Lightweight Winter Emergency Gear

Mikepowers Small

by Michael Powers, IFMGA
AAI Senior Guide & Director for Staff Development


Our family did a one-day guided hike onto the Coleman Glacier this summer with AAI. It was great.

My question: We live in New York and hike year round in the Catskills and Adirondacks (mostly day hikes). Even in the winter, the trails are essentially non-technical, but often require snowshoes and/or crampons. Some of the mountains are have no trails and require map and compass. Temperatures can get down to well below zero F at night, and some of the hikes last all day. I want to carry the proper gear in the event of an unexpected emergency bivouac. I am also interested in traveling as light as possible without sacrificing safety. I purchased a 3 oz mylar emergency space bag and an incredibly light (1 lb, 5 oz) down bag by Western Mountaineering rated to 35 degrees F. I also own their incredibly light down sweater. We all carry a small piece of Ensolite pad to sit on. Does this sound like adequate protection for an emergency (space bag outside for wind and water protection, down bag inside)? If I go with a bag that is rated to a lower temperature, the weight starts to add up quickly. We also carry fleece, Primaloft down jackets, Schoeller pants (with base layer underneath) and shell jacket and pants (Marmot Precip), all of which can be worn in the bag in the event of an emergency. Your opinion is greatly appreciated.- Ira Orenstein (New Rochelle, NY)


Hello Ira,

I appreciate the need to carry items for safety yet still travel light enough so that I can move quickly. Each trip is unique and I don't have any items that "I always carry" since even carrying an extra pound or two can make me lose my balance and result in some kind of unforeseen accident.

However, I will weigh in with my opinion about what might be reasonable things to carry. I think a light wind layer is very important - either the space blanket or a tarp made of Silcoat nylon, a denier ripstop nylon impregnated with silicone. This seems to be the lightest fabric that I'm aware of. I would think that a large down parka could take the place of a sleeping bag and be more versatile. I also think a shovel (instead of a sleeping bag) will be much lighter and allow you to construct a shelter if necessary. To heat the shelter a few candles and matches are essential. Mind you, taking a sleeping bag gives some warmth, but it significantly increases the weight of your pack. It also requires more time to travel through the snow and make a bivouac more likely. Rarely, if ever, do I carry a sleeping bag, unless I plan on spending the night. Even on climbs that take all day, I'll not carry a sleeping bag but will have an emergency tarp and some way to get out of the elements.

I also think Schoeller pants and jackets are fairly heavy for the amount of protection they give (mind you, I do use them and love them) however I don't think they are the most efficient insulating layers given their weight. I think down or Primaloft is more efficient. Also, a headlamp allows you to keep moving on mildly technical terrain although I'm sure you are well aware of this even if it's not mentioned.

- Mike Powers

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