If you are reading this article, it is likely that you have spent at least some time in a wilderness area. Now you have your sights aimed at something epic and need to know what to expect when backpacking in Grand Canyon. Unless you are familiar with canyon country, the landscapes are unimaginably different than the heavily wooded environments found in most of the US. Backpacking in this part of the country offers unique views found nowhere else on Earth, but it also elicits a unique set of challenges when preparing for your trip.
There are a few constants involved with any backpacking trip: elevation, weather, and gear are typically the most overt. They are huge factors when planning any trip to Grand Canyon. I will discuss these briefly later in the article, but you have probably given them at least some thought. My goal with this article is to introduce you to factors that are less conspicuous, but very important when planning a backpacking trip to Grand Canyon.
First, a backpacking permit at Grand Canyon is required for any night spent below the rim; with the exception of Phantom Ranch. Second, you must camp in the designated use area or campground specified on your permit’s itinerary. Third, and this detail tends to fall between the cracks for most people, the earliest you can apply for a backpacking permit is four months prior to your trip start date. This is important because permits are limited and this is the deciding factor in whether your backpacking trip is possible or not. The longer you wait to get your permit, the less likely you are to obtain one! For a more thorough discussion on permits, check out our blog to learn everything you need to know about Grand Canyon backpacking permits.
One major mistake I made when I first started guiding in the Southwest was relying too heavily on a map to locate water. Water sources (with the exception of the Colorado River) are few and far between; often times they are unreliable. Just because there is a blue line on your map does not mean water is currently flowing. Most maps will indicate both perennial water sources as well as . When backpacking in Grand Canyon it is imperative you know the difference between the two. Before you take your first steps below the rim ask a Ranger for current backcountry updates
Carrying more than enough water is crucial when planning a backpacking trip to Grand Canyon. Without proper hydration the body cannot cool itself adequately. This can lead to heat illness, cardiac arrest, and ultimately death. Close to half of all environmental deaths at Grand Canyon are heat related. When backpacking in Grand Canyon you should carry no less than 3 liters of water per person and you should always carry a water filter. Remember to hike smart so you don’t become a statistic!
As you move away from the main corridor and the crowds, fellow hikers become fewer and fewer. This is due to the extreme nature of the trails and also by design with the permitting system. I have lead multi-day trips where we did not encounter a single person until we made it back to the rim. At first glance this may sound like exactly what you want and need. However, if you get injured or find yourself in need of assistance, the solitude could become your worst fear. If you are planning a backpacking trip to Grand Canyon, always carry a personal locator beacon. Not only can your loved ones keep track of your progress, but you can transmit your location to EMS personnel in the event of an emergency.
I cannot stress enough the preparation needed when backpacking in Grand Canyon. The south rim sits at approximately 7,000 feet and the north rim is over 8,000 feet. The Colorado River passes through the main area of the park at 2,400 feet; on average you are hiking a vertical mile from rim to river. That is three Empire State Buildings stacked on top of each other! A common error hikers make is not paying attention to the steepness of the terrain. It is easy to get caught in the moment and relative easy hike down, but it is imperative that you realize you must hike back up. Remember: hiking down is optional, hiking up is mandatory!
Dramatic changes in elevation mean dramatic changes in the weather and temperature. As you hike down, you begin in a climate similar to Canada and ultimately find yourself in a climate comparable to Mexico! Unannounced storms can blow through the side canyons in minutes and leave you soaked and shivering. It is crucial that you check the forecast and pack accordingly. Understanding the factors of elevation and weather will help you decide what gear to pack (and not pack). REI has created a basic backpacking checklist and it is a great resource if you are unsure what you should take on your trip. You won’t need everything listed, but the first half of the checklist includes the essentials you should have on any backpacking trip you take.