Materials & Applications

Stay Safe and Steady with Aluminium-based Winter Sports Gear

Why Mountain Sports Gear Comes in Aluminium

Planning a getaway trip to the mountains this holiday season? You have your climbing equipment, your bicycle, or your trekking poles on. You are ready, you are confident with your equipment. But have you ever thought about what your trusty sports gear is made out of?

You might not realise it, but probably most of the mountain sports devices you own, the gear that you trust your life with, is made out of aluminium. But why?

Aluminium in Rock Climbing and Mountaineering
In rock climbing and mountaineering there is a strong focus on reducing the weight of all the equipment: by reducing the weight of equipment, the climber will expend less energy working against gravity and thus be able to climb further and faster. That's when aluminium comes in.

We hear aluminium a lot and it is often associated with pots, pans, soda cans, and food foils. Aluminium is the most abundant element on earth and in itself appears soft and weak. But with a little help from material scientists and engineers, aluminium can do much more.

When blended with other elements like manganese, magnesium, zinc, silicon, and copper, it transforms into a very strong material. Upon alloying, this simple element converts into a material with a high strength-to-weight ratio. Some aluminium alloy grades even come close to steel’s strength performance at a third of its weight!

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  • The 1000 series grades of aluminium are the purest out of all the commercial aluminium grades (99% pure aluminium within each grade). This high aluminium content gives the 1000 series grades exceptional resistance strength.
  • The 2000 series grades are known as the copper grades of aluminium, copper being the main alloying element. The addition of copper increases the alloys strength and hardness, which in turn improves its machinability.
  • Magnesium is the main element used in the composition of the 5000 series grades of aluminium. The 5000 series grades are non heat-treatable alloys and also have excellent resistance to corrosion caused by saltwater.
  • Grade 7075 is the most common of the 7000 series grades. It is an extremely high strength alloy; the strongest of all commercial grades of aluminium. In fact, grade 7075 aluminium is stronger than many types of mild steel.

No wonder why sports equipment uses aluminium. It’s light, strong, and non-corrosive, making it the right material to handle mountainous terrain applications. So, what are some examples of these aluminium mountain sports gear?

Aluminium for climbing safety devices

Climbing is really gaining more popularity, so much so that sports climbing has been declared as an official Olympic sport, with its first debut in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. For sports like mountain climbing, safety is key. Aluminium helps with that, in the form of carabiners and hexes.

Aluminium carabiners

Carabiners are a particular type of shackle equipped with a spring-loaded closure used to snap-link into climbing ropes and other safety gear. It comes in an oval, pear, or D-shaped configuration and is often made from aluminium alloys or steel. Steel carabiners are strong but heavy.

Therefore, steel carabiners are recommended for heavy-duty industrial rigging for rescue operations that demand a high workload.

But for sports and recreational climbing, aluminium carabiners are preferred as they are lighter and more economical. Climbers preserve their energy by carrying lighter gear.

The alloy grade used for the carabiner body and locking element is typically 7075-T6. 7075 (Al-Zn-Mg-Cu) represents the blend of alloying elements, while T6 represents a two-step solution heat treatment of aluminium at 530°C and an ageing temperature of 150 to 180°C. The heat treatment increases the alloy strength by up to 30%.

Aluminium hexentrics

Another device used to protect a climber from a fall is the aluminium hex or hexentrics. It is an asymmetrical six-sided tube used as a passive protection device like a chock or a cam.

It is placed and inserted on tapering or parallel cracks. Hexes often serve as the best option for cracks that are prone to widening. Aluminium hexes are small, less bulky, and can be carried more easily than the same number of active protection devices. This life-saving instrument is typically made from 6061-T6 aluminium alloy.

Aluminium mountain bikes

Want to go riding on unpaved dirt trails and off-road terrains? Mountain biking is for you. There are many considerations in choosing the right mountain bike though, as it comes in many different types (trail, cross country) and features (suspension, wheel size, gear type, and brake type).

There are also a lot of different bicycle frame materials on the market. For mountain biking, particularly, you would be looking for something lightweight, durable, shock-absorbent, and comfortable to ride.

aluminium bikes, aluminium bicycle frames
Aluminium frames are sometimes criticised for making things slightly less comfortable on the road (the rider bears the brunt of road vibrations with an aluminium frame), and it lacks the stiffness of steel or carbon, but modern bikes address these concerns by using modern wheel and tire technology and/or hydroforming.

There is a whole lot of debate as to which material is superior in bikes. Is it steel, titanium, carbon fibre, or aluminium? Each has its set of pros and cons, but aluminium seems to be a popular bicycle material being lighter than steel and considerably more economical than carbon fibre and titanium.

Aluminium is strong and stiff, readily available, and easier to weld and manufacture. It won’t break the maker or the buyer’s bank, so it is no surprise that aluminium takes the largest chunk of the market segment with its good performance-to-cost ratio.

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Aluminium has good corrosion resistance making it more resilient when left outdoors, too. With the improvement in aluminium alloy technology, tubular design, and sequential heat treatments, it has improved mechanical properties able to meet and compete with other bicycle materials. Typical aluminium grades used for this application are 6061 (Al-Mg-Si-Cu), 7005 (Al-Zn-Mg), and 7075 (Al-Zn-Mg-Cu).

Aluminium in snowshoes

So maybe you just need something a little laid back. You just want to have a great outdoor experience and a great cardio activity. Snowshoeing is hiking over a snowy terrain with the use of snowshoes, footwear that dates back to thousands of years ago. People in the past used it to travel across lands, but nowadays it can be both a recreational activity and a sport.

For snowshoeing, snowshoes must be tough in order to handle the icy terrain, lightweight for ease of travel, and durable for prolonged use on long backcountry trails.

Less weight always equates to easier travel. Made with hollow tubing and lightweight synthetic components, aluminium framed snowshoes can weigh as little as 0.99 kg per pair. They come is standard widths from 20-25 cm and lengths from 60-91 cm.

Snowshoes usually come with an aluminium frame and crampons to provide the user with a lighter feel and manoeuvrability for longer treks. Many snowshoes manufacturers use the 6061, also referred to as the spacecraft grade alloy.

Aluminium trekking poles

If sightseeing and travelling by foot in the mountains with a heavy backpack floats your adventure boat, then you probably own a trekking pole. Trekking poles or walking poles are used by many hikers in order to have additional support, balance, and stability while trekking.

It is beneficial for reducing the load on the knees and strengthening upper back muscles. Trekking poles must be strong to support the user, lightweight, and durable to last long trails.

aluminium trekking poles
Aluminum and carbon fiber are the two most common materials used in trekking pole shafts.

Trekking poles often come in either carbon fibre or aluminium. Carbon fibre tends to be lighter, but the epoxy that binds the fibre is susceptible to brittleness when subjected to cold temperature. So if you’re off to an icy mountain trail, aluminium is the better choice. Aluminium is heavier in comparison to carbon fibre, but it is more reliable for prolonged use, unaffected by the cold temperature, non-corrosive, and can be easily repaired onsite if necessary.

If you’re a carbon fibre fan, you can get the best of both worlds as some poles are made of both carbon and aluminium. These hybrid pole shafts utilise both materials and offer the lightness of carbon and the durability of aluminium. Aluminium walking poles are typically made from 7075, a high fatigue point aluminium alloy that is hard to break, making it perfect for this application.

"Material science marvels should not only be accessible. It must also be packaged and consumed with enthusiasm and wonder."
Christian Dianne Oro
Christian Dianne Oro
Mechanical Engineer
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