In this two-part series Hyperlite Mountain Gear CEO and avid adventurer Mike St. Pierre provides tips and techniques on how to plan your gear and food for expedition-style thru hikes. He utilized a decade of experience in ultralight backcountry travel, and succeeded in section hiking the first two parts of one of the hardest thru hikes in the world—a 700+-mile below the rim traverse of the Grand Canyon. This extreme adventure incorporates long-distance hiking, rock climbing, canyoneering and serious map and compass skills. Water is scarce, established trails are nonexistent and the terrain is steep and difficult to navigate. It’s a trip that fewer than three-dozen people have done (consider that 40 people summited Mt. Everest in one day in May 2016). St. Pierre plans to be one of only a few dozen to complete it. In Part I of this series, he detailed the food planning and prep for his trips; in this blog post, Part II, he describes the process he used to choose gear and the final gear list he ended up with.
Planning and preparing food for big, ultralight backcountry adventures takes incredible time and effort, but you can get a head start by considering a few key things before you dive in. The most important considerations for me were the distance between resupply points (caches in the case of the Grand Canyon) and the calories I needed to maintain the energy levels required to achieve that mileages.
In terms of my section hike below the rim, it was actually difficult to determine the distance between caches. The thru hike is quite long, few people have done it, and the people who have done it have taken various routes because there’s no established path. I learned from Grand Canyon expert Rich Rudow that one specific area included a full day of “bushwhacking” (tiptoeing) through cacti, so we planned to bypass that section. And in some places we knew two Grand Canyon Park Rangers had bypassed some challenging rappels that my hiking partner, Clay Wadman, and I wanted to check out. So while there were a lot of areas that have only one way to go; others had options. With all that in mind, I predicted we’d hike anywhere between six and 12 miles per day.
I then considered the calories I needed to maintain energy levels to achieve that mileage. For this trip, I knew I had to ramp up my calories over the course of the three weeks as I would become hungrier further into the trip. Thus, our first cache was 14.5 pounds; the second and third were 15.5 and 17 pounds. As well, I planned to gorge toward the end of each leg at caches, and eat more snack foods along the way. And, just to be on the safe side in regards to knowing exactly how much I need to consume each day, I labeled each meal with the amount of calories and the total weight of the meal. This allowed me to make decisions about eating the heavier meals in the beginning of each leg to help reduce overall pack weight or save the heavier, more calorie-dense meals for some of the harder days to come.
I planned well and wasn’t hungry on my first section hike of the Grand, but I still lost 15 lbs. because of the extreme temps. I brought more food on this second trip, and I cached three extra days of food just in case, which we ended up needing.
Travel Food Light
I travel light on all my adventures, but I had had to totally rethink my backcountry food practices for this adventure. I carried seven to nine days of food at a time, averaging 1.5.lbs. of food per day; and I needed additional supplies later for both trips because of the energy I expended over some of the gnarliest terrain I’ve ever traversed. So, I brought super light, compact food that was easy to carry, could be prepped by just adding water and was rich in nutrients. To maintain my current body weight (I’m 5’8” and 145lbs.), I ate roughly 2600 calories per day the first week and 3000-4000 the second week. My goal was to carry a pack that weighed around 30 pounds when all was said and done—10.5lbs. of food, 15lbs. of gear and camera equipment and 6.6lbs. for three liters of water.
Cooking & Dining Methods
On most trips I don’t stop for lunch; I eat just two meals and then I graze throughout the day. But my adventure partner, Clay Wadman, and I did things differently on this trip. Because we worked so hard, we stopped to eat three full meals per day to ensure we got sufficient calories, and we grazed between meals.
We shared a Jetboil stove, in which we boiled water for three meals per day, though I brought a few meals that didn’t need boiling water to rehydrate; I wanted these for scorching days when hot meals don’t sound so appealing. My mentor, friend and Hyperlite Mountain Gear Ambassador Rich Rudow, one of the two dozen to thru hike below the rim in a single push, had already figured out that he could get 25 10oz. boils of water out of a small fuel canister and 50 out of a large one. Knowing this, we could calculate the fuel consumption for the trips.
Finally, we rehydrated all our foods in a Lipton Ziplock cup insulated with an pot cozy I developed in the shop, which weighs less than 2oz. and traps the heat in so food continues to cook after you’ve poured in boiling water. We cut our vacuum-sealed meals open, poured water in the bag, stuck the whole thing in the cup and then kept hiking for a couple miles until the food was ready to eat. When ready we just opened the cup and chowed down. All we had to deal with was the plastic bag waste.
