Tips for Hiking Grand Canyon in the Summer

Grand Canyon Summer Hiking Tips

Most people would not think to hike in the desert, for example the Phoenix area, in the Summer. And yet, Grand Canyon sees the majority of its hikers in the summer. One reason is most people are taking summer vacations and Grand Canyon is an obvious choice to visit with the kids. Plus, temperatures on the rim are mild on both the North and South Rims. However, the inner canyon is hot and anyone choosing to hike below the rim of the canyon needs to be prepared – if you still opt to hike regardless of knowing what to expect. But do remember it is an entirely different type of hiking – and no, it does not get cooler as you descend. It is a reverse mountain – you are starting at the coolest point and while hiking downhill might seem easier, it is a lot of stress on the muscles and joints.  By the way, Grand Canyon can see Summer temperatures as early as late April where highs can get into the 90s if we have a heat wave come through so be prepared for changes in temperatures, especially if you are on a multi-day backpacking trip.  One day can be a beautiful 78 degrees but the next day could get close to 100 – yikes!

Dang! It’s HOT! The cooler rim temperatures are so inviting, and couple that with amazing views on fantastic trails and your little voice of lack of reason says – “Do IT! Let’s hike Grand Canyon!” And not just a couple miles, let’s go ALL THE WAY TO THE BOTTOM! First piece of advance, ignore that voice.

If you do decide to hike Grand Canyon in the summer, here are some tips to help keep you safe, alive and wanting to hike again (when it IS cooler).

  • Hike Early or Late. You can’t start hiking too early! If at all possible, get on the trail before dawn. Take a headlamp and get started. you are probably thinking “It’s dark and it is dangerous to hike in the dark!” You are partly right. It is dark, but it is more dangerous to hike in temperatures of 110+ than in the dark. The three main trails – South Kaibab, North Kaibab and Bright Angel trails – are well maintained, wide and very obvious. Also, if there is any moonlight at all, you may not even need to use a light. The tiniest amount of moon provides enough light in our dry air to light the way. During a full moon, you can even see all the rock layers of the canyon walls. Still not convinced? Then you will need to start your hike at the first glimmer of light. It may be cold on the rim but when you start but you will be glad you did.
  • Wet Yourself Down. Every chance you get, wet your clothing, hair and hat – completely. Completely means drenched – not a little sprinkle of water here and there. And don’t wait to put it on or get wet until after you are hot and miserable. Why get to that point? Get your cotton t-shirt wet before you even start your hike (if you are starting in temperatures already above 80 degrees) and be cool, stay cool instead of the other option of having to cool your body temperature down. The air in Arizona is so dry – 15% humidity much of the year, your perspiration evaporates instantly. That sweat is trying to provide you with evaporative cooling. Unfortunately it evaporates so quickly, it has little effect on how much it can actually cool you. By wetting yourself down, you are assisting your body in keeping cool.
  • Have an Extra Wet Cotton Shirt. Notice the theme?  This is the only time we would promote everyone having a wet t-shirt contest – and the wetter the better!  Pack an extra wet cotton t-shirt in a Ziploc bag to put on later in the day – especially when you are hiking in an area that doesn’t have a water source to re-wet the cotton shirt you are wearing.
  • NO WICKING SHIRTS!!! Leave them at home. Yes, you can get them wet, but they wick moisture away from your skin. In Grand Canyon in the summer, you want that moisture against your skin. They work great in cold and/or humid environments – not here in hot/dry Arizona summers. Someone at another outdoor store told you different? Well, not everyone who works outdoor retail is in the know. Especially if they live in Florida. Click here for more details about wearing cotton in the desert.
  • Bandanas are one of the most useful items for the trail. You can use them to blow your nose, dry your hands, headwear, etc. During the hot months, soak a bandana and wrap it around the back of your neck. Over 80% of your heat is generated at the back of your neck and head. A wet bandana goes a long way towards cooling you off. However, it also dries very quickly. There are some new items for keeping cool that stay wet longer like cooling collars.
  • Terry Cloth Wrist Bands. Aside from being super groovy, these little lightweight marvels of the tennis world are great in the warm desert climate. When they get wet from your sweat, the moisture keeps the blood vessels running close to your skin cool. Or, soak them in a nearby creek!
  • Spray Bottle. Carry a small spray bottle and spray yourself on the trail. Better to have the nozzle on the “mist” versus “stream” setting – just saying. The mist in the air cools you down quickly since the air around you will cool as the mist evaporates.
  • Moisten Clothing at Night. Nights in the inner canyon do not cool down very much – especially at Bright Angel Campground where the rock layers trap heat quite effectively. This makes it very difficult to get to sleep. Going to bed with a wet shirt will cool you down and help you get that much needed shut eye. If you don’t want to sleep in a wet shirt – it can be uncomfortable – try using that cooling collar mentioned before or a wet bandana and drape it across your chest and stomach. Keeping your core temperature down is important since that is where all your vital organs are housed. You will fall asleep in no time.
  • Shade. Take breaks in the shade as often as possible. See some shade? STOP for a few minutes before moving on. Maybe grab a snack and drink. You don’t know when you might get that next bit of shade once you start again.
  • Eat and Drink Continuously. Not much to say here. Thirsty? Drink! Not thirsty? Drink anyway! There are places along the North Kaibab and Bright Angel trails to fill up but take at least 3 liters carrying capacity for water. Yes, water is heavy. It will also keep you alive so poor argument for not carrying enough. Also, bring something to treat water, just in case you run out and there are no clean water sources around or the Grand Canyon pipeline is broken (which happens very often). Salty snacks are best during the hottest summer months because they help replace all the body salts you loose with sweat. It is best to eat your salt and other electrolytes so avoid salt tablets.
  • Do Not Hike North Rim to Phantom Ranch in One Day. This is a common approach for some people and guide services alike – do a rim to rim trip via Phantom Ranch so you don’t have to carry a backpack. However, during the scorching hot months of June, July and August, you will be dreading the decision of hiking in full sun 14 miles along the North Kaibab trail to Phantom Ranch. By the time you reach the wide open Bright Angel Canyon past Cottonwood campground, it will be HOT. Then you will reach the “box” where all the heat collects in the surrounding rocks – not much better. But it is downhill you say? Well hiking down hill is strenuous exercise – exercise for muscles you would be surprised you seldom use. You will be sick, miserable and while maybe not dead or dying, you might wish you were. The best way to hike Rim to Rim, especially in the summer – carry a backpack and go over 4 days.

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