Physical and Mental Training Tips For the Grand Canyon

Hiking Rim to Rim to Rim in the Grand Canyon (called “R2R2R”) is a 48.3 mile, 2 day hike, with an elevation change of 20,000 feet and it is truly an adventure of a lifetime.  These are lessons that I have learned each year since 2004, how I train, what equipment I take, how I educate the hiking group who goes with me, and my love for this amazing place that we should respect and preserve.   You can read our stories and blog on other pages, but the first question people always ask me is how to train for a Grand Canyon hike.

To physically and mentally prepare for the Grand Canyon, I believe you have to start at this basic equation:

High Altitude + Heat + Dehydration + Low Humidity + 10,000 feet Elevation Change + Exhaustion + 70 degree Temperature Change + 14 hours of Prolonged/Endurance Activity + Trail Conditions  + Water Conditions + No Quitting = GC Hiking

If a hiker is not able to tell me exactly what they are doing to prepare for each of those different stressors, they are not yet preparing for the GC hike.   Hikers must train and prepare for each element in order to begin to be “Canyon Ready”.  Hikers must educate themselves to understand the unique dangers associated with each of those categories.

The reality is that once a hiker steps foot on the trail, quitting is no longer an option and there is no rescue.  A list to get you started:

1.  High Altitude:

Cardio!  The North Rim sits above 8,275 feet and at that elevation you will have 25% less oxygen.  Do highly aerobic activities like running, cycling, and very fast walking and learn what your safe heart rate is.  Mimic uphill hiking conditions by walking on the treadmill at it’s highest incline, with a 15-pound backpack, without holding onto the bars for help and supporting your full weight.  As we climb up, our respiration rate and heart rates go up.   By knowing your safe heart rates, you can pace yourself on the trail and not get into trouble.  Proper hydration is a challenge because our bodies will be dumping fluid into our urine, and we will lose even more fluids through evaporation from our breath as we huff and puff.   Your job is to look up altitude sickness, training for high elevations, and high altitude hiking.

How much cardio?  More than you think.  Rim-to-Rim is harder and different from a marathon in many ways, but even if you are a marathoner you are not at all ready to hike in the Grand Canyon.  If you do a search on “North America Dangerous Hikes” the Bright Angel Trail pops up in the top 10 list, and that is only 1/3 of the hike on the 2nd (easier) day.

Appearances are deceiving so for training perspective think of the Empire State Building (1,050 feet), or the Hancock Tower in Chicago (1,030).  On the first day, your last 1.5 miles up North Kaibab, the elevation change from the Supai Tunnel to the trailhead is 1 ½ times higher than climbing the Empire State or Hancock building.  The previous 3.9 miles (Pumphouse to Supai Tunnel) elevation gain is twice as high as either building.  In summary, 17 miles into the first day of hiking you will start to climb up the Empire State Building 3.46 times at an average grade of 30%.  At an elevation that is almost “double Denver”.

On the second day of hiking North to South, during the last 1/3 of your 24-mile hike (from the river to the trailhead) you will climb the Empire State Building 4.18 times.  These are just the numbers on the final miles up and out, which don’t count the gains and losses inside the Canyon that is not flat in the bottom.

Your new BFF is whatever kind of cardio you can do to maximize your aerobic performance. I cannot begin to monitor people’s workouts or gauge their physical abilities; you have to police each other.  You should be talking to the Veteran Hiker who invited you on this trip, and you need to be watching your fellow hikers.  Ultimately, the person who will hike with a slacking, unprepared, or sick friend is you.  If someone in your group is not training and is not prepared, then both of your lives are in danger.

2.  Heat:

It will be 100 – 120 degrees in the canyon.   This is a dry heat in low humidity (see the Low Humidity section below) where 110 degrees in the shade equals 130 degrees on the trail with the microwave effect of the sun and black rocks.  Start by assessing what you know about yourself in high heat situations, do you ‘crash’ even though you are getting plenty of water and salt?  If you don’t know how you perform in high heat, enroll and do 10 days in a row of Hot (Bikram) Yoga as a test.  It is 90 minutes at 100+ degrees, and for me it is a nice snapshot of my heat tolerance.  Last year I added Hot Yoga as part of my training and found it helpful, but it does not replace regular cardio training.

