McEleney under the Bear Spirit. Photo by Aaron Richards

Ian McEleney under the Bear Spirit. Photo by Aaron Richards

4. Test yourself before putting new skills to work in a professional setting.

We all know the anxiety and excitement of walking up to an unknown route. These feelings are valuable; they’re what get us into the mountains and then help keep us alive once we’re there. But when guiding, even if on-sighting a new route, we’ve got to have a level confidence in our abilities that allows us to control emotions. Our expertise should allow us to squelch the anxiety and stoke the excitement of our guests.

Prior to working in the mountains as my profession, I had the luxury of designing my own adventures and, as a result, hiding my vulnerabilities. As a guide, I owe it to my peers and to my guests to lay bare my weaknesses and then attack them through systematic training and practice. This new commitment to becoming comfortable in all mountain environments hasn’t been easy; it has required me to use my personal trips more strategically. But it has certainly opened up new terrain and made me more rounded and confident even on routine objectives. And I’ve found that it has also produced a sense of accomplishment that I didn’t used to come home with—maybe a feeling that isn’t too dissimilar from what I’m able to instill in my guests.

Early morning guiding on Mt. Whitney. Photo by Aaron Richards

Early morning guiding on Mt. Whitney. Photo by Aaron Richards

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Grizzly Bears of Alaska’s Brooks Range

As a small company of mountaineers, we are passionate about the Brooks Range Mountains and everything they represent. This week we caught up with Wildlife Biologist, Kyle Joly, to find out more about the grizzlies that call this beautiful range home.

A bear cub in the Brooks Range of Alaska. Photo credit: K. Joly - NPS.

A bear cub in the Brooks Range of Alaska. Photo credit: K. Joly – NPS.

You are a Wildlife Biologist doing incredible research — tell us a little bit more about yourself. 

I am employed by for Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve directly but work in all six of the National Park Service’s northern most Park units. These Parks comprise over 22 million acres: about 25% of all NPS lands nationwide or 10 Yellowstones. I first started working in Alaska for the NPS in 1994 and have a PhD in Wildlife Biology. I focus on the ecology of large mammals, especially caribou, moose, bears and Dall’s sheep.

Kyle Joly adjusts a GPS collar. Photo: T. Cambier - Chena River Aviation

Kyle Joly adjusts a GPS collar. Photo: T. Cambier – Chena River Aviation

The Brooks Range Mountains are known for their grizzlies. Can you tell us what makes these bears so special?  

Brooks Range grizzly bears are the most wild – they live in places that are among the most remote places in the country, generally very far from roads and villages. There is only one road that bisects the Brooks Range (the Dalton Highway which leads to the Prudhoe Bay oil fields) and only a couple of small Alaska Native villages (Anaktuvuk Pass and Arctic Village).

The Alaskan Brooks Range. Photo credit: Matt Cameron

The Alaskan Brooks Range. Photo credit: Matt Cameron

Do you know any interesting factoids about these bears?

Surprisingly little research has been conducted on Brooks Range bears. In 2014, we launched a major research project trying to learn more about the ecology, movements, diets, productivity, survivorship and health of grizzly bears in this region. One thing that may come as a surprise is that the bears are pretty small. Several adult females weighed in the 70 kg (150 lb) range — smaller than many humans.

We estimate there are about 20 adult grizzly bears per 1000 square km (or about 5 adult bears per 100 square miles) – a moderately low-density population. We believe the grizzly bear population is relatively healthy.

Bears in the willows. Photo credit: E. Jostad - NPS

Bears in the willows. Photo credit: E. Jostad – NPS

What do bears in the area subsist upon?

Grizzly bears are omnivores, they eat most everything including; carrion, roots, grasses, fish, berries, ground squirrels, insects, caribou, moose and more. Fish are much less prevalent in the Brooks Range than in south-central, southeastern and southwestern Alaska, as well as Kodiak, which plays a large role in why the bears here are so much smaller than those in these other areas.

Bear on Alaska

What is the size of the home range for Brooks Range bears?

This is one of the questions we hope to answer with our research. We know home ranges vary dramatically between types of bears. Sows with young cubs can have extremely small home range, on the order of 120 square km (45 sq. mi), which is less than a third of the size of home ranges we’ve found for some moose in the area. The home range of sows without cubs are typically larger and boars having the largest.

Following bear tracks in the Brooks Range. Photo credit: D Gustine USGS

Following bear tracks in the Brooks Range. Photo credit: D Gustine USGS

What are the common misconceptions about the bear in the area?

As noted above, people typically think of grizzly bears as humongous, but Brooks Range bears are smaller than their coastal cousins. That said, bears can reach over 600 lbs, so they are not all small either. People sometimes think bears have poor vision — but it is thought to be comparable to human sight. It is just inferior to their legendary sense of smell. Bears can run up or down hill and they can run very fast for short distance (65 km/h or 40 mph). They are also excellent swimmers. Most grizzly bear attacks are defensive.

The hind paw of a local bear. Photo credit: D Gustine-USGS

The hind paw of a local bear. Photo credit: D Gustine-USGS

Do you have any infamous bear encounter stories? 

We have relatively few encounters because of the combination of relatively low density of bears and relatively few visitors to the region. To my knowledge, there has only been one fatality in Gates of the Arctic NPP from a grizzly, which happened in 1996. Two hikers were out and got separated in thick brush, one of them encounter a grizzly at close range and did not survive. The other got away. In 2008, a woman was dragged from her tent but fellow party members were able to repel the bear.

Peaks in the Brooks-Range. Photo credit: K. Joly - NPS

Peaks in the Brooks-Range. Photo credit: K. Joly – NPS

Are there any tips you have for hikers encountering bear in the backcountry?

Here are a couple of critical ones:

1)   Travel in groups of three to eight. Almost all negative bear encounters occur when group size is one or two, so having three or more (if you stick together) greatly reduces your chance of a negative encounter.

2)   Be noisy, especially in areas with limited visibility (tall shrubs, cresting a ridge, topography with lots of ups and downs), moving water (it is loud so bears will have a tougher time hearing you), or if the wind is coming towards you (bears will have a tougher time smelling you and your voice doesn’t carry well into the wind).

3)   Keep a clean camp. Food and anything smelly like toothpaste should be kept away from the sleeping area and stored in IGBC-approved bear resistant containers (bear barrels).

4)   Be prepared. You should have received training in how to act in bear country from a knowledgeable source (the video “Staying Safe in Bear Country” in an excellent primer) so use your training. You should also have a deterrent (EPA-approved bear spray is extremely effective).

5)   Enjoy! The overwhelming majority of bear encounters are positive and occur at safe distances (because people follow 1-4), relatively few people get the opportunity for this experience.

Photo credit: E. Jostad - NPS

Photo credit: E. Jostad – NPS

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