The Middle-Aged Hiker

Chapter Sixteen

How Much Stuff Should a Stuffsack Stuff?

Water -- Shelter -- Safety -- Emergencies -- Hygiene -- Food -- Costs

It is possible to carry your own weight in stuff and still feel deprived. Hiking anywhere at a level of compact self-sufficiency is not a particularly generalized American experience in this century, because we have become a nation of convenience. Tote up the conveniences available to the modern "wilderness" vacationer: Winnebagos outfitted better than the 1950s Home of the Future; plentiful, cheap gasoline--still the cheapest in the world--with no more Last Gas Before Desert signs; nearly fifty thousand miles of virtually free, limited-access, high-speed highways that connect the remotest points across more than three-and-a-half million square miles of continent; food-filled, fast, low-cost restaurants everywhere; clean water, showers, toilets and electricity at campgrounds; eight thousand hotels for the motoring public--motels--sprinkled generously across an entire continent; maps, tourist guidebooks, and detailed roadsigns ... not to mention airlines and rental campers for those who demand the utmost in instant wilderness convenience. Indeed, America offers to casual vacationers what most nations cannot, would not, offer their citizenry in the best of times. We have created industries of consumptive convenience, from shopping malls to shopping networks to interstate highways to data highways.

So within this context, a context that will affect virtually every reader of this book--for whom deprivation is a myth--how can you carry life for a week or more upon your back?

For a summary, you can turn to the List-O-Stuff sections at the end of this book. There you will find everything we took, which is neither especially representative nor unusual. Veteran hikers might chuckle, whereas comfort-lovers would be horrified. No matter what the case, the essential categories you need to address are water, food, shelter and sleep, hygiene, safety, and emergencies. That is roughly the order of importance; I'll address them in order of simplicity.


The simplest is, then, water. You must take enough (a quart an hour or so in average weather), and half of it should have electrolyte replacement such as Gookinade mixed in. The Gookinade keeps you replenished with the salts you lose in sweat, and the clear water is good for mixing, cooling in emergencies, cooking, and for a better taste as you reach the end of the day's trek.

Purifying water is another matter. There are several ways--high tech, high taste vs. no tech, bad taste. The old-fashioned method using water purification tablets is really an emergency measure, but don't leave them behind (see Safety, below). The high-tech method is a water pump and filter combination. The fancy laboratory filters in these things remove grit, small critters, particulates, etc., but also screen out giardia, a nasty problem in the Canyon these days. The filter pumps (such as First Need and others) take their time as you squeeze and squeeze, trying to balance the pump, the intake hose, the outlet hose, and the water bottle--while your hands grow frigid in the flowing stream. Making two gallons of water, with occasional backflushing to clean the filter, can take the better part of an hour.


You get shelter from your tent, your clothing and a few special items. Frankly, I'm not brave enough to hike without a tent, though it's certainly possible if you don't mind (a) mosquitoes (in the Canyon!?), (b) scurrying critters, (c) larger visitors such as snakes and ringtail cats, (d) rain, (e) sand and grit, (f) moonlight, (g) voyeurs and (h) etc. The occasional night under the stars can be quite beautiful, but as we have ourselves encountered all of the disturbances on the above list, we can say with certainty, bring a tent. You wouldn't believe how nasty a high wind can feel on a sandy beach (sand in your toothbrush is not chic), chilly rain is an invitation to hypothermia, and moonlight without a shell of light-dispersing pollution overhead can be blinding. Nocturnal visitors are usually harmless, but the visceral dreamers among us might disturb the cuddling critter in your sleeping bag to untoward effect. As for (g), it's no particular problem if you haven't brought a lover.

Clothing gives you personal shelter, and should include protection from the sun and layers for more ugly weather. But it does get cold and wet in the desert, and with surprising speed. Here is a story:

Stevie and I were in Monument Canyon, about to head east for our next campsite. We were both delightedly naked in the morning sun, having eaten breakfast and bathed in the lush stream (full of funny little sticking critters on the rocks, I might add). Puffy clouds were scudding overhead, and I snapped some photos of the sunlight streaming through them; all was right with the world. Stevie wondered aloud about rain; it began. She then jokingly wondered aloud about hail; that was next, and our naked bodies cowered under the nearest large rock until it subsided, quickly. We continued readying to leave as the sun returned, climbed out of the Monument campsite, and started our lazy and reasonably short journey east.