You will need to educate yourself on Heat Exhaustion and Heat Stroke.  On a basic level, high heat conditions can throw a wrench into your Autonomic Nervous System and blood pressure regulation mechanisms that can make you dizzy, lightheaded, or even black out.  If you get lightheaded when you stand up out of bed, get frequent headaches, fidget, are foggy headed or tired/lethargic if you sit still very long, crave salt or sugar, get “blood sugar” crashes a couple of hours after a meal, or if you feel better when you get up and walk around during the day then you may be sensitive to the heat as well.  These things can be blood pressure regulation issues or Autonomic Dysfunction, and heat is a stressor that magnifies these Autonomic symptoms.  Walking, fidgeting, and eating certain foods boosts blood pressure to our heads and we temporarily feel better.  In everyday life it is an annoyance people live with because they don’t know they can fix it, or they don’t want to change, but in the Canyon’s extreme conditions these issues can be deadly serious.

The good news is that there are things you can do to control these blood pressure issues besides just salting up in the canyon.  Many times you can re-balance yourself with nutritional or lifestyle changes.  Sometimes short-term medication is needed to get the Autonomic systems back in balance.  If you have heat related symptoms or intolerance, talk to your doctor about your health.

3.  Hydration:

It’s time to form a new drinking habit!  Constant hydration is critical to fight dehydration.  PLAIN OLD WATER IS NOT ENOUGH, you need salt or electrolytes.  Dehydration is the gateway to heat exhaustion, heat stroke, and can affect altitude sickness.  Learning to drink constantly is a habit you must form during your training or you will forget to do it in the Canyon.  If you wait to drink until you feel thirsty, you will already be in the early stages of dehydration and you will not be able to make up that deficiency.  On this desert hike you can lose anywhere from 1 to 2 liters of water through undetectable sweat alone each hour.

Drink even though you are not thirsty, and try out salt pills or several flavors of electrolyte powder now.   I have found that old fashion salt works best for me.  I shoot a packet of salt each hour.  If you opt for electrolytes in pill or powder form take them in the months before your hike.   Get used to your electrolyte flavors and drink them warm to see if you can stand them.  The last thing you want to do is to try out a new drink mix and your backpack for the first time on the trail.   I keep my Camelbak bladder full of regular water, and take 2 smaller bottles to mix salt and electrolytes in along the way.  This way if 10 hours into the hike your orange, grape, etc flavor is making you ill you still have options and regular water.

On practice hikes, use the buddy system by reminding each other to drink and consume salt.   In the Grand Canyon it is easy to get distracted by the natural beauty and rigors of the hike, and fall behind on your liquid consumption.  You should be drinking and peeing all the time, all day long.  Your fellow hikers should be drinking and peeing too.  Your lives are at risk if anyone gets dehydrated.

You need to look up the dangerous condition called Hyponatremia; water intoxication.  It is too much water, not enough salt, and you need to know about it because it can lead to brain swelling, organ failure, coma, and death.  You have to drink smart in the Canyon.

4.  Low Humidity:

The Low Humidity of the desert means your sweat will evaporate very, very fast.  In the Grand Canyon, you will not even realize you are sweating because your body will be acting differently than it does at home.  This can be confusing because you are hiking hard for hours and yet you are not even “breaking a sweat”.  But, you will be losing fluids at a higher rate than you are used to back home and this makes you more prone to dehydration.

The dryer climate of the desert speeds the evaporation from our skin and breath.  Most people come from places around the country where humidity ranges from 50 – 90% at any time of year.  The humidity in the desert hovers around 10% or lower.  This is a big change and your external mechanisms (sweat rolling down your face) may not be present.  If you can’t train in a low humidity climate, then at the very least search and look up some basics on extended exercise in low humidity climates.

