Plan A Grand Canyon Backpacking Trip

Mar 2019

Backpacking trips in the Grand Canyon National Park are a must for any outdoor enthusiast who is fit and prepared enough for the challenge. The landscape is world class; incomparable and colossal. Trekking across this World Heritage Site, one of the Seven Natural Wonders, is an unforgettable experience and a bucketlist trip for every serious backpacker. Less than 1% of 2017’s 6.25 million visitors to Grand Canyon National Park spent nights down in the canyon. What better way to spend your Grand Canyon vacation than camping under a starry night surrounded by the towering walls of the most famous canyon in the world?

Celebrate the Park’s centennial anniversary and “Go Grand” with REI at Grand Canyon National Park in 2019.

Grand Canyon Trails

The Grand Canyon’s vast wilderness and variety of trails offer the opportunity to embark on a classic and rewarding backpacking trip. There are 358 miles (576.1 km) of established hiking trails with 126 miles (202.8 km) maintained. That is plenty of space to get out and away from it all, if you know the right trails.

On your first Grand Canyon backpacking trip, it’s a good idea to start by hiking the corridor trails to get a taste of life below the canyon’s rim. A few good camping options are Indian Gardens (Bright Angel Trail), Bright Angel Campground (at the river), or at Cottonwood Campground (North Kaibab Trail).

If you’re a strong backpacker looking for pure solitude and serious challenge, look at options for taking an overnight trip to Horseshoe Mesa, or hiking the New Hance Trail to Hance Rapids. Whichever your location in the Grand Canyon, you’re going to get an eye-full. Don’t forget to grab the required backcountry permits here.

If you want to hike to the bottom of the canyon but don’t want to carry your gear in true backpacking fashion, check out options to stay at Phantom Ranch, a cozy little enclave with cottages, dormitories, and a shared family style dinner served in the evening. Be sure to try the stew.

Hiking tour group takes a break on Grand Canyon trail.
Backpack tour group in the Grand Canyon.

Grand Canyon Backpacking Routes & Backcountry Permits

If you’re planning to backpack below the rim, you need to think about which trail you will be hiking and where you want to camp. Any camping expedition into the backcountry of Grand Canyon National Park below the canyon’s rim requires a backcountry permit, obtained from the Backcountry Office of the National Park Service.

To apply for a permit, you’ll need to fill out an application 4 months prior to your proposed start date. Learn more about getting a backcountry permit.

Prepare For Your Grand Canyon Backpacking trip

The Grand Canyon is unique, and travelers should be careful not to make assumptions about backpacking in the canyon, mileage can be misleading and experience doesn’t always translate to this environment. Cases of hyponatremia and dehydration are common and are almost always the result of poor preparation.

Train for your trip in advance

Walking 20 miles on a track or treadmill every day is not an effective means of training for backpacking the Grand Canyon. There are few flat stretches in the canyon. Instead, get on a trail as often as possible. You need to build up your ankle strength for walking across loose rock, core strength for balance, and muscle endurance in your glutes for carrying your huge pack uphill. Depending on your backpacking route, you may be hiking uphill for as long as 8 hours.

Start training well in advance, 6 months or more is recommended. Do the best you can, and listen to your body when trail day arrives.

Water & Snacks

You should carry at least 3 liters of water per person, 4 in the summer months. Top off your water every opportunity you have and bring a water filter to protect yourself against waterborne illness. We like Platypus’ gravity filters, but there are many options.

Bring plenty of salty snacks. As you sweat, then drink water to rehydrate, your body dilutes itself of salt. In the arid climate of the Grand Canyon, this can happen quickly and leads to a dangerous condition called hyponatremia which may result in brain swelling and even death.

Going down is optional. Coming back up is mandatory.Grand Canyon Hikers Saying


Grand Canyon Weather

Throughout the year, it is hotter inside the canyon than on the rims. With about 5,000 ft of difference in elevation there can be more than a 30 degree F change from the rims to the inner canyon. The temperatures in the Grand Canyon can add a dangerous element to your backpacking trip. When planning a trip, it is very important to prepare for the heat and the dry desert air. Incidents involving dehydration and hyponatremia are common in the Grand Canyon but can always be avoided with the right preparation.

The best months to backpack Grand Canyon are in the spring and fall. If you have the flexibility, aim for April or October. It is possible to see snow on the Rims during the shoulder seasons, so double check to see if you should bring Yaktrax for more grip.

Tour group laughs on Grand Canyon backpacking trip.

Grand Canyon History

Before setting out on your journey, take some time to look up some Grand Canyon facts to enrich your experience.

We have an unknown distance yet to run, an unknown river to explore.John Wesley Powell

Native Americans at the Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon is a sacred place for many Native American tribes in the Southwest. In some Native American origin stories (like the Hopi), the Grand Canyon is the birthplace of mankind where the first humans emerged from Sipapu, the underworld, and separated into many different tribes that spread and populated Earth.

It is documented that people have been living in the Grand Canyon for at least the last 4,000 years, but archaeologists have discovered evidence of human activity in the Grand Canyon location that date back as far as 10,500 years ago! Hikers in the canyon today may see evidence of ancient peoples in petroglyphs carved into a cliff or boulder, or in granaries used to store food. Undoubtedly, there are still many undiscovered historical treasures within the canyon’s walls. The Havasupai people still live within the walls of the Grand Canyon, carrying on many aspects of their traditional way of life below the rim.

Read more about the Havasupai People

Modern Grand Canyon History

In 1540, the first foreign explorers to see the Grand Canyon were the Spanish conquistadors searching for legendary cities made of gold. In about 1760, Spanish priests visited the tribes of the canyon, documenting these encounters for the first time.

In 1869, legendary explorer, one-armed civil war veteran, and U.S. Army Major John Wesley Powell led the first rafting expedition through the entire length of the Grand Canyon on the Colorado River. Powell recruited nine men, also veterans and mountain men, but with no whitewater experience whatsoever. This expedition was an extremely brave endeavor as it consisted of MANY unknowns without much opportunity to abandon the quest once begun. They set out on the expedition with heavy wooden boats, unsuitable for these conditions. Over their three months one boat was lost in the rapids, and only six of the ten men completed the journey. Powell writes in his journal, “We have an unknown distance yet to run, an unknown river to explore. What falls there are, we know not; what rocks beset the channel, we know not; what walls ride over the river, we know not. Ah, well! we may conjecture many things.”

In 1901, the Santa Fe Railroad to Grand Canyon Village was finished and the first automobile was driven to the South rim in 1902. You can still ride the Grand Canyon Railway today. By 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt designated the area a National Monument until it was reclassified to a National Park in 1919. It became America’s 17th National Park, and a World Heritage Site in 1979. Today, the park is 1.2 million acres and home to 7 endangered species, including the California Condor.