Food I Brought
I chose my foods based on this cooking method and by the amount of calories I needed. I was shocked to discover that the average prepackaged backpacker meals typically have only 300 to 600 calories. On the high end, that’s only 900 to 1800 calories per day. So, in order to beef up both the nutritional value and calories of my meals, I bought a variety of dried vegetables, powdered whole fat milk and cheese, powdered butter, pine nuts and olive oil (which are calorie and fat rich). My goal was to have foods with at least 125 calories per ounce.
Food Prep & Repackaging
I planned carefully and strategically. I didn’t want to go hungry or slow the team down by not eating enough or by having an overly heavy pack. Step by step, here is my process:
- I compiled a spreadsheet with the numbers of breakfasts, lunches, dinners and snacks that I needed;
- I ordered plenty of dehydrated and freeze dried meals that were as healthy and as natural stuff as possible. I like to know what the ingredients are in the meals I eat! Good-To-Go is a great Maine company that uses real ingredients.
- I made piles of all the breakfasts, lunches, dinners and snacks;
- In order to get sufficient calories, I put together individual meals, at times repackaging two meals into one;
- I supplemented meals with insufficient calories with powdered butter, cheese, and foil packages of salmon (that weigh just 3 oz.!);
- I identified each meal by writing on the bag, including the breakdown of fats, carbs, protein, calories and how much water will be needed for rehydration.
- I repackaged everything in vacuum-sealed bags;
- Once all my meals were packaged, I mixed and matched each day’s worth of food based on my calorie needs and to give myself some variety.
Meet the July 2016 inReach Woman of Adventure, climber Jennifer Chang.
When I was a child, I would hang upside down from tree branches, practice handstands, and scramble up every rock in sight. Monkeying around was just so much fun. My parents encouraged my adventurous spirit by exploratory hikes through the Blue Ridge Mountains where we would often find ourselves at the edge of a cliff starring out at meandering rivers or a sea of fall colored trees. Their curiosity for the unknown was infectious, and I followed them hands over feet through the woods.
My true affair with climbing didn’t start until undergraduate. Getting involved with the University of Virginia’s Outdoor Club led me to the New River Gorge where miles of rock stretched out beckoning to me. However, this barely quenched my pallet, so after school I hit the road. First, I traveled to Yangshuo, China where I found a taste for competition climbing. These government sponsored trips took place in the high altitude plateaus of Tibet while others occurred in gigantic limestone caves in Getu. During that time, I also traveled to Thailand where paradise and climbing unite. A two month hiatus filled with orange sunsets, bungalow naps, and waves crashing over limestone cliffs filled what felt like just a few heartbeats.
After China, I took a road trip to Spain with a few friends. We rented a small SUV for two months, lived out of our car, and experienced some of the finest limestone in the world. For the first time, I saw women outnumber the men at the crag – all beautiful, strong, and driven. Afterwards, I hit the road in the states, driving across the country from Virginia to Canada. I stopped in all the classic areas: Yosemite, Maple Canyon, and Squamish. Traditional climbing has never been my forte, but the views from the tops of The Chief and granite domes in Tuolumne meadows were worth the shredded skin, panicked foot slips, and hundreds of hand jams. Now, I live in Lexington, Kentucky with the Red River Gorge in my backyard. Climbing has really been a guiding light teaching me along the way to live simply, conserve, and always approach everything with curiosity. I followed what felt right, even from a young age, and am thankful for the gift that it’s given me everyday.
In this two-part series Hyperlite Mountain Gear owner and avid adventurer Mike St. Pierre provides tips and techniques on how to plan your gear and food for expedition-style thru hikes. He utilized a decade of experience in ultralight backcountry travel, and succeeded in section hiking the first two parts of one of the hardest thru hikes in the world—a 700+-mile below the rim traverse of the Grand Canyon. This extreme adventure incorporates long-distance hiking, rock climbing, canyoneering and serious map and compass skills. Water is scarce, established trails are nonexistent and the terrain is steep and difficult to navigate. It’s a trip that fewer than three-dozen people have done (consider that 40 people summited Mt. Everest in one day in May 2016). St. Pierre plans to be one of only a few dozen to complete it. In this blog post St. Pierre details the gear planning and final list he ended up with for the trip, and in Part II he will describe the food planning and preparation.
I live for adventure. As the owner of a high-tech gear company that makes everything in the USA, I work in an urban environment. But I spend as much time in the woods, mountains and rivers as possible. There, I test and perfect the ultralight packs and shelters we make at Hyperlite Mountain Gear, brainstorm new products and hone my lightweight skills. I’ve dialed in my systems to be as minimalist as possible and to conserve energy with every step I take. The lighter my gear, the further I can go; the less weight I carry, the less the strain on my body and the less food I need. Going light just makes sense. And it absolutely doesn’t mean I’m uncomfortable when in the backcountry. I’m always warm enough, well fed, hydrated and I sleep well at night.
