Fit For Purpose

One of the keys to extreme races in extreme places is to design or modify existing equipment to tightly match the specifics of the adventure. Most commercial apparel is designed with a large sweet spot, “good enough” for many situations. On the Iditarod Trail, in winter, “good enough” might cost you a finger or two.
Take snow shoes. Coming from shorter and less snowy races, such as the 300-mile Yukon Arctic Ultra, it was tempting to carry only light, racing snow shoes, just in case. More seasoned Iditaristas Beat Jegerlehner and Billy Koitsch, race director for the Iditasport races, disabused me. Snow shoes must match the depth and looseness of the snow you expect. 2017 sported deep, fluffy snow and was a good year to have 25” or 32” snow shoes.
They have to be as light as possible. The lightest, large snow shoes I know are the Northern Lites. They have to be easy to put on and off with large mittens on. As the deep snow shows up, it starts sucking your energy at every step. But you keep wondering ‘how long will this last? Will it last long enough to justify the effort of unstowing the snow shoes and putting them on?’ It’s even worse once you have them on: ‘Is this the end of the deep snow? Can I take them off? What if I take them off and the deep snow starts again 20 yards later?’ – note: I did experience both flavors of ambiguity repeatedly. When will we able to fly a drone ahead?
Each Northern Lites buckle weighs barely 2g (0.07oz), but force the wearer to pull from stiff plastic straps and to insert tabs through them. Igloo Ed showed me that MSR snow shoes, on the other hand, have open buckles where the tab is already inserted in the strap and the buckles slide into place. This sliding movement is much easier than stretching on the strap to insert the tab.
Overall, the MSR buckles are considerably heavier than the Northern Lites: 12g (0.43oz) each! Nonetheless, we order six buckles from MSR and replace the Northern Lites buckles with the MSRs. Now we have a much better set of snow shoes – pending some snow for thorough operational testing. We increase our weight by 60g (2.12oz): a small number, but not so small if every one of our 180 equipment items saw the same weight increase. Sometimes I suspect that weight adds up at a non-linear, exponential rate!
Northern Lite MSR Buckle
Each piece of equipment can gain from this level of reflection, even if you are going to experience mild conditions. For instance, tarps are wonderful but are often over-engineered. In this example, the Sea to Summit Escapist, we can get rid of the buckles.
A sewing machine is the indispensable tool to optimize clothes and anything else involving fabrics. In some situations, it might pay off to build equipment and clothes from scratch. In our abstract “knowledge economy”, fussing with equipment at this level is deeply satisfying. Intimate familiarity with our kit will serve us well out there, when it breaks or when we need all the performance it can yield.


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