A glance backward towards Monument--one of our favorite spots--revealed a few more unexpectedly scudding clouds, scudding quickly, scudding somewhat together, and scudding our way. In fact, they were bearing down on us rather menacingly. Stevie again wondered aloud, this time about (can you guess?) lightning. In seconds, a streak of lightning exploded from the nearest cloud, spraying everything in sight.

We dove for the ground, a futile act, as death had obviously spared us long enough to recognize the action itself. My foot stung and I realized at least part of the charge had made its way down my metal pack frame and out my heel; I carried that burn for two years. We were below the slight ridge to our east that lay between us and the safety of descent, so we retreated, intending to slink back to Monument and wait out the storm. Alas, only a hundred feet or so west was what appeared to be an ancient telegraph wire, sparking merrily on the ground with each flash of lightning. We were trapped.

It had begun to rain and hail fiercely, so we doffed our packs, removed the raingear stashed inside, covered the packs with our large trash bags, and hid in the nearest depression--a three-foot overhang of shale in a dry wash ... which, within minutes, turned into a flowing stream with its own little waterfall. We were left to pace, clinging the ground, along the bank of the wash between the electrified ridge and the sparking wire. The storm, meanwhile, was caught in some sort of vortex which spun it around Monument Canyon for over an hour, drenching us thoroughly and dropping the temperature from the eighties to under 50º. We shivered and paced ever more quickly to keep our body temperatures up, while Stevie, not quick to understand the implications of wondering aloud, wondered aloud whether the lightning would continue. It did.

Eventually the storm abated and blew off across the Canyon, the sun returned, and with it again came the warm temperatures. We were safe (except for my lightly toasted foot) to continue. So the shelter of our clothing, raingear, and trashbags kept us safe, while, should it have become necessary, our Mylar emergency blankets were at hand to preserve our body heat.

Unhappy After Storm She looked better than I did

So bring clothing that is light, but can keep you warm. Polypropylene is very light, lets you sweat but keeps the sun off, and washes and dries quickly; wool (if you're not allergic to it, as I am) is the fabric of choice for the rain. Long pants protect you from sun, keep you warm in rain, and lessen the severity of snake bites. I learned that jeans are a bit heavy; Stevie wore shorts most of the time and slipped polypro longjohns on underneath for colder moments. We both still have good hair, so we skipped the hats. We finished off our ensembles with Stevie's wool sweater and the nifty insulated windbreaker I had just won in the Vermont lottery. Oh, yes: And a change of underwear.


Clothing and shelter are part of safety, but there are also directional aids, medicines, repair tools, and emergency items. To find your way, you'll need two maps (each of you keep one), an up-to-date trail description (ask at the BRO; they won't offer) and a compass (get a good, settable compass, not a Cracker Jack special).

Medicines and related items include the usual retinue of bandages and Moleskin, but also gauze and adhesive tape, knee braces, sunblock, safety pins, scissors (the ones that cut pennies are light and reliable in rough circumstances; ambulances use them), and a sewing kit. Water purification tablets are a must. Also get some alcohol prep pads, tweezers, an eyedropper, and something to suck with (we use a syringe body). Don't forget vitamins; ibuprofen (what I use), aceta-minephin or aspirin, or prescription items you use for pain (Naprosyn and Robaxin are our regimen for knees and back); epinephrine if you require it for certain allergic reactions; and a snakebite kit. Learn to use the snakebite kit before you need it, and ask for professional advice; recent literature disagrees over the value of these. Don't forget the tampons.

The number of repair tools is minimal, but packs can rip. Bring a set of canvas needles sold for repairing sails, heavy rug thread, and some green floral wire. When rounding a particularly centrifugal curve in the trail, my pack support ripped free of its stitching, and I nearly dove off the Tonto Plateau. We searched for repair materials (I couldn't hike with the badly unbalanced pack), and found only an ancient strawflower in the bottom of Stevie's pack. I wound the floral wire (a soft, green-painted iron) through the weave of the strap and the pack seam, and it held securely for the rest of the trip. Four years later, that strap is still anchored with the floral wire, and I've packed some ever since.

