Go on a guided hiking or backpacking tour. You don’t even have to read the rest of this article if you hire a guide – he or she knows the trails, knows how to stay safe, will be sure you are safe, is prepared before you even show up, and can even teach you a thing or two about the Canyon’s history, flora, fauna and geology. Most guide services will also supply the gear you need, so no worrying about being underprepared or forgetting the essentials.
Research the trail(s) you are looking to hike or backpack. If you decide against hiring a guide (it is not a requirement), be certain you have done your research first. There are many trails in the canyon and most have no water, can get very icy in the winter and can also be very difficult to navigate. Some trails are very difficult to find and take previous desert hiking experience to follow – washes and trails look much alike and following a wash can get you into trouble very quickly. Also be certain the trail you choose is within your physical ability. Remember, unless you are hiking the rim trail, you will be descending below the rim, and the hike out is the most difficult part for most people. Go to the Grand Canyon National Park website for information about trails, conditions, descriptions, etc., and if you are already at Grand Canyon, visit the rangers at the Backcountry Information Office to be certain you have the most current trail information.
Don’t underestimate the Grand Canyon or overestimate your abilities. Hiking the Grand Canyon is like nothing else in most of the rest of the world. There is a different dynamic in hiking down first, then up. If your knees and ankles don’t feel the strain of constant gravitational pull down the steep trails, you may unintentionally hike too far, forgetting that the hike out is strenuous. Give yourself twice as much time to hike out than it takes to hike in. If you hike out in is less time than expected – good job! – now take in the sites from the rim and enjoy the rest of your day worry and relatively pain free. If you are a generally sedentary person, stick with hiking along the rim.
Eat and drink. Yes it is cooler this time of year, but the desert is very arid and you will lose fluids quickly so be sure to drink water often. Also, eat! When hiking, you can and should take plenty of snack breaks. It is best to replace electrolytes with food rather than through electrolyte replacements such as Gatorade. Take these items as a quick fix, not as a replacement. The calories in food also warm you up as your body burns them, so even if you don’t feel hungry, the fuel will warm you up!
Have a pack to carry your belongings. Well your thinking duh – but we have seen people attempt hikes to the bottom with a phone in one hand and a camera in the other – no pack, no water, no fun!! You can’t carry all you need in pockets and two hands. Have a pack to carry your food, water, extra clothing, lighting, batteries, camera, sunblock, lip balm, first aid kit, trail map, safety devices such as a mirror or whistle and any other items you might need (better to be over prepared than dead as they say (not sure who says that but now it has been said). Other items you will need since we are on the topic – sunglasses, trekking poles, hat and proper hiking shoes that fit well and are broken in.
Grand Canyon does get winter weather so be prepared for snow and ice on the trails. There is a misconception that Arizona is all desert landscape. This is far from the truth. We get plenty of snow in the higher elevations of the state and that includes Grand Canyon. By December, expect ice and or snow on the trails (most winters), and be sure you have some kind of over-the-shoe traction device – ice cleats and crampons work well – YakTrax sometimes. Our personal preference is an ice cleat or spike. Temperatures at the canyon vary greatly throughout the day so while you may be hiking in 50 degrees F and any snow on the trail is melting, the lows will easily reach freezing, changing all that snow to ice. Traction devices such as YakTrax do not grip the ice and could cause more harm than good.
And since Grand Canyon does have a winter, do be certain to wear warm layers. Bring a hat and a knit cap, gloves, thin, comfortable, wicking inner layers and a warm and waterproof outer layer. Plus, don’t forget an extra set of dry clothing just in case you get wet from rain, snow or sweat. Multiple layers or clothing are important since, as you hike down, it will get warmer in the inner canyon – a good 20-30 degree F difference – so pealing off layers as you get warmer is important. If you are wearing just one very warm layer, you will sweat, stay wet and get cold. Remember, hypothermia can strike even in temperatures in the 50s F, especially if you are wearing wet clothing.
Follow trail etiquette for a safe and fun hike. Aside from many other hikers, especially on the main trails – South Kaibab and Bright Angel – there are also mules on the trails carrying gear and people. When you are approached by a mule going up hill or down hill, always move as far off the trail as possible to the inside of the canyon (by the wall of the canyon, not by the exposed area) to allow them to pass. Failure to move over can put you in a battle between mule and human – mule will win and human will likely be at the bottom of the canyon at record speeds. If you are unsure, listen to and follow the trail boss for instructions. When you approach other hikers, it is an unwritten rule to always yield to hikers going up hill. Uphill hikers are slower but are also moving steady and once you are hiking uphill, you will too find that stopping for the energetic downhill speedster makes it much more challenging to keep going (unless you need to take a breather anyway). You will find slow and steady is much better than fast with numerous stops. And for those of you going downhill, the hiker hiking uphill will be looking down most of the hike and likely wearing a brimmed hat. These two factors make it very likely that they will not see you barreling down the trail. In the case of ice and snow – slipping down the trail – so intentional, slower speeds is better anyway.