Safety Tips for Backpacking in the Grand Canyon

Arizona
Jul 2015

Backpacking the Grand Canyon is not for the faint of heart nor the casual observer of desert safety. This type of expedition requires all party members to be on their game and fully prepared for the elements, physical requirements, and all the things you hope never go wrong. To date, there have been over 700 people who have died in Grand Canyon National Park with a modern-day average of 12 deaths per year. Adequate preparation is key to avoid becoming a part of the statistic. There are many great resources like this blog post prepared by one of our own grand canyon guides and a lifelong backpacker, to get all the tips to hike in Grand Canyon safely and make your experience memorable.

HEAT

If you’re backpacking below the rim of the canyon between May and September, you’ll likely encounter afternoon temperatures between 90 and 120 degrees F. These temperatures can be combatted with constant hydration, proper nutrition, and unrelenting shade-seeking. Smart desert hikers hike at night, in the mornings, or after 4pm to avoid the hottest parts of the day. Wear sunscreen and a long-sleeved lightweight cotton shirt, pants, and a wide-brimmed hat. Get wet wherever you find water and stay wet. You’ve heard the phrase “cotton kills” but in a hot environment, it’s “cotton saves”. Cotton holds moisture and provides “free sweat” which aids in cooling your body through evaporative cooling.

HYDRATION

Your body can absorb about 1 liter of water per hour while the rest ends up coming back out again without hydrating you. Aim to drink 1 liter per hour if it is over 80 to 90 degrees. Some people find water unpalatable. Do whatever you need to do to get over this. A good suggestion is to set a daily hydration goal for yourself at home one month before your trip. Just like you need to train your muscles to hike uphill, some people need to train their systems to consume water. You can also use water additives like Gatorade/Powerade powder, Nuun tablets, Mio, or similar products. Use these sparingly and make sure to consume plain water at the same rate as you consume water alternatives.

Signs of Dehydration

  • headache
  • muscle cramping
  • stomach ache
  • lack of appetite
  • moodiness
  • tiredness/lethargy
  • lack of urination or sweat

Severe dehydration will eventually lead to eventual unconsciousness, coma, and finally death. You cannot let yourself get dehydrated when there are still miles to go. Rehydration happens after the work is over, at camp while relaxing your body.

NUTRITION

There’s a lot of hype about hyponatremia, the state of having too little salt in your body due to the excess consumption of water combined with sweating. The best way to avoid hyponatremia during a backpacking trip is to eat often. It doesn’t have to be much, just a few pretzels or half an energy bar. Try to consume about half of a snack per hour minimum. Your snacks should be a mix of sweet and salty foods you already know you like. Salt tabs, salt water, and salt licks are not necessary as there is plenty of sodium in our everyday foods for the level of exertion we use while backpacking.

A few of our favorite Grand Canyon Trail Snacks

CLIFFS, VENOMOUS CREATURES, AND THE MIGHTY COLORADO RIVER

All these dangers are easy to avoid if you are smart and well-informed.

The vertical cliffs of the canyon can be frightening and awe-inspiring. Stay away from precipices, remember not to “walk and gawk,” and don’t ever pretend to be falling off the edge of the Grand Canyon. This little stunt has accounted for more of those 700 deaths than you might think.

Venomous creatures are present in the canyon, but they don’t want to mess with you. Leave them be and you will likely leave the canyon with only a deeper appreciation of their home. Also, know what is venomous. There’s no need to hike along a steep, cactus-covered rocky slope to avoid a king snake. Only 10% of the snakes in Arizona are venomous and most are only active at night. All of them will avoid you whenever possible and are only defensive in nature. Scorpions are also nocturnal and are not deadly (only 1 scorpion-caused death has been reported in Arizona since these statistics began in 1964).

There are very few poisonous plants in the Grand Canyon (but don’t eat anything you don’t recognize, just the same), but almost all of them have thorns and spines so remember to steer clear.

The Colorado River would have to be the most dangerous item on this list. Most Colorado River drownings involve hikers, not rafters, so use extreme caution when you get to the river’s bank and want to take a dip. Look for “eddies” (where the river current is flowing upstream and is gentle and calm) and never (NEVER!) swim the Colorado alone. The safest bet is to find a placid pool and only dip your feet in. When considering a swim, remember the river’s average water temperature is a bone-chilling 42 degrees F. Its current is fast and strong due to the average elevation drop of 10 feet per mile (that’s 10 times faster than the Mississippi!), averaging 50,000 CFS or about 4 to 5 mph. There is a reason it is called “The Mighty Colorado”.

WATERBORNE ILLNESS

Americans take water cleanliness for granted. We don’t need to treat our tap water and often are even drinking bottled water. Backpackers do not have these luxuries. In the front-country, waterborne illness is treatable, but when hiking in the backcountry the resulting diarrhea or vomiting could dehydrate and exhaust you enough to cause a life-threatening situation, especially if you are hiking solo. Cryptosporidia and Giardia are the most common waterborne illnesses and can be completely avoided by treating your water.

Backcountry Water Treatment Options

  • Iodine
  • Bleach
  • Boiling (check the standards for timing on this based on the elevation you’ll be at)
  • UV lights created for this purpose only
  • Other EPA-approved water filters

Read the directions and use them properly to keep yourself safe from waterborne illness.

The Grand Canyon is a challenging environment and terrain to hike or backpack in. But the difficulty also makes it one of the most rewarding places to explore. Vast chasms, life-giving rivers, hidden fern-covered grottos, towering waterfalls, unique wildlife, 2.8-billion-year-old rocks, and far-reaching desert terrain unequaled in scope and grandeur will be your inspiration to keep putting one boot in front of the other. Tips like these and a commitment to safety will be what makes it all possible.