How to Pack for Backpacking in the Grand Canyon

Outside Online's esteemed Gear Guy reports back on his gear picks for a four-day jaunt into the South Rim of the Grand Canyon
By Doug Gantenbein
Picture of the Grand Canyon
The author in the Grand Canyon  (Doug Gantenbein)

Over the years I have hiked and climbed in a lot of great places. Denali. Mount Rainier. The Enchantment Lakes in Washington's Cascades. Constance Pass in the Olympics. The list is long.

But not long ago, on something of a whim, a friend of mine and I got a four-day backcountry permit for the Grand Canyon. We flew down to Phoenix, drove to the South Rim, hiked down the Grandview Trail to the Tonto Trail—which traverses the canyon on a broad plateau about 1,200 feet above the Colorado River—then came out on the popular South Kaibab trail.

And it was. One of the great. Experiences. Of my life. There's a sign posted in the backcountry ranger station there that says (I paraphrase a bit): "You will hike in the canyon and vow never to return. Or, having hiked in this torturous paradise, you will come to believe that, up to this time, your life has been wasted on poor and lowly pursuits."

Count me in that second camp. I can't wait to go back.

But it is a tough trip for which to pack. A week before we flew down it was hitting 90 at Phantom Ranch, the popular camping spot and hotel at river level, between the South and North rims. But days before the trip, a big low front swooped down from the north. Nightly temps were in the teens at the South Rim, and in the 30s at Phantom. With snow showers forecast. Hmmm. But it worked out. Turns out we nailed the gear issue just about perfectly, with just one or two light clothing pieces that I didn't use but was glad to have just in case. I thought I'd share with you the basic gear kit that I had.

Pack: Gregory Z65 ($240). This pack has 4,000 cubic inches of space and a design that maximizes air flow across your back. It was perfect. Packing for a four-day trip was just a bit tight, but everything fit. And when we had to lug two gallons of water apiece for four miles, the suspension was more than up to it. My one complaint is that the sleeping pad straps are fixed. They need buckles and more adjustability. Lyn, with whom I hiked, carried an REI Flash 65 ($169). Exact same capacity as the Gregory. He loved the way it carried, and its ability to create more room for small things. I envied him its more-adjustable sleeping-pad straps. For the money, a great pack.

Tent: REI Quarterdome T2 ($269). This proved to be the perfect tent for this trip. Our first night out, we had strong gusty winds and rain. The tent withstood it all nicely, the fly offers full coverage, and twin vestibules and doors ensured we had plenty of room for gear. Our second night out, it was clear but a big buggy. So—canopy only (nearly all mesh). Great for star-watching, and perfect ventilation. Last night—no tent at all; we just tossed bags down on a sandy bed.

Sleeping Bag: We anticipated temps in the upper or even low 30s. We didn't get below 40, but I still was happy to have my MontBell Down Hugger #3 ($279 and now called Super Spiral Down Hugger #3). Rated to 30 degrees, super-light (1 pound 5 ounces), takes up next to no space in pack. The bag and my pillow (yes, pillow—so shoot me!) fit into a single compact stuff sack.

Sleeping Pad: Another REI item—their fairly new Lite-Core 1.5 ($84). I was MOST impressed with this. With other light pads, my hip is on the ground if I sleep on my side. Not this pad. Very supportive, yet reasonably light at 27 ounces. Seemed lighter, to be honest. I liked the little sticky bumps that keep the bag on the pad.

Boots: I had some new footwear on hand that I would have liked to try, but I decided to go with my two-year-old and reliable Scarpa Mustangs ($175). They were perfect—a lightweight yet tough boot that was just right for the load (around 30 pounds, depending on water in pack) and trails (rocky, often brutally so). Not so much as a hot spot.

Stove: Had my first outing with the MSR Reactor ($160), which came out two years ago. It's an integrated stove/pot unit that uses a special catalyst and a dual-wall pot that channels hot air up the sides to create a super-efficient stove. I was totally dazzled by it. We had hot water for coffee or dinner in what seemed like 90 seconds. On the four-day trip we didn't even manage to kill a single eight-ounce MSR canister ($6). And we hardly tried to conserve.

Clothing: This may have been the toughest thing. In the days before we flew to Phoenix, forecasts for the canyon varied from 20 at the South Rim to upper 80s at Phantom Ranch, at river level. Even a chance of snow. So I had a mix of Capilene 1 long underwear from Patagonia, a light fleece pullover, Gore-Tex Pro jacket, ExOfficio pants and shirt, plus shorts and a few other warm-weather pieces. Hit it just about right. The one thing I packed but didn't use was a Patagonia down sweater. But it weighed hardly a thing, and I was glad to have it just in case.

Coffee: OK, now, the important stuff. This was my first trip out with Starbucks' new Via instant coffee ($1 a cup). It was…freaking amazing. Weighed next to nothing for the two of us, tasted great, no messy grinds, no mini-press or drip apparatus to pack. My favorite memory is of that second cup at our Lone Tree camp. This is the greatest thing to happen to backpacking since the internal-frame pack. Maybe even since the Vibram sole. Life-changing.

Published: 13 Apr 2009 | Last Updated: 2 Oct 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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