Climbing gear tips and tricks

"When your feet are cold, cover your head."    — Inuit saying.
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Custom rubber on top of climbing shoe for crack climbing

Stinky shoes ?

Left: Custom rubber on top of climbing shoe for crack climbing

Triple slings

Confused of carrying too much gear: quickdraws, shoulder length slings, doubles... Just replace all you quickdraws by shoulder length slings. Put 2 biners (A and B) at opposite sides, pass biner B through A and clip B to the two slings attached to A. You now have a nice quickdraw made out of triple spectra (spectra is better for this use thanks to its softness). If you need to use it extended, just grab one biner and one of the 3 slings that go through it and tip it so as to throw the other two slings out; only one hand necessary with little practice.

Figure 8

Although very much out of fashion nowadays, remember that the figure 8 is the only device that enables you to rappel through knots, something essential when backing quickly off a climb after tying all your ropes together... I always carry one. They are also good for rappelling on anything from single 4mm shoe laces to double 13mm static ropes. And still plenty good for belaying leader, second...

A device to keep your cams closed.

Large cams

Right: A device to keep your cams closed.

You shelled more than 100$ for that #5 Camalot and you wouldn't go without it for all the offwidths in the world, but it's not very convenient to carry.

Cut a piece off a metal coat hanger to the distance between the outer cams. Bend one end so you can attach a thin rope to it (1mm) and attach the rope to the shaft of the cam. Now compress the cams and insert the metal piece through holes at the extremities of all 4 cams. It will keep the cams compressed and takes half as much room as before, making it more convenient to carry. And the metal piece will fall off by itself when you pull the trigger before inserting it into that flared overhanging offwidth... Note: compress your cams this way only while climbing; if you forget them at home it will weaken the spring.

Camelback for water ?

Nah... I've seen those things in action and I'll never get one !

Leave those things on the mountain bikes where they belong. Nalgenes with the new velcroed insulators are the way I go: in the pack or attached directly to the harness with the velcro (no binner so it won't even bounce when you walk), large mouth to pour boiling tea directly in them without filling your sleeping bag, very tough. As a backup, carry a thin plastic bottle that you can crush if you need space in the pack.

Multipurpose GPS

Yes, I know this is outdated. Just replace GPS with a smart phone or whatever.

GPS (Global positioning Systems) have never been very useful for climbers for a bunch of reasons: insufficient vertical resolution, need to be on the move to get accurate directions (hard to do on a steep slope), lack of reception in deep valleys, weight and other drawbacks. But wait there's hope in sight: Clinton removed the military crypto and gave everyone high precision GPS from one day to the next (thanks!); and Garmin integrated a true (pressure) altimeter and a true (magnetic) compass in one of its GPS models, the Buy at Amazon.comeTrex Summit, making it a great tool for climbers. You can use the satellite altitude to calibrate the pressure, thus getting accurate sea level pressure for weather forecast and the compass gives you true north direction without having to move. And it's very lightweight too. Compass and pressure sensor are two things you can also find in the Buy at Amazon.comGalaxy SIII.

And there's a model since 2002 that integrates a GPS and a two-way radio, the Buy at Amazon.comGarmin Rino 110 and Buy at Amazon.com120 ! And there is also the Magellan GSC 100, a GPS that does email; or the Buy at Amazon.comMagellan Triton 2000, a GPS+camera+MP3+compass+barometer... And now several digital cameras also have integrated GPS. Polar has several heart monitor watches with digital compass or even GPS receiver. To say nothing of the cell phones with (cheesy) integrated cameras or mp3 players. There's a cell phone that also does satellite phone.

Convergence is great. Once we have GPS, 2-way radio, cell phone, satellite phone, ebook/map reader, digital compass, altimeter, digital camera, laser ranger, rescue beacon, avalanche beacon, heart rate monitor, mp3 player, tazer and wireless PDA (so as to post to rec.climbing while on the route) all in one box powered by a hand-crank charger, we'll be all set... Provided it weighs less than a pickup truck. But then your boss will be able to tell in one phone call that you are not in bed with the flu, but enjoying the 5th pitch of some outback climb and how cute your new partner is...

Carrying guidebooks

Don't know where to put those big guidebooks when climbing without a pack ? At home use a power drill to drill a 3mm hole in the upper left corner of the book through all the pages, very near the binding but still through the pages. Thread a piece of shoestring through. Knot. Clip to harness and keep the book closed with a big rubber band. Works better on smallish books.

Self cleaning function

OK, females can skip this section and get onto the next section. For this matter so can jews, moslems and merkins.
If you are a normal, unmaimed male, did you know you can access a self-cleaning function on those long expeditions where water is scarce ? Here's how it works: when you pee, completely close your foreskin with your fingers and let it fill up, release the flow, repeat until the end. Yes, it's a bit messy, but if you are outdoors it's no big deal and it cleans up pretty well. Don't try it at home. Unless in the shower.

