Budget Backpacking


Budget Backpacking

Image credit: Saundra Middleton

An ESME Writing Award submission

With garbage bags slung over our packs, socks on our hands for mittens, and duct tape patching our knees, if my two daughters and I were in the city, we would be directed to the nearest homeless shelter. But here in Alaska’s backcountry, we are just cheapskates.

Alaska was purchased for seven cents an acre and that seems like a reasonable price in which to budget a few days in the backcountry. Instead of sporting labels like Gortex, High Mountain Foods, and Patagonia, we’re sponsored by Duct Tape, Top Ramen, and Hefty.

As the only adult taking this little family into the wilds, I’ve learned a few tricks. Since my main backcountry responsibility is that of a pack mule, it is a must to keep total pack weight to a minimum. The first few years, my two daughters, Lindsay and Mikayla, and I shared one sleeping bag. When we outgrew that, we shared two zipped together. The slight discomfort of sleeping with one leg in each of two mummy bags was far more tolerable than packing three bags through swamp and spruce.

My daughters have always helped with carrying a small school backpack with their extra clothes and a sleeping pad. Their load increased with their size, adding a family meal, snacks, water, and eventually their own sleeping bags. Strangely, as evident in my swayback, MY load never got any lighter!

Emergency protection

First of all, we don’t go anywhere without duct tape. No self-respecting Alaskan is caught dead without it. It is the be-all, does-all for a multitude of situations. It serves as a patch kit for your tent, rain gear, or even a water bottle.

Duct tape will strap the flopping soles of your hand-me-down boots together or attach your sleeping pad to your pack. You can splint an injured wrist or tape over a sock as support for twisted ankles. Brightly colored duct tape doubles as an emergency signaling device. I don’t take the entire roll. I tear off a few feet and wrap it around a container.

Starvation protection

Menu planning includes cheap carbs, which are fast, easy, and fuel-efficient. I like meals whose major preparation means boiling a pan of water. I’m out in the wilds to rejuvenate, not slave over a makeshift kitchen.

Top Ramen is our cheapest dried-food standby. You can eat it plain or spice it up with veggie spice mix, jerky, or whatever is handy. Add an extra cup of water and a bouillon cube, and you have soup; cut back on the water a bit, and you have a pasta dish.

Trail mix is created with whatever is on hand: raisins, sunflower seeds, nuts, soup crackers, chocolate chips, or granola. Be wary of your fellow hiker who volunteers to carry the five-pound bag of trail mix and sits quietly alone with her back turned to you during rest breaks. The first thing that comes up missing is usually the chocolate.

During berry season, we live high off the hog. We don’t get very far into the wilds because we stop at every blueberry patch along the way. And even though temperatures usually never dip below freezing, our lips, tongue, and fingers look like they’ve got a bad case of frostbite from the stains. We have blueberry pancakes for breakfast, blueberries with our trail mix. I throw a couple packages of flavored instant oatmeal on top of a couple cups of fresh-picked blueberries with a little water, let it simmer, and have cobbler for dessert. Yummmm.

You can enjoy all the fine pleasures of city life out in the boonies. Even espressos . . . and you don’t need the expense or weight of one of those Barbie-doll espresso machines with the demitasse cup. It would take me all day to make enough of those little cups to get me going in the morning. Try my cheapskate approach: in a mug add instant coffee and instant cocoa, add hot water, and sprinkle powdered milk over the rising steam and voilá! Mountain Mocha Latte Supreme (blueberries optional). A couple of cups of that and you will be able to counteract the forces of plate tectonics.

When you have a really tough hill to climb, you need a little something extra: a budget power bar. For the same price of one of those high-tech “flamboosies” that taste like a Duraflame log, I buy a box of Twinkies at the bakery thrift store. If I don’t have a sugar attack in the middle of the night, the box should last our family a few days in the backwoods of Alaska.

I calculate Twinkies not by calories but in miles and degree of hill-climbing difficulty. My formula usually accounts for one Twinkie per person per two miles with a 2,000-foot elevation gain—or whatever feels like the equivalent. When we come to a difficult section of our hike, we agree to take a snack break at the top. There is nothing like cream filling to motivate any sluggish, sniveling hiker . . . and my daughters like them, too.

Weather protection

For Alaska’s occasional inclement weather, we do not need fancy rain gear—we have Hefty bags, lawn and garden size. They fit great over the pack and body so you save a bundle on a fancy-schmancy pack cover or rain gear. We do not need any of that breathing, wicking stuff—the only things wicking and breathing I want around out there in the middle of nowhere are my daughters. Cut and tape Cinch Saks to make rain pants. Run a strip of grey duct tape up the sides, and they look just like Adidas sportswear!

Critter protection

Hiking with two small morsels alongside me, friends advised me to carry pepper spray. What? A $40 can of self-seasoning? No, thanks.

Park rangers say if you just make noise to warn the bears, it will give them a chance to get out of your way. Sounds reasonable, as charter members of Whiners Anonymous, we are pros at playing the Whining Game.

The Whining Game is especially effective in willow thickets and dense forests. The rules are simple:

  • Everyone gets a turn—some of us more than others.
  • Anything goes.

The continual litany of “My feet hurt,” “I’m hungry,” “Damn this 50-pound pack,” “When are we stopping?” “WHERE’S THE CREAM FILLING?” is enough to keep even the most comatose bear fully aware of our location. The kids help out, too, by adding in between my gasping gulps for air: “Will someone see me if I go potty behind this tree, Mom?” or “I’ll carry the trail mix for you, Mom, so your back won’t hurt, OK?” (Nice try, kid; I already ate the chocolate!)

I realize some of you would not be seen dead in a Hefty bag or indulge in our dietary discretions. In all the years we have been doing this, in the all the miles we have covered, I have never met a caribou who cared or a bear who bothered to check our labels. (Well, there was one old bruin that got close. I think he had cataracts and couldn’t see “Hefty” written across our backsides until he was within our breathing space. As soon as he figured it out, though, he was high-tailin’ it faster than a yuppie running to an REI sale.)

But seriously, out there—with glaciated peaks towering above you, with tundra cushioning your step, with spruce trees extending their boughs enveloping you in their sappy aroma, with the gentle breeze tossing your hair in friendly play, with the midnight sun casting alpine-glow colors of peach and tangerine onto everything in surreal fashion—the bags, the duct tape, and the cheap food just don’t matter. What does matter is that Alaska surrounds you.

What matters is watching my daughters delight in an invented game of stick people instead of zoned out by TV. What matters is watching them mimic the waddle of a passing porcupine instead of the gyrations of a teen pop star. What matters is paying heed to their request that I walk five paces ahead as they conspire with each other as “best friend” sisters.

What matters most has been watching my daughters grow into strong, outdoor-savvy, and independent young women. By the time Lindsay was 14, she carried her fair share of the load, had been pitching the tent by herself for several years, and set a hiking pace Mikayla and I were half running to keep up with. At age 11, Mikayla ran faster than me, was taller than me, and could probably carry me up the hill the way I did with her when we started these family adventures. They mastered raging rivers, thundershowers, August snowfalls, and a windstorm that flipped our tent over while we were in it! They snuck past bears, confronted bears, and ran bare naked across the tundra. No labels required.


Raised in an Alaskan rain forest, Saundra Middleton was lured away to Seattle when she heard its average annual rainfall was only 37 inches. After a few years, she returned to Alaska. She raised two daughters in Anchorage, where favorite family outings included backpacking in Denali National Park and road-tripping through Alaska.


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