Hiking the Grand Canyon
words Diana Montgomery
Last year, over a round of drinks, my friend casually mentioned that she wanted to hike the Grand Canyon. What was thought to be a passing, possibly booze induced conversation, turned into a life-changing obsession with hiking. Here is how to do the hardest thing of your life.
First, obviously figure out where you want to go and read everything you can about your destination. The park’s website is a good place to start. It’ll have maps, tips, checklists, the Grand Canyon park website even had a training schedule. You’ll most likely need a permit to backcountry hike and camp. Understand how the permit system works, plan accordingly and don’t expect to get a permit on the first try. It took us three attempts and our trip ended up being a month later than we originally planned.
It is amazing how much shit you need to survive in the wilderness. It is also surprisingly expensive. Price does not necessarily dictate quality and reading reviews is the key. Our park had a checklist of minimum items to bring on an overnight backcountry hike. These are the most important items to consider.
Hiking Boots: Try on several pairs and break them in before your big trip. If you don’t, plan on blisters and pain. It should go without saying that if you get the wrong shoes, your feet are going to suffer and your trip is over before it starts.
Backpack with a water reservoir: The vessel to carry all your stuff. It has to fit properly. Get measured and carry it around weighted. Any outdoor store that sells hiking packs can do this. The pack needs to sit correctly against your back and the straps need to be comfortable. The water reservoir just allows you to drink without having to stop and find a bottle of water. One of our group had only bottles and did just fine. But an extra bottle is still a good idea.
Backpacking Tent: Someone needs one. The lightest ones will only fit two people and most campsites will only accommodate up to two tents. Do some basic math and figure out how many tents you need based on your group size. Don’t assume you can hammock camp either. Only one of our campsites allowed it.
Hiking Poles: If your trip involves a lot of elevation change, these will help more than you think. Figure out how they expand (if they do). Not only do they help to haul your tired ass up an incline, the handles help your hands not to swell. We concluded after our trip that we probably wouldn’t have made it out of the canyon without those poles.
Other things to consider are a map, multi-weather clothing, multiple pairs of wool socks, a hiking stove and fuel, sleeping bag, flashlight, knife, sunscreen, bug spray and a poncho. Remember that all your crap should fit in a sideways duffle bag strapped to your back and everything you bring into the park, you must pack out. Your leftover food, your trash, the toilet paper you used when you couldn’t make it to the next bathroom. Yes, there are bathrooms. The Grand Canyon is remote but amazingly accommodating. The trails have pit toilets at checkpoints and at the bottom camp, there are actual flushing toilets. And since this is not mentioned anywhere, a tip for the ladies. At the bottom camp, you have to pack out your lady products but the pit toilets on the trail have trash cans that collect only feminine products. Plan accordingly.
This may be a no-brainer but unless you’re already a hiker or in exceptional shape, doing physical activity in preparation for your trip is decidedly a good idea. We went on local hikes over the course of six months and did one long hike with our packs full. Add to your existing exercises or start a training schedule. Climb stairs. It’s the only exercise that can prepare you for a steep elevation change. I didn’t climb stairs and my knees have never fully recovered.
Logical nutrition goes out the window on long hikes. There is a plethora of information on the Internet about hiking nutrition and meal/snack planning. Your body loses salt, which must be replenished in order for you to function so the majority of food advice out there involves bringing salty food. You need more calories than you think and you should make friends with electrolyte supplements. Since you’re carrying all of your food over the course of a few days, fresh is not fresh for very long. We all decided that dehydrated food was our best option since we would have plenty of access to water. My food choices (breakfast scramble, red beans and rice, chicken and dumplings) were based on reviews but it all honestly ends up tasting like bland, rehydrated food. Bring hot sauce.
Overall, be smart about what you’re doing. The most common comment from other hikers is how little people prepare for the actual hike. People underestimate the physical endurance required and the toll it takes on your body. Under prepare and get hurt and you’ll be making friends with the pilot airlifting your broken ass out of a canyon. You’ll also feel the pain of paying for that $10,000 helicopter ride. That alone should be your motivation to use caution.
All that being said, nothing can fully prepare you for the Grand Canyon except hiking it. You can have an idea of how it will go but nothing is like the actual hike. It hurts. You spend the majority of your day, looking at your feet, hiking to the next camp. Then you are awake long enough to set up camp, eat and rest for a short while. You can never sleep long enough for your muscles to recover from the day before. It does not matter that your $80 khaki hiking pants whisk moisture. Everything smells like a swamp. You are cranky and tired and question your sanity. But at that moment, we were given exactly what we needed. A seasoned lady hiker who told us how proud we should be of ourselves because most people don’t even try what we were doing. That we should take pride in our sore legs because that meant we had walked to the bottom. And she gave us the motivation that we were sorely lacking after our first day. “Just put one foot in front of the other,” she said, “and keep going.”
On the last day, we woke up in our tents along the trail and by dinnertime, we’re eating burgers surrounded by tourists in a lodge. It was surreal to say the least. We had made it out, happy with our accomplishment but had long decided never to do this again. My friend’s mom, who hiked the canyon as a younger woman, and the other hikers we met had told us of canyon fever. “It’s hard the first time,” they said. “You’ll be back.” We spent three days, mostly alone, in a very remote location eating bad food and being in physical pain. I often wondered if our friendships would survive along with our physical selves. When we made it home, it took about a week for us to start planning our trip back.