Backpack the Grand Canyon in Winter

Dec 2018

Ask any outdoor enthusiast for their hiking trail bucket list, the odds are good that backpacking the Grand Canyon is on it. What better way to see one of the world’s natural wonders than to plan the ultimate backpacking trip? Five million people visit the Grand Canyon each year; only 10% of that 5 million sees the beauty that lies below the rim. Trails are busiest in the spring, summertime and early fall. Why not tackle some of the world’s most renowned trails in the backcountry of Grand Canyon when you’re able to enjoy that solitude most backpackers are always in search of? Read on for tips on planning your own winter backpacking trip in Grand Canyon, or if you’d rather not do the planning yourself just give us a call to join REI’s professional guides on a guided backpacking trip this winter!

Winter backpacking in the Grand Canyon sounds a little daunting, if you are unprepared, you’re right to be intimidated but if you’ve done your homework then it can be one of the most gratifying experiences of your life. The Grand Canyon is stunning year-round but to see it covered in a dusting of snow is…well the only word for it is, Magical!

Choose the best trail for your winter backpacking trip

One of the most important things to know is which Grand Canyon trails are best for hiking in winter. The North Rim access roads are closed during the winter so you’ll want to look into trails that start at the South Rim. Hiking one of the Corridor trails is safest; these trails are constantly maintained in order to keep them functional. That narrows it down to a short list to start from – South Kaibab and/or Bright Angel trails.

South Rim Corridor Trails

Look at the pros and cons of each trail to decide which of the corridor trails is better during the winter. South Kaibab is steeper but gets more sun exposure than Bright Angel making the trail comparatively ice and snow free.  When hiking the Bright Angel trail there is a campground (Indian Gardens) 4.8 miles from the rim, whereas you won’t reach a campground on South Kaibab until mile 7 (Bright Angel Campgrounds). Both trails come with pros and cons, in the end it comes down to a matter of preference since both are well-maintained.

If you are a seasoned Grand Canyon or rugged backcountry hiker, you may consider looking into Grand Canyon’s other trails starting from the South Rim, these are unmaintained and difficult for winter hiking. In any case, looking at the stats and conditions of each trail will help you decide which is best for you.

Factors to consider when choosing your trail:

  • Sun Exposure – avoided during the summer months, this will be your best friend while winter camping in Grand Canyon.
  • Distance – in cold temperatures or wet conditions, a distance that may normally be easy for you can become much more of a challenge. How far do you want to hike to your campground?
  • Elevation change – Important for many reasons, elevation change cannot be ignored at Grand Canyon at any time of year, but particularly in the winter. The further you drop into the canyon the warmer the temperatures get but the less direct sun you will have as the walls of the canyon stretch high above and create shade.
  • Park Closures – Make sure to do your research before you start planning specifics and apply for your permit. Backcountry trails may be unexpectedly closed at any time of year, but particularly in the winter.
  • Limitations – experience? gear? knowledge of backcountry emergency procedure? All of these factors are extra important to consider when hiking in winter conditions.

Once you’ve decided which trail(s) you want to hike, you’ll need to get your backcountry hiking permits. To do this, contact the Grand Canyon backcountry office.  Fewer people are planning trips during the winter, so it is often easier to get the backpacking permits that you want. You should still plan to call as soon as permits are made available, 5 months prior to the month of your trip.


Hiker in orange parka in the Grand Canyon.


How to Pack for Your Winter in Grand Canyon

Make sure you’re properly outfitted. From the rim of the canyon to the Colorado River there can be up to a 30 degree difference in temperature. Lightweight, waterproof clothes are best and as always, the layering effect will be useful. A merino baselayer  with a lightweight down sweater and a windbreaking waterproof outer layer is the best way to ensure that you are warm at every elevation in the canyon. Extra socks and underwear are also a great idea; you will never hear a hiker say “Man, I really regret bringing that extra pair of dry socks and underwear!”

In addition to proper clothing, there’s a good chance you’ll be walking on ice at some point. Don’t get too scared! Think less Jon Krakauer on Everest circa 1996 and think more icy drive way in Utah after a rough winter storm. Crampons aren’t necessary, traction devices that slip over shoes with spikes and metal coils will do just fine, you can find an inexpensive pair at your local gear shop or REI. Hiking poles are also recommended in these conditions for extra stability.


  • Layered clothing, we recommend merino wool.
  • Tent – though Grand Canyon in summer is a great place to pull out your favorite bivy and go lightweight, in winter you will want the extra weather protection.
  • 30 degree sleeping bag or warmer – Though not quite the great white north, temperatures can drop drastically at night and often hover around freezing. At Grand Canyon’s higher elevations you may even be in need of a warmer bag. Check weather conditions before you go.
  • Traction devices for your shoes.
  • Hiking Poles
  • Layers – a good baselayer will make all the difference.


Check weather and Trail Conditions

Backpacking the Grand Canyon in the winter is the best way for adventurers to see this incredible place without enduring the challenging heat of summer. If you’re not used to the heat, backpacking the Grand Canyon in winter will most likely offer the perfect hiking weather for you. Unfortunately, weather in the canyon is irregular due to elevation changes as discussed above, as well as the vast size of the canyon, which tends to create its own weather systems. It’s not uncommon to be sweating in the afternoon and freezing as soon as dark sets in. During the winter, it’s likely you will experience beautiful sunshine one day and snow and cold the next. Keep updated on the weather forecast and check the backcountry information office for trail conditions.


Enjoy the canyon without the hassle

Sound like a lot of work and you’d rather just enjoy the backcountry and have someone do the dirty work for you? We offer a few different options year-round including Grand Canyon guided backpacking trips and a more mild winter overnight hiking trip to Phantom Ranch!