There are a few other trail repairs you can manage. Your tent may rip, so you will need to sew it and then seal it against the moisture; bring a tube of seam-sealer. Also, your zippers may begin to come apart. This is the result of the zipper clamp spreading apart, so the zipper teeth don't fully mesh. A small pair of pliers will fix it -- though it's best to check the tent zippers before leaving. Finally, depending on the kind you use, your stove may be cantankerous and delicate. Our Coleman camp stove is reliable, but we learned--alas, on the trail--that the pressure pump needs oiling; suntan lotion did the trick, but since then I've oiled our stove before we leave. Also, our stove developed a fuel leak that threatened to make it a stove-bomb. Don't leave the wrench at home, as I did. We were quite hungry by the time I had kludged a fix.

You can't fix your camera; though my environmental hackles rise at this, I'm beginning to lean toward using one of those disposable models next year, because David's Pentax and my Olympus don't care for the sand and grit. You also can't fix your water purifier. The check valve on my First Need broke the second year (I used my finger). They fixed it free, later (no on-site service!), but on the first day the next year, its handle pulled off. Water purification tablets saved the day both times ... and I'm changing brands.


You can't be prepared for anything but the basics: snakebites, heat exhaustion, cuts and minor injuries. Conversely, the National Park Services folks do not like to rescue hikers, to put it mildly. As a first-time hiker, be sure to attend their revealing "A Broken Ankle is Not an Emergency" lecture, given every morning at nine in the BRO. Should you really need assistance, take along a mirror to flash the rim or passing planes for rescue, a good Swiss Army knife (useful in the food department, besides), rope (which will also help you get packs up the small cliffs you encounter now and then), emergency blankets, and an emergency card.

The plastic emergency card is sold in most camping stores; get one, take it, and better yet, memorize the critical stuff first. Don't be fumbling for it, hunting through the index, and reading it as your partner lies dying. The emergency blankets are light, reflectorized Mylar, which will keep the body's heat inside and the victim (ooooooh, nice word) warm in the cold, and will reflect the hot sun during the day. Again, read the instructions before you need an emergency blanket.


Toothpaste and toothbrushes; soap, shampoo and towel; toilet paper and trowel. That's easy. Just keep the soap and shampoo out of the water! Now what did you ask? Trowel? You mean...? You bet! And you get to pack out the used toilet paper! (No, don't even consider burning it; toilet paper fires have scarred the canyon badly. Hint: Let it dry in the sun first.) In fact, you get to pack out everything except what came directly out of your body.


My favorite subject; the best for last! And it requires some imagination, lest it get expensive and heavy. To eat you will need the food itself, water, a stove, fuel and fuel bottles to put it in, waterproof matches and a backup lighter, cooking pots, plates, bowls, cups, and utensils. We like our food, so we carry a little extra weight in the equipment department, including the traditional blue-glazed table setting and copper-bottom stainless steel pots. We could eat right out of light aluminum cooking pots and skip the extra two pounds, but we like the feeling of a real, settled meal to close our hiking day.

There are many choices in a camp stove--which you must take, since fires are not allowed in most wilderness areas, and quite dangerous and damaging in the Grand Canyon. All of us carry a compact Coleman stove with retractable legs; it uses Coleman fuel (white gas), lights reliably, and is economical to run. The flame spreader that comes with the stove tucks the flame right up under the pots and keeps fuel waste down. You also learn lots of water conservation techniques. For example, if you don't mind a bit of grit, you can boil water right from a nearby stream; warm it in the sun first. Keep unused, boiled water for the next day.

Your main choices in food are pre-packaged camp food (expensive and kind of stupid) or your own menu of dried foods. Assuming that you're not an ex-hippie food co-op type, let's take a trip to the local supermarket--though if you can bear to go to a co-op, there you'll find excellent dried foods much cheaper and in environmentally aware bulk packaging. But now, off to the grocery.