There are two types of people in the world: people who say they pee in the shower, and dirty fucking liars."    — Buy at Amazon.comLouis CK.


The second time I froze my toes was in Chamonix, on a stupid 20 hour winter ascent on the coldest day of the last 10 years. All toes black and swollen.... and I had to take a plane the following day for an Antarctic expedition, which didn't seem such a bright idea, but the doctor there knew his business:

This stuff saved my toes: after a week the black skin pealed off to reveal pink baby skin. No after effect, recovered all sensitivity immediately, no pain.

2010 update: there now seems to be some better stuff around for treating frostbites. The executive summary goes: aspirin + prostacyclin (vasodilatator).

Thumb holes

When buying a thin pile to use for close body wear, choose it in stretch material with the sleeves as long as possible and punch holes to put your thumbs through. It warms up you hands a lot for rock-climbing in the cold or even under a pair of gloves.

Emergency gloves

Caught in a snowstorm while rock climbing ? Didn't bring gloves with you ? Take you socks and punch a hole in them 20cm from the end (where the toes are), put over your hand and let the thumb through the hole.


Never wash your Goretex/windbreaker. Better to let it stink than loose all waterproofing.

Now Volker Hilsenstein disagrees with me: "Unfortunately sweat is quite aggressive and if you never wash it out the gore-tex is a lot more likely to delaminate (that's what happened to my jacket). The proper way to handle a gore-tex jacket is: wash it when dirty, iron the gore-tex (no joke !), re-apply water-repellent (to prevent the base material (nylon) from getting soggy). Soggy nylon has no breathability at all. The ironing helps the water-repellent stuff to work its way into the fabric after washing".

I haven't tried, but I don't sweat much and it hardly ever rains in Colorado...

Custom face mask

When the temperature drops very low, you can freeze your lungs if you breath too hard (it's happened to me and you end up with a cough for months). Using a neoprene face mask is not a solution: it restricts the flow of air making your lungs labor harder and it doesn't warm the air.

Take a classic ski goggle and a piece of fleece fabric about 40cm x 40cm. Glue one side of the fabric at the base of the mask. When using, stuff the bottom of the fabric in your collar leaving a large pocket of air in front of your mouth and nose; the warm air you expire will mix up with the cold air seeping through the fabric, warming it. You can regulate the flow of air by taking more out of your collar. It ices up after a while but it's not a big problem. This trick does not work well at high altitude where you want all the O2 you can get...

Little dog breath

A trick for breathing at high altitude (which is all relative): breath in normally, then when you breath out, pinch you lips hard and blow through. This increases the pressure in your lungs, thus increasing the partial pressure of oxygen, and every little bit helps. You aren't a hardcore himalayan climber till you can do this while you sleep...

Wake up

Winter camping, tomorrow is the big summit day with a 2am start; you are cozy in your sleeping bag with 40cm of down feathers around you in your Xtreme Minus Zillion Degree sleeping bag... Where do you put the alarm clock ? If on your wrist you won't hear it inside the sleeping bag; if outside the battery may freeze or you may not hear it through the layer of down... Put it inside your balaclava against the back of your head ! Obviously it's better if it's a small watch and not a grandfather's clock...

Ski poles

Simple poles are the most resistant. 3-parts pole can fit in a pack so they should be preferred for technical climbs. 2-part poles are good for backcountry skiing.

Throw away the tiny plastic thingies they put on new poles and put large baskets instead (sometimes hard to find in stores).

On long traverses or steep hikes up, it's more comfortable to hold the poles partway down, but the metal is often cold and slippery. Put some tennis racket grip tape (or bike handlebar tape, or gaffer tape or duct tape) around the upper section of the pole.

Pull your board

Why carry your snowboard or monoski on your pack when going backcountry ? It's a stupid thing to do: it's heavy, it's dangerous if the weather is windy, it's not convenient since you keep hitting your heels against it...

Just drill a 5mm hole at the tip and use a small biner to attach it to a 3 meter sling. Don't attach this sling to any gear loop on your pack (it will rip the stitching) but pass a sling around the pack and clip to it. The only drawbacks of this method is when crossing over rocks or when traversing a slope in a forest, but you can then shorten the sling or... carry it !


Don't put ice in your coolers: it melts off and gets everything wet (maybe OK for beer, not so for steaks). Rather keep a bunch of gatorade bottles in your freezer, but drink one tenth off of each before freezing. Then use them in place of ice in your cooler. When you get back from your climb, they'll still be ice-cold like in a commercial and will have kept the rest of the content cold. PS: I said Gatorade bottles, not beer cans. I've drunk enough frozen beer to last me a lifetime.