5.  10,000 feet Elevation Change

On a Rim-to-Rim hike, you will have an elevation change of approximately 10,000 feet each day.  The average incline South to North is a 21 % grade, and North to South is a 14% grade.  It is important to know that last 5 miles of South to North is at an elevation grade of 30%.  Yes, you will climb the Empire State Building 3.46 times at a 30% grade on the first day alone.  Consider that our highways are built with warning signs and runaway truck ramps for a 6% grade, and then think what a 21+% grade will do to your knees, legs and cardiovascular system.

Do treadmills, stairs, and lunges.  On a treadmill go forward at it’s highest incline.  If you can shut down the power to the treadmill, try walking forward and then backward with your leg power rolling the conveyor belt.  You will feel that incline in your legs.  Run stairs, up and down, one or two at a time.  Do lunges to simulate the 3 feet high steps up and down you will encounter on the trail.  Do all of these things with your 15-pound backpack and trail-running shoes on.  You will not understand the core strength you need for your equipment, or if your equipment even fits correctly and is functioning, without training in it.

6.  14 hours of Endurance Activity/Exhaustion:

Do more Cardio.  Be in the best shape of your adult life.  I have never, ever met a hiker who felt that they “over-trained” for the Grand Canyon.  Not ever.

7.  Trail Conditions:

The trails at the Grand Canyon can range anywhere from fine sand to large rocks, from little logs to big stone steps, and these things will test your legs, knees, feet, and ankles.  You will constantly be stepping up and over things on the trail.  Your cushioned gym floor, or smooth concrete sidewalks, will be nowhere in sight.  Get shoes with a nice thick tread to protect your feet from the rocks and train in them.  If you are prone to sprained ankles or injury, find shoes that will give your ankle the support they need.

Buy sturdy hiking poles and learn how to hold your arms at the right angle in order to reap the benefits both going up (power) and going down (stability) the trail.  Train with your poles on practice hikes because you will realize how much you are using your arms and hands.  In the middle of building cardio and leg strength, don’t ignore the fact that your arms will be getting a workout in the Canyon too.

Trail conditions include a wide range of temperatures and weather activity.  I have written about excessive heat, but the flip side is that sometimes we also experience snow and cold temperatures.  We hiked in 3 hours of gorgeous snow in 2010, in June.  A strange as it sounds, after a brutally hot crossing at the bottom, you may have to worry about hypothermia at the top.  Heavy monsoon rains are also a dangerous thing in Arizona in July and August, and even though we do not hike in the rainy season everyone should be aware that flash floods in the Canyon can happen anytime.

8. Water Conditions:

Chronic inner corridor pipeline problems mean you never have reliable water sources inside the Canyon.  You must bring equipment and be ready to both 1)  Filter water, and 2) Purify water.  There is only 1 water pipe in the Grand Canyon (and this is only on certain parts of Bright Angel and North Kaibab Trail) and it breaks often without warning.  You must be prepared to filter dirty or muddy creek or river water, and then purify it with chemicals.

You need to try out your water systems in advance to make sure they work.  Never try anything “new” in the Canyon for the first time, ever.  The purification pills can leave an aftertaste and you have to find something that you can stand to drink without throwing up.  Bring systems that allow you to fill up water bottles and carry them on the trail with you.  A tiny bottle with a tiny filter system (or a straw) is not what you want do deal with while you try to fill up your 3 liter bladder and spare bottles.  You will need to fill all of your containers and bladders with water and then walk up to 9 miles (ex. Phantom Ranch to Cottonwood) until your next water stop.  We use a pump filter system, followed by purification pills, which works great when we have to filter and drink creek water.

9. No Quitting:

No joke.  There are no 911 calls in the Canyon.  Once you hike in, you have to hike yourself out no matter what condition you are in.

Grand Canyon Hiking …

It is difficult to train for the Grand Canyon because it is a demand on your time, energy, and it takes months of hard work.  I think some of the biggest problems for hikers can be:

  1. They do not have a hiking-specific training routine (or are not yet doing it), or
  2. They do not know where to begin.

A canyon is an inverse mountain, which means you start the hardest part (climbing out in high elevation) right when the physical and mental exhaustion hits you.  Hopefully this list will get you thinking, researching, and training for one of the most amazing adventures of your life.  Happy hiking!!  Jean

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© 2013.   Jean N.  All Rights Reserved.