Gear is the critical tool that can make the difference between a trip of a lifetime or a miserable failed adventure. On the other hand, the more skill you have the less gear you need. And, the more information you have the better prepared you’ll be. Know where you’re going and what you’re doing, and you’ll be able to choose exactly the right gear for the conditions (and leave behind what you don’t need). For example, if I’m going for an overnight trip in the fall and the weather is clear, there won’t likely be bugs. So I might not need to bring a shelter, or I might take something very minimalist like a 6′ by 8′ Flat Tarp. On the other hand, knowing that the temperatures were going to range wildly on my Grand Canyon section hikes meant I had to take a puffy jacket, clothes and sleeping system that could handle anything from 15- to 90-degree weather.
I carefully planned our gear list to address the different types of terrain we would climb or hike through, as well as the climate and season. I listed out everything I thought I would need on an Excel spreadsheet and then calculated the weights of everything and the calories per day I would need to carry that weight (and to stay warm and energized for the long miles we were hiking). I had to carry up to ten days of food from cache to cache, plus at least 12lbs. of backpacking gear, my camera, plus 6lbs. of shared technical gear. Thus, my baseweight (aka the total weight of my entire gear kit, excluding consumables) was 15lbs. That, and the weight of my consumables (food, water and fuel) food would put me at anywhere from 30-50lbs (sometimes we had to carry up to 20lbs. of water!)
The next thing I did was shake down my own list. I constantly refine the gear I carry in order to travel as simply as possible. I use gear for multiple purposes, and I replace heavy objects with the lightest, most cutting-edge gear on the market (it’s remarkable how light and durable outdoor gear is these days; it’s something I obsess over regularly).
Some of the most key things I immediately lightened were my down jacket and base layers. It’s actually really easy to overpack clothing, and clothes are heavy. My typical ultralight kit has just been for three seasons, but in March there are extreme temperature changes in the Grand. It could drop to 15 degrees and snow at the higher elevations, but we didn’t want to bring a heavy winter kit because most of the time it would be 60 to 80 degrees. So I looked for clothes that would work together in a system in a broader range of temperatures, but would have the same weight as my three-season garb. I found Luke’s Ultralight, a company that made me a 4oz. down vest and 6oz. jacket that were warmer than lighter than the jackets I’ve carried for years. As well, I brought a lightweight 20-degree sleeping bag, I knew I could suffer through a few nights of 15-degree weather with all my layers and puffy jackets on, but the gear was sufficiently light that I wouldn’t feel weighted down. I’d be curled deep in my bag waiting for morning, but I wouldn’t become hypothermic.
As well, I upgraded my base layers, and wore the same shirt and shorts for nearly 30 days. I used just one super light Arc’Teryx’s Phase SL Crew ultralight base layer and one button down long sleeve synthetic shirt, in addition to quick-drying convertible pants. You can only use soap in the Colorado River, so I was able to do “laundry” just three times on the trip. But that was enough. Besides, soap is heavy!
Share & Share Alike
I’ve spent years dialing in my kit, using some gear for multiple purposes and sharing as much as possible, when I have hiking partners. In the Grand Canyon, my partners and I split the weight of what we considered “group gear”–Jetboil, fuel canisters, UltaMid, tent stakes, SteriPEN, Aquamira Drops and all our technical gear. Even with this extra climbing and canyoneering equipment, our packs were lighter than average. This allowed us to remain relatively comfortable even when we had to pile on the water, as we often had to do while in the Grand (because water sources are so scarce). It also allowed us to travel more safely; if something had happened to either of us, the other person (or people) would have much more easily been able to help.
The Gear List
I used the below list of thru hiking gear for my Grand Canyon section hike, but minus the technical climbing and canyoneering gear, it’s basically what I’d bring on any long-distance section, thru hike or weekend backpacking.
Total Sleeping System: 32.15oz. (2lbs.)
- Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite Sleeping Pad (14oz., size regular).
- Sleeping Bag Feathered Friends Hummingbird Nano 20 Sleeping Bag Reg. (16.75oz.)
- Hyperlite Mountain Gear Large Stuff Sack Pillow (1.4oz.)
Total Shelter System: 24.2. (1.5lbs.)
- Hyperlite Mountain Gear Ground Cloth (3.4oz)
- Hyperlite Mountain Gear UltaMid 4 (20.8oz.) Clay and I shared this pyramid tent. Your shelter shouldn’t weigh more than 2 lbs.
