Lessons from Hiking the Grand Canyon, by Andy in New England

Wednesday, Jul 10, 2013

A successful trek is “won or lost” before it even begins. Having the right quantities of food, water, and first aid, proper gear and adequate physical fitness will determine if a hiker is able to complete a trip as planned, and respond to the unexpected along the way.

This past June, my wife and I hiked the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim. Over the course of this four day, thirty-mile hike, we learned many valuable lessons that can be applied to a grid-down scenario where long-range foot travel is needed to bug-out, explore, or patrol large land areas.

I'm thankful to have learned such lessons in times of plenty, they are as follows:

A Hiking System

Just like how an infantryman’s kit works with him to create a “weapons system,” a hiker and his gear turn into a “hiking system” while on the trail. Working together, the components form a gestalt that can accomplish more than the sum of its parts.
A good pair of trail shoes or boots is the foundation of the hiking system. Footwear that has been broken-in and conforms to the hiker’s foot before the hike begins will be the most comfortable and cause the fewest problems along the way. Wearing footwear a half-size larger than street shoes allows room for the foot to expand as blood flow increases during exercise.
Wool socks wick away moisture during use, keeping feet dry and happy. I had expected wool socks to be like a wool sweater – scratchy and uncomfortable in the heat. In reality, Merino wool is much softer than cotton, and wears very comfortably.

Underwear that fits tightly against the body reduces chafing and irritation compared to looser styles. Anti-microbial fabrics inhibit the growth of micro organisms by using silver threading in the weave. While not a replacement for good personal hygiene, anti-microbial material allows for rather more extended use on long trips, when a fresh pair of drawers may be some time away.
A water bladder in the backpack allows a hiker to carry two or more liters of potable water for easy access while hiking or breaking on the trail. Carrying water on the back keeps the added weight centered on the body and out of the way.

A waist strap supports weight from the backpack at the top of the hips, allowing the hiker to carry a substantial portion of the pack’s weight on the lower body. This greatly relieves weight borne by the shoulders compared to packs without a waist strap, increasing endurance and overall weight capacity.
Trekking poles act like outriggers, providing stability on uneven terrain. Poles also help to keep the upper body in rhythm with the legs, so that the whole body is working together. In addition, trekking poles can be used as a bipod to support the weight of the backpack while pausing on the trail.    
Wearing a hat will keep the sun from beating down on sensitive skin on the face and neck, shield the eyes from glare, and help keep the head cool. Wearing headgear with a distinctive color can also help to identify a person at a distance.
A pair of sunglasses keeps eye muscles from tiring quickly in direct sunlight. It also helps with seeing details in washed-out vistas, and protects fragile eyes from branches and trail dust.   

Drink and Eat Plenty

A hiker may expend twice his normal number of calories while on the trail. Our guide told us that he has yet to see someone run a calorie surplus on a multi-day hike in the Canyon. By taking time to stop regularly for snacks, a hiker can keep his energy up throughout the day to keep moving.
Snacks that are high in sugars and fats convert easily into energy on the trail. Fruits, nuts, seeds, and energy bars make a good source of healthy energy. Candy can also be a ready source of quick energy.
Irritability can be an early sign of dehydration. Taking a drink of water at the first signs of pessimism or negativity can often head-off a hydration issue in its early stages.
Keeping enough water on hand ensures a hiker does not need to run a hydration deficit. A water bladder in the backpack, combined with water or sports drink in a bottle, is a good combination.

Using the Day

The body expends energy to maintain a healthy internal temperature while hiking in hot climates. Heat from direct sunlight and high external temperatures can force the body to work harder and expend more energy to stay cool.
Early and late hours of the day are ideal for hiking in hot temperatures. A good hot climate hiking schedule starts before sunrise (4:00AM) and stops before the sun reaches its highest point in the sky (10:00AM), then resumes hiking after the heat of the day (4:00PM) and stops at dark or when a campsite is reached.
Soaking or submerging in water will cool the body very quickly. Nearby streams or pools can be a great place to wet clothing and headgear for ongoing cooling while wearing them on the trail.

Group Hiking

The group can only move as fast as its slowest member.
People with longer legs tend to move more quickly over distances, due to their longer gait. Physical fitness, to include muscle tone and cardiovascular health, also plays a big role in determining how quickly a hiker can move.
Removing weight from the pack of a slower hiker and adding it to the pack of a faster hiker will tend to equalize their speeds.
Distributing shared items like food, cooking, and camp equipment, spreads weight around and keeps any one heavy item from falling on a single hiker unnecessarily.  
Children are capable of hiking distances, but their physiological needs are different. Generally speaking, children do best when they are carrying very little gear and supplies.
Staying within sight and hearing of the next person in the group ensures that nobody will get lost.
When people are tired and under stress, personalities can rub. By assuming positive intent from other people, and being slow to get angry with them, group members can bypass emotional flare ups. Often, frustration will pass quickly if not given full vent. Looking for unmet needs while upset may reveal the real source of those hard feelings.

Other People

Many day hikers do not bring enough water, food, or first aid supplies. Consequently, many overnight hikers still do not bring enough of the same. Unprepared hikers are most likely to get into trouble with dehydration, metabolic issues, and first aid emergencies because they cannot adequately prevent or address small problems early to keep them from becoming bigger problems.
Extra supplies can be used to help a hiker in distress. Providing a fellow traveler with food, water, or first aid from extras makes a world of difference to them, and mercy like this rewards the giver.
Foolishness stands out. Perfumes, booming voices, and fashion-over-function type clothing draw attention in the deep outdoors, and usually not the good kind. Being a mile from camp in the middle of the desert without a water bottle paints a person as a potential liability.

A Training Vacation

Vacation is an important part of life. More than just recharging the body, getting away from everyday life provides a valuable sense of perspective, often bringing the “big picture” into relief and offering insights that will enrich the very situation a person is vacating.

By taking a vacation that tests personal limits, teaches valuable skills and wisdom, and involves good clean fun, a person can enhance his preparation and promote personal growth while having fun and getting away from it all.
Many of the lessons illustrated here are drawn directly from particular experiences in the American Southwest, but they can be easily adapted or extrapolated to apply to other climates, under more austere circumstances.
Whether bugging-out by foot, reconnoitering an area, or doing long-range patrolling, the principles mentioned here will apply to, or be enhanced by, a grid-down type of scenario.


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