Single or double wall tent ?

I had a North Face Mountain 24 for a decade. It just wouldn't die: it got covered by a meter of snow on Denali and the poles weren't even bent, got picked up and banged on rocks for several hundred meters by the wind in Gran Sasso and my mom patched the holes, got into a 3 day long 130km/h windstorm in Sarek and didn't budge... until it burnt in our car.

I decided to replace it with a single wall Bibler tent. I like the concept which is very fast to pitch in bad weather conditions. But I guess I didn't choose the right model which was a new one, since then dropped from their catalog. It had some defects (like very poor bug screens, zippers that broke shortly) and the fact that everything is glued on (the pockets for the poles, the pockets for your stuff...) and comes unglued regularly. The fabric of the tent itself is fine and doesn't condensate. During our road trip, the most asked question to us was: "How do you like that tent ?" Well, okay I guess, but if I had to do it again, I'd probably get their super light model for when I need to carry it and buy a 2-second tent for car camping (the kind you just toss in the air and it's all setup).

Cool drinks

So you are car camping in summer, it's hot and you have a couple bottles of white wine and beer that have spent the day in the car in full sun. Your survival depends on that wine/beer but you don't have any ice to bring it to drinkable temperature... Take some toilet paper (preferably clean...) and wrap it around the bottle/can; soak it with water. Let it stand for a while in a shady and open spot and renew the water if it dries out. The evaporation of the water takes heat away from the bottle (that's basic thermodynamics), even if the water itself is warm. This trick works great if the partial pressure of water is low, i.e. at altitude, with a dry climate or some wind; it doesn't work in wet climate, so don't try it in the rainforest...

Soft stakes

Want to plant a tent in the snow ? Leave traditional tent stakes at home. Skis and ice axes work great, but what if you want to leave the tent while you climb with that same gear ? Buy some waterproof fabric, nylon or K-way style and plenty of 3mm rope. Cut the fabric in squares of 30 x 30 cm and have your grandma stitch a passage for the rope on two opposite sides of each square. Cut the rope in pieces of about 1m and pass one piece through each side. Tie them up and attach them to the guy lines of the tent. In winter, dig a hole in the snow, put them in, cover them with snow and step on top; after some time the snow hardens and they can even be very hard to remove. You can leave them permanently tied to the tent, in summer just put rocks inside.

Or you can buy them ready made at Bibler.

Hanging stove

The debate is usually butane/propane stove vs white gas stove. Wrong. It should be table stove vs. hanging stove. Get a hanging stove and you'll never want another stove for winter camping or bivvys. For 1~3 people I've been using the Markill Stormy ever since my solo trips in Alaska; it uses standard butane/propane cartridges and is quite compact. The great thing about a hanging stove is that you set the tent up then immediately hang the stove and start making water while your partner finishes pitching the tent, sorts the gear, gets the tent organized, changes clothing... No risk to spill dinner in the sleeping bag; no more cooking outside in storms because of flaring stoves; no more priming with dangerous chemicals... Very important: always leave the door of the tent open to avoid dying of carbon monoxide poisoning.

If it gets very cold, either use a chemical re-usable cartridge heat pad (Coleman/Primus 720141), a lighter held underneath or a 2nd stove to warm the first cartridge (be extra super cautious with that) ! The Markill does not have too much problem with cold because you can hang the cartridge in a way that it touches the hot body of the stove. For those who prefer white gas (boom!), you can get the Bibler hanging stove.

Note that the Markill exists in different versions. Get the one with feet so you can also use it on a table.

Power cooler

There are now plenty of power coolers available to keep in you car. A few things to consider:

  1. Take one that has good insulation, this way it'll keep your food cold for a day even without power.
  2. Don't open/close it unnecessarily.
  3. Don't leave it in the sun (d'oh!). If you leave it in you car, try to keep the windows open a notch.
  4. Instead of using 'cold packs', simply freeze a couple bottles of your favorite sport drinks (Gatorade...). By the end of your climb, your food will still be cool and you'll have a fresh drink ready .
  5. Take one that is waterproof and that fills vertically. This way when not using the power, you can put a block of ice inside to cool your stuff and not have water dripping out all over the place.
  6. Also if you plan on leaving it on in a parked car, get a battery controller (it cuts off the power if the battery voltage drops below 11.5V).
  7. The current technology is not very efficient and has been used for over a century to produce cold from... heat. The future of portable and efficient cooling lies in either uncertain quantum effects (maybe on your next processor) or in Buy at Amazon.comStirling engines. Those engines have been known for about a century as well, but the difficulty in building them has kept them out of the mainstream until very recently.