- We left the tent stakes at home
Total Pack System: 39oz. (2.4lbs.)
- Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Southwest Pack (Slightly modified with a stiffer frame sheet)(28.6oz.).
- DCF8 Stuff Sacks (2.2oz.) Two Jumbo, one for a sleeping bag and one for food; a Large to be used as a clothes bag; an additional Large and one Small for other odds and ends. Read more about how I use stuff sacks in my blog post, Stuff Sacks for Thru Hikes & Backpack Trips.
- 5 Pods (6.1oz.)—1 Large (1.3oz.) and 4 Small (1.2oz.) for my breakfasts, lunches, dinners, snacks and personal items/toiletry kit.
Total Hydration/Kitchen: 43.2oz. (2.7lbs.)
- Jet Boil Flash Lite Cooking System (11oz.)
- 2 large fuel canisters (16oz.)
- Vargo Titanium Long-Handle Spoon (.5oz.): Long ones work better if you are going to eat dehydrated meals directly out of the package.
- Three 2L Platypus Bladder (1.2oz each; 3.6oz total)
- Plastic Wide Mouth Water Bottle (.5oz.)
- Coffee Cup with lid (.5oz.)
- Food Bowl & ZipLock Cup Coozy (1.2oz.)
- SteriPEN Freedom (6.4oz.)
- Aquamira Drops (1.5oz.)
- Back-Up Water Purification MSR Tablets (20 X .1oz; total 2oz.)
- Back Up Bit Valve Platypus (zero oz.)
Total Clothing: 47oz. (2.9lbs.)
- Rain Jacket (HMG prototype) (6oz.) I prefer using waterproof, breathable shells.
- Synthetic Long Underwear Top (6oz.)
- Synthetic Long Underwear Bottoms (6oz.)
- Synthetic T-Shirt (4oz.)
- Convertible Pant bottoms (.5oz.)
- Two pair Socks (8oz.)
- Camp Shoes (HMG prototype) (3oz.)
- Sun hat (cap with neck fabric) (2.8oz.)
- Luke’s Ultralite Argon Down Vest (4oz.)
- Luke’s Ultralite Down Jacket (6.7oz.)
Total Electronics: 53.8oz. (3.4lbs.)
- Camera Sony Alpha A6000 (12.7oz.)
- Camera Sony 28-70mm lens (10.5oz.)
- Two Camera batteries Sony (3.6oz.)
- Four Memory Cards (1.5oz.)
- Camera Case (3oz.)
- USB Cable (.7oz.)
- USB Battery Pack (8oz.)
- Solar Panel (6oz.)
- USB Solar Meter (1.8oz)
- iPhone (6oz.)
Total Miscellaneous: 22.6oz. (1.4lbs.)
- Cash, License, CC
- Headlamp (5oz.)
- Multi Tool / Knife (5oz.)
- Mini Lighter (.5oz.)
- Tooth Brush (.3oz.)
- Tooth Paste (.3oz.)
- Camp Towel (2oz.)
- Soap (1oz.)
- Hand Sanitizer (1oz.)
- Chap Stick (.5oz.)
- Sun Screen (.8oz)
- Four 1-Gallon Ziplocs for Garbage (2oz.)
- Five QT Zip Locks (.5oz.)
- Twenty Sandwich Baggies – for used toilet paper (1oz.)
- Toilet Paper (.5oz.)
- Gloves (2oz.)
- Alum – for treating silty water (.2oz.)
Total Technical Gear: 70.9oz. (4.4lbs.)
- 60′ 8mm Canyoneering Pro Static Rope (24oz.)
- 60′8mm Dyneema Pull Cord (1oz.)
- Camp USA Alp Racing Harness (4oz.)
- Petzl SIROCCO Helmet (5.8oz.)
- DMM belay device (3.1oz.)
- Four Camp USA Locking Carabineers (6oz.)
- Ti Bloc ascender (1.4oz.)
- Prussic cord (1oz.)
- Rappel Ring (3.6oz.)
- 25′ 9/16″ Black Tubular Webbing (7.3oz.)
- Delorme InReach SE (6.7oz.)
- Med Kit (7oz.)
Total Worn Gear: 42oz. (2.6lbs.)
- Button Down LS Quick Dry Shirt (7oz.)
- Convertible Pants (tops) (6oz.)
- Socks (2oz.)
- Dirty Girl Gaiters (2oz.)
- Hat (2oz.)
- Black Diamond Carbon Cork Trekking Pole (9oz).
- Five Ten Guide Tennies (14oz.).