First stop, plastic section. Get sealing bags so you can repackage all your goodies to reduce weight. Dump the contents of each food item into a plastic bag, cut the instructions off the box, and seal them in or tape them on the outside. You'll be astounded at how much weight this cuts down, especially if you take dehydrated soups, which are mostly packaging.

Get your drinks: milk powder (whole milk powder, like Klim, if you can find it), coffee, tea, Ovaltine or something like it; there are even dried juices, but these aren't especially satisfying. Take a lot of milk powder, because you'll use it in drinks, recipes, puddings, oatmeal, etc.; we carried four quart bags of it. Coffee and tea are for your habits and aren't especially good for you on the hike, but the hot chocolate is a good energy burst in the morning. Take a camping tube full of honey. (Gookinade, by the way, you will find in most camping stores, and right there at Babbitt's on the Canyon rim.)

For on-the-trail eating, make up trail mix; for goodness sakes, don't buy this stuff already made! Get raisins, peanuts and other nuts (we add cashews and almonds), sunflower seeds, M&Ms, and even some Grape Nuts or other things loaded with fats and sugars. Mix this stuff in a big pot, and bag it; we took four quart bags for ten days. Also pack some chocolate bars with nuts and raisins; separate bags of nuts; dried apples, apricots and other fruits; and a fresh apple and orange for special moments of romantic exhaustion. Believe it or not, you can even take along hard cheese and dense dark bread for trail snacks, as well as a camping tube of full cream cheese; they'll last a week (if you don't eat them first).

For meals, bring sacks of basic goodies that can be mixed into short-order meals. Remember, you want things that cook quickly in order to save fuel. This includes instant rice, ramen, instant soups (there's a greater selection of these in health food stores, so you don't have to rely on Cup-a-Soups), dried mushrooms, dried seaweed (really, folks, this is great mixed in soup), an odd thing oriental thing simply labeled "vegetable", quick-cooking pasta (oriental noodles work quickly, but are very sticky), dried tomatoes, and wonderfully filling and tasty instant grains and beans (felafel; black and refried beans, etc.).

For those with a meat craving, there is dried jerky and such; we took a hard salami with us, which was great on the brown bread. But a workable substitute is something called Meatless Meats, a soy-based product (stay with me here, folks) that comes in flavors like Canadian bacon and pepperoni (c'mon, keep reading) and actually cooks up to taste like stew beef. Okay, not exactly, and if you eat it dry, it may put you off permanently. But at least try this stuff; it's pretty satisfying when you're exhausted, cooked up as a spicy stew on a bed of rice with "vegetable".

And speaking of spices, don't forget them. You can take restaurant packets of salt and pepper, and make up tiny spice sacks with subminiature plastic bags that are sold for electronics parts. Also, various dehydrated sauce mixes are good, or you can flavor things with one of your soup packets. Trail eating can be delicious if you plan ahead.

How Much It Costs

The envelope, please. Rounded to the nearest five dollars, and purchased new but always on sale (see David's chapter on this technique), this list shows the expenses for two people:

        Tent & supplies             $130
        Packs (2)                   $250
        Sleeping bags (2)           $120
        Stove, fuel, & related      $ 75
        Food for 2                  $ 90
        Raingear & clothes for 2    $ 95
        Film & batteries            $ 40
        Water purifier & bottles    $ 75
        Medicines & related         $ 65
        Repair & emergency          $115
        Miscellaneous               $ 45

The total is $1,100, of which approximately $900 (tent, packs, bags, stove, clothes, purifier, repair & emergency, miscellaneous) represents one-time purchases. Look for packs, tents, bags, gloves, Swiss Army knives, etc., at yard sales; skip the quantity of film we used; prescription drugs kicked up our medicines cost; and so forth. And since we've used most of this same equipment since we started hiking, our per-hike cost is nominal. Finally, if you only hike for a night along The Corridor, you can pack a bag dinner, and skip the heavy food, stove, fuel, extra clothes, etc., cutting weight and cost. Park entry fees ($10) and Mather Campground ($6) are extra, and a morning meal at the Yavapai Lodge Cafeteria may set you back $15. And don't forget the postcards.

The Middle-Aged Hiker is Copyright ©1993-97,2002 by Dennis Báthory-Kitsz and David Gunn. All rights reserved.

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