In April we were notified of an ongoing rescue operation taking place in Alaska. Two skiers stranded on a glacier were buried deep inside of a 5’x7’ snow cave as a blizzard pummeled them with heavy snow. With no sign of clearing weather and rescue helicopters unable to land safely in the area, their only lifeline was an inReach. After four arduous days on the glacier with barely enough food to stay alive, Chris Hanna and Jenny Neyman were rescued through the brave efforts of a lengthy search and rescue operation.
We are happy to welcome Jenny to the blog to give her account of the harrowing events that took place in April.
Location, location, location. As important as that factor is in real estate, it’s even more so in search and rescue operations. Had it not been for Chris Hanna’s inReach, he and I would still be buried in the Harding Icefield.
The Harding covers 700 square miles of Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, south of Anchorage. The vast, barren plain of ice sits at about 4,250 feet elevation and is studded with nunataks — mountain peaks jutting from the ice — and circled by more than 30 outflowing glaciers. In April, Chris and I decided to take advantage of a rare weather forecast calling for blue skies, mild temperatures, calm winds and no storms on the immediate horizon, to fly up for the afternoon to ski.
A friend shuttled us from Soldotna up to a spot overlooking the Kenai Fjords and we spent four hours skiing and gaping at the views that were usually — from below — lost to clouds and imagination. Our pilot was scheduled to pick us up at 5 p.m., but by 2 p.m. we noticed the sky getting hazy. Storms can form quickly when wet sea air meets such a dense mass of ice, but we didn’t realize just how quickly. By 2:15 p.m., clouds were forming around the nunataks. By 2:30 p.m., a dense ceiling of clouds was descending around us and the wind was starting to howl.
Chris used his inReach to text our pilot, but by the time he got airborne and covered the 50 miles to our location, there was no way he could land. The only way on or off the icefield by foot is through the valleys carved by outflowing glaciers. That means navigating crevasse and steep descents. There is one established trail, climbing a ridge alongside Exit Glacier west of the seaside town of Seward, 20 miles north of our location. In favorable conditions — with good visibility and little snow — it’s a relatively safe descent. In avalanche conditions and a whiteout blizzard, its safety is more theoretical than dependable, but it was our only option for getting ourselves to safety.
We suited up in our winter gear, secured our emergency camping gear in our pulk sled and started to ski. Winds picked up to 25 mph, visibility dropped to under 10 feet and we could only navigate via GPS. By 8:30 p.m., we’d only covered six miles and decided to pitch our tent to wait out the storm. We texted our pilot about our decision and sent out one of Chris’ preset messages, “Staying here for the night,” to his inReach contacts. By the next morning, the storm was even worse and it was apparent our tent was in danger of being crushed in the ever-increasing snow. Chris sent a message to his in-case-of-emergency contact, asking him to appraise search and rescue of our location and situation, should we end up having to make the SOS call.
By 4:30 p.m., it was clear we weren’t going to be able to save the tent. We sent an SOS and got a response that search and rescue knew our location and would reach us as soon as the storm would allow. That communication gave us the reassurance we desperately needed. We were stranded, not lost, so could focus on shelter instead of setting off into the storm in the slim hope of being found.
Lacking a shovel, Chris dug a snow cave by hand in 45-mph winds, plummeting temperatures and relentless snow. We salvaged everything we could from the tent, loaded all our gear and ourselves into our new shelter and held our backpacks in the entry to block the wind. The drifting snow sealed the hole shut within two minutes. It would be four days before it opened again.
Buried five feet deep in a 7-by-5-foot cave, Chris’ inReach was our lifeline to the outside world. We were able to communicate the status of our health — hypothermic but stable — and supplies — three days of food with strict rationing, and the capacity to use body heat to melt snow for water. With every message sent, we knew our exact coordinates were being transmitted, as well. Chris had stuck a ski in the snow to mark the entry to our cave and shoved a reflective emergency blanket out an air hole to serve as a flag, but those visual markers alone would not have been enough for rescue crews to locate us amid the vast, empty, windswept expanse of ice and snow
At 12:30 p.m. on our fourth day in the cave, an Air National Guard helicopter was able to take advantage of a brief break in the storm to land at our location, dig us out of our cave and take us home. If not for inReach, they never would have found us. Equally as important — we wouldn’t have been able to make the safe choice and remain in our shelter, but would have had to push our wet, dehydrated, calorie-deficient, hypothermic bodies back out into the storm.
To those of us who live in Alaska and appreciate the wildness it has it store, “get lost” is a welcome expression. But should we get more lost to nature’s whims than intended, having the capacity to get found again with inReach is invaluable.